Andrew Mangino is introducing a new character into the American education system: full-time Dream Directors, tasked with helping students to name whatever it is that they are passionate about and to design “Future Projects” to bring those passions to life.
The New Idea
The Future Project is the first-ever attempt to employ within schools someone whose sole job is to reverse the apathy, disengagement, and disempowerment pervasive in low-income schools across America. Andrew is building an army of transformational leaders who work within schools to infect the overall culture across a school with the sole belief that anyone – student, teacher, janitor – can command their environment and effect change. Each full-time Dream Director does so through a combination of direct student training and mentorship, connecting schools to a body of coaches from the wider community, and mobilizing teams of 20 or more committed individuals of every age and background, whose job in turn is to help their peers act on their own “Future Projects”—all the while tailoring their response to the precise needs and conditions of his or her particular school.
Andrew is working toward the day in which Dream Directors are as pervasive in high schools as guidance counselors, through a combination of direct scale and replication, partnerships with existing school networks and training, and storytelling efforts housed on dream.org, designed to profile people young and old who are making their dreams a reality within and outside schools, in order to usher in a new wave of champions committed to helping students realize their passions in real-time.
Begun in 2011, The Future Project is currently operating in 16 schools across four cities, and has helped more than 2,000 students build their own Future Projects. With the help of the Mayor, The Future Project will soon embed a Dream Director in every school in New Haven, and is on track to work in 32 schools in the next school year.
In 1958, a group of psychologists led by E. Paul Torrance conducted a study of nearly 400 Minneapolis third-graders, who were asked to complete a series of newly designed creativity tasks. The students were tracked over the ensuing decades, and the study revealed a surprising correlation between how the students had fared on the tests and their accomplishments decades later: “those who came up with more good ideas on Torrance’s tasks grew up to be entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, and software developers.
Ever since, the Torrance Test has stood as a measure of creativity: one that is more predictive of future success than IQ. Those score steadily rose until 1990, when they began to fall: a trajectory that has continued since.
Meanwhile, one in four students in the US fails to graduate, and according to a recent report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 88% cite “boredom” as their primary reason.
Many reasons have been cited to account for these two seemingly unrelated facts: an overreliance on testing and rote memorization, disempowered teachers—or depending on one’s point of view—ineffectual teachers, a lack of real-world learning experiences. The widespread disengagement found within today’s schools and the emerging creativity crisis share, perhaps, a common root: since the first complex societies were born, it has been the exception, not the rule, that a person growing up will learn, in the words of Steve Jobs, that “everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you...and you can change it.”
The unique leadership it takes to empower people to believe they can change the world — and to transform institutions and cultures stuck in an old mentality — is lacking, especially where it is needed most. Transformative leaders – the kind who can inspire, influence, and equip others with the resources to tackle problems rather than complain about them – are rare, or exist in isolation, entrenched in institutions and cultures that still depend on arcane rules, formulaic thinking, and rigid hierarchies. The result is that most young people grow up with messages telling them what they can't do rather than what they can; go to schools that equip them to play by the rules rather than — in the safety of a learning environment — break them in order to pursue the big ideas within them; and lack personal access to the people who are challenging them day in and out to shake up the world and, in so doing, to discover they can do whatever objective they set their sights on.
Much has been done to build up the leadership capacity of individual students, teachers, and even principals, including efforts designed to help them to tap into their passions and boost their self-belief in their ability to effect change. Such efforts often fail, however, to effect whole-school change for two deeply interrelated reasons: first, because their impact is felt only those who go through the program, the changes fail to penetrate beyond a single classroom, or the students enrolled in that particular program. What's more, these attempts often fail to adequately address the powerful role that a school's culture, climate, and overall environment play on the ability of adults and students alike to put those skills ion practice.
A recent study conducted by researchers at Harvard Graduate School of Education on behalf of Ashoka's Empathy Initiative found that the pervasive focus in K-12 education on skill-building –particularly as it pertains to boosting students' empathy and social-emotional capacity – ignores the powerful role that environments play in determining whether those skills are exercised: just as adults and students need to know how to take on others' perspectives, they need to care about others' perspectives. What's more, cultural barriers related to peer pressure, feelings of inferiority, shame, trauma, or a perceived lack of support, they found, can inhibit empathy – or more precisely, the ability to put empathy into action. Andrew found that the same is true when it comes to cultivating the mindset and skillsets required to be an effective changemaker – to inspire and move others, to build and work with a team, to creatively solve problems, combined with intrinsic motivation, and belief in one's own agency – depended as much on a school's cultural norms and on the qualities of the leaders and role models to whom kids had access as they did on kids' innate abilities.
While others have attempted to throw out the old model, and start anew with schools that bear little resemblance to our traditional conceptions of "school", such models have largely failed to change the system, operating on the periphery, and remaining, as such, the exception rather than the rule. Changing today’s schools from the inside out requires more than lofty rhetoric and grand slogans, and it cannot rely chiefly on individuals weighed down by other priorities and responsibilities, who lack the levers to move an entire school. Engineering a world of creative changemakers is a challenge that cannot be realized without an adequate supply of role models and instigators.
In 2011, Andrew, together with co-founder Kanya Balakrishna and The Future Project team, launched a nationwide search for impassioned young leaders with a talent for unleashing others’ talents. They received more than 1,000 applications, and following a rigorous evaluation process, selected less than 1% of those who applied to form the inaugural first class of Dream Directors.
Among the challenges Andrew saw at the outset was an over-reliance in K-12 on programmatic interventions, curricula, and one-size-fits-all models. He sought to build a corps comprised not of program directors or workshop facilitators, but of intrapreneurs – each equipped with a combination of proven tools, critical skillsets required to build large-scale alliances, mobilize people around a common goal, and effect culture and policy change, and the flexibility with which to adapt to their particular environment. While there are a number of core building blocks that are shared across the network, each manifestation thus looks different from school to school.
A key element of the "secret sauce" is what's called a "Dream Starter," whereby Dream Directors bring together 10-20 people at a time and help them to identify and name what they want to see in the world. Every decision is designed to elicit an identity transformation in participants, and to create a space where they can speak openly about their vision for the world in order that they might act on it. From there, Dream Directors help participants carry out their ideas over the course of the year, through on-going mentorship and coaching, daily afterschool workshops, and connecting students to volunteer coaches outside the school.
Andrew realized, however, that it was not enough to tell students – or any one of the myriad individuals who feels disenfranchised and alone within a school – to dream big, and to give them the tools with which to execute their ideas. It had to be modeled. Each Dream Director thus leads his or her own Future Project, designed to leave a lasting imprint on the school. Following a one-month listening tour, during which they work to understand the needs and aspirations of their community, Dream Directors define a set of tangible goals that can both capture the imagination of others within the school, and solve a pressing need.
The third key pillar of any Dream Director's strategy rests on building a Dream Team: a collection of aspiring leaders from across the school, who want to learn what it takes to be a Dream Director. These "Deputy Dream Directors" have included students, teachers, custodians, and may range in size from 20-50. Notably, while Dream Directors intentionally identify and recruit a few "influencers" within the school and others most likely to leap at the opportunity, they also methodically recruit those not known for raising their hand. Each member of the Dream Team receives extensive leadership training modeled on the very same process that Dream Directors undergo before the school year starts. In addition to taking charge of the Dream Director's school turnaround project and executing their own, members of the Dream Team are responsible for marketing responsibilities to spread the movement in the school.
The projects undertaken have varied widely: One Dream Director launched "Own It," a conversation-changing project to flip the daily pulse in the school — and the policies sustaining the status quo — from "How do you fit in?" to "How are you weird, unusual, and different?" The campaign is now spreading to additional high schools, and students on the Dream Team are carrying the torch forward as a way to combat the source of peer pressure and desire to conform that is all too common in high school. In Newark, one Deputy Dream Director set out to turn the “Brick City” into the “Dream City,” launching a project to get the visions of every student in Newark up on the walls of the city’s broken-down buildings and fences. The project is now underway, and the students have forged relationships with a number of key partners across the city, with the goal of capturing the dreams of a third of Newark's 300,000 residents.
By the end of the year, up to 95% of students and 70% of staff have gone through the Dream Starter process, culminating in anywhere from 50 to 250 Future Projects in each school. Though early, the results are promising: students who pursue Future Projects are more than twice as likely to attend class than they were before they started. In one study, it was found that half of all members of the Dream Team spend more time in pursuit of passion than they do on any other extracurricular activity, including sports, video games, or TV. In one school, attendance leapt from from 50% to 95%.
Having launched in 2010, The Future Project has experienced a deliberate growth rate of 200% each year, with the result that there are now16 Dream Directors in 16 schools across four cities — Newark, New Haven, New York, and Washington, DC. Andrew and the team are currently in conversation with local district leaders, philanthropists, and school administrators in San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, and Bridgeport, who have expressed an interest in bringing The Future Project to each of their cities. The Future Project is on track to grow to 32 Dream Directors in seven cities by the start of the 2014-2015 school year, and aims to recruit, train, and place 100 Dream Directors in 10 geographically and culturally diverse cities within the next two years. From there, the team will go deep within each city to establish an irrefutable set of results in each school and city before expanding further.
The last three years mark the first phase of The Future Project, wherein Andrew and the team focused on fine-tuning their methodology, identifying what does and does not work when it comes to changing school culture, and creating the tools required to train future Dream Directors. Andrew realized from the outset, however, that they would never be able to achieve their desired impact through direct scale and replication alone. Though still early in the model’s development and implementation, he and the team are thus already beginning to explore a three-pronged strategy to scale the idea. Over the last few months, he has begun talks with City Year, Teach for America, and other aligned organizations and school networks to figure out how to train their corps members in TFP practices and methodology, as a way to leverage the existing human capacity already active in today’s schools. He and the team are in the early phases of developing a year-round Dream Academy in New York to train anyone who wants to master the mindset and skillset of a Dream Director, and finally, are working to provide a combination of open-source tools and stories of people young and old pursuing their dreams through dream.org. Andrew recognized that success depended on changing the narrative we attach to people young and old, and what we do and do not deem to be possible. Capitalizing on the team’s editorial experience, he invested in the iconic domain name and is building a multimedia web platform due to launch in full in early 2014.
Andrew and the team have set the ambitious goal of supporting no less than one million Dream Directors by 2025, including 25,000 Dream Directors whose full-time job is to create new Dream Directors. That figure is not simply a bold abstraction to Andrew: assuming—based on current experience—that every professional Dream Director can create 50 Dream Directors in one year, he imagines amassing a network of 1,600 Dream Directors by the end of the next school year, 5,000 Dream Directors the following year, 10,000 Dream Directors in three years, 20,000 in four years, and 40,000 in five years. Maintaining that pace of growth year to year will bring the organization to 1M Dream Directors by 2025.
The budget has grown steadily from $800,000 in the first year of The Future Project to $1.5M in its second, and $2.7M today. About half of that funding stems from individual donors, and another 30% is the result of foundation funding, including Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, the Heckscher Foundation, and the Emerson Collective. The remaining 20% has been a mix of district funding and corporate funding. Over the coming years, Andrew aims to grow the percentage of the budget covered by fee-for-service; already, more than 100 districts or schools have said they want to pay for the service.
Andrew credits his grandfather as being his first Dream Director: the figure who instilled in him the ideal that the future is unwritten, and who constantly challenged him to confront the status quo, and to name and go after his biggest dreams.
At five, he started The West Caldwell Times, a neighborhood newspaper, and kept it up for years, achieving a significant circulation by the time he was eight. These twin passions for storytelling and mobilizing others to seize big goals continued to shape his adolescence and his adult life.
In the seventh grade, he sat in on a student council meeting and after seeing how poorly run it was, decided that, in spite of an early shyness, he needed to run for student body president. He won, and built a leadership team of fifty students. It was through this experience that he first saw that rules and cultural norms were not fixed. As a high school sophomore, he became Editor in Chief of his school newspaper—which at the time, had no staff, as all had left the year before. He researched other high-school papers, and soon recruited a team of 15 Caldron ambassadors, each of whom brought in another 20 students. The result soon enough was a staff of more than 120 students: nearly a fifth of the student body school. Two years later, when the principal censored an investigative report they did on the quality of the school’s sex ed, Andrew led an effort to revise the student free-speech policy, ultimately convincing the ACLU to step in. The events led to a change in policy, preventing censorship of the paper for the next half century.
Later, as Editor in Chief of the Yale Daily News, Andrew embarked on a $400K redesign and to re-imagine every element of the newspaper, and to turn the paper from something antiquated to something fresh, forward-looking, and open to every editor making his or her own mark. Upon graduation, he became a speechwriter for Vice President Joe Biden, and later for Attorney General Eric Holder. He volunteered in a struggling DC public school, and was struck then by the pervasive disengagement and disempowerment that stood in such sharp contrast to the grand rhetoric and feeling of possibility that had drawn him to work in the White House. Together with Kanya Balakrishna, who had served as the Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News and was also a speechwriter in the Administration at the time, he realized that the problem lay in a lack of leadership: students needed more than rhetoric and the promises of a distant campaign.
It was at this time that he read How to Change the World, and found language to describe his own journey. He joined Ashoka, splitting his time between working with Bill Drayton on marketing and communications and helping to kickstart the Empathy Initiative. There, his work alongside some of he world’s top social entrepreneurs and his deepening understanding of the same forces that motivated Ashoka – a belief in human agency, and understanding that being an effective changemaker was the critical skillset in today’s and tomorrow’s world – helped him to articulate the core challenge of The Future Project, and to devise his own solution.
In the Fall of 2011, Andrew left for Oxford to pursue the prestigious Marshall Scholarship, and for the next three months, co-led the emerging team from overseas. On a visit to the US, he dropped in on a school and met a team of students who told him that because of The Future Project, they felt the fire inside of them turn on like it never had before. He felt in that moment a deep understanding of his life’s purpose – to inspire people by helping them to see how powerful they are. He left Oxford, and invested in The Future Project full-time.