March 15, 2022
Advocating for charter schools with Jamison Howell-White
By Bill Brink
Jamison Howell-White succeeds, in part, because he accumulates enough expertise on a subject to discover the gaps in available information.
He also sets himself apart by filling those gaps himself.
In 2016, while helping a friend campaign in favor of charter schools in Massachusetts, the voting results befuddled him. The proposition failed because rural communities – communities who didn’t want charter schools, wouldn’t get charter schools, had no vested interest in charter schools – voted against the measure.
“I thought, how interesting is it that you can essentially vote to take away somebody else’s education?” said Howell-White, who graduated Carnegie Mellon in 2015 with a degree in International Relations and Politics and an additional major in Policy and Management. “It has nothing to do with you, and you’re still going to vote it down.”
Frustrated, Howell-White began researching, which led him to his current position as the Senior Manager of Data and Research with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He also works as a small-business consultant and recently co-founded a curriculum company, and he serves as a mentor to students in the Carnegie Mellon University Washington Semester Program (apply by April 1 for Fall 2022). He keeps busy.
“I’ve met a lot of people from a lot of top universities, and one of the things I hear all the time is, ‘Oh yeah, the CMU kids are really smart,’” Howell-White said. “I would hope we’re pretty smart, but I don’t actually think that’s it. Just from hearing other people’s experience, I think we just work really hard.”
That fits Howell-White, and Howell-White fits Carnegie Mellon. CMU seemed nerdy, he said, and that also fit him. On a campus tour, he heard about a group called the KGB, an acronym he was familiar with from living in Germany in the 90s, but this was much less sinister: Keeping Geeks Busy.
“They started talking about how they’ve got secret maps to the steam tunnels,” he said. “It all felt like this Hogwarts-y kind of thing, and I thought, this is right up my alley.”
Upon arrival at CMU, Howell-White took a course with Kiron Skinner, the Taube Professor of International Relations and Politics. Dr. Skinner once paused a class discussion on some topic or other, saying, “Let me ask Condi.” “She picked up her phone and sent something off to Condoleezza Rice,” Howell-White said. “What? You can do that?”
Howell-White thought he’d go back to Germany and work in foreign policy after graduation. In 2014, he studied abroad there and interned with the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. He worked for three months to draft a foreign aid package for Myanmar that he later learned the country never considered.
“There was something about the pace of it all, and the way that you can pour your heart and soul into work and have it just go nowhere,” he said. “I was like, I don’t know if I could do that. I could see myself getting burnt out quick in that type of environment.”
Howell returned to the States and began consulting for small businesses. He began the journey in New Jersey, where his sister lived at the time. A local Veterans of Foreign Wars post wanted to purchase an old mill and needed help. Howell-White volunteered to do it for free; he needed the experience, and they needed his expertise. He did well enough that someone recommended him for another job, and his consulting career took off.
“There are two skills that I actually got from Kiron Skinner’s classes that I really appreciated,” Howell-White said. “One of them is a mindset thing, which is that if you want anyone to agree with anything, you have to make sure that your idea comes out of their mouth first. … The other thing is, in conflict negotiation and business in general, you’re always trying to figure out, what is it you really want, what is it they really want, and how is it we can figure out some common ground?”
Then came the election, the charter school referendum, the frustration, and the curiosity. At the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Howell-White works with lobbyists to provide data to lawmakers concerning education in their districts. The federal government publishes reliable information, while the states are hit or miss. If there are holes in the data, Howell-White or his teammates fill them themselves, calling the schools with a series of questions like a reporter.
He feeds that information into a database, using Excel and R skills he acquired at CMU, and the data’s proprietary nature allows the organization, in some situations, to shape the narrative. Even as the data becomes more reliable, the analysis remains lacking. So Howell-White fills the gaps himself.
“One of the things I run into fairly frequently is that there’s a gap in the literature that no one’s addressed yet,” he said. “The more I find these gaps, the more I’m like, ‘Someone should really do that. Someone should really get on that.’ And so last year I published my first paper trying to fill one of those little holes in the research. Now I’m working on a second one.”
Howell-White also works to fill gaps with his curriculum company, Wonderous Farm LLC. Without a “north star,” as he put it, in terms of an ideal curriculum, charter school standards lack efficacy. The volume of available data could provide answers.
“We could aggregate that, do a factor analysis, figure out what practices are actually leading to success, and then start to statistically derive the ideal curriculum and pedagogy out of it,” he said.
Howell-White’s advice for current and potential students is related to his theory about the work ethic at Carnegie Mellon – “If you’re willing to work pretty hard,” he said, “you’d be shocked at how far you get.” His time at CMU, along with his international upbringing, exposed him to a variety of perspectives, perspectives he finds useful today.
“The more you interact with a lot of people from different backgrounds and different opinions – particularly in politics, where it can be quite feisty – if you just work together and figure out your common goals, you’d be surprised by how many allies you’ll accumulate,” he said.