Sunday, February 27, 2005

Resistance to Innovation in Public Education

My dad worked for IBM, and in the early 1990s was frustrated as his net worth melted down along with IBM's stock price. He had a PC on his desk at home. "Your challenge," I observed, "is that you don't believe it is a computer; you think it is a typewriter. You can not believe that if it is not 18 inches off the ground, blue, air conditioned, and worshiped by an IBM priesthood that it is really a computer."

I have come to understand that the resistance to new paradigms is often more an emotional challenge that it is an intellectual one. Sometimes smart people just can not believe that what has worked in the past no longer will work in the future.

I believe strongly in the power of entrepreneurs. I am chairman of InnoVenture, an organization to foster a more innovative economy in our region. I am also a passionate advocate of school choice.

Recently I met with a friend who runs a research consulting firm. He lives his life surrounded by innovations, seeing first hand the power of entrepreneurship. We recently had a tense meeting about InnoVenture, which confused me. He followed-up with an e-mail, "I harbor some concerns about numerous letters to the editor you have published that appear to undermine support for public education, which is something that I am very passionate about."

We had not even talked about public education. Why is it that a smart person is so threatened by suggesting that entrepreneurial educators can run schools better than government managers that he becomes paralyzed?

I wouldn't worry if this was an isolated conversation. I recently had dinner with a friend who is a highly accomplished professional and has worked in many different countries in the work. She felt passionately that we needed to focus on the needs of children in poverty, and I suggested I would work with her to create charter schools of which she was the Chairman or CEO to channel her vision and passion into meeting the needs of children not well served by the current system.

She sent me an e-mail, "I do not disagree that capitalism works. I simply do not believe that the ultimate consumers of education are in any position to make informed choices. Until we live in Utopia, I suspect we'll have to ensure equality of education across our fair state. Nothing less."

So capitalism works, just not in education. Despite the unchallenged reality that traditional public education is failing many children in poverty, somehow it makes sense that the principals of economics are suspended when people walk in a school door.

Breaking the cycle of poverty is extraordinarily difficult and is going to take incredibly creative ideas to craft a new system that reaches these children. If released, the best and brightest educators will come up with ideas that challenge the current paradigms of how education is delivered. But if those who control the status quo control which of those ideas get tested and tried, almost none of them will ever see the light of day. That is the way most big organizations work. Until we change the dynamics of how public education is delivered, we will not fundamentally change the quality of education received to those least well served today.

I confess to being confused why so many smart people, who are so entrepreneurial in other aspects of their lives, resist the power of innovation to transform public education.


Fred Payne said...

Great summary! If you want to see an application of a successful charter school, check out the Greenville Technical Charter High School. In about 5 years, it has created a tremendous record of success. With minor modifications, it could be duplicated in almost every community across the state.
Best wishes,

Laura Morris said...

Unregulated capitalism only works to the benefit of a few. Where private education has "worked" it has done so not because anything innovative is being done but because it is able to select its students. I'm sure you would agree that the primary hallmark of entrepreneurs is their willingness to take risk. If anybody has an innovative idea in education, what’s stopping them from trying it out? Only that they are unwilling to try it without a guarantee that I will support their gamble through my tax dollars—dollars that I would rather see used to the benefit all children in the state.

Peter Lucash said...

I just discovered your blog, so please forgive the tardy comment.

Government officials, particularly school officials, are paralyzed by fear - fear of failure, and fear attack. The level of venom and disdain leveled is exemplified by your post - wild assertions lacking substance or evidence.

The public is petrified of change. Public education is intensely political, as anyone who has been involved with an issue will attest. Let's make sure our kids don't have to do school work over the winter break. Let's start school later in August so "families can have vacations" or "kids can earn money for college". And on and on.

Trust me - some entrepreneur type would last about 2 days in any government position. Government is not a business - there is a political process that is fundamental in a democracy that slows action down and is conservative by nature. If some "innovative" program to "improve education" did not work, the level of attack would send any competent person running for the hills. Failure is not tolerating by the public, so for schools to try something new is fraught with risk and no reward - psychic or monetary - for success.

Education is not valued in the south. The south ran two school systems for a century, and once schools were integrated, this state does not fund any public schools. Today, they are in a hammerlock of federal law that tests to death and penalizes you for not meeting their measures, which are open to question and choke off innovation. You can't innovate if it risks your PACT scores, because you'll lose state money and the state will send in someone to "improve the school" -as measured by a standardized test.

If you want to improve our schools, stop throwing out cheap one-liners and do something. Don't tell me you have "tremendous record of success" and that it could be "duplicated in almost every community" - duplicate it once and we'll talk.

Swamp Fox said...

Laura, see Peter's post for an answer to your question, "If anybody has an innovative idea in education, what’s stopping them from trying it out?"

Peter, the Greenville Technical Charter High School that Fred mentions has a five year track record now. How much more do you need before you are ready to talk?

Anonymous said...

Peter's comment essentially made my point: when you are responsible to all the public, you are "responsible" and can't afford to take risk that is not supported by the public. Why should the public fund Mr. Jones to take risks that wouldn't be supported in public institutions? I repeat: the only thing stopping any educator with an innovative idea from starting a school is unwillingness to take the risk without a gaurantee of tax dollars to support their venture. In Charleston, we have many magnet schools and charter schools, so there is already significant opportunity for parents to exercise "choice" in education for their children. I would be happy to have more choices, but I don't want my money spent on them because I believe the schools where my tax dollars are going are severely underfunded now.

Swamp Fox said...

Peter said, "Government officials, particularly school officials, are paralyzed by fear," and "the public is petrified of change." That sounds to you like it is an environment that supports innovative teachers who think they have a better way of reaching children not well served by the status quo?

Magnet schools are a way to get affluent kids to go to schools in impoverished areas. Typically magnet schools end up with two schools in one. The magnet program that serves affluent kids, and the regular program that serves the poor kids.

Charter schools are better than nothing, but they create an incredibly high and unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles for teachers to jump through.

Shouldn’t we be focused on making sure each child receives the best education possible, rather than focusing on making sure that education is delivered by the right school?

If we are focused on children, rather than schools, wouldn’t we want a system where the best teachers and principals were incentivize to reach kids not currently well served.

Aren’t the needs of the kids more important that the needs of the schools?