At the recent Plywood Presents social entrepreneurship event in Atlanta, Sajan George of Matchbook Learning captivated the audience with the description of his work on the daunting task of reforming the Detroit public schools. At first glance, this project seems more like penance rather than the type of opportunity that would motivate anyone to roll up their sleeves and jump in – especially someone like George, who gave up a successful career as turnaround consultant to join the fight. Nevertheless, jump in he did, achieving amazing results at two of Detroit’s most troubled schools and garnering national recognition along the way.
As a result of his success in Detroit, you would expect to George to endorse other localized education solutions – charter schools, vouchers, etc., however, during the Q&A, George emphasized the importance of reforming education at scale. According to George, these solutions, while great, serve less than 3% of the student population. Instead, while system-wide education reform is hard, if you’re successful, you have a massive ability to scale. I couldn’t agree more.
Having been a business executive, a management consultant, and – worst of all – a lawyer, I’ve been subjected to more than my fair share of occupation-specific jokes. For example:
Q: What did the consultant say when the executive asked him what time it was?
A: “Show me your watch.”
When you’re flying around staying in different hotels every night working 70+ hours a week trying to support your family without forgetting their birthdays, it’s hard not to lash out in response. However, after a while you get used to the jokes and hopefully some maturity kicks in so you can laugh too – after all, there’s usually a grain of truth in there somewhere.
In this case, the joke is spot on: time and again we found that our consulting clients already had people working on elements of the solutions to the big strategic problems they hired us to fix – they had their watches on. Ironically, the joke’s really on the clients: for whatever reason, they just couldn’t pull the solutions together and address the core issue at scale – we had to point them to their watches and try to get them to tell time.
Very few things get people more up in arms in America than our problems with education, and for good reason. We love our kids, they matter more than us, and we owe a debt to the generation that preceded us to do whatever we can to position them for success. As a result, we draw extreme umbrage from the shortcomings of our schools – real or perceived – and we take action, often through parental organizations and private interest groups. All of that is great but, again, these are ad hoc, localized solutions.
In my limited experience with the broader education community, I’ve found that many of the solutions to our “education problem” are hidden in plain sight. We have literally hordes of highly educated and extremely earnest people working on educational programs in our country – there are no idea stones being left unturned. In fact, I would venture to say that the elements of the solution to our problem are all being worked on somewhere by someone every day. Unfortunately, like scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, these elements mean nothing until they are put together.
Q: So, what’s the problem?
A: We know what to do but we can’t because . . . well, there are rules and regulations and certifications and contracts and budgets and politics and standards that originated in the 1800’s . . . you’ve gotta understand, that’s just how we’ve always done things . . .
Hmmm . . . yeah, that’s tough . . . maybe what we need to do is just give them all iPads!!!
This is how localized (albeit well-intentioned) solutions are formed. However, the quality of a child’s education should not depend upon the zip code of their residence! Oh, and by the way, it’s not what you think – more prosperous zip codes don’t necessarily have better schools (if you don’t believe me, look at the data).
Our educators know what needs to be done and, in many localized solutions (i.e., two groundbreaking schools in Detroit), they are fixing the problems. However, the system at large is a bureaucratic, anachronistic mess. As a result, parents and great folks like Sajan are taking matters in their own hands. I applaud their efforts and, for my own child, am doing the same. However, I still owe a debt. Others sacrificed for me. It may take another generation to complete the solution, but every day we wait we perpetuate the catharsis. Instead of more localized solutions (lipstick on a pig?), why not fix the problem?
If you’re a regular reader of this space, you’re probably a little disappointed in the finish. Sorry, but I don’t have the answer and don’t need to provide one anyway – that’s for the professional educators. Rather, what we can do is require our political leaders to address the problem – not with some quick fix soundbite but through institutional change that allows (much less supports) innovation by those whose job it is to educate our children. Much of our nation’s infrastructure (i.e., the transcontinental railroad) was built before the era of cranes. We can fix this broken system if we really want to do so.
Thanks as always for reading, commenting, forwarding, tweeting, etc. Take care.