What is Great in Education?

Five or so years ago, the hot read was Jim Collins’ “Good to Great.”  Company after company made it required reading.  The cocktail party elite tried to recite sections from the book.  The technology industry groused that they were excluded (since most lacked the shelf life of Collins’ methodology).  And most wanted folks to see that little red book proudly on display on their office book shelf.

I’ll be honest.  Eduflack was whelmed by the book at the time.  (An aside, I am a firm believer that whelmed is a word.  If I can be overwhelmed and underwhelmed, I can be whelmed.  Please feel free to use in your day-to-day conversations.)  I felt several of the companies really lacked the “greatness” I would expect.  And the future developments, such as Circuit City eliminating experienced staff for cheaper, unexperienced employees only reinforces the point.

But my greater concern was how quickly those in the non-business community, particularly those in the education sector, were quick to embrace the “Good to Great” philosophy and try to apply it to their organizational situation.  Too much is different — from resources to rubrics to results — to say what works for business must work for education, without question.  Yes, education can learn a great deal from business (and vice versa), but the education pegs don’t always fit through the corporate holes.

Over the weekend, I picked up Collins’ monograph “Good to Great and the Social Sectors.”  It is 30 some odd pages, and well worth the read.  And I was won over by the first sentence.  “We must reject the idea — well-intentioned but dead wrong — that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become ‘more like a business.’  Most businesses — like most of anything else in life — fall somewhere between mediocre and good.  Few are great.”

Somehow, we all missed that point when the original book came out.  We all want to be great, so we looked for our own organization in the text.  We never bothered to ask what it took to get our school, district, or education NFP to even the good status.

In the monograph, Collins spends little time talking about education.  Instead, the focus is on traditional non-profits.  But he does make mention of K-12 education when describing the economic engines in the social sectors.  To paraphrase, a strong education engine requires “heavily on political skill and maintaining political support.”

There is much good here on leadership traits and on how the social sector builds on Collins’ concepts of the Hedgehog and the Flywheel.  Like most, it results in far more questions than answers.

Collins puts us on a number of good paths.  The most important of which is that we need to plot the path from good to great in public education.  How do we take the original book, and this monograph, and build a guidebook for our K-12 leaders?  And just as important, how do we use what we know to build a path to get the majority of schools to “good,” just so they have the possibility of becoming great schools.

Mr. Collins, I’m certain such an approach would make John Gardner proud.  And if you need a hand, drop me a line.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s