Really Great? Hardly.

Five or so years ago, Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” was all the rage.  It was more than just a must-read business book.  Many a non-profit took to it as well.  Eduflack knows of many an education organization that tried to adopt it as their unofficial bible, assigning it as required reading for senior staff, including excerpts as part of staff meetings and retreats, and generally trying to model what were perceived as the best practices of long-time, established corporations in the education sector.

The application of good-to-great in non-profits was so significant that Collins’ wrote a follow-up monograph on how the corporate lessons could be applied to the social sectors — the non-profits that serve our schools, our communities, and our nation.  Eduflack commented on the back in the summer, believing it provided some interesting lessons for those looking to improve K-12 instruction — blog.eduflack.com/2008/08/11/what-is-great-in-education.aspx  
But yesterday’s announcement about Circuit City — its bankruptcy, the closing of all its stores, and the laying off of 34,000 employees — should make us all question how much credence to really put in these examples of corporate success and their application to public education (or the social sector in general).  The full story is in today’s Washington Post — www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/16/AR2009011602241.html  
Makes you wonder about those education non-profits that modeled strategic plans and marching orders on what they found in the pages of “Good to Great,” particularly the tale of unending success of Circuit City and its business model.  We should have known better when Circuit City announced last year it was laying off experienced workers to replace them with inexperienced novices, cutting overhead and thus cutting customer service and the chances of maintaining high levels of success and improvement.  Moreover, it should demonstrate that lessons learned in corporate America don’t necessarily have direct translation and application to public education.  Objectives are different.  Rubrics are different.  Human resources are different.  And latitude for setbacks and failure couldn’t be more different.
If educators are still picking up “Good to Great,” hopefully they are picking up the monograph on the social sector and not the case studies on the businesses.  Why?  As I noted in August, Collins captures the difference in the start of the monograph:
“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.”

Our schools shouldn’t seek to become more like businesses.  Our schools, all our schools, should seek to become great.  And that greatness has both quantitative and qualitative measures.

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