Education's Blockbuster Moment

As 2010 -- a year that might as well be known as "The Year of Education Reform" -- comes to a close, I feel like our field is facing its own series of Blockbuster moments.
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A few New Yorkers ago, financial columnist James Surowiecki wrote a short piece about the downfall of Blockbuster video, and why it failed to anticipate the rapid rise of Netflix in its own backyard. Why, he postulated, did Blockbuster not read the tea leaves quickly enough to colonize the web the way it had colonized suburbia? Already blessed with a deep reservoir of customer expertise, a sophisticated system of inventory management, and a nearly ubiquitous and identifiable brand, Blockbuster was well placed to shift its business model from "bricks and mortar" to "clicks and mortar," yet it did nothing. Which makes me wonder, what might Blockbuster's downfall augur for the future of public education reform in America?

"The problem," Surowiecki writes, "was that the very features that people thought were strengths turned out to be weaknesses. Blockbuster's huge investment, both literally and psychologically, in traditional stores made it slow to recognize the Web's importance... But, once Netflix came along, it became clear that you could have tremendous variety, keep movies as long as you liked, and, thanks to the Netflix recommendation engine, actually get some serviceable advice."

Why didn't Blockbuster evolve more quickly? In part, Surowiecki explains, it was because of an "internal constituency" problem. "The company was full of people who had been there when bricks-and-mortar stores were hugely profitable, and who couldn't believe that those days were gone for good. Blockbuster treated its thousands of stores as if they were a protective moat, when in fact they were the business equivalent of the Maginot Line."

Indeed, scores of human-behavior studies have shown that, once decision-makers invest in a project, they're more likely to keep doing so because they can't imagine abandoning the work it took to get to this point -- even if "this point" is no longer in the company's long-term interests. Consequently, "rather than dramatically shrinking both the size and the number of its stores, Blockbuster just kept throwing good money after bad."

As 2010 -- a year that might as well be known as "The Year of Education Reform" -- comes to a close, I feel like our field is facing its own series of Blockbuster moments. Among them:

The Superman Syndrome -- Despite the myriad public pleas to stop waiting for Superman to fix our public schools, we remain entranced with the idea of the superhero figure, who singularly wills a recalcitrant community into a new era of better, more high-achieving schools. Yet as previous studies point out, the only real path toward systemic reform is building the collective capacity of a community, which means tending to both technical expertise and emotional commitment. As the recent DC election pointed out, the superhero leadership style is great for media attention -- and lousy for long-term change efforts. The problem is, like Blockbuster, we have a lot invested in this particular myth, and we will be slow to let it go.

The Narcissus Syndrome -- In case you've forgotten your Greek mythology, Narcissus was a good-looking hunter who died after falling in love with his own reflection in a pool -- and then wasting away over time, so unable was he to separate himself from his own beauty. In education circles, this fate lurks for the top hunters of our field -- also known as Teach for America, KIPP, and New Leaders for New Schools.

I'm not saying these organizations are already pool gazing -- but they all could be if they're not careful. If everyone wants to throw money at you, and if their primary reason for doing so is because of your success at modifying behavior and outcomes within the current dysfunctional system, it could be tempting to fall in love with your current image, and abandon any longer term efforts to not just succeed within the existing system, but also transcend -- and help spur -- a new system entirely.

One promising sign that this isn't happening is KIPP's Healthy Schools Initiative, a project focused on measuring key elements of school health across the network and in ways that go far beyond test scores. I hope similar initiatives are underway at TFA and NLNS.

The Blanky Syndrome -- Most of us relied on some core comfort item when we were children. For many, it's a favorite blanket, or "blanky." And when I see the comments of my most veteran friends in the field, the blanky I worry might prevent us from imagining a newer, better way of working together is the current lightning rod in the field - teacher tenure.

This doesn't mean I believe teachers should sacrifice all due-process rights -- just as those of us in other professions do not, even if we lack the backing of a professional union. Nor does it mean I think unions have no place in the future -- as a former U.S. history teacher, I am well aware of the central role they have played in the evolution of our nation. It does mean, however, that we should all recognize that a system that limits a leader's capacity to make key personnel decisions is "Blockbusterian," and stands in the way of the sort of innovative "Netflixian" thinking we need going forward. Use test scores to rate teachers? NO. Abolish unions and leave teachers vulnerable to every whim and caprice of their principals? NO. But get rid of tenure and explore new ways to reward, support, and evaluate teachers? YES PLEASE.

As with the video industry, the future of public education is largely unknown. Ahead of us lie new technologies, new global challenges and opportunities, and new career possibilities emerging for children -- while older ones fade away. Those are challenges we can face, but it will not be thanks to Superman, or as Narcissus, or with our Blanky in a white-knuckle clutch. Change is hard -- and it's especially hard when people who have benefited from the previous paradigm also have to help lead the paradigm shift. But, as Surowiecki reminds us, "sometimes you have to destroy your business in order to save it."

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