Saturday, February 4, 2012

Innovation vs. Standardization or Why My Students are Different from my iPhone

America worships its capitalist ideals, holding fast to the notion that profit and stock market value are the ultimate measures of our collective success. Americans obsess over the numbers that measure our capitalist love affair, pouring over the GDP, the CPI, the unemployment numbers, and the Dow. Whole industries exist simply to analyze what these numbers mean to you and me. Businesses spend a great deal of money and time making sure their numbers show how much they are growing so their stock value can go up so they can borrow more money to spend on making sure their numbers are going up. This amazing cycle of business usually produces companies that create goods and services that meet the needs of the marketplace. Some companies try to compete, but fall short due to short-sightedness or bad management or poor execution of ideas. And other companies, in the mad rush to earn profits and stock value, falsify their numbers to avoid bankruptcy, public ridicule, or jail.

We are able to see just how effective businesses are by looking at their numbers. Stock market values are published in the news media, and people can see quickly how well one business is performing compared to another. Surely anyone can see that the company that makes iPhones is much more effective than the one that makes Blackberries. Both make smartphones, yet one is the biggest company in the world, and the other is struggling to remain relevant. Books are published and consultants are born that analyze how the successful company is different from the failing one in the hopes that entrepreneurs out there will adopt successful ideas and use them to meet the next great marketplace need, whatever that may be.

Today's education reformers want for schools to adopt business models, applying the principles of our much-beloved capitalism to educating our students. They believe schools should demonstrate "effectiveness" which can be easily determined by test scores and evaluation results. These scores get published in the news media, much like the stock numbers, so that all can see how "effective" their local school is compared to other local schools. Books are published and consultants are born to identify the qualities of successful schools so that superintendents and principals can adopt successful practices to make their school "effective." Many schools do well, earning effectiveness numbers that are the envy of everyone around. Others ride waves of effectiveness, earning good numbers some years but not others. And some, especially in today's climate of accountability, falsify their numbers to avoid state takeover, public ridicule, and loss of certification.

The problem here is not the business model of schooling - we can learn a lot from business to run good schools. I am a big fan of leadership books that rise from the business world (John Kotter and Peter Senge are two business-leadership gurus that come to mind whose ideas can be easily applied to schools). The problem here is that "effectiveness" in business and "effectiveness" in schools are two completely different monsters. Business effectiveness relies on the efficient production of goods or services. School effectiveness relies on the careful molding of people.

What we hope for a successful business should not be the same as what we hope for a successful school. I want my iPhone to be a consistent, reliable, nicely packaged, and user-friendly product that I can use every day. I want my iPhone to work just like everybody else's iPhone so I can use and share apps and make phone calls reliably. If my iPhone worked differently than my husband's iPhone, we might not be able to send and receive calls and texts or play Words with Friends as effortlessly as we do. The company that makes my iPhone must ensure that every single iPhone they produce is the same as the next. Derivations in any part of the manufacturing process will end up frustrating customers who expect consistency and reliability in their products. If customers get frustrated with a company's products (say, for instance, the service keeps going out randomly), the products are abandoned for those that do meet the customer's expectations.

I want my school to mold students to be independent thinkers and doers. I want my students to be knowledgable, innovative, critical thinkers who can use what we teach them to adapt to any situation, no matter how difficult. I want for each student to take what they learn from my school to become whatever they want to be - doctor, lawyer, teacher, artist. I don't want every student to be exactly like the next one next to them in class. I want all my students to learn the set of skills necessary to be successful - resilience, grit, perspective, critical thinking, cooperation, knowledge-seeking, intiative-taking - but I want them to use these skills in whatever future they choose for themselves. If my school does not help students learn these skills, then word will get out about how ineffective my school is, and people will move or avoid living in my school's community.

What I find most fascinating about corporate education reform is that they don't seem to have read the works of Kotter or Senge or even Steve Jobs. None of these acknowledged successes in business want cookie-cutter students. They want innovators, creators, intiative-takers. They want workers who can adapt to change and work together with others. They want workers who can read, write, compute, and ultimately think and adapt.

The next big thing in business does not come from standardization, but from innovation. So we should not expect the next big thing in schools to come from standardization. The standardized test scores do not tell you whether students are thinkers or doers. We can sit all day comparing one school's test scores to another, but all we will learn at the end of the day is the schools are different. We have to remember that we are not creating an efficiently produced good or service, we are molding people who can adapt and change and learn and grow. We should measure how well students think and how successful they are in the next phases of their lives.

Revolutionary innovation would be demonstrated by the person who can figure out how to measure that.

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