Billionaires Take the Bait

July 6, 2011 at 9:32 PM Leave a comment

When did Bill and Melinda Gates forget who they were? Billionaire philanthropists have joined the great rescue mission that is public education today. They bring seemingly unlimited resources to drive the solution to one of the greatest challenges in the nation, educating our children. Yet they have undermined their own efforts by getting co-opted into the colossal group think tank of an insular industry. Myopic vision and managerial inexperience are being funded by giants who should know better.

To be successful, educators must invest the right amount of money in sustainable and scalable models driven by the mission of educating children in every demographic. All human capital as well as tangible and intangible assets must be redeployed efficiently and effectively, evolving from a turnaround mode to a growth model. While funded and regulated as a public good, education must be administered as an entrepreneurial business that is responsive to the needs of those it serves. Who should be better at helping us achieve these objectives than billionaire philanthropists who accumulated their wealth by solving problems just like these?

The trouble is…our billionaires fell for the notion that the same leadership that has flailed for the last fifty years in education still offers the best insight into its own needs.  Yes, we have the arrogance to invite the greatest entrepreneurs of our nation into our industry and assume they cannot function without being indoctrinated into our way of doing things. They are the money; we are the brains in this very flawed operation.

As funding agents, our business experts have taken the bait. They have skipped the diagnostic phase of the turnaround assignment. Partners with deep pockets have funded school leaders who deflect their own accountability onto teachers and ask for help firing the culprits and building better replacements. Little attention has been paid to an organizational model that systematically misallocates resources, operates bureaucracies that impede progress in favor of meeting regulations, and manages human resources divisively.

The potential exists to fund schools that serve as incubators for new ideas, to build databases for informed decision-making, and to motivate professionals to achieve better outcomes. Instead, smart managers are helping us to build slick new ways to perform the usual dumb tricks. How can we create entrepreneurial small schools in a district where diminished funding trickles down to the school level? We offer fewer choices to diverse learners and hope that the special relationships we build will suffice to engage them. How can we give teachers the knowledge they need to improve their practices collaboratively? We threaten them with rankings that will ultimately determine who stays or goes. How can we manage our human capital to achieve better results? We invest in elite newcomers, target the lowest common denominator for elimination, and ignore the majority in between. This is not managerial excellence.

 Looking at the generic issues in education, we should welcome guidance on such issues as…

  • Understanding our core mission
  • Implementing continuous quality improvement
  • Incubating ideas through small business start-ups
  • Managing and motivating adults
  • Fostering entrepreneurship in a regulated industry
  • Building a better pension plan for the future
  • Understanding asset-based management

Thus far, our work with mission statements has overlooked the primary goal of educating children, focusing instead on dozens of unique concepts that differentiate small schools. We need to start at the top and organize our districts around the children first. Spend the first dollar on that mission, not the nickels and dimes that trickle down to deconstructed schools. On the other hand, there are ways that education cannot be viewed through the lens of capitalism. Entrepreneurs, for example, know self-sacrifice and investments in sweat equity; the analogous martyrdom model for turnaround schools is not sustainable. Perhaps when our billionaires come to their senses they will help us find a better way.


Entry filed under: School Leadership, School Transformation.

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