The Issue Is Disruptive Innovation, Not Public Vs. Private Schools

In reading or listening to my passionate advocacy of school choice, many defenders of public education interpret me as being critical of public schools or claiming that private schools are necessarily better.  That is a profound misunderstanding.

For me the entire issue is “How to create a system in which quality education grows?”  In order to do so, we need to allow parents to choose what education they want for their child with as few constraints as possible.  But it is entirely possible that if we had radical school choice, some of the most successful school models could come from existing public schools.  There may well be public school districts with brilliant teams of educators who ought to be managing thousands of schools rather than just the schools in their district.

Monopolies restricts innovation.  This is just as true whether the monopoly happens to be private or public.  Big bureaucratic corporations need to be destroyed by creative destruction just as much as big bureaucratic government operations (such as the government school system) need to be destroyed by creative destruction.  The difference is that the market allows for the destruction of big bureaucratic corporations.

Indeed, Clayton Christensen has made a career showing exactly why big companies fail to support new innovations and later become vulnerable to the small start-ups that do.  Apple’s glorious defeat of IBM is a brilliant case in point; who could have imagined that in the late 1970s a couple of teenage boys without credentials, degrees, or wealth would completely undermine the business model of one of the largest corporations on earth (IBM was #5 on the Fortune 500 in 1970)?  If a sci fi movie had been created with that plot it would have been ridiculed as absurd.

BUT THAT IS WHAT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME.  At least, when creative destruction is allowed.  Our biggest problem in education is that we don’t allow for creative destruction.  We need a choice-based system of education in which thousands of schools go out of business every year, just like restaurants do, just like technology companies do.  And likewise a system in which those great schools, those great teams of educators, gain market share.

Learning, and even more so happiness and well-being, will never be the primary outcome of education as long as teachers are guaranteed an income by means of a political process.  There will be a few teachers who manage to help some students learn, and there will be an even smaller percentage of classes in which students are actually happy and well as they learn.  But right now schools are guaranteed funding regardless of how well or poorly they operate.  Most neighborhood schools are a coercively financed local monopoly that also forces its “customers” to attend.  Pretty creepy, when you think of it that way.  No wonder that teachers can skip school for six weeks, put six year olds into garbage cans and kick them around, or put students’ heads in the toilet and continue teaching.

And because the U.S. has tripled K-12 spending in the past forty years without seeing any improvement in test scores, without seeing any improvement in student well-being (by most metrics adolescent well-being has collapsed since the 1950s), without seeing any increase in student engagement (hard to measure, but certainly students are reading far less than in decades past), why would we continue to support a system in which teachers are guaranteed jobs regardless of the extent to which students thrive in their classrooms?

I want to create a world in which bright, innovative teams of young people are constantly making existing forms of education irrelevant and obsolete.  Constantly.

To liberating the educational entrepreneurs of the future, so that we may see a Steve Jobs of education in the decades to come!

About Michael Strong

Co-founder, Ko School + Incubator, Conscious Capitalism, Radical Social Entrepreneurs, lead author of Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World's Problems, author of The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice.
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