Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Public Education, Bill Gates and Disruptive Change

Change is always and everywhere. Change is constant. Change simply is.

Although change is usually viewed as an unwelcome threat, it shouldn't be. Sometimes change is good, it's always inevitable, often necessary and never optional. It is with us as well as ahead of us at all times.

In sum, tomorrow is never today twenty four hours later. It never has been, and it never will be.

There are two basic kinds of change. One is incremental and one is disruptive. Incremental change takes place within an existing system and is reflective of the process of continuing improvement. It is associated with the habit of getting better each and every day in small ways which add up over time. Marginal improvements continuously, in other words.

Disruptive or discontinuous change reflects big and abrupt changes to how things are done. Discontinuous change brings about a change in the basic system itself. When we introduce disruptive changes, we're working ON the system as opposed to incremental change which occurs while working IN the existing system. Disruptive change occurs rarely, is intended to bring about huge benefits and is associated with a new way of doing old things. Like what we need for public education, social security and medicare, for example.

To recap, incremental change happens while working IN the existing system and is beneficial but often small, while disruptive changes result from working ON the basic system itself, and represent the real game changers.

Both types of change are appropriate in different circumstances. Tweaking is always good but ineffective if we have the wrong system in place. After reading the referenced interview with Bill Gates, it's easy to conclude that government dominance in our educational system is the wrong approach and must be changed. In public education, we need disruptive change, and we need it now.

Gates, the founder of Microsoft, through his foundation has donated $5 billion to public education initiatives over the past ten years. Unfortunately he also evidently believes that incremental change is all we're going to get with respect to public education in the years ahead. He doesn't see the appetite for big changes to the status quo among the current "leadership infrastructure"of today, and he doesn't appear to want to rattle the "establishment" cages. He takes this apparent position even though his learnings these past ten years suggest strongly, at least to me, that cage rattling is very much in order.

In Was the $5 billion Worth It?, Mr. Gates, the businessman turned philanthropist, discusses his efforts the past ten years to deal with the many challenges in our American public school system. Gates concludes, as have many others, that individual teachers are the critical path to success. He also volunteers that parochial schools, private schools, charter schools, smaller schools and the like all have positive effects on outcomes with respect to student learning. He essentially acknowledges that the current public system is broken and that teachers are not properly incentivized to focus entirely on student learning. The public schools are adult centric instead of being student centric. Gates doesn't attempt to defend public teacher unions, but he doesn't really take them to task either.

That said, he makes it extremely clear that we have a very, very long way to go if our public education system is to be successful in its mission of preparing our future leaders.

Here's a good one. Our various governments spend $600 billion annually on public education. Thus, Gates rightfully says that the $5 billion he's spent these past ten years, when considered in the context of the ~$6 trillions spent by governments, amounts to a rounding error. It appears that the government education monopoly will make every effort to "crowd out" any meaningful attempts, as it's done in the past, undertaken by well intentioned outsiders to improve in disruptive and dramatic fashion our public education system. The status quo not only has a staunch defender in the teachers' unions, but it has governmental taxing power on its side, too.

But why doesn't Mr. Gates endorse vouchers? Well, he says he doesn't because the public negativity about vouchers is too high. The Waltons of Wal-Mart take the other side of this issue, and Gates admits that they probably are correct about vouchers as being a major part of the solution. Yet curiously he takes a hands off approach, arguing that the "establishment" is not yet ready for vouchers.

As with all disruptive change solutions, the defenders of the status quo never will be ready for vouchers. Nevertheless, this type of disruptive change is absolutely essential if we are going to improve our educational system meaningfully.

The article cites another legendary businessman and friend of Gates as having this to say about public education in America, 'It's hard to improve public education in America--that's clear. As Warren Buffett would say, "If you're picking stocks, you wouldn't pick this one." But we American taxpayers and parents own the American "public education" stock. All 100% of it.

In sum, the one constant we have throughout our American educational system in all fifty states is a government monopoly provider and in most places, but especially urban locations, a very dysfunctional public school system as well.

Despite what Gates says, why settle for poor results forever? Why not try vouchers now, and why not give parents the freedom to choose their children's teachers along the lines of a free to choose market based approach? We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. And that includes the very many good teachers out there, too.

Thanks. Bob.


  1. The "public" has been endoctrinated to believe that spending more money on education is the path to better education. The results, in recent years at least, would indicate the exact opposite has been true.

  2. Thank you for nicely sharing some important comments on CHANGE. "What a change means and how it needs to be looked from the impact perspective"