Business consultant, author and speaker Patrick Lencioni has written an excellent book titled, “The Advantage.” It speaks to what gives a company their “advantage” over their competitors in the marketplace today. The answer, while it sound simple, is actually quite complicated, and can’t be identified through metrics, strategies, and all that left-brain stuff that most businesses, including non-profits, churches, and schools, like to focus on. “The Advantage,” according to Mr. Lencioni, is found in organizations that are “healthy.”
Rather than summarize the book by explaining what that means, let’s just say that there’s “something missing” in unhealthy organizations, which could be an unclear purpose, an absence of core values, a poorly performing element of a process, or a lack of meaningful communication.
That started me thinking of cyberschools, charter schools, and, the combination of both, cyber-charter schools. Even educational experts will tell you these schools are not for every child, but other sources point to these educational options as more “successful” that traditional brick and mortar options, or publicly funded non-profit public schools. The problem: both of these options have a missing element.
In the case of cyberschools, there is no personal interaction with other students. It could be argued that this element is also missing from homeschooling, but homeschooling associations are parent-driven, and communities of parents will more than likely have functions where parents, and therefore, there children, can get together. As for cyberschools, while individualized instruction is an excellent approach, one of the functions of the brick and mortar school is to teach children how to “get along” in society. From the recent examples of school shootings, stabbings and other violence, it’s clear that such a value is becoming more and more challenging today. However, taking the student completely out of an educational community and put in front of a computer for 6 or so hours a day isn’t necessarily the answer. It may be an effective andragogical concept (that is, for adult education), but children need to play, to play with one another, and learn how to associate with one another in a variety of situations, and spending time every day with other children that they might not necessarily “like” should be a sociological learning experience to prepare them for the time when they may experience the same difficulties in dealing with others as adults in the workplace or other social situations. While cyberschool may be an excellent choice for the intrinsically motivated student, it’s not necessarily the “be all and end all” option for everyone.
As for charter schools, the concept sounds great, and parents today fill waiting lists to enroll their children in schools which promise higher academic achievement funded by the same tax dollars that would have gone to the public school for that child. Unfortunately, just like any other unhealthy business, there seems to be a missing element – oversight. In April 2015, The Washington Post reported fraud and waste were rampant in the charter school sector (https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/04/28/report-millions-of-dollars-in-fraud-waste-found-in-charter-school-sector/). Parents who have been excited about the possibilities that charter schools hold have been disappointed to hear that their school was closing, and then, in some instances, a new charter school is opened in the same location of the recently closed charter school! Who knows what the chances of success are for that new charter school. Will new leadership make the difference? Is some of the same leadership involved with a different set of teachers? Or is it the same school…simply organized under a new name?
The problem continues to be one that is germane to education. Educational research, to use a favorite term of Mr. Lencioni, is “messy.” Not only is education a psychological, physiological and sociological entity, but it’s also humanistic. Researchers can’t take 100 5-year-olds and put them in a controlled learning environment for the next 13 years to determine the best way to educate students and have them achieve to their potential. Education is fluid; there are many external factors which can have unintended consequences on a learning environment, as well as each individual learner’s intrinsic learning potential and impediments. Further, the learner’s interests can change and evolve over their years in school. We’ve all heard stories about the “average” student in high school that suddenly excels in college, as well as the “average” college student who enrolls in graduate school and finds that concentrated study where all students are held accountable for achievement is what they’ve been looking for in their 13 years of compulsory education. Then there’s the student who described her post-secondary education as “Four years of an extended high school experience that cost a lot more money.”
So where do we start to fix “the system?” The first principle must be that in a system, as in a healthy organization, all elements of the system must be present. Once they’re present, then they can be optimized, but only a little at a time. That’s the essence of systems thinking, since an action in one elemental realm will have an effect on all the other elements.