By Ron Allen
A while back I read a book titled Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t by Jim Collins, an American business consultant and author. This book went on to be a bestseller and it is now widely regarded as a modern classic of management theory. At first glance, this book appears to be primarily for the business world, but what if we viewed its findings though the lens of the world of K-12 education? Is it possible to benchmark the best practices identified in Good to Great and apply them to the educational setting? For those who have read the book, you’re probably thinking, “Yes, I think there is something there, let’s explore!” For those of you who have not read the book, let me give you a quick primer.
Jim Collins set out to identify and evaluate the factors and variables that allow a small fraction of companies to make the transition from merely good to truly great. Collins and his team began to exhaustively catalog the business literature, identifying a handful of companies that fulfilled their predetermined criteria for greatness. Then, the defining characteristics that differentiated these great firms from their competitors were quantified and analyzed. The resulting data is presented in Good to Great in compelling detail. These characteristics can be identified not only in great companies, but also in great schools and districts.
Let’s take a look at some of the findings from the book and how I see them connecting to K-12 Education:
- Good is the Enemy of Great
Collins (2007) tells us that this is not just a business problem but rather it is a human problem. He also tells us that few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle. Good is easy to do, great is much harder. Why try to be great at something when I can just be good? I think all schools have the ability to be great; the recipe for success is out there. There is no shortage of research, studies, and examples of how schools can be great. So here’s the question, “Is good the enemy of great in the world of K-12 education?” We could use an analogy between “good” and “great” with Danielson’s domain levels of performance of “proficient” and “distinguished” from her framework for teaching. But Danielson (2007) reminds us that “distinguished-level of performance is a good place to visit, but don’t expect to live there” (p. 41). I think the takeaway here is that as teachers, we should all strive to perform at a proficient level while at the same time intentionally creating the opportunities to spend some time at the distinguished level. So perhaps the new question is, “Is proficient the enemy of distinguished?”
- Level 5 Leadership
Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company, or in this context, a school or district. Collins states that all the good-to-great companies had level 5 leadership and the absence of it showed up as a consistent pattern in the comparison companies. Collins also states that these leaders often had a long-term personal sense of investment in the company and its success, often cultivated through a career-spanning climb up the company’s rank. Take out the word “company” and insert the word “school” or “district” and let’s now view this concept for our purposes. Can we read this to mean that the great principals have been teachers in the same school or district for many years? How does this bear on how we grow our principals? Clifford (2012) characterized this practice as “casting a narrow net” and would discourage it as a district hiring practice. According to Clifford, some district hiring practices limit the applicant pool and hinder the committees’ ability to attract the best candidates. If the district does not have the caliber of candidates available then it certainly makes sense to cast a wider net but there is something to be said of leaders that have had a long-term personal sense of investment in the company and its success. We must keep in mind that the average age of school principals has increased from 48 to 50 years old and the majority leaves their positions by age 55. Additionally, the average school principal moves to a new school at least once (Gates et al., 2003). The new generation of principals will spend less time at the helm.
When Collins began the research project, he expected to find that the first step in taking a company from good to great would be to set a new direction, a new vision and strategy for the company, and then to get people committed and aligned behind the new direction. He found quite the opposite. He found that the executives who ignited the transformations from good to great did not first figure where to drive the bus and then get the people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus and then figured out where to drive. So what does this mean for our education comparison? The take-away is that we focus the hiring process on securing high-quality, highly talented teachers. In determining the right people, the good-to-great companies placed greater weight on character attributes than on specific educational background, practical skills, specialized knowledge, or work experience. This can be a bit tricky since teachers do have to have certain credentials in order to teach. Once required teaching qualifications are met, Collins suggests that we focus more on character, work ethic, basic intelligence, dedication to fulfilling commitments, and values. In other words, if we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take our schools and districts someplace great!
Freedom (and Responsibility) Within A Framework
Good-to-great companies built a consistent system with clear constraints, but they also gave people freedom and responsibility within the framework of that system. They hired self-disciplined people who did not need to be managed, and then managed the systems, not the people. This goes back to getting the right people on the bus. When you have done so, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away. When we build a culture around the idea of freedom and responsibility, we allow teachers to be the best teachers they can be. Rafe Esquith is a great example of what this looks like in action. Rafe is an award-winning American fifth-grade teacher of Room 56 at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles (Strauss, 2013). According to a 2005 report on National Public Radio, 90 percent of his students were living below the poverty line, and all were from immigrant families, with none speaking English as a first language, yet they all scored in the top 5 to 10 percent of the country in standardized tests.
- Technology Accelerators
Collins contends that the good-to-great companies approach the prospect of new and emerging technologies with the same prudence and careful deliberation that characterizes all of their other business decisions. The point here is that when used right, technology becomes an accelerator on momentum, not a creator of it. The good-to-great companies never began their transitions with pioneering technology, for the simple reason that you cannot make good use of technology until you know which technologies are relevant. We seem to so desperately want the newest high technology in the classrooms but it often seems to end up as a big fail and, at times, gets in the way. As teachers we need to fully educate ourselves on the technology before using it and we need to have a plan to immediately resort to in the event the technology fails. We also need to ensure that we are not simply replacing a legacy delivery method with a technological delivery method just because funds become available. We need to make sure that the chosen technology actually enhances the learning. If it does not, perhaps it should remain in the technology classrooms.
These are just a few topics to glean from the book. As you read it, so much jumps out to you that feels applicable to education. Since starting my Master’s in Teaching degree, it feels like everything I do, say, read, or watch is always channeled back to teaching. I guess that’s not such a bad thing.
Clifford, M. (2012). Hiring quality school leaders: Challenges and emerging practices. Washington DC: American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from http://www.learningpt.org/pdfs/HiringQualitySchoolLeaders_IssueBrief052009.pdf
Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Danielson, C. (2007). Enhancing professional practice: a framework for teaching. Alexandria, VA: ASCD
Gates, S., Ringel, J., Santibanez, L., Ross, K., & Chung, C., (2003). Who is leading our schools? An overview of school administrators and their careers. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.
Strauss, V. (2013, July 16). The world’s most famous teacher blasts school reform. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com