Can Education Reform Itself? (Brett Pawlowski)
We’ve been talking about education reform for decades, yet have failed to make headway on improving our schools. It begs the question: how can real reform happen in a system that is so large, has so much inertia, and – given that 90% of education is controlled by government – does not have free-market based incentives to change? Will it require outside forces to effect change? Or, as many have maintained, can the education system reform itself to meet contemporary needs?
To answer these questions, we can look at examples of other industries that have undergone substantive change in order to determine how that change came about. One excellent source of information is “Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation” by James Utterback, a professor of management and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
According to Dr. Utterback’s research, transformative change almost never comes from within: it comes out of left field, from people who have no vested interest in the status quo and nothing to lose. One example from his book concerns the ice market, which follows a pattern of innovation seen in many other industries.
In the early 19th century, entrepreneurs in New England began harvesting ice from local ponds and selling it commercially. As with many industries, this one was launched as a result of the introduction of product innovations – in this case, the development of tools such as ice saws that would allow harvesters to work quickly and gather blocks of consistent size and quality.
Ice quickly moved from a novelty to a necessity in local, national, and even international markets, with both consumer and trade markets (such as hospitals, dairies, meat processors, and others) driving demand. As a result, the market grew from almost nothing in 1806 to one supplying more than 700,000 tons of ice per year by the late 1870s, and both manufacturers and suppliers – companies like The Tudor Ice Company and The Knickerbocker Ice Company – reaped the benefits.
Then came what Dr. Utterback calls “the invasion of man-made ice.”
A radical innovation hit the scene in the mid-1800s: the development of technology that could create ice. This technology, once commercialized, eliminated the cost of shipping, addressed concerns about quality and product shrinkage, and created a source of abundant supply that substantially lowered prices as a result. This technology was particularly well received in the south, which previously faced limited availability and especially high prices. San Antonio received the first commercial ice-making machine in 1862.
Commercial ice factories offered a better product, at a better price, and with better availability – and they decimated the ice harvesting industry. Ice harvesters continued to grow in the short term, shipping a record 25 million tons in 1886. But as the number of ice factories grew, harvested ice manufacturers began to struggle, and the market for harvested ice disappeared completely by the mid-1920s.
Did the barons of ice harvesting – the Tudors and Knickerbockers of the world – usher forth this innovation? Not only were they not involved in the development of ice manufacturing, they actively fought it, attempting to compete by pushing forth incremental process improvements such as the use of steam-powered saws to increase production. But they never abandoned the fundamental business model that had served them so well in the past: they were constrained by the substantial investments they had made in the existing production/distribution model, and they discounted the advantages of the new technology. They failed to pursue better ways of serving their customers due to their financial and emotional investment in the status quo. As a result, they perished.
Of course, the ice manufacturers went through the exact same thing during the next innovation cycle. They fought – and fell to – the next generation of ice service, specifically the development of electromechanical refrigeration which gave people refrigerators and freezers in their own homes. The same forces that afflicted the ice harvesters – a livelihood that depends on the status quo, and a refusal to acknowledge the improvements represented by the new innovation – doomed the ice manufacturers.
This is not an isolated example: rather, it is the rule in innovation. Buggy manufacturers didn’t create the automobile industry; gas suppliers didn’t build the electrical industry; steamship owners didn’t launch the airline industry. Companies prosper along with a new wave of innovation, and then, when a new and better solution comes along, they fall. They feel that they can’t abandon their investment in the technology they established, nor can they afford to retool the market infrastructure they built up around it. Further, they are trapped by a loyalty to the business structure that rewarded them so richly in the past.
There’s much more nuance, and many more twists and turns, to any such story, and I would highly recommend Utterback’s book to those interested in a fuller explanation of this phenomenon. But the point remains: as a rule, disruptive innovation and radical change come from outside.
What does this mean for public education? It means that if we want to revolutionize our education system, we need to remove the competitive restraints that have stifled change for so long. Just imagine if the government controlled the ice industry: do you think we’d still have state-of-the-art refrigerators in our homes? Or would you be waiting by the docks for the next load of ice to be shipped from Boston?
Our current methods of schooling are frozen in time, due primarily to the dampening effect that government control has on innovation. It’s time to open the doors wide to competitive forces in education, and allow much-overdue reform to come in from outside the current system.
Brett Pawlowski is president of DeHavilland Associates, a consulting and communications firm that helps businesses help education. He is also the founder of the Business/Education Partnership Forum, an online clearinghouse featuring news, information, and resources for anyone interested in building effective business/education partnerships.