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John Dewey’s Dimes: Should Your School be More Like a Start-up? 4 Ways it Should be

Is your school corporate- traditional or start-up snappy? Picture Public Domain on Wikipedia

Is your school corporate- traditional or start-up snappy? Picture Public Domain on Wikipedia

Schools are institutions.  Schools have traditions.  Schools have standards.  Those that go to a school, especially and private, independent school, like to see it look exactly the way they left it when they return for Homecoming.  Schools also have 5 year strategic plans and accreditation seasons to make sure they are a lot less like a start-up and much more like IBM:  corporate, structured, thoroughly planned, hierarchical. Start-up?  That kind of talk at an independent school is heresy; but should it be?

Start-ups are nimble.  Start-ups have leadership from the middle.  Start-ups know the marketplace and situate themselves accordingly.  Start-ups make great relationships with their tribes and deliver what the tribes need.  Most importantly, start-ups incubate the products and services the market does not yet know it needs years before it needs it.

Is your school nimble like a start-up?  Image taken from

Is your school nimble like a start-up? Image taken from

These two seemingly unrelated concepts (the accreditation process and the characteristics of a start-up) came together for me at 5 o’clock this morning to crystalize two important truths about schools in the age we live in today.  The 5 year school accreditation process (we use SACS-SAIS) and yesterday’s American Public Media, Aug 15 “When Does a Start-Up Stop Being a Start-Up” on Marketplace (raise your hands if you think Kai Ryssdal is as cool as I do) connected these dots for me.  You might be wondering what I had to eat last night that put my mind into such a frenzy to put those things together?  But, we all know that the start of the new school year can make us all a bit crazy; second year principals especially.  So read this blog at your own peril.

Anyway, here are the two important truths for schools brought to life from accreditation and Marketplace:

  1. On paper and at the top, a school must be corporate IBM with a Mission, a Vision, Traditions, and strong institutional control.  This is how we know if we are doing what we say we do.  We should have a Board of Trustees structure that gives the grand plan representative of the stakeholders to the Head of School.  The Head of School then wisely positions her people to to carry out the plan for the long-term well being of the students.

  2. On the ground and in the middle of a school characteristics of  start-up are highly valuable.  Our teachers need to be able to make decisions to drive the school forward.  Our teachers have to branch out and make new relationships seemingly every day. Our teachers have to feel as empowered in a 900 student, 100 faculty member, K4-12 school as the employee/part-owner of a ten person start-up in Silicon Valley, Soho, or Montgomery, AL.

In connecting the dots from the APM article/broadcast with my independent school experience, I’m thinking that schools should be like start-ups in these ways:

1.  Schools should be set up in such a manner that the teachers lead from the middle.  Any great start-up is built on a equalitarian model where ideas are generated and executed from every part of the small business.  Tyranny rarely works in a start-up. A start-up won’t amount to much if it doesn’t put all its people in position to innovate and execute.  Schools are the same way.  Great teachers are more apt to come up with innovative ways to build capacity in students, especially those struggling, than anything that could come from the top.  Great schools recognize this and give teachers the room and the license to do so.

2.  Start-ups incubate ideas that will eventually coalesce into the products and services people need in the future, but these people do not yet know they need them.  As the educational establishment is quickly realizing through folks like Tony Wagner, schools are preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist (see Tony Wagner, Seven Survival Skills).  Start-ups produce the items we don’t yet know we need but will.  Schools produce the vibrant thinkers who will ideate these products and services.  Which begs the question: can your school’s 5 year strategic plan account for how you will systematically prepare your students to thrive in this type of pace?  Thus, the bi-polar balance schools need to be able to both stay the course of mission and be nimble enough to extrapolate where our students will need to be in a dramatically changing landscape.

3.  Start-ups generate revenue based on present and future market realities.  Schools have trouble with this.  When the low Kindergarten-age demographics and slow economy of the past couple of years nationwide meant lower enrollments at K-6, K-8, K-12 schools, was your school ahead of the curve?  If not, it probably meant A) Your School went into debt B) You had to let teachers/staff go or C) Your team members lost valuable benefits and your school became one somewhat less desirable within which to work.  If your school was ready with alternative revenue streams to meet the bottom line, it probably meant A) You had developed strong non-tuition revenue from things like summer programs, on-line courses, or creative facility use B) You have an unshakeable endowment that makes you the envy of every other school/you have the best Annual Fund Director in the Free World or C) You added pre-school programs/ had built in capacity at other grade divisions and flexible teachers to make some innovative transitions.

4.  Start-ups are innovative, creative places and, no matter what, schools should be also.  The missing link of education the past 20-30 years during higher stakes testing has been the creative process.  After all, why should teachers spend time helping students develop ideas when students only are tested on the things the test says they need to know? Why have programs in the Arts, when that takes time away from teaching to the test?

If you think your school is immune to the aforementioned lapses in judgement because independent schools aren’t beholden to standardized testing, you haven’t spent much time in your college counselor’s office.  For better or worse, ACT’s and SAT’s matter in today’s independent schools.  Either students are striving for the highest standardized testing scores to get into highly selective colleges or they are trying to get that 30 ACT to get an automatic scholarship to a large public university.  Either way, such situations can cloud the judgements schools make on what is important to develop.  Companies go through the same dilemma.  As the Sally Hership’s article  “When Does a Start-Up Stop Being a Start-Up” suggests, a start-up ceases being a start-up when finds its bread n butter and goes all in on that product or service.  When it does so, it sells its start-up soul.  It becomes corporate as the wonks make policy to ensure the bread n butter gets made the same way each and every time.  Schools become like this when testing drives the learning discussion.

The good news is that there are several schools out there who recognize the value of staying the course with a Mission and Vision developed through dedicated and disciplined strategic planning over time who also allow leadership from the middle and are nimble enough to answers questions like these as these serve students:

  1. Do we offer our students on-line courses so they get the hang of a learning mode they will likely encounter?  UMS-Wright in Mobile is one such school that does this.

  2. Do we develop pedagogy capacity in our teachers that models the ways students will need to operate in their future careers?  Mount Vernon Presbyterian near Atlanta has incorporated Design Thinking as its main mode of learning.  They also don’t have an Academic Dean, but they do have a Chief Innovation Officer.

  3. Do we generate revenue from sources beside tuition and endowment?  Punahou School in Honolulu has been doing so for years mainly through summer programs.  In fact, more students attend Punahou during the summer than during the normal school year.  Its revenue generation in summer programs is in the several millions.  Best of all, it brings teachers from all over the world to its campus in the summer to share ideas and develop new ones.

If your school is already operating and innovating like a start-up, I’d love to hear about it on Twitter @MikeZavada.  If not find schools like the ones above and look at characteristics that make a good school like a start-up.

Until next time, let’s get started…

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