How Silicon Valley Can Help Pinellas Schools



The contest for Pinellas County School Board Member in District 6, incumbent Linda Lerner, 71, against challenger Maureen Ahern, 54, focuses on their differing viewpoints on various education related issues.  (The issues are highlighted in two articles, one in The Tampa Bay Times by Lisa Gartner and the other by Anastasia Dawson in The St. Petersburg Tribune.)  There are, however, more fundamental issues that deserve our, and the School Board’s, attention, where Silicon Valley can help.

Lerner is the longest-serving School Board member in Pinellas County history, first elected to the board in 1990. She is seeking her seventh term and a 28-year tenure.  She says most Pinellas schools are doing well and that the district is moving in the right direction. The successful reforms she has championed while on the board as well as her goals for the school system reflect my own education-related beliefs.

But I also sympathize with Lerner’s challenger, Maureen Ahern, a former newspaper journalist who believes that “Our children don’t have more time; they only get one childhood education.”  The school district has spent years battling a large achievement gap between black and white students, and she feels it’s time to “figure out what to do and just do it, not keep talking about it.”

Technology is driving social change at an ever  increasing pace.   Organizations of all types and functions, especially schools, must respond or become irrelevant.  To help appreciate the magnitude and speed of social change watch the PBS TV program “The American Experience: Silicon Valley”  (Transcript), then read Decoding the Contradictory Culture of Silicon Valley, by Jeanne G. Harris and Iris Junglas.

Keeping Silicone Valley’s culture in mind, review SPCs recently approved comprehensive strategic plan, the district’s vision of “100% Student Success,” and Pinellas Innovates.

How can SPC evolve new thinking and practices?  Several observations present themselves:

  1. While the district may be, in Lerner’s words, ‘moving in the right direction,’ that gives us neither an idea of what the goals are nor sense of what it will take to reach them, not to mention to answer the question  of ‘whose goals are they anyway?’   The district needs to articulate a coherent, meaningful vision of its goals from a student perspective, a so-called “value proposition.”   Developing its value proposition is one of the first steps in the process of re-imagining PSC’s strategic plan using  Michael Porter’s concept of competitive advantage,   A summary can be found here.
  2. Superintendent Michael Grego’s initiative to advance the district’s vision of “100% Student Success,”   however admirable it may be, is misdirected.  Vying to be the best is an intuitive approach to competition, but always ends up being self-destructive over the long haul.  Competition should be thought of as a race to be unique.   Trying to be “the best” is competition in the most destructive sense. Only by competing to be unique can an organization achieve sustained innovation/performance. 
  3. Silicon Valley’s successful companies, Intel, for example, feature ‘flat’ rather than hierarchical, top-down management structures.   Collaboration is expected.  The Pinellas School System (as well as state and national education departments),  is a top down, bureaucratic, hierarchical  organization that allows little or no input from citizens on policies that affect themselves and their children.  A remedy for this condition is to establish schools where parents, teachers, superintendents and other stakeholders participate meaningfully in the decision making process.
  4. The school system continually imagines itself as a factory producing watches.   It employs rigorous micromanagement to make sure the watches ‘work’ as expected.   Educating children is not like assembling watches; it is neither simple like a thermostat nor complicated like an airplane. It is complex like the weather, i.e. continuously changing in response to inputs from the environment.  We need to be growing children into mature adults rather than manufacturing machines.

We will examine other ways to address these observations in future posts.


About Freedom to...

Consultant helping people and employers in health care, education and government to see and understand how their organization works and how to change them to improve performance.
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