A Google, a Plan, a Canal

Why don’t start-up tech types understand school reform? They’re excited about it. By and large, though, their schemes flop. Why? The history of school reform offers a big-picture answer.erie canal

Googlers might think they have the wrong logarithm. Or the wrong charismatic leader. Or maybe the wrong business plan. There’s a simpler, better answer that my current research is making painfully clear to me. It might seem like google has nothing to do with the Erie Canal, but when it comes to school reform, they look depressingly similar. Like the school reformers of the early 1800s, today’s googlers are plagued by a fundamental problem they don’t even see:

The wrong metaphor.

Google-founded schools don’t work. They approach school like a start-up business, as curmudgucrat Peter Greene has pointed out time and time again.

It’s not only google, of course. Other techies have experienced similar flops when they thrust themselves into the school-reform game. We can’t forget, for instance, Mark Zuckerburg’s warm-hearted but dunderheaded efforts in Newark.

Today’s tech types have had enormous success with google and facebook and uber and etc. So they jump too quickly to assume that those successes will apply to school as well. In general, and with some exceptions I’m sure, techies invest in bad school reform schemes because they misunderstand the nature of schooling. They think of it too often as a question of information delivery. They assume—based on google’s big success at shepherding information—that they can improve schools the same way they improved the interwebs. If they can only get their proprietary app right—they assume—and get free of stuck-in-the-mud thinking and red tape, there ain’t nuthin they can’t do.

They aren’t the first to make this sort of goof. In fact (and this is the thing that really chaffs us nerds), though they think they are making ground-breaking social changes, today’s tech-fueled reformers are reading from a very old school-reform script. Though many of them are motivated by the best intentions, if they took time to read even one book they could dodge some of these predictable perils. Heck, they could even avoid the library and just spend time with Larry Cuban’s blog or Peter Greene’s.

clinton opening erie canal

Clinton connecting the waters, 1826.

It wouldn’t take much for today’s ambitious reformers to recognize their similarity to those of earlier generations. As I work on my next book about urban school reform in the early 1800s, I’m struck by the parallels. Take, for example, the big dreams of DeWitt Clinton. Clinton was the 19th-century equivalent of today’s tech heroes. He was brilliant, talented, connected, and far-sighted. Most important for our purposes, he embraced new technology in the face of old-fashioned opposition. He pushed through modern solutions to ancient problems, and it all happened fast enough for him to witness the amazing social improvements wrought by his efforts.

In Clinton’s case, it wasn’t the interwebs, but a really long ditch. Clinton believed in the possibilities of a transformational investment in the Erie Canal. Naysayers said nay, but Clinton was proven right. The canal utterly changed the face of American society. Small farmers and city-dwellers alike benefitted.

Elated and maybe a little puffed-up, Clinton looked around for new worlds to conquer. At the time, New York City was growing by leaps and bounds. Its schools couldn’t keep up. Clinton dived into school reform, putting all his chips on Joseph Lancaster’s scheme to transform and systematize schooling for all students, especially those without a lot of money.

You know the end of the story already: It didn’t work. At least, not the way Clinton planned. Unlike a canal, a school system is not something that can be created once and for all. A school system needs more than a one-time start-up investment. The problems that make schooling difficult are not the same as the problems that make a canal difficult.

urban apple orchard

They can thrive anywhere…

It might help if well-intentioned reformers thought of school differently. School isn’t a start-up business. School isn’t a canal.

What IS school? There are many ways we could think about it, but this morning I’d like to suggest one idea and I invite SAGLRROILYBYGTH to suggest their own.

To get school reform right, we can’t think of school like a start-up business. We can’t think of it like a canal. We might do better if we thought of school like an orchard. Why?

  • Orchards take a long time to be healthy and productive, but can be damaged or killed quickly.
  • Orchards are intensely local; they can’t be shipped or packaged easily.
  • Orchards take constant loving care from many people.
  • There are some things that all orchards need, like sunshine, water, and fertilizer.
    • The exact recipe for success, though, depends on local conditions.
    • …and it isn’t the ingredients themselves that lead to success, but the constant loving care with which they are applied and monitored.
  • Orchards can thrive anywhere, but in some places they need more intensive care and maintenance than others.
  • Orchards can be tweaked easily, but they can’t be radically transformed quickly.
  • A healthy orchard isn’t focused on the people taking care of it, but rather on the things it produces.
  • Different orchards can thrive while producing different things; one measurement won’t compare apples very easily.

Now that I see that list in black and white, I’m not sure. Maybe that’s not the best metaphor. I’m not sure if children are supposed to be the fruit…? Or if kids are the ones picking the fruit of education…?orchard

When it comes to thinking about schools, though, I can’t help but think that imagining schools as orchards is better than thinking about them as start-ups or canals. As today’s tech leaders have discovered, thinking about schools as start-up tech firms leads to predictable flops. As yesterday’s leaders found out, thinking about schools as canals didn’t work either.

So maybe thinking about schools as orchards isn’t the best metaphor. I bet people can come up with better. In the meantime, though, I’ll look forward to a multi-million-dollar school reform plan that starts with a more profound understanding of the way real schools work.

Leave a comment


  1. Peter

     /  November 26, 2017

    The orchard-garden metaphor is a pretty good one, but you’d have to an add a part about how every single plant has to be nurtured to full growth. That’s the big challenge of public education that business likes to ignore– you must serve every single customer, even the lousy ones, even if it’s expensive to do so.

    • Business in general hates dealing with non-standardized human individuals. This may not be fixable. The business logic of efficiency has always been hell bent on standardizing humans in factory schooling, which is the existing model. There’s very little individual attention. If there is any consensus it is resistance to changing the industrial model. I’m sure there have been many exceptions and experiments, mostly outside the public system. For example, Gates funded a small high school program in Milwaukee run by disciples of Ivan Illich, who was all about resisting the dehumanizing tendencies of modern institutions. Can you do small and individual at scale? Scale is the problem.

  2. I think the orchard metaphor works quite well (it’s also a rather conservative way of seeing schooling, it seems to me). I would, however, add that orchards are often business endeavors–so perhaps the metaphors are not entirely incompatible.

    Question: While the aforementioned school experiments were not successful, were they significantly less successful than the large number of less-than-spectacular public schools? Or was their failure merely more apparent by virtue of the fact that 1) they promised so much and delivered so little, and 2) as private enterprises they had the possibility of failure?

    • Patrick,
      You have blown my mind. Once you mentioned that an orchard was a “rather conservative way of seeing schooling,” I can’t disagree, though I hadn’t thought of it that way before. There’s plenty of room for debate, but by and large, conservatives (at least this is what I argued in my Other School Reformers book) have seen schooling as a way to pass along the best to every new generation, nurtured in a stable soil of tradition and love. An orchard is a pretty good analogy for that vision of proper schooling.
      Progressives–at least big names such as John Dewey, George Counts, and Paolo Freire–have wanted schooling to be much different. Not an orchard at all. They have wanted schools to be a laboratory, an incubator, a fish farm of inclusive, democratic, empowered community living that would change all the time to fit changing circumstances. They have wanted schools to be institutions that transformed society in their own small-d democratic image.
      If THAT is our goal for schooling, then an orchard is a terrible analogy.

  3. Donald Byrne

     /  November 30, 2017

    An orchard, yes. Or maybe a permaculture or intercropped orchard. That way we’re not saying that we plan to produce all apples but rather a variety of crops, even animals. Lots of different beings could fruit in such a place. Also, I agree with Patrick that an orchard-as-business can easily be part of the organic-industrial complex. Maybe we should go all the way and switch the word from “orchard” to “farmstead.” Permaculture farms are known for variety, resilience, and redundancy of systems. A farmstead would works with all of the orchard criteria listed in the post except — to me — “A healthy orchard isn’t focused on the people taking care of it, but rather on the things it produces.” I’d like to see a school be a place that is focused on the health of the workers too. One piece of the industrial school model I’d like to wave bye to is the economy of scale that is the classroom seat count. Teachers do no more work and get paid no more coin whether they’re teaching 10 or 20, because it’s all the same, right?

    Nah, I got it. Plant nursery. Because at a school, there is a product: the well-educated kid. At a nursery, there is a product: the great variety of plants. Each plant must go out into the world, be healthy, fruit, and bear seed elsewhere.

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