Independent schools have lost their sustainable competitive advantage. Once upon a time, our schools were pipelines to the elite colleges and universities, but those days are over. In truth the old system that protected the competitive advantage of independent schools was built on restricting higher education access to people from racial, ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants, and the working classes. Even if George School’s commitment to equality sought to defy this system, it benefited from it nonetheless. The gradual demise of the old boys’ network that restricted access to elite universities is greatly to the betterment of society, but it is also a challenge for schools like ours. If young people are as likely to get into Stanford from their local public high school as they are from a venerable boarding school, what then are we offering? Those of us inside the independent school world know the answer to that question: We offer small classes, a safe environment, academic excellence, a true intellectual milieu, incredible facilities, extraordinary teachers, astonishing diversity, a spiritual component, etc. Yet we are forced to confront the question: Is our business model at risk?
Today we find ourselves in a wide-open, competitive market in which many public, charter, and online schools compete with us on an ever-shifting playing field. New, disruptive players are emerging who promise better results for a lower price tag, and even if they are ultimately proven to be offering an inferior education, they still have the potential to lure many families away from traditional institutions like ours. We can protest all we like that a real classroom with experienced teachers is better than an online experience staring at a computer screen, but if the tide is rolling in that direction, all our protestations will just leave us with a mouth full of sand. With our once-strong competitive advantage eroded, we now exist in a world of “transient advantage” described by Rita Gunther McGrath in The End of Competitive Advantage.
We can navigate this shifting landscape thoughtfully and intentionally, on our own terms, or we can ignore it and find change forced upon us. We can identify what is essential and indispensable about our school and carefully tend to it, or we can find ourselves helplessly behind and unable to catch up. In our faculty meeting of 5/5/14 when Nancy introduced the Adaptability Project, there was a question from Terry about the language of what is “central” versus what is “peripheral.” My mind flew to the part of my/Scott’s presentation to the George School Board (“Trends in Education” 4/26/14) about industries that have been disrupted by technology. As we explained, The New York Times Company has seen its revenues halved over the past decade as a result of turmoil in the “old media” world. As they have desperately tried to hold onto their center (i.e. their world-class, eponymous publication) they’ve been forced to sell off the Boston Globe and about.com (at huge losses), and they’ve killed their International Herald Tribune brand. Their gorgeous and architecturally innovative new headquarters in midtown Manhattan (designed by “starchitect” Renzo Piano) they’ve sold off to raise cash, so they now find themselves tenants in what was supposed to be their iconic home for the next century. What might it look like for us if we found our revenues cut in half over the period of a decade? To protect the center of what we do, we very well might hold a fire sale for the “north coast” properties, rent out our facilities so aggressively that our community would lose free access, and reduce financial aid. The school would likely survive, but only with many bitter compromises. Do I truly lose sleep over such a future? Yes.
This new landscape is a challenging one for teachers who got into the profession hoping to find stability from year to year and shelter from the shearing winds of change. Remaining relevant requires more than just reading the latest book on how students learn or attending the usual conferences. For the first twelve years of my career, I wouldn’t have been a good candidate for this project. But beginning three years ago, I’ve been on a new path. As changes in my personal life led to soul-searching and opportunities for growth, I began to look around me at how my profession and the wider world had changed. Influenced by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha’s book The Start-Up of You, I’ve embraced a permanent beta mindset.
I’ve been gigging. I spent one year as a dorm head, and now I’m in Year Two as an assistant dean. I’ve spent three years representing the faculty on the GSB and the Finance Committee. I’ve served on search committees for nurses, admissions people, the Dean of Students, the Director of Institutional Advancement, and the Director of College Guidance (the latter as clerk). I’ve given a major presentation to the George School Board and led a new initiative to bring blogging to our students. I’ve demonstrated leadership by putting myself in front of my colleagues to help show the way forward on issues regarding educational technology. While I know that I have many, many colleagues who are better qualified to describe the ineffable nature of what is unique and special about the George School of the past, I hope to have a stake in describing what will be essential to the George School of the future.
Although I am excited by the opportunity to participate in the Adaptability Project, I must admit that I have my doubts about its chances for success. McGrath is clear that busting silos requires changing the way in which a business goes about distributing its budget, but that is not within the faculty’s purview for decision-making. Just as McGrath describes in her book, our resources are “held hostage” within our divisions and departments, but firms that have adapted to the new world of transient advantage adjust their budgets in real time, and the necessary resources to seize strategic opportunities they manage centrally. While the team that we are assembling for this two-year project is being encouraged to dream big in terms of strategic planning, there is no guarantee that we will be able to roust ourselves to take action on that plan. Furthermore, agility is a key characteristic of firms that have mastered the world of transient advantage. Our decision-making process is an integral element of our identity, yet its plodding pace may prohibit us from exploiting opportunities identified by the Adaptability Project team quickly enough. If tapped by the selection committee to participate in the project, I will work with spirit and optimism, but I must also hope that another team, an administrative team perhaps, will be doing parallel work to put in place the necessary conditions for our project to take root.