Friday, May 13, 2005

Envisioning the Whole Foods Market of Montessori: A Chain of K-12 Montessori/IB Schools

Link to an article on the recent Whole Foods store opening in Austin:

The store is a combination theatre and playground; grocery shopping as entertainment. I know people in Austin who were more excited about going to the event than they would be if a celebrated new rock concert or smash broadway hit had been coming to town. And I think: Why are we allowed to do this for grocery stores, but not education?!!! We should have celebrated Montessori school openings like this. The reason that we don't is not because people care more about food than they do about education. The reason that we don't is because we don't have a market in education.

As brilliant a businessman as John Mackey is, his task, especially in the early days, would have been far more difficult if food was given away free by the government. His earliest stores, in those days when it would have been toughest to meet payroll and pay rent, would have been competing with free government (i.e. "public") grocery stores.

Worse yet, those free government grocery stores would be putting out lots of propaganda to the effect that if you bought groceries from Whole Foods, your children would get sick and might not be able to digest the healthier, better government food (which was actually quite dreadful). You would be told that you were taking a terrible risk by feeding your child Whole Foods and they just might not recover (Montessori parents have often been told such things by the "education experts" at public schools, all with a sense of ominous professionalism).

And, not knowing what to believe, sometimes you would hear stories of children who had eaten Whole Foods and then, when their parents couldn't afford it anymore and went back to buying public groceries, the child got sick. Look! The professionals were right! Children that eat Whole Foods get sick when they come back to eating regular food, real food. (Sometimes Montessori kids hate conventional education when they return. And this fact is taken as an indictment of the Montessori school.)

The Ph.D. nutritionists would claim that there was no proof that Whole Foods were any better than a healthy public grocery diet and that, because Whole Foods was not supervised by Ph.D. nutritionists, its food probably was dangerous and unhealthy (and look, children were getting sick from good public groceries after their metabolism had been messed up by health foods! Clear empirical proof of how dangerous this health food was!). The entire professional academic research establishment would be devoted to improving the quality of public groceries by means of research studies. Although it tasted like dog food, and despite the fact that the politicized, bureaucratic manufacturing process resulted in such disastrous quality control that really quite horrible impurities were regularly mixed in, the dog food was the officially-recognized standard of health. (The academic establishment ignores Montessori and claims that "licensed teachers," those taught by school of education professors, are better).

Even so, here and there people like John would open up tiny little health food stores where a few people, who happened to care passionately about good food, would shop. Those people would be loyal supporters who believed that health food was better. But when one had to pay taxes to support public grocery stores, it was even harder to be able to afford health food. And, in every financial crunch, one was tempted, and some did, go back to eating public groceries. This made it very hard for Whole Foods to create a reliable revenue stream with which to grow. Bankers and venture capitalists looking at giving Whole Foods a loan to expand would look at how the fluctuations in the economy resulted in fluctuations in sales, and look at how tiny the margins were to begin with, and they would decline to finance Whole Foods. (Small private schools are very vulnerable to fluctuations in enrollment due to economic downturns. Parents do send their children back to public schools when they lose their jobs or take pay-cuts.)

Worse yet, Whole Foods would be trying to work in a frightening regulatory environment in which, every once in a while, a government in one state or another would pass laws that would destroy even the possibility of such an enterprise. In Pennsylvania they might pass a law requiring even health food stores to hire only Ph.D. nutritionists, in Maryland they might pass a law requiring 50,000 square foot minimum size grocery stores because only big grocery stores were believed to be capable of selling healthy food. The tiny health food operators in those states would simply be driven out of business by such legislation.

And, in such a circumstance, over time, many of the people operating and working at health food stores would not be especially capable people. Initially, when the idealism of health food began, many capable and idealistic people entered the business. But as wave after wave of obstacles continued to appear, gradually such endeavors did not strike capable people as a worthwhile vocation in which to invest their talents and their ideals. This might never have come about explicitly and consciously. Instead, the patina of idealism that had orginally surrounded the ideal of health food would gradually come to be associated with a sort of smelly, dirty, unpredictable environment that frankly was not very inspiring. And cynics would point to such pathetic little stores and say: "Look, we were right. This is what happens when you don't listen to the Ph.D. nutritionists."

Now re-read the article about the Whole Foods store opening in Austin, and imagine how, with educational freedom, it could have been a Montessori school opening.

A presentation that I expect to give (together with some partners) at a Montessori conference next November:

"The prospect of tax credits and education vouchers in the U.S. will create a circumstance in which dramatic growth in Montessori education becomes possible for the first time in history. Just as the health food industry moved from a few, small hippy-run stores in the 1970s to the fastest-growing sector in the grocery industry today, so too will Montessori education move from small, often struggling, schools that serve a small percentage of the population to large, very high quality, professional organizations that serve an increasingly large percentage of the population. We envision the process of creating a successful, scalable chain of Montessori K-12 schools with their own curriculum development, teacher training, quality control, marketing, design, and architecture that will become as visible a public institution in education as Whole Foods Market has become in the grocery industry."

(It should be obvious, by the way, that all the dynamics sketched above would also apply to providing cheap, low-cost innovative education a la Target or Costco, merely with a different story attached.)


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