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.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

A proposed FLOW obligation:

Often when the flaws of existing do-gooders have been pointed out, the perception is that those who are criticizing the efforts of do-gooders are implicitly claiming that all is well and that no effort at improvements are needed.

Insofar as do-gooders rightly believe that not all is well, they feel that the critics of existing efforts to do good are not well-intentioned.

Ideally, therefore, we would cultivate the obligation to promote positive, constructive ways to solve problems every time that we criticize existing efforts to solve problems. This commitment would make it clear that we recognize that existing institutions and behaviors are far from perfect, and that we do believe the world can be made better.

If we do not do this, well-intentioned people will be inclined to continue to support misguided attempts at improving human well-being.

Some people have suggested, for instance, that the "socially responsible" criteria of the William James Institute may be flawed; one particular point is their hostility to hostile takeovers, because such a criteria for "socially responsible" is likely to protect incompetent management.

Ok - insofar as the William James' criteria may be flawed, are there a set of sensible criteria for differentiating good or "socially responsible" business practices from bad? What would those criteria be?

Monday, May 09, 2005

A Fascinating FLOW Juxtaposition

Two items that nicely reflect the two sides that we are attempting to reconcile:

On the one hand, The William James Foundation, "The William James Foundation, a non-profit organization, seeks out, sponsors, and provides access to start-up capital for new mainstream business enterprises committed to the highest principles of corporate social responsibility." They then list their criteria:

On the other hand, an article reporting on Taiwanese workers rioting (yes, rioting) on behalf of the right to work longer hours. This was a major event last summer involving 1000 workers and requiring 500 police to squelch the event. It seems not to have gotten much press coverage in the U.S. Apparently Nike reduced hours based on the demands of the "socially responsible" movement in the U.S., and the workers themselves were outraged. One suspects that if 1000 workers and 500 police had had a confrontation against long hours at a Nike plant that the U.S. press would have been all over the disruption:

Why wasn't this a cover story for Time Magazine?

Somehow we want to acknowledge and support the positive aspects of the "socially responsible" business movement while simultaneously being very wide-eyed about the harms that this movement has caused in its current incarnations. Being a realistic visionary means that one does not substitute romantic do-gooder notions for attention to the actual outcomes of policies.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Great article on the PayPal story:

"The real challenge of running a business . . . is that you're trying to manage a stream of revenues and a stream of costs, where both are uncertain, you want to make revenues exceed costs, bad decisions can kill you, and you've got to decide quickly. Business schools don't teach much about how to do that."