career, dreams, education, work

Step 234: Public Education Needs Us to Set Sail

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” ~ John A. Shedd

This week I read Paul Tough’s op-ed in the New York Times about innovation in public education. As I begin the journey to transition my career in corporate product development to innovation in public education, I’ve been doing a lot of research on new ideas in the education field. Tough, who wrote the excellent biography Whatever It Takes about Jeffrey Canada and the Harlem Childrens Zone, raises the flag on Congress continually commissioning fact-finding studies rather than putting new ideas into action in schools. This is equivalent to companies testing new product ideas in powerpoint rather than in market.

It’s safe to test in powerpoint, to commission research studies. The trouble is those acts don’t move us forward on our journey. Testing new ideas in the public eye takes guts and conviction. Innovation in any field is not for the faint of heart or the perfectionists. Innovation is for the ones who are willing to let go of today’s safety for the possibility that a brighter, happier tomorrow lies just beyond the shore. It is for the person who is willing to give up the perfectly acceptable for the hopeful promise of the truly extraordinary. Innovation, particularly in an area as critical to our future as public education, is for people who demand the ship pull up its anchor and head straight on toward the horizon. And if that ship refuses to move the innovator will pitch herself overboard and go it alone with the tides. It takes a certain amount of fearlessness mixed with equal amounts of curiosity and humility.

Paul Tough, Geoffrey Canada, and a myriad of others who care deeply about public education today are those innovators who would rather risk it all because the truly risky bet is to just do what we’ve always done; and what we’ve always done in public education is no longer working. We’re seeing the frightening effects in free-falling test scores, soaring drop-out rates, and ever-increasing desperation in the very poorest school districts. Public education needs you, me, and as many others as we can gather. Our government bands together to save the big banks, but not public education. Most government officials don’t understand that simply throwing money at the public education problems doesn’t make them go away. It takes just as much heart as it does money to have an impact in the lives of our children.

Some people ask me why I’d hop off the corporate product development track to pursue a career in public education. I have a plum position with a well-known company working on new technology development, a role that many MBAs would take in a heartbeat. I make good money. Most of the time the hours are perfectly manageable. By all accounts, I have found a safe harbor in the economic storm. I am beyond grateful for the opportunity. I could stay there and do well and move up the ladder. That life would be fine, but for the fact that it is not the least bit reflective of my spirit.

Here’s the rub: I don’t bring my heart to work. I show up to collect a paycheck. Nothing I do is building a better world, directly or indirectly. It’s just making more money for people who already have plenty of money, more money than they could ever possibly need. And I don’t want to wake up at the end of my career and look back at a broken public education system only to say, “I really should have spent my career trying to innovate in schools. That would have really made a difference.” I could sit back and years from now look around at a big pile of money in a bank account, and it would feel completely worthless. I would have wasted my time, and that’s just too tragic for me to bear.

So I’ve started to make my way out to sea, a tiny little row-boat paddling as fast as I can toward the sun. Call me an idealist; I’d welcome that. I’d rather live by my own ideals than by someone else’s. The mother ship is fading into the background and I’m looking for a way to do the work I was built for. Sometimes you’ve just got to set sail, no matter how rough the waters may seem.