Reconsidering 'Good to Great'



For two decades I've heard too often educators describe certain frameworks, reforms, initiatives, etc.,  to help K12 and institutions of higher education transition from “good to great.” They were alluding to the title of Jim Collin’s 2001 management book about how eleven companies went from, well, good to great. It doesn’t matter where I've been—from K12 district offices to principal offices to higher education dean, vice president, and president offices—more often than not, Good to Great is on the bookshelf. It’s not difficult to spot. The cover is bright red with the title in bold letters. The book was required reading in many graduate programs, including mine. I’d like to challenge educators to think critically about this book because I’ve grown tired of some of the corporate sector management gurus, principles, and lingo in education. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate solid research methodology from any sector that demonstrates how organizations get results through a certain set of principles, frameworks, etc., and explore how all of this could apply to education. However, educators often don't apply a deep critical lens to management fads to ask three key questions: What was the research methodology? What was the context? If applied to education, how do we study it to learn if it gets results for our context?

My first problem with Good to Great when it was released in 2001 was the title itself. I’m not a fan of the word "great'" to describe improvements models. The word is vague and can have different meanings. Most of all, 'great' denotes that something can’t improve. If anything, education systems are (and should be) about ongoing improvements. If schools and IHEs consider themselves great already, it tends to lead to a road of complacency and discourage a culture of continuous improvement.



My second problem with Good to Great is that it uses stock-market return as a measure of greatness. What does robust profit-making on the S&P 500 have to do with education? Education is supposed to be measured on student outcomes. Sure, there’s money involved in education but it’s not the end game. I’m not suggesting that principles that lead to higher profits can’t be explored for increasing student outcomes, but then here lies my third issue with the book.

My third problem with the book is that many of the companies that were lauded as “great” went bankrupt. When was the last time you shopped at Circuit City? Have you used Fannie Mae lately? Or how about Wells Fargo, one of the original eleven companies described in Jim Collin’s book. Is defrauding customers through fake accounts a sign of greatness? In fact, according to a September 2017 analysis by McKinsey & Company:

“We tracked the long-term fortunes of the 50 companies lauded in the seminal business books of the past three decades. What did we find? Take greatness with a grain of salt—even the greatest answer to trends and forces.” [1]

Consider the now defunct for-profit entity, Corinthian Colleges. Using profit as a measure of 'greatness,' Good to Great enthusiasts would have placed Corinthian in the 'great' column. Yet, what practices were they employing to reach high profitability? Lying to students. Some for-profit colleges went to the extent of intentionally targeting veterans with mental health issues and brain injuries to rob them of their GI Bill. Corinthian no longer exists, but significant damage was done because, above all, Corinthian viewed profits as a measure of greatness.

My last problem with Good to Great is the research methodology. Good to Great suffers from what is known as the “Halo Effect.”[1][2]  Basically, management guru books have a tendency to make specific inferences on the basis of a general impression. The research is based on ad hoc generalization, sampling on the dependent variable, and a host of other methodological flaws. In perhaps his most scathing criticism of management guru books such as Good to Great, management scholar Phil Rosenzweig stated:

“None of these studies is likely to win a blue ribbon at your local high school science fair.” [3] [4]

To be fair, Collins has since recognized some of the issues with his 2001 book and has written more about this subject. My point is that in all of the years since the book's release, the term 'good to great' is still used extensively in education. I encourage educators to reconsider this term to describe specific reform efforts. The goal isn't to be "great." The goal is for an institution to create a culture of continuous improvement to study, implement, and refine practices that improve student equity and outcomes. Regardless of the framework that K12 or higher education chooses (or is mandated), find a way to leverage it to foster a continuous improvement mindset focused on where it matters the most--the classroom.

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Educators Beware: "Best Practices"

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