Professional Development

Business Book Gains K-12 Following

By Jeff Archer — August 06, 2003 8 min read
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What’s your hedgehog concept? Are you a level-five leader? Have you embraced the Stockdale paradox? Strange as these terms may sound, they’re being used by an ever-widening circle of education leaders. Stranger still, they come from a book about businesses, not schools.

Two years after it hit the stores, Jim Collins’ Good to Great continues to gain traction in the K-12 sector. The study of companies that achieved enduring success has been required reading in some districts and education groups. Mr. Collins increasingly finds himself the star attraction at education events. And some policy experts want to replicate his work in a study of schools.

“The title itself is what we as school systems are trying to struggle with,” said Wendy Robinson, the superintendent of the 32,000- student Fort Wayne, Ind., schools, who bought copies of the book for some 200 of her administrators. “We don’t have the luxury, with No Child Left Behind and the new accountability requirements, just to be good.”

Mr. Collins, who spoke at two national education meetings last month, says he’s “intrigued and puzzled” by the reception. Although he sees his work as relevant to any kind of organization, he never expected so many e-mails, phone calls, and invitations from educators.

A Good to Great Phrase Book

In his book, Jim Collins identifies characteristics he says are common among companies that achieve long-term success. They include:

Hedgehog Concept: Hedgehogs prevail by doing one thing well: rolling up into ball of sharp spines. Likewise, great companies have simple organizing ideas that determine how they think and act.

Level-Five Leader: A key trait of such leaders is that they’re ambitious for their organizations, not for themselves.

Stockdale Paradox: Based on the life of Adm. James Stockdale, who was one of the highest-ranking U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam. During eight years of imprisonment and torture, he never doubted his eventual freedom, but he knew it would take a long time. A similar resolve drives great companies.

First Who, Then What: Achieving greatness begins with the right team of people; adopting programs and business strategies comes later.

Confronting the Brutal Facts: Good companies never become great by sugarcoating the difficulties they face. Rather, they confront them head-on.

SOURCE: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don’t, by Jim Collins. HarperCollins, 2001.

“I don’t see myself as an expert in education,” Mr. Collins said in a recent interview. “Nor do I feel I have the answers for education.”

And yet, many educators say his findings ring true, especially as expectations for public schools increase because of such measures as the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. Among the book’s points: the importance of staying the course, the need to get the right people in the right positions, and the idea that charisma is more of a liability than an asset for leaders of organizations.

“It just made so much sense in terms of what we were trying to do,” said Jim Sweeney, who used the book to organize training for principals as the superintendent of the 52,000-student Sacramento, Calif., public schools.

Catchy Concepts

The book’s full title is Good to Great:Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don’t. In a nutshell, it contrasts pairs of companies that resemble each other in all but one respect: One rose from mediocrity, the other didn’t. They include two drug manufacturers, two bank chains, and two steel companies. Over 15 years, the total value of shares in the “great” companies outpaced the overall gains of the stock market, on average, by nearly seven times.

What Mr. Collins and his researchers found was that the more-successful companies thought and acted in similar ways as they went from good to great. The book distills those habits into a handful of concepts with catchy names, like the “flywheel” and the “doom loop.”

The flywheel is Mr. Collins’ metaphor for the way rising businesses build momentum. Pushing the wheel one turn requires huge effort, but each successive turn goes faster. Others doom themselves by changing direction when they don’t see big results after the first turn.

“The thing that really appeals to me, and to a lot of my colleagues, is that greatness comes from an extensive, accumulative process,” said Donald Saul, the superintendent of the 23,500- student Lake Washington district in Washington state. “There isn’t a silver bullet or a magic program.”

It was the chance to hear Mr. Collins that drew Mr. Saul last month to a meeting of suburban superintendents hosted by the American Association of School Administrators in Colorado. Mr. Collins also recently addressed a meeting of the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based policy group, and he’s on the agenda for the AASA’s national conference next March.

Mr. Sweeney, who stepped down in June as Sacramento’s superintendent, was intrigued enough when he read Good to Great two years ago that he called the author on the phone.

Mr. Collins, who once taught at Stanford University’s business school, now runs a management laboratory from an old brick schoolhouse in Boulder, Colo. After the call from California, a colleague of the author traveled to Mr. Sweeney’s district, which held a daylong workshop on the book for school leaders.

One result, says the former schools chief, is that the district was more willing to leave principalships vacant until it found the right candidates. That tactic reflected the book’s view that greatness requires having “the right people on the bus.”

Said Mr. Sweeney: “If you were in my district, you’d hear people talking all the time about getting the right people on the bus, and the wrong people off.”

The book also has left its imprint on national groups. Paul D. Houston, the AASA’s executive director, said the bus analogy shaped his Arlington Va.-based organization’s strategy as it sought to weather the economic downturn that has hurt many membership-based groups.

“It helped in guiding our discussions as we looked at downsizing,” Mr. Houston said recently. “We thought: What seats do we need to have, what skills do we need, and do we have the right people to carry things out?”

Raymond “Buzz” Bartlett, the president of the Council for Basic Education, said the book prompted some soul-searching at his group, as well. Its notion of a “hedgehog concept"—in essence, a single organizing idea—helped lead the council to discover that its greatest strength had shifted from advocacy for higher academic standards to showing how educators can meet high standards by focusing on the liberal arts.

“The most difficult, and the most important thing to do, is to figure out what you’re doing that is unique,” said Mr. Bartlett, who had staff members read Good to Great when he arrived at the Washington-based council early in 2002, after serving as corporate affairs director at Lockheed Martin.

Despite its growing fan club in education, the book also leaves some school officials scratching their heads.

Whenever he speaks before educators, Mr. Collins invariably gets challenged by some who argue his lessons just won’t work in the field. Hiring and firing, they say, is easier in corporate America, and company heads don’t answer to the whims of school boards.

Matched Pairs

“The public sector is much more political,” said Michael D. Usdan, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership.

True, says Mr. Collins. But his exchanges with education leaders still leave him optimistic. At the suburban superintendents’ meeting held by the AASA, he challenged attendees to think of real examples of schools or districts that had succeeded where others had not.

What heartened him, he said, was that half the examples were in what the superintendents considered to be distressed communities. “And if some people have done it, a lot more people can do it,” the author said.

The key, he argues, is learning from what works. Mr. Collins often pitches the idea of doing a Good to Great study of public education. He himself plans to include a matched pair of school districts in his next ambitious project, which will examine greatness in major elements of society, including comparisons of two countries, two police departments, and two orchestras.

But, he says, someone should do a similar analysis on multiple pairs of schools and districts.

That might happen. Ted Sanders, the president of the Education Commission of the States, says he’s been talking with other education groups about the possibility of doing a major study of school systems using Mr. Collins’ matched-pair method.

“No Child Left Behind has ratcheted up our sense of importance about good research,” he said. “We’re either going to melt down, or we’re going to increase our resolve to find answers.”

Meanwhile, a group called the Center for the Future of Arizona recently picked the author’s brain to plan a project examining schools in the state where Latino students perform particularly well. The Morrison Institute for Public Policy, a think tank at Arizona State University, is a partner in the effort, and has already begun to identify a list of such schools.

Mary Jo Waits, an official with the institute, notes that Mr. Collins’ methods differ from typical education research. Rather than gauge the effects of a specific approach, it looks for similar traits among successful organizations.

Ms. Waits recalled her conversation with Mr. Collins: “He said, ‘Start with a clean slate. Don’t start with any assumptions.’”

Coverage of leadership issues in education—including governance, management, and labor relations—is supported by the Broad Foundation.


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