Don't Be Better, Be Different

James Prietto is acting principal of East Palo Alto Charter School, part of the Aspire Public Schools network of charters. He came and visited our Leading US Schools class this past Thursday, along with the principals and heads of schools from three other public and private schools, including fan favorite Jeff Gilbert, principal of Hillsdale High. It was a wide ranging panel discussion on the general topic of, predictably, leading U.S. schools.

All the guests gave great advice and insight, and my Google Doc grew every few minutes as I typed rapidly in an attempt to not miss any nuggets of wisdom. This week, going to class has actually been a respite from the over 10,000 words I have to write before Tuesday. It was also the final day of each of my classes, and I was already feeling nostalgic. I wanted to squeeze every bit of value out of the experiences.

James Prietto, quoting Tyra Banks, provided the value I was looking for. It was in response to my question about how each school leader went about "selling" their schools to parents. Is there pressure, I wondered, to either implicitly or explicitly frame competing schools as bad? Even the public school leaders on the panel were in "choice districts" where parents could petition to send their kid to another school.

This is part of my complaint against school choice and the voucher movement. There are many voices, including the incumbent United States Secretary of Education, calling for "free market" approach to education where parent choice will regulate the market because parents will send their kids to "better" schools, and as a consequence the "bad" schools will succumb to market pressure and either improve or close. I believe both the experts and my own common sense, which say that this model does not work

Prietto summed up an alternative vision pretty effectively.

"As the wise Tyra Banks once said, 'Don't be better, be different,'" he told us. "'Being better' ends up with people throwing stones at each other."

Simple, yet profound.

After some further research, I learned that Tyra Banks taught a class with Gary Vaynerchuk (someone that I've long found inspiring) at Stanford Business School, and one of the core lessons was "don't be better, be different." She used Ben & Jerry's as an example; they could have decided they were going to make the best vanilla ice cream of all time, and then worked hard to earn a sliver of the market. They opted for a different model, though, and decided to create a new product entirely and their popularity skyrocketed.

By the way, the same could be said for Salt and Straw ice cream, which is slowly taking over the world (certainly by being different, but also, according to Joe Biden and me, by being the best).

This idea is exactly how I envision the ideal relationship between traditional public schools and charter schools: neither is better, they're just different. This fits nicely with a philosophy that I believe in strongly (courtesy of President John Kennedy): a rising tide lifts all boats. 

For me, the critical question should be: which setting and academic model is a better fit for each particular student? It should be less of a question of parents trying to send their kids to the "best" schools, and more a question of key adults and the student collaboratively figuring out what's best for each student. Schools should be incentivized to collaborate and find ways to better serve students, not incentivized to throw stones at other schools and manipulate parents into thinking their school is the "best" school for all kids.