Incremental Change Didn’t Save Blockbuster. It Won’t Save Education, Either

Incremental Change Didn’t Save Blockbuster. It Won’t Save Education, Either

Receive stories like these directly to your email inbox. Subscribe to Newsletter.

Arguably, the biggest flaw in the present education system is its inability to predict the future for our students and implement necessary changes to prepare them for that future. Trapped in an unyielding and unchanging system, leaders in schools and districts continue to make small, incremental changes to a flawed system, hoping for different outcomes.

Similarly, nearly all public-school systems resemble Blockbuster in the late 1990s – reluctant to assess the impact of technological advancements and reconsider their design principles. Ultimately, if an organization doesn’t proactively move towards a likely future, any path forward will suffice, even if it’s the path they are currently on.

Tied down by an inflexible and resistant system, school and district leaders persist in making minor adjustments to a faulty system, expecting different results.

The demands of the workplace in 2035 are distinct.

Numerous studies and analyses already indicate a fundamental shift in the workplace and the skills that will be necessary by 2035. Employers are already indicating the need for workers with "durable skills" like critical thinking, communication, teamwork, and adaptability.

We may not know exactly how artificial intelligence will impact the workplace by 2035, but we can draw conclusions based on its impact over the past decade. Additionally, we are currently witnessing the growth of the gig economy, which will bring both positive and negative changes to the workforce.

Indeed, there appears to be a symbiotic relationship developing between artificial intelligence and the gig economy. As AI becomes more widespread, displacing workers from "left-brain" jobs, companies have more labor options and can outsource low-skilled tasks to the gig economy. The emergence of programs like Amazon’s Flex and DSP delivery is evidence of this shift in the labor market, and it is likely to continue growing.

For schools with a significant number of struggling students, systemic reform is the only viable option. Without it, school leaders will struggle to bridge the opportunity gap or innovate in ways that adequately prepare students for the future.

Even if changes in the workplace and workforce are gradual and benign, graduates will still require additional and different skills to succeed in the future. While reading and basic math skills will retain their importance, they will no longer be sufficient.

Those graduates who possess the skills and competencies needed in 2035 will be better positioned to compete for high-skill jobs. As always, if schools fail to equip students with these skills, families with more resources will have a competitive advantage.

My greatest concern is that underprivileged and disadvantaged students will not gain proficiency in reading or receive instruction in the necessary skills for 2035. If social mobility continues to decline, these two achievement gaps – the traditional gap in reading and math, and the gap in 2035 competencies – will remain pervasive for the next 50 years.

The time for bold reform and drastic measures has passed – likely around the turn of the century. Now, schools with a large population of struggling students have no option but to undergo comprehensive, systemic reform. Without it, school leaders will struggle to close the opportunity gap or foster innovation that adequately prepares students for the future.

If a system is designed to produce specific results, then a fundamentally different system is required to achieve different outcomes. However, it is impossible to develop a new system through incremental changes to the old failing system.

Graduates with the skills and competencies needed for 2035 will have the best chances of securing high-skill jobs. My greatest fear is that economically disadvantaged students and others in similar circumstances will fail to gain proficiency in reading or acquire the necessary skills for 2035.

No amount of tweaking an analog watch’s gears and mechanisms can transform it into a digital device. Similarly, no amount of changes to Blockbuster’s rental system, built around physical stores, could have turned it into an online system. Likewise, educators cannot continue to make small adjustments to the current operational methods and expect to become a different system.

Millions of dollars are spent on after-school tutoring, improved professional development, individual laptop initiatives, salary schedule tweaks, smaller class sizes, teacher preparation programs, and increased interventionist support. However, none of these are systemic changes and none will make a significant difference.

In order to truly create systemic change, one must redefine the principles of design and modes of operation to achieve different outcomes. Consider, for instance, if schools were intentionally created to foster students’ ability to learn and think critically.

No, the only way to revolutionize education is through a comprehensive transformation.

For genuine systemic change to occur, it is necessary to modify the fundamental principles of design and methods of operation to yield diverse results. Imagine if schools were deliberately designed to cultivate students’ capacity to learn and think critically. What if these schools established clear competencies for students to achieve by the year 2035, such as problem-solving, teamwork, critical thinking, information literacy, and communication skills, and were held accountable for attaining these outcomes?

Envision a scenario where schools not only focus on teaching reading, math, and science but also require various "experiences" for students to complete as they progress from the lower grades to the middle and higher grades. What if these experiences could be obtained outside of school and by working with experts who are not necessarily teachers? What if schools provided teachers with a professional wage in their first year and eliminated non-instructional tasks from their workload? Imagine a school where teachers no longer had to create lesson plans, make copies, grade papers, manage discipline, or engage in work after 4:00 p.m.

None of these specific examples can be achieved through isolated efforts, but all of them can be accomplished simultaneously if a school or district undergoes a comprehensive systemic change. The Third Future Schools network in Texas has demonstrated that this is possible and is rapidly expanding as a "proof of concept" for other schools and districts to follow.

Districts require a dual-track approach.

While it may be feasible to implement change within a single school or small network system, transforming an entire district is exceedingly difficult. There are numerous interconnected and financially linked components, along with vested interests and political obstacles. Nonetheless, there is an approach that harnesses the agility of innovative schools while adhering to the traditional incremental approach favored by public education.

For any existing district or network of schools with more than a few schools, the most effective strategy for implementing systemic change is a combination of the "split-screen" approach, as proposed by Ted Kolderie, and the "proof of concept" strategy.

Using the split-screen strategy, a district would not attempt to implement systemic changes throughout the entire district. Instead, it would introduce transformative changes in one or two schools while continuing to make gradual improvements in the rest of the district. Once these schools operating under the new system principles achieve the desired outcomes and succeed, they can serve as proof points, enabling the district to implement systemic change in more schools over time.

Wholesale, systemic change is currently happening in only a small percentage of schools nationwide, and time is running out. However, there is still hope that a small number of leaders can transform the public education system before the opportunity gap becomes irrevocable. We have the opportunity to shape the course of public education and better prepare students for success if:

– District and school leaders clearly outline the competencies expected by the year 2035 and define the desired outcomes for schools.

– District and school leaders adopt the split-screen and proof of concept strategy to initiate comprehensive, systemic transformation.

– State legislators increase support for schools undertaking wholesale systemic change, similar to the SB 1882 partnership legislation passed in Texas in 2017.

– State legislators grant parents greater freedom to choose schools that prioritize the acquisition of year 2035 competencies.

The education profession has been discussing system change for a considerable amount of time. Time’s up – we must take action now. In the words of the movie Interstellar: we may not view it as impossible, but nevertheless, it is necessary.

Mike Miles is the founder and CEO of Third Future Schools and a former superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District.

The Catalyst is a nonpartisan quarterly journal from The Bush Institute that operates under the belief that ideas have significance. They shape public policies, inspire action, and lead to tangible results. Each issue presents compelling essays addressing a central question or theme. Alongside Bush Institute directors and fellows, The Catalyst brings together various experts, writers, and emerging voices to tackle each topic.

Receive stories like these directly to your inbox by signing up for Newsletter.


  • calvinmerritt

    Calvin Merritt is an educational bloger who specializes in writing about educational topics. He has been writing for over a decade and has written for a variety of different platforms. His work has been featured on various websites and he has also been published in various magazines.