When Sony announced last month that it would stop producing the cassette version of the famed Walkman, few had shed a tear. The music device had long ago been tossed into the proverbial ashbin of history by portable CD players and MP3 players. But in its time, the Walkman did something rather amazing: It helped foster the development of personalized culture and interactive entertainment. And American public education can learn plenty about how to develop a governance structure — and culture of genius — that fosters the kind of dynamism that led to the Walkman and the iPod.
At the time Sony introduced the Walkman, the world was still stuck with just a few choices in entertainment and almost no way of personalizing media. You had three networks and a handful of independent stations; cable had yet to be widespread and even then, there were few channels. Music was almost purely a communal affair; with boom-boxes and large-scale stereo systems, you didn’t have much choice but to listen to Disco Duck or More Than A Feeling — even if you preferred London Calling or September. The Walkman made the personalization of music, media and culture possible. You didn’t have to listen to your neighbor’s music and in fact, both of you could co-exist in the same space without offending one another. As I wrote in Reason back in 1999: “You can stand in Grand Central Station during the afternoon rush hour and have one foot in Lilith Fair; or in a studio session with Mingus, Monk, or Miles Davis; or in a shouting match with Rush Limbaugh.”
This, in turn, fostered new generations of electronic devices and digital formats that allow people to reshape parts of the world to their liking — and even forced other technologies to evolve in ways that allowed for more-customized experiences. The former came in the form of the Walkman’s successor devices, including the iPod and the Nintendo Gameboy. The latter can be seen in the evolution of the Internet; thanks to the Walkman (and Tim Berners-Lee’s development of Hypertext Markup Language), the World Wide Web has become the ultimate tool of personalized media and culture. The Walkman and its successors also influenced the development of the cellphone (invented six years earlier by Motorola), transforming it from a simple mobile version of the landline phone to the portable computer and entertainment device it is today. And these changes, in turn, has made culture customizable– from video on demand editions of Community to Grey Album mash-ups of Jay-Z and the Beatles.
These innovative answers to unexpressed desires came largely because of the dynamic environments in which technology and media are fostered. Sony was a master of experimentation; this was the company that helped pioneer the compact disc and the third generation of videogames with the PlayStation. In fact, the Walkman emerged out of a period of reorganization in which Sony’s tape recorder division — fearing consolidation into one of its rival divisions — took an existing product (the Pressman) and added microphones; instead of complicated development and market testing, Sony put the Walkman out into the marketplace, showing teens using it while rollerskating and biking.
This same dynamism has played itself out decades later with the development of the iPod, and even the development of Google, Facebook and Twitter. No board or commission mandated their creation (and more than likely, such authorities would have stifled their development); instead, they were created by people who came up with responses to needs and desires unmet in the marketplace and provided compelling answers to questions asked and unconsidered.
While these changes in technology and media have been taking place, American public education remains stuck in the age of the phonograph. Forget for a moment that our classrooms largely look the same as they did at the turn of the last century. The structure of how our education system is governed would be familiar to a Detroit parent of the early 20th century: State boards of education and superintendents bereft of the capacity to fully hold districts accountable; elected school boards that are easily cudgeled into submission by teachers unions and occasionally, by superintendents; superintendents, in turn, whose positions are inherently unstable (because they lack political bases of their own) and are hamstrung in managing districts by collective bargaining agreements and state laws; principals who have little influence over the key elements of schools that are critical to educating students, yet bear much responsibility for results; and teachers who, despite their complaints of little power, have almost complete autonomy over what happens in classrooms.
Not one element of this structure actually recognizes the true role of families as consumers and lead decision-makers in education. More importantly, it doesn’t even allow for the embrace of new concepts in instruction and school management. While a lack of dynamism is generally acceptable in government because it keeps majority constituencies from reveling in (and subjecting the minority to) their worst excesses, in education, it all but assures that school reform moves in all deliberate speed (or as Thurgood Marshall defined it, slow, if not at all).
This certainly benefits teachers unions and their allies among traditional public education’s status quo; for them, a disruption in the structure of education governance (and of American public education overall) is troubling, not because it doesn’t matter, but, as Paul T. Hill noted a decade ago, because they know that it absolutely does matter. After all, they benefit from the ways things are and, while they may care about the millions of kids failed by American public education, the kids are only a secondary concern to their own goals.
Yet in keeping the status quo in place, we are failing to take advantage of the possible innovations in instruction, data system development and other areas that can help stem the nation’s dropout crisis. The success of high-quality charter schools such as KIPP, along with the work being done in New York City’s public schools with the ARIS data system offer promise. The technological developments outside of education — including tools for online learning — also offer possibilities. But little of this will be of any use in an education governance structure that promotes the slow and the status quo over stemming the nation’s education crisis with innovative solutions.
What is needed is a disruption in the education governance structure. This may mean the end of school districts and state boards of education; it could mean replacing education departments with contracting divisions that simply monitor what schools do on the ground. The Hollywood Model that I offer up is one possibility; there are certainly others. (It would help if education was a fully private system funded by out-of-pocket dollars than out of tax money that parents and others don’t directly control; but a fully private education system isn’t going to happen in this lifetime — and some would argue it wouldn’t help our poorest children.)
But it will take more than just revamping educational governance. One of the biggest problems in education is the lack of a dynamic mindset among its traditionalists. As seen with charter schools, vouchers, and the use of Value-Added data in teacher evaluations, any new idea that disrupts the status quo is greeted with outright hostility. School reformers have had to go outside of the traditional ed school confines to develop innovative approaches to the human capital and instructional practice problems within education, but such an approach is unsustainable. So reformers will have to storm the gates — including teaming up with grassroots activists — and oust the status quo by force. It will also mean bringing in talented, innovative thinkers outside of education.
It also means accepting the end of a few conceits. This includes: That education decision-making should only be in the hands of supposed experts (who, since the advent of the comprehensive high school model, haven’t actually succeeded in improving public education); that only teachers and educators should be in charge of education (and that outsiders should not be anywhere near the classroom); that parents are nuisances who should remain ill-informed about such matters as growth models; and that, perhaps, public education should be the financing of the best educational options instead of district bureaucracies.
We need a Walkman and iPod for education — especially for educational governance. And we need to make education a more-dynamic, data-driven, innovation-oriented sector. Our kids need it. It’s just that simple.