What can Starbucks teach us about ending "The Achievement Plateau?"
I'll take a grande solution, please. (awful pun)
I love a good "education-is-like-a-chain-restaurant" comparison, so here's one of many.
Today (12.11.2020 @ 6.21AM EST), Starbucks is trading at $105.39/share. In November 2010, their stock price dipped to an insanely low $3/share, and it's a shame my buddy Dave didn't tell me to buy it then -- would've been another of his generational calls. More importantly, its average price plateaued for a few years around that time. So what ended it?
There's a good case study on it from Harvard Business Review. In short, Howard Schultz, Starbucks' founding CEO, returned in 2008 to lead the organization and whipped it back into shape.
His initial rationale, outlined in a memo he sent in his role as Chairman of the Board, was that something was missing in the feeling he got when entering Starbucks' retail locations. “I sensed,” he remembered, “something intrinsic to Starbucks brand was missing. An aura. A spirit. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it. No one thing was sapping the stores of a certain soul. Rather, the unintended consequences resulting from the absence of several things that had distinguished our brand were, I feared, silently deflating it.
"No one thing" is sapping public education. It's a system, and there are systemic pressures, but let's examine a few parallels from the case study.
He realized they were expanding too fast to support quality. The apt analogy here is around charter schools who expand too quickly and sacrifice quality, but an even better question is this: with over 13,000 districts and more than 130,000 public schools, can we actually support quality in such a large and complex franchise as education?
He spent time working to improve their supply chain. In Starbucks, the supply chain gets product to stores efficiently. In public education, it converts the standards to classroom instruction efficiently.
He expanded from just coffee products to offer new consumer products, notably Starbucks Via, the instant coffee, without cannibalizing their core business. We're now in a situation that demands we offer new products to consumers, primarily in the form of cyber instruction. Can we do that without cannibalizing traditional brick and mortar schools?
He closed all their stores in 2008 and invested in retraining every barista in espresso-making, which is hugely complex and should be left to the pros. And he did it again last year. The most successful countries spend enormous time training their teachers. We should as well.
Starbucks also invested in the Clover, an automated espresso machine that allowed more consistency in coffee flavor and more interaction with customers (because of its lower profile) across thousands of its stores. This is a grapefruit-league analogy: curriculum can offer more consistency in instruction and more interaction with students across thousands of classrooms.
Tangent, consider how complex and poorly-understood coffee flavor is and then convince me that we really understand how learning occurs in humans. I'll wait.
It took time. It wasn't until about 3 years after Schultz took over that the stock price recovered to its pre-crisis levels (stock price = test scores, and certainly not the only consideration for success) and the plateau shifted to sharp incline. And that's an organization with almost limitless sums of cash to invest and a year-round continuous cycle of improvement rather than the September-to-June cycle in public education. How often do we abandon initiatives in public education after a year or two?
Most case studies focus on the genius and vision of one extraordinary leader. The Starbucks transformation is no different. Schultz even booted the CEO that he himself trained to usurp power and right the ship. Can that model work in public education with its DNA of local control?