Saturday, August 10, 2019

Reed Hastings: Stars In Every Position

We’re like a pro sports team, not a kid’s recreational team. Netflix leaders hire, develop and cut smartly, so we have stars in every position.

That's Reed Hastings in a 2009 interview about his then-juggernaut business, Netflix. I came across it recently and, because Hastings has approached education and charter schools with the same business attitude, hoping to turn charter schools into a Netflix-style success story, it seems worth doing a deep read.
This guy.
Hastings has had his hand in many charter pies, from backing outfits like Rocketship and KIPP, as well as serving on the board of California Charter Academy, a chain that collapsed mid-year, leaving 6,000 students high and dry to helping shape charter law in California. Hastings has also had a hand in the launch NewSchools Venture Fund, an investment group that backs ed tech and other edupreneurs. So we're not talking fringe player here.

So what do we discover in this quote?

First, the "pro sports team, not a kid's recreation team" aspect. A pro sports teams picks and chooses its players. A public school does not. Nor can a public school "cut" students who don't measure up.

"Stars in every position" is the same focus. In Hasting's mind, that may apply only to the staff and administration of a school, but people who actually work in education know that part of what creates the atmosphere and culture of a school is, in fact, the students. Would a school that has nothing but star pupils be a great school? Probably. The job in public education is to educate everyone, but what we see repeatedly with the corporate charter movement is schools that "fire" students and their families.

This is educational gentrification. Gentrification says, "This neighborhood is problematic. But we'll come in and replace the buildings with better buildings, the stores with better stores, the apartments with better apartments, and the residents with better residents." Gentrification is about swapping out everything except the latitude and longitude of the neighborhood. In the end, you haven't "improved" anything-- you've replaced everything.

You don't improve a school by replacing everything except the building (and maybe that as well)-- you've just replaced it, and that's no achievement.

I also wonder how far down the star system runs. Is everybody toiling away at minimum wage in the Netflix mail room a star? Or is Netflix just another tech firm like Amazon, built on the labor of anonymous overworked underpaid people who are beneath the notice of the big boys. And how could anyone possibly apply that approach to a school?

But there's something else to watch here, because there's a good argument to be made that Hastings is mostly falling victim to a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. That's the one that says, "I did A, and the B happened, so A must have caused B." I wore my ugly hat to a baseball game and my team didn't suck, therefor my hat made the team unsuck themselves.

Hasting's theories about why Netflix has been successful are going to be put to the test. As you may have heard, the streaming video world that Netflix has previously dominated is about to become much more crowded, with Disney and Warner Brothers pulling content from Hasting's business, and customers already jumping ship. Maybe Hasting's all star team will come up with a clever way to turn this around. Maybe free market competition is about to spur new heights of excellence. Or maybe Netflix is about to become the next Myspace-- first to the party, but not ultimately the dominant player.

In other words, maybe Hastings is not so much a business genius as he is a relatively smart guy was lucky enough to get in front of a wave just as it was starting to peak. Maybe his brilliant leadership and his selection of what he thinks are a bunch of all stars is not the secret of his success at all. Maybe the only lesson he has to teach is "Be lucky," which is not news to anybody (and is already the hiring process for many schools). Or maybe the lesson is that sometimes the free market eats its young and businesses go stumble and fall every day, leaving investors and employees adrift, which may be great for the world of visionary CEOs-- but it's a lousy way to run a public school system, a system which, after all, is not meant to serve just the stars, but everybody.

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