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Is Starbucks the Right Model for Educational Excellence?

I live in Seattle, so it's probably no surprise that I go to Starbucks quite a bit. Locally, Starbucks is respected to a certain point, but it's not considered premium coffee, and most certainly not the best in town. If you want an espresso that will change your life, you'd do better to hit up one of the local places.

But Starbucks is everywhere - even in rural areas - and their product is consistent. I've ordered a good 500 or so of my favorite drink, a "doppio espresso macchiato with extra dry foam." I've found that this particularly phrase will nearly always result in exactly the drink I want.

Today I was in a Starbucks in a rural area, and ordered my drink. The barista was obviously new, and had not heard of an espresso macchiato. His first two tries turned out like lattes. Each time, he asked his trainer what he was doing wrong, and I walked out with a good macchiato.

In rural areas of western Washington, you won't find many top-tier indy coffeehouses, but you will find roadside espresso stands in every town. These stands tend to be locally owned, and while some are great, others are terrible. If there's a Starbucks, I'll choose it over the local place every time, because it's consistent and predictable, even if it's not the best in the world.

The variation in quality among roadside stands is partly because they're locally managed, so local decisions play a bigger role in what happens on a day to day basis. But a bigger difference is in training: Starbucks trains all of its employees extensively, and conducts ongoing training for its existing staff. Howard Schultz famously closed every Starbucks to conduct 3 hours of additional training for every employee in 2008.

America's schools and classrooms are like the roadside espresso stands, varying widely in practitioner expertise, and varying widely in results. There is no nationwide organization training the practitioners, and no system for ensuring consistent levels of quality.

As a result, we have some dreadful schools, a vast undifferentiated middle - after all, most roadside espresso stands can pour you a decent latte most of the time - and some schools that achieve remarkable results year after year.

If the coffee analogy is at all apropos, education is missing a national vision for what professional practice looks like. If any US body has taken on the role of defining and monitoring professional practice, it is the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. It's encouraging to see so many teachers pursuing the advanced certification that NBPTS offers, and a voluntary, opt in system is probably as close as we're going to get to a nationwide standard of professional practice. NBPTS is not in the training business, only the certification business.

But there is one other possibility. In my last post, I asked what the role of the NEA will be in the coming years. NEA has made concerted moves over a long period of time to cast itself as a professional organization, not just a union. By taking more leadership in teacher training, certification, professional development, and performance issues, and NEA could establish itself as the guardian of professional practice.

Education cannot and should not have a single CEO or board of directors call all of the shots for the profession. Our system of education should not become Starbucks, and most definitely not McDonald's, with its systematic attempts to all but eliminate the importance of the individual practitioner.

But we could stand to learn a few things from an organization that can make a decent cup of coffee anywhere in the world with very high reliability.

Thoughts?

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