Great Schools Are Good Business Power Lunch with Peter Sheahan


  • Transformative, radical change to any system, including public schools, has to be undertaken incrementally.
  • Practice humility. This is especially important for the business community to consider when jumping into the at times perplexing world of public education.
  • Allow innovators and change agents within systems the space and time to be creative. Give these people autonomy and don’t overload them with responsibilities.

How can you cause radical transformation in a system as stagnant as many urban school districts? Though it may sound paradoxical, the best strategy may be to move slowly and carefully.

That was the message imparted by Peter Sheahan, a business change consultant who spoke Tuesday to an audience packed with business leaders, elected officials, and educators at Colorado Succeeds’ Great Schools Are Good Business luncheon.

The crowd also heard from change agents inside two Colorado school districts – St. Vrain Valley and Falcon — who have successfully transformed their districts’ operations and educational approaches.

Sheahan used examples from the corporate world to illustrate how meaningful change occurs. He suggested that the best way to spur transformational change is to incubate and support radical innovation outside of the system first, and then find ways to scale the changes that show the greatest promise. Sheahan insisted that slow, deliberate change is the only approach that has staying power.

“Sometimes we get enamored with radical innovations, unbelievably different approaches, and try to dump them in systems not designed to handle them, and then we try to understand why they are rejected so wholeheartedly,” Sheahan said.

Most systems, Sheahan said, aren’t engines of innovation. Rather, they are designed “to replicate at scale and in perpetuity consistent outcomes. And in fact they tend to reject variability.”

The solution to this inherent resistance is, essentially, to implement many small changes over an extended period. “Eventually, when you look back, it looks like a radical revolution,” he said.

Sheahan also urged change agents to practice humility; not to assume that they have all the answers and can force them on others. He said this was especially important for the business community to consider when jumping into the at times perplexing world of public education.

“Well intentioned partners can get involved in a sector and assume whatever worked in their sector will work here. I would provoke you all, including Colorado Succeeds, that there is an important distinction, that bringing business and education together is not the same as saying education is just like business…Humility in the process goes a long way when it comes to influencing the decision world.”

Equally important, Sheahan said, is allowing innovators and change agents within systems the space and time to be creative. Give these people autonomy and don’t overload them with responsibilities, he said.

At Apple, Steve Jobs often said he was as proud of the “stuff we didn’t do as the stuff we did.” He often said his strategy was to utter 1,000 “no’s” for every “yes,” Sheahan said.

It’s not difficult to see how this could transfer to public education, where school leaders are inundated with demands from central office, asked to pile those new tasks on top of an overabundance of other responsibilities, and asked to produce great results for kids simultaneously.

In Falcon District 49 near Colorado Springs, district leaders decided five years ago that one way to promote major change was to overhaul the district’s management and funding structures. Rather than having a superintendent atop the organization chart, three executives share leadership: a chief education officer, chief business officer, and chief operations officer.

The education chief is a professional educator who works directly with educators, removing several layers of bureaucracy that usually muffle communication between district leaders and principals and teachers.

Brett Ridgway, Falcon’s chief business officer, said this organizational structure has made the central office subservient to educators, rather than the reverse, which is typically the case. “We are not telling schools what to do; they are telling us what they need. We are now their consultants, their resources,” Ridgway said.

Despite being one of the lowest-funded districts in Colorado, Falcon has thrived by switching to a system of student-based budgeting, under which per-pupil dollars follow students to their school of choice and school leaders control how those dollars are spent.

In St. Vrain Valley, the district created a director of innovation position and decided to focus on STEM (science, engineering, technology, and math) education and career pathways. The STEM focus begins at preschool. The district helps students determine career pathways through its Career Development Centers. And St. Vrain Valley helps high school students get post-secondary degrees through its P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) program.

Patty Quiñones, the district’s innovation director, said St. Vrain’s approach serves its students and local businesses well. “A student before they graduate will have the opportunity to have an (associate’s) degree within four to six years completely free. As we look down that road looking we are really closing the gap to provide a pipeline for the next workforce,” she said.

A student named Lauren who thrived in the system told Quiñones that the district took “an ordinary kid and gave her extraordinary experiences to make her exceptional.”

photo of
Ashley Andersen