Climbing the Summit: How is Ed Reform Like Everest?

I've really been enjoying the Learning module of Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Learning. Last week our class studied a case that was very different from our others in terms of its setting, challenges and lessons. The case told the story of the 1996 Mount Everest climbing disaster. We were asked as usual to diagnose what happened and what could have gone differently. We were also asked to think about what lessons we might take away for education leadership.

There were a number of fascinating comments from my classmates. One drew a parallel between the work of the death of a guide and the burnout of many principals. The need for leaders to take care of themselves in order to make the work sustainable was a clear lesson for him. Another classmate touched upon the climbing teams' "all or nothing" approach to climbing the summit, with no intermediate benchmarks or opportunities for celebration.

What struck me most about the case was the enormousness of the undertaking and the lack of respect or humility from many of the climbers, including the guides. At several points in the case, experience was outright dismissed. As long as climbers were reasonably fit and stuck to a few smart rules, nothing could go wrong. Unfortunately, eight deaths stand as a tragic counterpoint to that thinking.

In education reform, our work is no less daunting than scaling Mount Everest. When we attempt to change at the disparity in educational opportunities in this country, we are looking at a problem created by decades of structural and cultural ills. This isn't to say the challenge is not worth our effort. Like Everest, a certain level of foolhardiness is essential to avoid hopelessness.

That said, I worry that many of us at Harvard, myself included, don't fully respect the size of the work in front of us. Like many of the climbers who believed that their money and relative fitness were enough to get them to the top of Everest, some of us mistake our future Harvard diplomas as sufficient credentials to found the school or the non-profit or social enterprise that will solve the education crisis in this country. I worry about where this thinking will take us.

I have no doubt that there is more than enough talent at this school to solve some of education's most intractable problems. Nor do I doubt that Harvard is giving us invaluable skills and helping us form a powerful network to effect change. I could not be more excited to use these tools when I leave here. However, as I commit myself to the challenge of giving a quality education to all children I don't want to lose sight of the immensity of this work.


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