We’re All Cowards


We’re all cowards. The subtle but consistent pull of the status quo forces us to give credence to words and phrases like realistic, possible, effective, proven, and even research-based. While the dialogue has recently shifted to include talk of failure and fearlessness, our policies, actions, and philanthropic strategies lag far behind. What does “being fearless” look like when we shift from talk to action?

Recently, I read Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner. In it, the author identifies an important driver of innovation: constraints. Wagner quotes Kirk Phelps: “A lot of companies that are supposedly innovative still don’t make great products. It’s because they believe that in order to create new products, you have to remove constraints. But without constraints, you have no forcing function [to make] you think deeply to simplify – and to innovate.” Phelps was speaking specifically about his experience at Apple and the level of innovation created by Steve Jobs’ famous reality distortion. At Apple, when something seemed impossible, it often eventually happened.

But, while we idolize this type of thinking, it rarely goes beyond rhetoric in the arena of social good:

States set standards for “proficiency” that are far below actual measures of grade-level reading. Fearless is saying every child will read at or above grade level.

At last month’s AIDS conference, there was a popular question floating around Twitter: Can we end AIDS? Fearless is saying we will end AIDS.

After our country endured another tragedy in Colorado, politicians and pundits carve out arguments around the right to individual liberty and the need for public safety. Fearless is saying we will not tolerate one more murder.

In teaching, there’s a term for this fearless thinking: backwards planning. One starts with the goal and moves backwards. The question is simple: What must we do to achieve the identified goal? At this stage, we can’t possibly have conversations about efficiently achieving our audacious goals when we’re so far from efficacy. How can we streamline what we suck at?

Please know, I don’t deliver this message from a pedestal, I deliver it from the trenches. In my effort to be fearless, I often fall short. In a recent interview, I was asked about walking away. When will I know that my work is finished? My answer:

Discussions about contemporary education tend to revolve around words like proficiency and achievement. I know that the realities involve words like oppression and injustice. For that reason, I think the battle for educational equity will extend far beyond my lifetime.

Currently, 85% of DC public school students enter 9th grade reading below grade level. Approximately half of the city’s minority students finish high school. I want to see significant improvement in both areas. I’d like the drop out rate and the below-grade-reading rate to be in the single digits.

Single digits? How cowardly! Our kids deserve better (though, to be fair, it’s better than the 70% “proficiency” goal for all students identified in DCPS’ five-year plan).

In education, there are many goals we can set to be fearless:

  • All children will read at grade level.
  • Schools cannot suspend or expel students.
  • The nation will have a 0% dropout rate.

Our minds immediately go to the reasons these things are impossible. But, when force ourselves to work within these constraints true innovation occurs. And, Phelps notes, the people involved in these efforts often make “irrational sacrifices” of time and money because of their belief in the possibility of the impossible.

These are the lessons the nonprofit industry should be learning from the private sector. We focus on efficient operations when, in reality, we have no idea how much it costs to do something like successfully educate all children living in poverty or experiencing trauma. We’ve never been able to do this, so no baseline exists.

We can take steps now. Don’t leave room for cowardice in federal policy, or your own organization’s operations. Create an X Prize for an effective evaluation of teacher competence or a game-changing approach to teacher preparation. Use grade-level reading instead of state-level “proficiency” measures. Make your organization’s vision statement a time-sensitive goal. When we become fearless, we might be surprised by the results.

Photo credit: @cdharrison


The question is simple: What must we do to achieve the identified goal?