What the Demise of Ringling Brothers Foreshadows for Educational Institutions

Like so many, the news of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus ending a 146-year run made me feel nostalgic. I thought back to my experiences as a child, watching from the audience and being amazed and dazzled by the spectacular. Sitting at the Nassau Coliseum in the 1980s – ironically at the venue scheduled to be the circus’s final performance in 2017 – my mind started to accept the reality of this once institution fading into the sunset. Even the smaller, non-profit “Big Apple Circus” which used its performances to subsidize clowns for children’s hospitals has declared bankruptcy and is seeking a buyer…assuming one comes along.

But truly what other institution could try to hold onto models initially established more than a hundred years ago….one where so little visually has changed in many instances?

Institutional Relevance

My initial reaction was disbelief. How could there not possibly be an audience for the circus? We all recall that P.T. Barnum was attributed as saying “There is a sucker born every minute” and as the musical Rent has built into our memories, there’s 525,600 minutes in a year. Surely that would provide the circus with an ample pool of patrons annually. Barnum’s most famous advertising and marketing genius was an attraction built solely to allow his museum in the mid-1800s to accommodate guests waiting to enter. “This way to the Great Egress” teased patrons throughout the museum. Building in excitement, patrons couldn’t wait to get to the door with the large “Egress” sign on it, only to learn that “egress” was indeed the exit.

But instead of museum signs, today’s Barnums leverage social media, while 24-hour news outlets carry on discourse mostly aimed at supporting the pre-existing opinions of its target demographics. The once spectacle of the 146-year old institution turned into a faint glimmer. Very little changed over a century. The logo was similar….the design of the circus rings….the animal acts….the clowns….the acrobats….the trained animals…all was the same.

Institutional Resilience

The secret to crushing your competition is to outperform and out-think them. While in recent decades, new approaches to the circus arts gave way to thriving institutions as the Quebec-based Cirque de Soleil. Their shows represented a blending of "Circus meets Broadway" with abstract music and silent story-telling to illicit illusions of wonder. In 2017, Cirque reports having 10 times the number of employees and artists than Ringling Brothers.

But truly what other institution could try to hold onto models initially established more than a hundred years ago….one where so little visually has changed in many instances? While most industries have evolved over time, education remains a fixture that some may feel time has forgot. Classrooms with student desks arranged into neat rows and columns, with a teacher in front with a board presenting information as the “sage on the stage.” The laws, policies and funding models enacted by governing agencies and often overseen by local lay boards tie the hands of educational institutions from making change – both among K-12 school systems and institutions of higher learning.

The Educational Stage

The signs of the education industry following a similar path are evident. If we look at the damages already, several smaller private liberal arts colleges and some well-known for-profit colleges have shut their doors – due to substandard instruction, questionable business practices, dramatic losses in enrollment, and/or loss of accreditation.

Innovation and change management are the two characteristics that blinded Ringling Brothers, and in many ways what educational institutions naturally resist. Tenure among K-12 superintendents, while has increased modestly in the past decade, is barely 3 years for the average urban superintendent. Urban school systems, facing challenging academic progress, often seek to bring about change to improve results. While the Council of Great City Schools reports that 92% of superintendents report to boards of education, and another 4% report to mayors, it’s clear that the tenure of superintendents remains caught in political-driven climates, where even a challenging interpersonal relationship between a single board member and a superintendent can ultimately lead to their ouster. The message to school leaders, according to the data? Don’t rock the boat…complacency often leads to longer tenure.

From a change management perspective, leaders often lack any training in how to change an institution’s legacy mind-set. Why should people change? Yes there will always be educators who put students above all else. I was fortunate to have been taught by several, and I have the honor of knowing many. In higher education, some institutions place higher emphasis on research and grants for their faculty…and the quality of instruction is merely an afterthought.  But for others, slighted by archaic policies and politically-motivated environments, what are we doing to help motivate change for our schools? A quick glance of your local school or college under RateMyTeacher or RateMyProfessor websites is how students know which classes to take and those to avoid at all costs.

For example, when presented with a new model for learning – whether technology driven or not – educators typically initially react with two inherent fears. The fear of a lack of time to learn and integrate this new approach. The fear of failure that if they attempt and fail, they could face a negative assessment or an “unsatisfactory” rating.

If the circus was once known as the “Greatest Show on Earth”, we must consider education to be the “Most Important Work on Earth.” Allowing complacency….not investing the resources (both dollars and time)….and preventing changes that unshackle educators and allow them to not merely “engage” their students but make them active learners invested in their outcomes…these are the tactics that, if we permit to continue, will only bring about its demise. Our children…and our educators both deserve better.

Elliott Levine is Director of Education and HP’s Distinguished Technologist in Edtech. He’s a former K-12 district administrator, adjunct professor and startup executive, and serves as an advisor and board of director for education nonprofits and startups. This document is a personal opinion expressed by an HP employee, and not intended to replace or substitute official datasheets or information officially posted at www.hp.com.

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