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Research & Resources

Plans and Hopes: A Convertible and a Lake

Thomas R. Rosebrough, Ph.D., Executive Dean, College of Education and Human Studies & University Professor of Education

October 1, 2002 -

Peppermint Patty asks Charlie Brown, “What is the secret of living, Chuck?” “The secret of living is to own a convertible and a lake.” “A convertible and a lake?” “Yes,” says Charlie Brown. “If the sun is shining, you can ride around in your convertible and be happy . . . If it starts to rain, it won’t spoil your day because you can just say, ‘Oh, well, the rain will fill up my lake!’” Snoopy enters the picture and Peppermint Patty asks him, “What do you think the secret of living is, Snoopy?” He says nothing but promptly kisses her on the nose. The last scene shows Peppermint Patty and Snoopy walking off together, away from Charlie Brown, with Peppermint Patty saying, “A convertible and a lake . . . I don’t know about you, Chuck.”

From time to time it is important for us to take stock--in our personal lives, in our professional lives, in our life as an academic program--of where we are, where we have been and where we are going. Let me offer some thoughts as we find ourselves embarking upon the university’s first ever doctoral program.

Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great (2002), currently #4 on the NY Times Bestseller List, includes a chapter on what he calls the “Hedgehog Concept.” (Dr. Dockery recently shared this book with his cabinet.) As you may know, the hedgehog is a strange looking animal, a cross between a porcupine and a small armadillo. Collins contrasts this slow, dowdy little creature with the fox, a fast, sleek, beautiful, and crafty animal.

The fox creeps upon the unsuspecting hedgehog who wanders right into the path of the fox. He leaps out with lightning speed. The little hedgehog, sensing danger, looks up and thinks, “Here we go again. Will he ever learn?” The hedgehog proceeds to roll up into a perfect little ball with sharp spikes pointing out in all directions. The fox sees the hedgehog’s defense and retreats, but begins to calculate a new strategy of attack. Each day some version of this battle takes place, and, despite the cunning of the fox, the hedgehog always wins.

So what’s the point of the story? Collins divides people and organizations into two camps: foxes and hedgehogs. Each creature is smart. Foxes pursue many ends at the same time and see the world in all its complexity, while hedgehogs simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a vision that unifies and guides everything. Princeton professor Marvin Bressler points out the power of the hedgehog: “You want to know what separates those who make the biggest impact from all the others who are just as smart? They’re hedgehogs. Freud and the unconscious . . . Einstein and relativity, Adam Smith and division of labor—they were all hedgehogs. They took a complex world and simplified it.

Collins then takes the hedgehog concept and applies it to organizations that have gone from good to great. He analyzes a number of companies such as Walgreen’s, Abbott Laboratories, Circuit City, Fannie May, Gillette, Kimberly-Clark, Kroger, and others. He and his business research colleagues extrapolate from their analysis of these organizations the Hedgehog Concept, an intersection of three concentric circles that leads to a deep understanding of what it takes to go from good to great:

  1. What you can be the best in the world at—and, equally important, what you cannot be the best in world at. This goes far beyond core competence. Just because you possess a core competence doesn’t necessarily mean you can be the best in the world at it.
  2. What drives your economic engine. What single denominator had the greatest impact on their economics?
  3. What you are deeply passionate about. The good-to-great companies focused on those activities that ignited their passion. The idea here is not to stimulate passion but to discover what makes you passionate.

So, in graduate education at Union University are we hedgehogs or foxes? As you will hear, I truly believe we have many of the hedgehog’s features. So, where are we right now and what can we become?

I believe we are in a unique position at Union to tackle the salient issues of our time. Our national conversation in teacher education tends to be dominated by proposed remedies to fix failing schools which focus primarily on changing governance and structure. For example, vouchers and charter schools as well as national testing are being utilized by both political parties as instruments to affect change in public school structure. Our high court has recently upheld the legality of a voucher system. Liberals decry vouchers as undermining public education while conservatives hail them as a solution. The evidence is mixed on vouchers: minority children are achieving small gains in mathematics and parents are expressing high degrees of satisfaction. There are consistent findings, however, that vouchers do not attract the most disadvantaged applicants, appealing instead to the most involved parents.

Charter schools have bipartisan support but it is too early to tell if this reform improves student achievement. Nationally, these public schools differ dramatically in terms of quality, apparently in direct relation to their state’s accountability standards. There are success stories in terms of student achievement and parental involvement, as well as failings related to degrees of segregation as charter schools cream off the most able students.

Another remedy, No Child Left Behind, is the most massive federal aid to public education ever with a primary focus on accountability. The act’s surname could be Every School Well Tested. Never in the history of education in any country have school children been tested by their government on such a massive scale. Never has the blame-game been so popular. Teachers and teacher education tend to be the primary culprits as politicians look for scapegoats. We in our profession had better take note: our practices must be exemplary both in terms of pedagogy and public relations.

The problem with the current political focus is that it largely ignores the most critical issue of all: that of improving teaching and learning in the schools. Governance, structure and testing are often necessary first steps in school reform, but they are not sufficient for ensuring quality education (Insight, Fall 2000).

For the past thirty years, research has been strong on what makes an effective school:

  1. high expectations and standards for all students
  2. curricula that mirror the standards
  3. appropriate methods of standards-based assessment
  4. strong principals
  5. a safe and orderly environment
  6. teachers who are well-prepared in content and pedagogy
  7. ongoing professional development for all teachers
  8. accountability throughout the school

Unfortunately, public policy over the last decade has virtually ignored this evidence. There is only one way to better our public schools and that is to focus on the classroom practices and the characteristics of effective schools.

This brings me to our opportunity and challenge. As we embark on our new doctorate let us dedicate ourselves to the simplicity of the hedgehog:

Concept # I. What we can do better than anyone else in the land? At Union University in teacher and leadership education, we:

  1. Promote excellence in pedagogy—I believe that our Education faculty rank among the best teachers at the university and comprise the best teacher education faculty in our 7-state market region. We talk excellence in pedagogy and we walk it.
  2. Translate theory into practice—educational practics is not a theory to us. Our minds do not rest until we have found practical applications for the classroom.
  3. Integrate principles of the Christian faith—it is vital to us that we be servant-minded teachers. We rely upon Christ to help us be humble and sensitive to our students’ needs.
  4. Model personal attention and sensitivity—our students come to us and return to us because they sense that we care about them and that we trust them.
  5. Hold high expectations and accountability—our personal attention and sensitivity do not preclude holding the line with our students. High expectations produce more learning if they are based on realistic objectives.

Concept # II. What drives our economic engine:

  1. 1. The cohort model is a simple and effective economic principle. We recruit our students on the front end. Every graduate class in the M.Ed., Ed.S., and Ed.D. is a guaranteed go.
  2. The university has reaped the financial boon these last six years. We have grown 640% in our graduate education revenue. We have seen salaries increased, new faculty employed across the university while our education faculty has doubled, and new facilities and resources made available.

Concept # III. What we are deeply passionate about:

  1. 1. We believe that Christian teachers and leaders can make a positive difference in what often seems a dark world: a world struggling to know what is good, to desire what is good, and to do what is good. We believe teaching is a Godly calling.
  2. We are dedicated to personal customer service. We realize that our students are consumers who have a choice where they can attend college. We are able to balance our desire to serve with setting standards of excellence.

We have been successful these last six years—growing in quality and quantity—because of our attention to these factors. We have grown from 90 students in 1996 to 310 students expected this fall in our graduate programs. We enrolled 440 students in graduate education this summer. We will return this fall, not only to our beautiful building in Germantown, but also to three newly renovated BAC classrooms specifically designed for teacher education, including a state-of-the-art instructional technology classroom and two instructional design classrooms, one equipped with a Smartboard.

The cohort model, our economic engine, has been helpful to us in enabling the effective delivery of quality teacher and leadership education. It promotes collegiality, high morale, consistent content, and institutional support. It also has at least two dangers:

  1. Cohorts can seem to intimidate faculty they perceive as unprepared. Faculty must be strong, treat students as the adults they are, and be fully prepared to deliver a quality course.
  2. Cohorts tempt us to assess them as a group. We must continue to hold students within cohorts individually accountable. Faculty can do this by carefully designing and implementing their courses. There are many faculty-models of such accountability among us.

I want to encourage us to focus anew on our university’s core values of being excellence-driven, people-focused, Christ-centered, and future directed. Never have these principles been more vital as we initiate our doctorate in education. Every student we admit to our Ed.D. must experience this focus or we will have failed in our vision:

Excellence-driven: we must hold individual doctoral students accountable for success and ourselves responsible for the latest and best in education.

People-focused: our students must know that we are here for them, and with their hard work and initiative, we will get them where they want to go.

Christ-centered: our doctoral program must be different because our Lord has called us to differ from the world’s values.

Future-directed: we are preparing people to serve a world that is changing at a rate that is often exhilarating and sometimes unsettling. Union Ed.D.’s must be problem solvers and leaders with a sensitivity to people.

In conclusion, as we consider the national agenda in education as well as our own plans and hopes, let me offer some thoughts from the Gospel of John. Dr. Singleton recently shared with me a book by Henri Nouwen called Lifesigns. Nouwen, who is also one of Dr. Leverett’s favorite devotional authors, focuses on the “vine and branches” illustration given by our Lord. Speaking of Himself as the vine and His disciples as the branches, Jesus says: “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you” (John 15:4). Nouwen describes this as an invitation to intimacy. Then He adds: “Those who remain in me with me in them, bear fruit in plenty.” (John 15:5). This is the call to fecundity. Finally, when he says: “I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (John 15:11), he promises ecstasy.

Consider the connection between this passage and the one in Galatians 5: 22-23, where St. Paul identifies the “fruit of the Spirit” to be love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It is one thing to know what we should do and another thing to be able to do it. Jesus is calling us to attach ourselves to Him so that we may have intimacy, fecundity, and ecstasy. What more could we need as we live our lives and serve our students? What is the secret of living? A convertible and a lake? I don’t think so. May the S-O-N always shine on us at Union University.

Dean’s Message to the Education Faculty on the Occasion of the Beginning of the Doctorate in Education-Fall 2002


Excellence-Driven Christ-Centered People-Focused Future-Directed