As we learned of plans for Rhode Island’s beloved Benny’s to close all 31 stores by the end of the year, nostalgia took over and folks reminisced about their childhood outings to buy a bike or a sled or some tool Dad needed. But as Benny’s co-owner Arnold Bromberg points out, “nostalgia can’t keep the doors open.” Nostalgia doesn’t put money in the register and it doesn’t sustain a business.
In contrast, nostalgia is one of the most powerful forces when it comes to keeping the doors of underperforming schools open. In fact, it is even a major driver of opposition to change. Whether we are talking about changing the school calendar, knocking down an outdated gymnasium, or altering the grading system, people’s memories of how things used to be often turn into strong opinions about things should still be. And closing a school? That’s like war.
When I began to follow local school politics in Cumberland, it was astonishing how often school administrators and school committee members repeated the same mantra: “this is how we’ve always done it.” In fact, that lazy and almost scripted response drove me in large part to run for an at large school committee seat. I couldn’t stand to listen to people who would never accept that response from their doctor or cell phone provider use it as an excuse to protect a status quo that saw a school system heading in the wrong direction not only in terms of student outcomes but also in terms of teacher morale and community confidence.
The difference between Benny’s and the school systems in the state is simple: options. I can sit at my kids’ baseball practices or orthodontist appointments and order everything I need from an app on my phone. Or I can shoot over to Target and buy everything I need for dinner plus a trash can, a can of paint, and some underwear. But when it comes to educating our kids, most districts in the state (and the country) provide very little in terms of options or, dare I say, competition. The school that has had chronically low performance for decades stays open and many in the community applaud. Nostalgia is so powerful that when the evidence shows that most students can’t read, write, and do math at grade level, people’s emotional attachment to the place overrides the mission of the school. Educating children and preparing them for the future.
While many chafe at the idea of talking about schools as if they were businesses, we’d be wise to do it more when it comes to one thing: results. Schools are a public good but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be focused on student outcomes as we make decisions about how they should run, who should run them, and what to do when, despite the best efforts of many, they are getting lousy results year after year.
While countless Rhode Islanders (with Amazon Prime memberships) lament the loss of Benny’s, we’d be wise to consider that nostalgia couldn’t keep a retail icon open but it is keeping sub-par schools open. It will be sad if we don’t see Rhode Islanders’ grieve and get loud about that fact before it’s too late and our own kids and grandkids are left to pay the price.