Econometrics Meets Education: The Results Aren’t Pretty

Bryan Caplan, a conservative economist at George Mason University in the USA, has a new book being shipped in January 2o18 that is likely to be both much talked about and highly controversial in education policy circles. Called, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, Caplan’s book probably won’t win many friends inside the education industry.

While yet to be published, Caplan is teaching a course at George Mason using the book and its rigorous econometric analysis of the education field, and his course notes and slides are readily available. Nonetheless, impeccably well argued and supported by a vast tranche of data (spreadsheets galore accompany his GMU course), Caplan’s conclusions merit discussion and debate. I do not agree with his central thesis–as stated in the book title–but do agree with at least one or two of his recommendations. For example, Caplan suggests that we “… not send average or apathetic high school students to college.”  Ok by me (and by Caplan’s economics), but less ok is, “[m]ake high school, college, and the master’s much more vocational.” I know this is a trend, but he (and perhaps all economists) take for granted that education’s main value is to produce a maximally employable graduate. We should at least consider the alternatives before readily accepting that this is education’s best and highest purpose.

I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s line in Lady Windermere’s Fan about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

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Forming Strategy Amid Uncertainty

Strategy making is about imagining an uncertain future. Life is inherently uncertain. Aside from the usual (death and taxes), very little that involves human beings can be predicted with perfect accuracy. Call it “carbon unit variation,” but it is in the nature of organic beings (especially sentient ones) to behave in unpredictable ways.

Big Data offers the possibility of certainty; e.g., if we just have enough data points, then we can predict outcomes for real. Maybe. Maybe in theory. But the problems are (1) that we don’t have anywhere near enough data, and (2) the cost (time and money) of getting the data is prohibitive. Nonetheless, we keep finding board members, especially in tech and finance-centric locales such as San Francisco and New York, who behave as if strategy making is all about eliminating uncertainty. Baseball cybermetrics (Moneyball) comes to institutional planning.

At some point, strategizers must step away from the screen, put aside their surveys and metrics, and place their “bets” on what strategies will lead to their school’s success in future decades. Data can inform the bets–even narrow the uncertainty range–but when all is known that can reasonably (and affordably) be known, the strategists must earn their keep via insight and intuition. Anything else makes the process unwieldy and unsuccessful.

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This is Huge! Freelancing Becomes Normative by 2027

A new report from Upwork and Freelancers Union argues that by 2027 more than 50% of Americans will be freelancers; that is, totally contingent workers. The rapid growth of this type of work (we can’t really call it “employment”) is stunning to say the least. A decade or two ago, freelancing was what you did between jobs; in 2027 it will be the job of most Americans. Even allowing for some hyperbole this is a remarkable prediction.

What is your school doing to prepare students for this (brave) new world? Have you identified the knowledge, skills, and abilities that will be necessary for survival in an eat-what-you-kill sort of labor market? More to the point, is your school preparing students for our world or theirs?

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Does Social Media Merit a Defcon 5 Response?

One of the most frequent questions we receive from schools over the past 12-18 months is about how to respond to attacks launched by unhappy parents and teachers using social media as a platform. Some board members (and a few administrators) believe that a perceived unfair or inaccurate attack merits an immediate and massive response, sort of like an overwhelming retaliatory missile strike. Others prefer a more measured approach, while some advise making no public response at all.

The problem with ignoring an attack–or even a more reasonably stated criticism–is that most customers expect a response, at least according to ReviewTrackers, a customer feedback software company. To not respond in any way risks not appearing to agree with the criticism (or attack) but rather it might signal indifference, that management doesn’t care what people think.

The problem with going to Defcon 5 and launching a retaliatory strike is that one can’t, really; that is, a school can’t literally incapacitate the source of the attack. Instead, a massive and angry response risks simply escalating an already ugly situation, at best, or, at worst, seeming to prove the attackers right in the first place.

Triangle recommends that school leaders first assess whether there is indeed a basis in reality for the complaint beneath the attack. Schools should respond differently to those with legitimate (even if overstated) complaints versus those who are trolling the school with the intent of inflicting damage. An appropriate response to most negative posts, includes a thank you for the person’s engagement with the school, an apology for the bad experience, and an explanation saying the situation is being taken care of or has already been handled. It acknowledges that you have heard their issues and the legitimacy of their complaint.

Trolls are another matter entirely, but still not one where Defcon 5 is useful. Give a simple response and move on (e.g., “we are sorry you feel this way and regret that anyone is unhappy with our school”)–do not say anything that escalates the exchange. Remember, it is almost impossible to find the magic words that render the opposition mute, while very, very easy to say things that make the situation worse.

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The Innovation Bugbear

Innovation in the education sector moves at a glacial pace, at best. Why this is so is implied within the graphic below. Innovations happen at the intersection of two of the three components: faster, better and cheaper. A trifecta is rare in the real world and would result in the fabled but elusive “killer app” that so many businesses seek.

The problem is that all three of these are hard for market-leading, established schools to pull off. Their investment–financial and emotional–in the status quo is just too big. And then there is the whole problem of “teaching elephants to dance.” Start-ups and smaller schools hungry to move up in their markets could innovate, but lack the standing to do so. Seriously disrupting the education paradigm would scare away too many customers.

This locks in a certain inertia that  perpetuates the accepted X students to Y teachers in Z classrooms formula for a school. In future posts, we will pose generative questions aimed at helping boards and administrators get past this trap. We believe that the answers you come up with will be the catalysts innovation needs to happen in our sector.

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Are Schools on the Verge of a New Business Ecosystem?

A recent McKinsey podcast, “As sector borders dissolve, new business ecosystems emerge,”prompted me to think about the classic rigidity of sector borders in the education space; in other words, out tendency to think about early childhood programs and distinct from K-12 schools as distinct from higher education as distinct from adult learning and professional development. Or to silo “school” apart from other programs and businesses families depend on, such as sports teams, restaurants, transportation, and health care.

The premise of the podcast is that technology makes it ever easier for sector boundaries to disappear and for whole new business ecosystems to emerge. Those who doubt “need look no farther than the phone in your pocket, your music and video in the cloud, the smart watch on your wrist, and the TV in your living room” These devices were once–not very long ago–segmented into different business ecosystems, but today are all connected in the same value production model.

An interesting (and enormously generative) exercise for independent and international school boards would be to read the McKinsey background papers, listen to the podcast, and then discuss what a new school ecosystem might look like, what value it would bring to students and their families, and how it might be a competitive advantage for our schools to be the proverbial “tent pole” of such a system (to borrow a term from the entertainment industry).

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