Evidence of Pandemic Effects on Education

The impact of COVID-19 on the education sector–particularly higher education–is revealed in this post from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank. [The STL Fed blog, “On the Economy”  is frequently a useful source of just-in-time economic analysis and interpretation.] Overall enrollment in U.S. universities dropped 3% in 2020-21, a massive decline when one takes history into account. New enrollment by incoming first year students fell by a record 13.1%.

As the post by Oksana Leukhina, Research Officer; and Devin Werner, Research Associate at the STL Fed, makes clear,

“The enrollment of first-time undergraduates declined because the perceived benefits from college—the hallowed “college experience” and the value of in-person learning—shrank as classes moved online, while relative college costs—expensive tuition at a time of widespread financial uncertainty—grew.”

Hmmm. I can imagine the same being said about private, independent K-12 schools should the pandemic persist.

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What Links Strategy and the Accreditation Process?

We often receive an inquiry about strategic planning from school leaders at the point where the school enters the re-accreditation self-study process. Thinking ahead, the leaders realize that their schools have strategic plans in place that are at best dated and all too often irrelevant given changes in the market. The one standard common to most accreditors is that schools have a current strategic document is what prompts reaching out to us, and it is often the moment when we begin new strategy engagements with clients.

The above convergence begs the question of what links accreditation self-studies and strategic plans beyond the accreditor’s requirement that the school have a plan in place? Our short answer, eliding a number of details, is that accreditation and strategy are correlated, but should not overlap in every respect. This is to say that the data and understandings gleaned through the accreditation study can inform strategy, but should not drive it in a linear fashion. There is much more that must be taken into account when one strategizes for a success future.

The above graphic illustrates how this works. Accreditation is one among several data points that feed into an assessment of the context from which strategy will derive, but it is an episodic source of data happening every 7 to 10 years. Strategy in today’s world must move faster or else it becomes irrelevant. Too close a linkage between accreditation and strategy risks turning it into an operational school improvement plan, rather than a framework for school success in the future. The former may be necessary, but is seldom sufficient for guiding the school through turbulent and uncertain times.

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The Dangers of Good Intentions

Ad Age, in a December 28 post, captured a few of the high-profile ads from 2020 that, in attempting to capture salient sentiments of a challenging year, missed the mark by a lot. Worse, actually, the ads sounds in retrospect to be tone-deaf, totally missing (or mishandling) the emotionally-laden context.

While it is easy to chuckle and shake one’s head at such miscues, here is something to ponder: every single one of these ads was vetted by a group of agency and client executives, and every single one got the green light for production. The point is that, despite our best intentions and efforts, things sometimes go sideways. And when sideways and high-voltage intersect, the risks are compounded. Be careful out there.

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A Tale of Two Pandemics

The deeper we get into the COVID-19 pandemic, the more it becomes apparent that the deleterious effects of lockdowns, layoffs, business closures, and other restrictions are not borne equally by all sectors of the economy. Some, particularly those whose work can most easily be done remotely or do not require hand-to-hand engagement, are flourishing from a monetary perspective while others, particularly those who depend on human-to-human transactions, are falling farther behind.

This post from the On the Economy blog by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis illustrates this disparity quite well. Two datasets describing the same economy seem to suggest divergent trends. And yet both and true, meaning that the pandemic is simultaneously the best and worst of times.

Dickens, anyone?

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COVID is Beyond the Political Now

According to the data tracked by Worldometers and the Johns Hopkins University, the United States is poised to pass the 200K death mark from COVID-19 tomorrow. That is a staggering number by any logic. It is as if a city twice the size of Asheville, NC, died just in the last year. We are now recording more deaths per day from COVID than happened on 9/11 from the terror attack.

I usually avoid the political in this blog, but the coronavirus pandemic is not about politics; rather, it is humanitarian in nature. It begs the questions of whether there are limits to freedom, even in a “free” society (of course there are), and whether any of us owe the others in our society anything at all. Does our freedom give us the right, in effect, to kill our neighbor or our mother or our aunt?

It is past time to get real about the pandemic. I am staying home over the coming holidays, much as I would love to visit my son. How about you?

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Can the Means be a Mission?

Finishing a strategy workshop today for a school where one of the topics was about identity—what are we as a school—prompts a reflection on the overlooked importance of an animating idea for all organizations. An animating idea causes the school to exist; it is why the school does what it does to students (sometimes called its theory of change).

The “school people” at this particular place tend to describe its animating idea in terms of what the school does—IB, progressive, Montessori, whatever—rather than what it exists to accomplish in the world. This is almost universal in education and makes a sort of sense, even if it is ultimately a distraction. The deeper a person is immersed in a field, the stronger the tendency to conflate technique with impact. For educational technocrats, pedagogy supplants purpose as a reason to exist.

This would be fine, except that in the private, independent and international school world, “customers” buy purpose not pedagogy. How your school does what it does matters to those “inside baseball” (sorry for the Americanism, but “inside rugby” lacks the same tone), but it is the effect that the school has on students’ lives that keeps them enrolled. They (or, rather, their parents) are not connoisseurs for the most part; instead, they are after the impact the school aspires to have on graduates and thereby the world. This is why so much independent school marketing seems wasted: it simply focuses on the wrong stuff.

Almost every school begins with an animating idea or purpose. Sometimes, it is about social good or maybe elite university admission, while in other instances, it is about “sticking it to the man” by being counter-cultural. Regardless, the founding purpose inevitably seems to fade as the school grows and ages, and how-we-teach becomes the new raison d’être. This is a shame because it puts the cart before the horse. Pedagogies should not be ends in and of themselves; rather, they are the means whereby the school achieves its animating idea.

The irony is that teachers may gravitate to a school because of how it teaches (educational technocracy), but they stay and thrive because they align with a purpose that gives it life. The reverse is true of parents and students: they come for purpose and then become fans of how you educate.

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