Do We Know What Matters Most?

At the moment, professional golf is the latest sport to be going through a spasm of effort toward perfecting itself by applying scientific rigor to what has always seemed more of an art. Money Ball, the book by Michael Lewis and later a movie of considerable acclaim, documented the emergence of “cybermetrics” and data analytics in American baseball. In Money Ball, the longstanding conventional wisdom of highly experienced baseball people proved wrong compared to statistical analyses. In golf, the even more longstanding dictum of “drive for show and putt for dough” falls in the face of compelling analysis showing that prowess with the driver and long irons counts for more in terms of scores and tournament wins. Bryson DeChambeau is a case in point (see David Perrell’s excellent essay on DeChambeau and the metrification of golf here).

Few fields are as permeated by conventional wisdom and seasoned practitioners’ opinions than sport, with the very probably exception of education. In school after school, we hear teachers and parents alike speak about the moment when the “magic happens;” that is, the point of engagement between teachers and students. The very notion that what happens in the space can be subjected to rigorous measurement and analysis seems equally heretical to many parents and especially teachers. It is as if someone suggested quantifying the “sense of community” that seems to make every school special.

Maybe the conventional (albeit anecdotal) wisdom is right. Maybe there is magic that happens in the teacher-student interface; pixie dust that cannot be otherwise measured. Maybe community really is the secret sauce that laminates families and staff to their schools. Or maybe not. What if the conventional wisdom in education is as wrong as it was in baseball or golf?

I am not at all saying that I believe the CW is wrong; rather, I am only suggesting that we do not really know for sure what matters most in student learning. Nor do we know whether the same thing matters most for all (or even most) students, something that seems intuitively doubtful on its face.

As school leaders prepare for the return to full in-person teaching and learning, instead of simply rushing back to the old normal, perhaps it is time for us to think anew about where the magic happens in schools. What if we have been wrong all along? Or, more likely, what if we have been right, but only for a fraction of our students? And, more to the point, what data do we need to know for sure?

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The Utopian or Dystopian Post-Pandemic Future of Education

A raft of recent articles and blog posts reveal how various pundits think the pandemic will forever alter the education industry’s story arc. Sources as varied as McKinsey on strategy and management consulting, David Perrell on writing for an online audience, and British journalist David Mattin on the future of work are weighing in this week on the topic. Common to all are predictions that education will become decentralized with:

  • Elite teachers commanding huge salaries and teaching to thousands via online platforms with high production value courses;
  • Skrinkage of the education field as weaker schools (from elementary through graduate schools) fold or merge;
  • New more specialized players will emerge to compete with Stanford, Princeton, Lawrenceville, and Collegiate; and
  • Multi-disciplinarity will rule as students have less interest in siloed studies and more in how to do complex things; and
  • Education will become cheaper, somehow.

We will leave commentary on the cheaper part for another post. But, after reading Perrell’s post, I am reminding myself that there have been predictions for at least 20 years that rock star-type educators will command huge amounts of pay and teach thousands or more online. Many thought that MOOCs were the vehicle whereby it would happen in higher education, but that proved not to be the case because of one factor (well, more than one, but one accounts for more “failure to disrupt” than all the others combined): the brand name of university means more at the undergrad level than the star quality of the professor. “Let’s see, do I want to have a degree from Harvard or be taught by an unmoored cadre of admittedly superstar teachers who unite on an unproven brand name web-based platform?” Many job interviewees have been asked where they got their degree(s), but none has ever been asked who taught their economics class.

There are hundred of millions of dollars, maybe billions, ready to develop an Uber-like platform for teachers who can attract an audience, but Udacity and Coursera and peers are tiny fish in a very big ocean. The money is sitting on the sidelines because of the above brand name problem. All bets are off when Yale becomes the platform, but don’t expect it soon as they have exactly zero incentive to do so. The same holds true for the private, independent K-12 sector. Rather than individual teachers, Brand name schools are universally seen by parents as the royal road into the world’s elite universities. I don’t see this changing anytime soon.

Also common to most prognostications about the future of education is the idea that things will be better–more available, higher quality, more equitable, and less costly. While I fear the future scenarios in Perrell’s and Mattin’s world could instead quickly become dystopian for teachers in a Blade Runner sort of way, I also think the private K-12 education world in particular has to find a way to disrupt itself from within to control (or at least guide) the story arc. Disruption from within seems better than having it done from outside the field. Figuring out how to do that without blowing everything up is the challenge.

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Independent Schools at the Cliff

The well-documented demographic cliff facing higher education–after 2025, the annual number of graduating high school seniors in the United States will decline rather steeply–is something that keeps every university president and enrollment manager awake at night. According to Othot, a predictive analytics consultancy in higher education, the supply of college-going high school graduates emerging from US high schools will shrink by 15% from 2025-2029.

The US will go over the cliff for structural reasons; there are few high school graduates because there will be fewer high schoolers, owing to the birth rate drop in the 2008-09 recession. What makes this structural shift particularly troublesome is that the usual rebound in national birth rate following a recession never happened. Indeed, after 2008-09, the rate fell even further. So, universities that are already reeling from the effects of COVID-19 on both the revenue and expense sides of their budgets will get little relief for at least the next decade.

Triangle mined demographic data to see whether a similar future awaits the K-12 sector, and the national-level results are sobering at best. In the decade just ended, the school-age population dropped by 1.12%, a small decline to be sure, but just enough to seriously tighten the enrollment market given the proliferation of new alternative school forms.

Looking ahead to the 2020-25 interval, the decline accelerates in every age band, most ominously in the 0 to 4 years group which is our intermediate term future. What this reveals is that our sector, too, is in a demographic trough, and that survival thriving requires making smart strategic choices now. We will write more in future posts about how we see the choices shaping up and about how these demographics look by region. Stay tuned!

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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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