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The Letter From: Three "E's" In The School Improvement Industry's Year Ahead

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Lettetorial.jpg

Those who propose to offer a weekly column on the school improvement industry – and the forces that shape its development, are pretty much obligated to give their audience a “best guess” of the year to come.

Here’s mine:

On the whole, 2007 will be a difficult year for school improvement providers. I expect neither a catastrophe, nor a cakewalk. Today’s best school improvement providers will eke out some growth in sales, the least sustainable may go out of business. The glimmer of hope for capital-raising kindled by K12, Tutor.com, Scientific Learning and Princeton Review in 2007 will wink out. The boards of larger firms that might otherwise have remained independent will be sorely tempted to sell out to a publisher.

Three “E's” lead me to this conclusion: Election, Economy, and Evaluation – in that order.


Elections:
The federal elections are likely to maintain the Democrats' control of the Senate and House. Those familiar my analysis (and here) of debates over the FY 2008 Department of Education budget and NCLB reauthorization should expect me to make two points. Absent the threat of a Presidential veto, Congress would 1) increase education appropriations marginally, but 2) change the accountability provisions in NCLB in ways that would reduce the demand for school improvement products and services significantly.

If there is a Republican President, all but Mitt Romney have led us to believe they will not follow the relatively hard line of the Bush Administration on school accountability. They may restrain the growth in education spending, although that is hardly good news for school improvement providers. If there is a Democrat, he or she will favor something called “Adequate Yearly Progress,” but one that schools, districts and states will find far easier to make in a reauthorized NCLB. Most likely, the Supplementary Educational Services market will be curtailed severely. The federal education budget will also grow a bit more than it would under any Republican President - limited by the reality of several wars, the deficit and health care. Growth in federal education spending will be good news for the old education industry but not for a new school improvement industry based on high standards of accountability.

Economy:
Few economists are terribly optimistic about the year ahead. The burst of the housing bubble brought on by collapse of the sub-prime lending market will have three effects on the school improvement industry. First, expect a decline in local property tax receipts, still an important part of k-12 revenues in many states, as well as some hit to state tax receipts as the housing slowdown's effect move through the economy. Second, expect investment capital to become more risk averse – and state and local financial pressures exacerbated by the housing industry's near-collapse will only make it easier for Congress to lower the bar on accountability in a reauthorized NCLB. Third, expect elected and appointed officials responsible for public education to be far more focused - if only rhetorically - on the need to demonstrate the efficacy of school improvement programs, before they will be convinced to switch from their familiar ties to the old industry.

Evaluation:
Judging by either the level of funding or management attention invested over the life of No Child Left Behind, neither Republicans nor Democrats, the Executive branch nor the Congress, providers nor consumers care all that much about demonstrating whether k-12 programs actually work to increase student performance.

Most studies appear to have been designed either to favor a pre-existing belief or offer buyers some kind of 50/50 probability of success. Some are completely useless because they examine classes of interventions rather than individual programs. No one seems to be looking at the extent to which implementation relates to outcomes, or teasing out the factors that distinguish between program failure and success. (Although see here.) In a world increasingly receptive to the possibilities of mass customization, k-12 programs are treated by firms and school districts as silver bullets that will work for every teacher, with every student, in every district. This is unlikely.

Observers of the reading, math, charter, voucher etc. wars know that providers and political advocates of “choice” are primarily interested in presenting evidence that their approaches do work, while opponents of “vouchers” and “privatization” are only interested in presenting evidence that they don’t. Too many educators never really wanted to buy school improvement programs and have little incentive to press for improvements to the state of consumer knowledge – especially when they think/hope that NCLB’s high accountability bar is about to be dropped. The evaluation community is interested in financial support for academic research, but avoids hard thinking about the messy problem of helping educators make practical decisions about program purchases before the perfect evaluation tools are invented. The school improvement industry trade groups are incapable of acting strategically because too many of their members are afraid their products and services won’t prove effective. Political leadership has little sense of the market-shaping power of government in this arena, less sense that it should be used, and no idea of how to use it to encourage an effective school improvement industry.

Qui Bono? The school improvement industry will not benefit from what seems likely to happen in 2008. Who will? The status quo ante-NCLB. After a decade of real disruption, expect to see a gradual return to the familiar patterns of the education establishment. The school improvement industry – based on the idea that it was possible to leave no child behind because products, services and programs could substantially increase student performance at real scale - will not be wiped out. But at current course and speed, it is likely to go the way of every other school reform strategy – to the margins.

I’m inclined to say that 2008 is to the school improvement industry as 2000 was to charter schools and comprehensive school reform. Those who have committed themselves to the business will survive, but the political and financial forces that spurred growth are on the verge of moving to the next new thing - or have already.

No Way Out?
I am sadly confident that the only chance for this future history to be written differently lies with individuals and firms in the school improvement industry I’ve mentioned over 2007 - providers like Success for All and Carnegie Learning and leaders like Alan Carter and Jim Kohlmoos. If they joined together (even just met once to talk), they might develop an effort to demonstrate that with the right strategy we can implement programs at scale to vastly improve student performance. This I believe. But they haven’t for eight years and chances are they won’t in the next twelve months. The future rarely has a constituency and most leaders' in-baskets are too full of day-to-day challenges.

Listen to this as a podcast here.

Some Relevant Podcasts:

AYP Regulation and Adaptive Management (June 6, 2005)

Time to Start Changing an Unfavorable Future Circa 2008 (July 18, 2005)

Department of Education Management of Adequate Yearly Progress (Parts I-II) (August 22, 2005)

Political Risk, Investment and Political Action (April 5, 2004)

2 Comments

As always, I think your judgements are right on the mark, although you seem to characterize your predictions as pessimistic while I see them as realistic.

I don't care for scripted instruction (so I don't have to apply for a job where its required) but I'll never criticize Success For All because I read the research.

I saw the last half of a C-Span interview with Nassim Taleb who wrote the Black Swan, but I saw enough to realize that he speaks to our situation in education. In nature, mutations don't produce 1000 foot tall giraffes, but numbers-driven activities do produce outliers that are equally extreme. The problem occurs when we use data to make projections as if it were possible to produce and replicate those outliers in the real world. But positive mutations and scientific surprises (Black Swans) do occur and we must always be open to them. We should just recognize that we are very primitive in our ability to figure things out in advance. Taleb's solution is to make a wide range of small bets, and keep our eyes open for breakthroughs.

I don't see specific innovations that can transform education - especially inner city education. But neither do I know where America is going to produce miracles. If we could stop making avoidable mistakes by always seeking some "silver bullet" then all that talent which could be making mediocre online tutorial. standardized tests, and hard accountability systems would not disappear. Get back to the essense of education, that its a "people business," and there will be plenty of work and profits for digital innovations to support learning.

John Thompson

I've been reading a few of your posts on edbizbuzz, and I'm in agreement with your entire assessment of the political, social, and economic forces that are at play in public education. It's so amazing to me that doing what is in the best interest of our children -- and our country -- has little to no impact on what actually happens in K-12. Of course, I am of the school improvement persuasion, and I do have a vested interest in the school improvement industry. I'm also a trained quantitative social science researcher who realizes the importance of education in making sure that the next generation of Americans can compete in an information society that is driven by a global economy. I do hope the American public gets the same understanding very soon.

I've written a white paper I wished to share with you entitled, Education Strategy in the 21st Century. I sent the white paper to all 50 Governors and State Superintendents, and I offered my solution called CanDoEDU.com for free to all 50. The letter is pasted below. I had no takers -- it was very disappointing. In fact, other than a polite “Thank you,” from about 5 or so, I received no response at all.

A few years back, I got involved in public education. This was about 10 years ago when K-12 was beginning to embrace data warehousing, business intelligence, and the need to drive the decision making process by using data. Also, along this time I began to hear administrators talk about accountability and what that would mean for public education in America. I became very interested in this area, because it seemed to me that public education was about to undergo a major process of social change. I knew this social change would be very difficult for an institution inherently designed to resist change. I wanted to help, and I thought I could help.

Long story short, here I am a decade later with more gray hair and less of it. I am not sure if I've made much difference, but I've made the effort. I wanted to share the white paper and my experience with your readers.

I do look forward to reading more of your posts.

Sincerely,


Gary W. Griffin, Ph.D.
www.CanDoEDU.com
404.432.5970


The purpose of this communiqué is to offer you and the citizens of your state the CanDoEDU.com system for free. The CanDoEDU.com system is a complete education enterprise system designed to support the learning transaction between teachers and students within the classroom. It’s comprehensive in design and flexibility, and it will save the taxpayers and public education in your state millions of dollars. Please follow this link to review “Education Strategy in the 21st Century.” In this timely piece of work, an education strategy is explained to illuminate CanDoEDU.com in more detail.

I am making this offer, because I am very concerned about pubic education in America. The current state of affairs in public education is the single biggest threat to prosperity in America over the next decade. With two children in high school, when I survey their futures I get very concerned. When I think about the future of my grandchildren, I grow even more concerned. The current course and direction of education is not sufficient to keep America strong in the 21st century information society and a highly competitive global economy. Education must change, and it must change now. We are dangerously close to losing an entire generation. This is a serious issue for all Americans, regardless of partisanship. The seriousness of the issue was made abundantly clear on a recent mission trip to Liberia to help build a school for an orphanage. While there, I saw first-hand the effects on a society when an entire generation is lost.

Quite simply, this is the motivation for developing CanDoEDU.com over the last several years and my offer of the system for free. I hope you will take advantage of this incredible opportunity. America can’t wait. Our future depends on it.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me directly by cell at (404) 432-5970.

God Bless America

Sincerely,


Gary W. Griffin, Ph.D.
404.432.5970

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