Friday, May 13, 2016

Reset, Innovation and Ed Reform

You might owe me, this time. 

The Center for Education Reform is a hard-driving reformster that works hard to promote charter schools. Or as they put it on their website, "Since 1993, CER has created opportunities that give families choices, teachers freedom and students more pathways to achieve a great education."

CER joined many ther players at the ASU GSV Summit, which the New York Times calls "the must-attend event for education technjology investors." Co-sponsored by Arizona State University and GSV Capital, the conference started seven years ago " in the desert they braved the desert of San Diego."

CER presented a panel at the summit that is just riveting (in the sense that some portions make you want to drive rivets into your own skull. It does this for almost a full hour, and while I will embed the video at the end of this post, you may still owe me, because I watched the whole damned thing, taking notes, so that you don't have to.

It was not pretty, and it was not fun, but it was at time fascinating and illuminating. I'm just going to walk you through it, and if any time we stumble across an insight to take away, I will just shout it out. Get some popcorn and tighten your seatbelt, because this may take a little while.

Our moderator is Jeanne Allen, Founder and CEO of the Center. She's never taught a day in her life, but she's delighted to "wreak havoc on the status quo," perhaps not having gotten the memo that reformy stuff now is the status quo.

Allen opens up this panel on innovation and change by observing that charters have barely captured 6% of student population, but at the same time she notes that digital learning "is hip, it's real." Yes, all the cool kids are chartering these days. Probably while listening to the raps.

But now that we're warmed up, let's begin the long, long chartery beguine.

First up, Allen is going to ask a question of Susan Wolford, who's here on behalf of BMO Capital, an investment wing of the Bank of Montreal. So what question can we ask her about innovation in education reform? New pedagogical techniques? New ways to improve educational outcomes for students with certain types of learning challenges?

Allen: What are investors looking for? Are they happy with the state of innovation?

Yup. That's where we're starting. Wolford's main official point is that investors are most interested in what works. But Wolford has another drum she wants to beat today, and she beats it with authentic enthusiasm. "Anything having to do with making money is a dirty word in education which I scratch my head and don't understand since we live in a world that measures success" based on whether people want to buy the thing you want to sell or not.

Does that irk you? Fasten your seatbelt, then, because she will top that many times before we are done. Anyway, she gets back on message with the Investors Want To Invest In What Works, and now she will either reveal a astonishing level or naivete or display a gobsmacking level of cynicism, because she wants us to know that the "what works" thing "should give comfort to people who worry about the moneymaking thing because you can't make money over the long term if you sell what doesn't work" because--wait, really? Because investors only care about making money in the long term, and never just grab a company and try to squeeze money out of it quickly with no regard to long term effects? Because only top quality products survive and prosper in a free market? Well, that's reassuring to people who are emotionally invested in Betamax and ENRON.

Now we'll hear from Ed Fields from Hotchalk, a company working hard for "over a decade" to handle on-line educationny stuff. They made investors happy by pointing out that it would be big business and answering another important question-- "Is there a scale opportunity that would throw off meaningful profits as it served students and institutions at scale." Fields explains that serving students means giving them a "meaningful return on their educational investment" by which he means they get a better job at which they make more money, and he expects the pressure on this to escalate as "consumers" become more "discriminating" and all higher ed is held to these money-making standards.

So education is a commodity, an investment opportunity that only has value in its way to make more money for everyone involved. 

Mind you, Fields says, there's a place for liberal arts. Nut the vast majority of consumers will create pressure to lead to "real return on investment." Yes, education is just like a toaster. A bland, featureless utilitarian toaster. Great.

Next up, it's Johnatan Hage, President and CEO of Charter Schools USA. CSUSA  and Hage have been at this for a while. Hage rode the charter wave back in the nineties in Florida, as a buddy of Jeb Bush, where he made a killing in charter real estate, while displaying the kind of humility that leads a man to name his big yacht "Fishin' 4 Schools."

Hage is asked what conditions he needs for innovation. He waxes rhapsodic for a moment about how things have changed during his twenty years in the game (it has changed, but it hasn't). Choice only takes place if law allows it. It's no longer controversial (at least, I suppose, at cocktail parties he attends with his friends on yachts) but choice is still not available to the vast majority. Polls show people want to choose, he says, which is kind of a mystery because if the vast majority of people want vouchers and charters and choice, why don't they. I suppose he would say the Damned Teacher Unions but if the DTU is so powerful, why do I not have a yacht?

Hage talks about the need for a business model that works, and then he launches a long extended metaphor about being in a race and building the car as you race and there's no track yet, which is all kinds of tortured and raises the question of why we have to be in a race? And then he revisees his idea and says business models have to come second and having a mission comes first.

Another thing to learn: Reformsters still feel oppressed. Hage says that the great successes are not talked about. All the news focuses on the tiny charter failures instead of the great charter performances. Yes, it's all media bias. If only they could collect several million dollars to fund one or two websites devoted to pushing their own message out there, or create one or twelve think tank advocacy groups to selling policy to legislators. If only.

Allen now brings up the question of risk. Specifically, is there a resistance to "risk in the K-12 space."

So here comes our last panelist, Jim Goenner, President and CEO of the National Charter Schools Institute and the only guy on panel to wear a tie.

Goenner says it's a miracle we've come so far. His vision is actually pretty simple. If you had $120K, could you get your kid a K-12 education? Just buy up the pieces-parts of education to suit the person. And everyone laughs and jokes about how seriously too-much-money that is, and Goenner conjectures for a second about what he'd do with the left-overs, but I'm thinking that $120 is not a hell of a lot for twelve years of education.

But now Wolford is going to jump in. She says some folks dig personalization for private sector, but investors don't have much faith in the public sector. But since charter's get better results at lower cost, she says, she should would "invest in that all day." And having thrown out a bunch of made-up support, she will now once again heap mockery on people who worry about children:

If it weren't that we were offended at the idea of making money off of children (air quotes, for some reason)-- which I always think that's funny because we sell them clothes and candy and all kinds of stuff-- okay, fine (big chuckles all around)-- don't want to hurt the little kids with all the toys--um, what a horror show that would be-- but more importantly, um, I think that, again, investors want to invest in something that actually produces a better outcome than the free alternative, and there are lots of examples, and whether or not it's personalization or not is secondary to am I delivering value for the dollar...

Got it? Treating children as profit centers is natural and normal and only big wussies object. After all, we already treat them as mini-consumerists in training (well, at least the ones that aren't too poor), and there's surely no problem with that. Why not extend it to education as well. Just little widgets buying other widgets. Everything and everybody is a widget and when we rub all the widgets together, money falls out and lands on the deserving few-- the ones who are willing to view children as monetized widgets.

Also, she notes that there is skepticism about personalized learning. I presume she means "as a means of generating ROI."

Allen asks about personalized learning in higher ed, and Fields says it's swell, that you can get a master's in education without commuting to campus. Apparently human interaction is not an important element in such things.

Hage says that CSUSA uses Hotchalk for PD, and they are trying to build a platform. And here comes the pitch for charters:

See, many companies are unable to survive, not because they aren't great, but "the dry desert of trying to sell into the existing system takes time and money." Innovation can only take place in the "fertile ground" of charter schools, which are set to be the innovation laboratories for everyone else. He quotes Reed Hastings (Netflix chieftain and notorious school board pooh-pooher) to say that companies are dying on the vine trying to get through district doors, but charters-- charters are hungry for innovation. For neither the first nor the last time, nobody will consider the possibility that educators resist "innovation" because it's crap, because they know what they're doing, and because experimenting on children is not really our thing. Nope. Reformstrers are still the hack artists who are pissed off that the Louvre won't hang their crayon drawings in the main gallery.

Hage says that districts should look to us to innovate, not hate us. So for a  moment the panel considers the idea of "Innovate, Not Hate" as a slogan. If that is an example of their innovative ideas, I think I can see part of the problem.

Goenner introduces the idea that choosing certainty of results aka accountability as your main focus is the enemy of innovation, but Allen wants to redirect-- isn't it bureaucratic expectations that might destroy the "fertile ground"? Goenner says that emphasis on proven models box out new ideas, and I look forward to the first time that one of Goenner's loved ones is in the hospital and Goenner says, "Screw the proven method of treatment for this problem; I want you to try something new and innovative."

I will give him his next point, because you know I love a good comparison. Goenner says that charters are like marriage-- some people implement it poorly, but we still think marriage is a good idea. Well played, sir. Game recognizes game.

Allen asks Wolford if money people know what education people and charter people are talking about? Wolford finds that question interesting and says that some are well-informed. In fact some have been in it so long-- and here Wolford says "another horrible statement is about to come out of my mouth-- they know more than the educators do." And, no, that statement is not so much a horrible statement as it is just stupid and wrong. And she will double down.

More than any other, education is a place where there are good products that never become successful.

Which first contradicts her earlier statement that you can spot success because success = people buy your product, so perhaps what she should be saying is "Companies come up with products that we think are good for ed, and they turn out to be crap that nobody will touch. Maybe we are very bad at figuring out what constitutes a good education product." But that thought is nowhere near her brain.

No, can you guess who is to blame, if not the people who come up with the product? Why, everyone else. Government, administration, parents, children. Investors, Wolford says, hate that idea.

You can have a good thing that doesn't work because there are all these people with a right to an opinion.

Yes, if people would just behave and understand that our ideas our awesome and plunk down their money, things would run so much more smoothly. Remember her first investor question? Does it work? Well, question number two asked by investors is, "Will the people who make decisions allow it to work." Which is kind of like, "Will people who make decisions allow companies to substitute corporate judgment for the professional judgment of educators?"

But boy do these foilks suffer. Wolford notes that companies that deal with the FDA have nothing on ed sector companies.

Now everybody gets a fun question-- what would you tell the next President about education innovation?

Wolford: They should stop thinking of profit as a dirty word. Honestly, at any moment, I expect her to say that Greed Is Good. Innovation takes place because people are rewarded, so innovators should be rewarded for taking risks, not shamed for trying to make money off kids. But if we reward them for taking risks, then there's no risk, is there? I mean, it's only a risk if you can lose. And what I'm hearing in this conversation is that investors and companies are pissed off because they took a risk and it failed and they want their money back, which just is not how risk works. And the Invisible Hand of the Free Markey says, "Oh, you made a product that you couldn't sell. Boo-frickin'-hoo. You lose. The invisible hand says you fail and you go out of business." So I'm not sure exactly what kind of market they want to operate in. But Wolford would like us to know that the current education system sucks and so we need plan B.

Fields: The world is being disrupted by data, which is an interesting idea until he offers Netflix recommendations as an example, which, yes, okay-- my world is disrupted by that data because it does such a lousy job of trying to substitute its programmers' judgment for my own. But he thinks we don't have an adequate standards for evaluating the data stuff.

Audience participation portion. Someone asks if it might not be better to grow ideas in independent schools (meaning, apparently, what we call private schools). Wolford notes that those schools are viewed as separate universe with students who are not representative of all students. In other words, a niche market.

Hage: Takes his shot at the President question, suggesting that Pres should have "healthy tolerance between innovation and risk." He also acknowledges that we're talking about children and public dolars and there have to be rules and protections, including front end rules about money, and back-end rules about measuring success. Failure should not be tolerated or repeated. Also, charters are here to stay, so public schools should make nice and we should all partner up, which seems reasonable except for the part where many states have created a system where any win for a charter must be a loss for public schools.

Allen turns to Wolford again because, I don't know, she's delivering such reliably obnoxious material? Anyway, Allen now asks how soon investors want their money back?

Wolford says that depends. The big three of K-12 (who go unnamed) will wait-- but while she's on the subject

I'm going to defend them because everyone thinks it's a horrible thing that we make money off these poor little children [and she says poor little children in a voice dripping with mockery-- did she play Miss Hannigan in community theater at some point?]

But they will wait. Family outfits (that includes Hage) will wait forever. Venture capitalists and private equity folks would like their money in 3-5 years.

Goenner: wants his shot at the Pres question now. We learned as children not put all our eggs in one basket, so make more than one bet. Which, well-- I'd rather not talk about education as if it were gambling. I suppose that makes sense if you think of education as a financial investment rather than a public good with a mission to educate all children. These guys really do have a completely different idea about what education is for.

Wrapping it up.

Hage notes that he's now a chair of something at CER. Frankly, even though I worked on this in shifts, I was having trouble tracking on the home stretch. Kind of like all the people who gave up on reading all the way through many paragraphs ago. Congratulations to those of you who are still here, particularly those of you who are not my mom.

So, anyway, Hage trows his road metaphor around again, but he wants us to know that lobbying legislators and being part of the policy discussion is important, because a while ago we hated government interference, but we like government interference when it tilts the playing field in our favor.

And Fields wants to say, again, that while we have crash test standards for cars, we have nothing similar for education, so we can't judge what works. Because crashing a car and educating a human being should be similar. It's true that measuring educational quality is a yet-unsolved problem, but it doesn't seem that any of these folks has said, "You know, we should go easy here since we're dealing with so many unmeasurables."

But we end instead with a straight-up plug for CER as marketing partners-- "If you have a new product," Allen announces, "come see us and we'll hook you up." Because at the end of the day, and the end of this panel, education is just a business and schools are just revenue centers and children are just money generating widgets.


  1. I guess the definition of "innovation" is simply "money-making."

    Of course, "Greed is Good". Ayn Rand, people.

    Just from reading your highlights, my stomach feels sick the way it does if I happen to see a TV program showing predators killing their prey, tearing them into little pieces, and eating them.

  2. Dude, so unlike you to post without proofing. Nobody ever "road a wave." You have a great brand, don't f#*k it up.

    And a very, very sincere thank you for teaching. Oh, and for this great blog.

    Even if, or maybe because, my blood pressure goes up thirty points with each read.

  3. "so unlike you to post without proofing"

    You must be a newer readers :) But thank you for the appreciation and the reading.

  4. Ugh. I can barely stand biz-speak. It always reminds me that all the C students from high school went into business.