Monday, January 27, 2020

McKinsey's New Baloney Sales Pitch For Computerized Classroom

McKinsey is the 800 pound gorilla of consulting, a behemoth with their own set of values about how to drag everything into MarketWorld (I recommend Anand Giridharadas's Winners Take All for a closer look at how that world looks). They have occasionally dipped their toes into the world of education because, hey, there's a lot of money in that pool. One notable adventure was their plan for re-structuring the Boston school system, which was mostly about cutting all manner of expenses, like, you know, food for the students. They also like to make the occasional bad argument for heavy duty data analytics.

Of course, the Hot New market in education is computerizing the classroom. It's got everything-- more opportunities to sell both hardware and software as well as cutting back the money spent on those classroom meat widgets with their expensive teaching degrees. The main thrust of the computerized classroom has been Personalized [sic] Learning (powered by super-duper AI), but Jill Barshay at Hechinger Report captures in one neat, understated paragraph why that is not living up to entrepreneurial expectations:

For much of the previous decade, advocates of education technology imagined a classroom where computer algorithms would differentiate instruction for each student, delivering just the right lessons at the right time, like a personal tutor. The evidence that students learn better this way has not been strong and, instead, we’re reading reports that technology use at school sometimes hurts student achievement.

God bless Barshay for writing "computer algorithm" instead of Artificial Intelligence.

But you see the problem-- it's going to be hard to market this stuff if it doesn't really work. What's a corporate entity to do? Can a multinational consulting firm offer some advice?

Well, the answer's simple. Change the sales pitch.

And so here comes a new McKinsey report, "How artificial intelligence will impact K-12 teachers." Yes, the computerized classroom isn't about using algorithms to throw learning at students any more-- now, it will be about computers saving teachers time and trouble so that they can have more time to teach the young humans.

We'll dig in to this in a moment, but first, keep in mind that these kinds of things always want to masquerade as a prediction of the future when they are actually a sales pitch. Any time some ed tech concern tells you, "this is what we see in the future," just imagine a used car salesman oozily intoning, "Yes, I can see you sailing down the road in this little beauty."

McKinsey has several points to make in this seven-page sales pitch. It's brief, but I've read it so that you don't have to. Let's break it down.

McKinsey Totally Feels Your Teacher Pain

The opening line of the pitch is aimed right at your teacher heart:

The teaching profession is under siege.

This will not be followed by an observation that teachers are besieged by things like multinational corporate advisors searching for better ROI. We will, in fact, spend no time on why, exactly, this siegification of the profession is happening. We just want to characterize its form in ways that might set up the later part of the pitch.

Teacher work hours are increasing, with more student needs and "administrative and paperwork burdens. In fact, McKinsey and Microsoft (folks who have always shown a deep concern for  teachers) did some research and decided that teachers are working 50 hour weeks. If you're not paying attention, you might assume they mean US teachers, but in fact the 50 number is an average for the US, Canada, the UK, and Singapore. So there's that.

Here's A Quick Composition Lesson (A Digression)

This is going to be a bit of a digression, but I think it's worth it to see how this technique works, because this is certainly not the only place you'll find it. There's a trick that writers (and artists and film directors and others) use called juxtaposition. By setting a few unrelated items right next to each other, we can suggest a connection without having to explain it, support it, or prove it. Watch what the writers of this pitch do with three simple sentences:

While most teachers report enjoying their work, they do not report enjoying the late nights marking papers, preparing lesson plans, or filling out endless paperwork. Burnout and high attrition rates are testaments to the very real pressures on teachers. In the neediest schools in the United States, for example, teacher turnover tops 16 percent per annum.

What do these three thoughts have to do with each other? Not nearly as much as the writers want you to think. Look at what happens if we separate them.

While most teachers report enjoying their work, they do not report enjoying the late nights marking papers, preparing lesson plans, or filling out endless paperwork. 

Burnout and high attrition rates are testaments to the very real pressures on teachers. 

In the neediest schools in the United States, for example, teacher turnover tops 16 percent per annum.

Try the prediction test. If you saw just one of those sentences--any one--just by itself, hat would you predict the next sentence might be about? We could be talking about the clerical drudgery of teaching, the many issues related to the loss of teachers, or the turnover problems of schools in high poverty communities. Three different topics. But string the three sentences together and suddenly suggesting that if teachers had fewer papers to grade, high-poverty schools would hold onto more of their staff.  And I know I said I'd digress, but not long enough to rebut that silly notion.

So, back to it.

The Broad Strokes

The intro lays out the basic bones of the pitch. After reassuring us that teachers are not going away any time soon--

...our research suggests that, rather than replacing teachers, existing and emerging technologies will help them do their jobs better and more efficiently.

Our current research suggests that 20 to 40 percent of current teacher hours are spent on activities that could be automated using existing technology. 

There are some rumbly things lurking here, like observing that more advanced tech could push the 20-40% number higher "and result in changes to classroom structure and learning modalities, but are unlikely to displace teachers in the foreseeable future," which is kind of weak reassurance. Also, there's this--

One of the Sure Signs of Edu-Baloney  

They support the value of a good education by citing Raj Chetty and his baloney about a good teacher boosting a student's lifetime earnings. This is always a bad sign.

Now for the Nitty Gritty

Here's a charter breaking down the 50 hours that teachers in four completely different countries average in a week.

Preparation 10.5
Evaluation and feedback 6.5
Professional development 3.0
Administration (and "other") 5.0

Student instruction and engagement  16.5
Student behavioral, SEL development 3.5
Student coaching and advisement  4.5

I broke those into two groups because the authors only count the last three as time in direct interaction with students, and they point out that it adds up to 49%-- less than half. They are pretty sure this is a big deal. I've worked for a few boards and administrators who were pretty sure that if a teacher wasn't in front of students, then the time was being wasted, so this 49% hits a raw nerve for me. It's like pointing out that a baseball player only spends a small percentage of his swing actually hitting the ball, so maybe we could cut out the extra effort. Or a theater group spends weeks running through a show, but only does all that singing and dancing in front of an audience for a small percentage of the total nights, so why not cut that fat when they're prancing around the theater in front of empty seats?

If you don't understand the connection between the first set of tasks and the second, then I'm not sure you have anything to tell me about teaching.

Ed Tech Is Here To Help! Deja Vu Ahead.

After they broke down the 50 hours, the researchers evaluated some existing tech and talked to experts and decided which areas could be handed over to automation.

Half, or almost half, of the time for preparation, evaluation and feedback, and administrivia could be automated. Two of the instructional hours could go, and a half an hour of PD could be handled. Now, in keeping with the pitch, the authors call this "reallocatable time" and not, say, "how much of the job could be handed to a computer."

So how is that even supposed to work? Well, the report doesn't get too specific, but it's specific enough to be recognizable. They start with preparation as an example-- software companies will be happy to offer assessment packages that are tied to assignments to meet the ass--oh, hell, they're just pitching mini-algorithm selected personalized instruction here. Let the HAL 3000 write your lesson plans, save five hours.

They note that computers don't seem like a good choice for the human-on-human parts of teaching, and cite PISA scores (sigh) to show that globally students who use screens in the classroom are doing worse than those that don't. They call this a "disconnect" rather than a "failure of concept," and they have an explanation for it. Brace yourself. Here it comes.

Our hypothesis is that implementing technology in the classroom at scale is hard.

Mind blown. Specifically, it's the "integrating effective software" and "training teachers how to adapt to it" part that is hard. So they don't think that "technology in the classroom is not going to save much direct instructional time." And this is important-- it's not going to save time, but they still plan on doing it. The teacher will need to be in the classroom, "but their role will shift from instructor to facilitator and coach."  So, exactly like every other personalized [sic] learning pitch.

Greetings. I'm your new class facilitator.
Computers, they believe, can totally help with evaluation and assessment. Always been great for multiple choice tests (too bad multiple choice tests aren't great for assessment). The writers also serve up the old baloney about computers can handle long-form essay answers (spoiler alert- they can't). And they even claim that writing software can look at trends across many essays and provide targeted feedback, which is probably true if you think that Grammarly and the squiggly red lines in Word are good guides to good writing (fun fact-- Grammarly's Premium service sells you the use of a human proofreader).

And finally, computers can help with administrivia, which, sure, if the software's any good. The report does not say how the computer is saving teachers a half hour on professional development. I'm betting that does not take into account the hours that will be spent on training teachers to use the software.

What Will We Do With All That Time?  

McKinsey has some ideas. None of them include "get laid off as administrators gleefully conclude they can get more done with fewer staff people." There's "improving education through more personalized learning" plus SEL stuff and other teachery things that teachers in their survey said they didn't have enough time for. They could collaborate with each other, or develop those teacher-student relationships that research says are important but somehow that's not what we're arguing should be the centerpiece of the new education vision.

And if you're playing Buzzword Bingo, the writers there will be more time for social-emotional learning and "the development of the 21st-century skills that will be necessary to thrive in an increasingly automated workplace." \

How Do We Do It?

Well, we can use the tech that exists, so that's a relief. But it is "no small task."  It will require commitment "across a broad range of stakeholders," all the way down to the students who have to decide they want more of their education managed by computers.

The report offers four "imperatives" that have to be in place to properly bring on a happily computerized learning for students time savings for teachers.

Target investment: The schools that have had some success with this "have often been able to access more funding." Or to put it another way, this whole set-up is really expensive. So pump in the money and spend smart.

Start with easy solutions: If you do a good job handling administrivia or "simple evaluative tools for formative testing" then that will whet teachers' appetite for "more holistic solutions." In other words, if the stuff works, people are more inclined to welcome it than when it doesn't work.

Share what is working: This isn't going to happen, not because teachers don't like to share, but because every single one of these "solutions" comes from a company with a marketing department. The report calls for "neutral arbiters," but there is no such animal. Teachers and administrators will be on their own to sort through the swamp of marketing claims, many of which will be designed to appeal to the administrator who buys the software and not the teachers who will use it (or not).

Building the capacity of teachers and school leaders to blah blah blah look, this just means win a bunch of hearts and minds and train a bunch of people not only to be able to use the stuff, but to want to use it. It will involve a lot of noise about using things with fidelity and getting tech fully integrated so that everyone can be on the same page. It involves the same kind of PR we're looking at now, designed to convince teachers that whatever is being pitched is inevitable; it's how the future absolutely will be, so just smile and relax. All will be assimilated. It's easier if you don't fight it.

You will notice that not one of the four imperatives is "talk to actual teachers and find out what the hell they would find useful."

So That's The New Skins For the Old Wine

Absolutely nothing in the substance of this pitch has changed. Nothing. Computerize as much as you can, including selection and delivery of instruction, which will be "personalized" by an algorithm that may or may not be any good. Teachers can stick around to be "coaches." It's the same Personalized [sic] Learning business for the computerized classroom that we've been hearing for a while.

All that's changed here is the packaging. Now instead of claiming that this will educate the young humans super well, it's a advance that will aid teachers by freeing up their time to coach and facilitate and data enter and learn how to use software and, in plenty of cases, look for a new job. It still puts a computer at the center of the classroom, and it still delivers a sub-standard education-flavored product.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo! You nailed the "artificial intelligence" flimflam to the wall quite well with this one.