Thursday, October 15, 2020

McKinsey Has Ideas For Fixing Schools (Pandemic Edition)

McKinsey is the 800-pound consulting gorilla with its hairy hands in everything. That includes dabbling in education; they've consulted with Boston schools and shown how to slash and privatize the crap out of the district, they've made data based advanced analytics explanations of how to improve test scores, and they've made the argument for computerizing classrooms. Their world view is captured by Anand Giridharadas in the must-read Winners Take All, dubbed Marketworld. They are the kings of neo-liberal thinking-- use data, unleash markets, measure everything (especially money). 

So of course it's no surprise that they have some thoughts about how global education should respond to the whole pandemic crisis. Some of it sounds good, but it's important to pay attention to the language (probably a good motto for this blog).

Yet crises often create an opportunity for broader change, and as education systems begin to make decisions about investments for the new school year, it’s important to step back and consider the longer-term imperative to create a better system for every child beyond the pandemic.

Yeah, "investments." Because everything is an investment with these guys, and every investment needs a return.

The process starts with a key question: What are we trying to achieve, for whom, by when, and to what standards? Our research shows that top-performing school systems can vary significantly in curricula, assessments, teacher behaviors, and even desired outcomes.

Hmm. That first sentence is not bad, but notice that somewhere between the first and second sentence, we have already answered all the questions. Because if you don't know the answers to those questions, how do you know if a school is top-performing? 

The article lays out its argument about four key points, claiming that "we know from decades of study that every school system must first get these basic elements right." Then they get into how to double down on these, which is where the real money is.

Four Core 

Here are McKinsey's "what works" basics that they want to recommit to.

* Core skills and instruction. Everyone needs to be able to read and math. They cite the confused stat that students who can't "read proficiently" (aka "pass a standardized test"0 in third grade are likely to drop out of school, but as usual we skip the difference between correlation and causation. You might be surprised to learn that "research has identified the curricula, instructional materials, and teaching methods that are most effective in helping children learn." I'm pretty sure that is unsupportable baloney, but McKinsey is all about reducing a process to a proscribed procedure identified by data analytics. Just get the machine built and in place.

* High-quality teachers and teaching. "Technology," they assure us, "will never replace a great teacher." Systems need to develop and support teachers. We'll see.

* Performance measurement. Data shouldn't be used to punish, just to know current performance and what the benchmarks are. Count McKinsey among the folks who are sure that all those (highly lucrative) standardized tests are super-important in pandemic times.

* Performance level and context. We need to measure and rank school systems and provide interventions of different types depending on how bad the schools are. Poor performers need centralized control, while top performers need more autonomy. 

Their prescriptions

I know I keep forgetting to bring up the pandemic, which is ostensibly McKinsey's reason for laying all this out. But they kind of forget it, too, pointing out here that "progress in educational outcomes " (again, "test scores") has stalled in recent years. Covid-19 is a "signal," or "opportunity" to "embrace more radical innovation" (aka "disrupt") school systems. 

Here's how McKinsey wants to do that:

Harness technology to scale

All right, so they know we can't just hand out devices to students. Also, "giving lectures on a video call is rarely a substitute for face-to-face-learning" (so much for Khan Academy). But we have to get tech out there, doing magic techy stuff, like "solar powered tablets preloaded with research-based, self-paced math and literacy software" that students can use "with supervision from any adult."

Move toward mastery-based learning

Lordy. Personalized. Adaptive. Blended. Mastery-based. It's buzzword bingo time here, with no solid research base for any of it. But "technology has made the model even more compelling." No, but it has made it more profitable.

Support children holistically

This section leads off with this statement:

Previous research has outlined the correlation between mindsets and academic performance, but the shift to remote learning has put it into stark relief.

If that seems a little starkly vague, the follow-up suggests that all they mean is that students who work well on their own are doing better at distance learning. Also,sun is expected in the East tomorrow. Their point is that schools need to address the whole child and although we're dodging the term "social and emotional learning," that's what we're getting at. McKinsey does have the astounding insight that students need to "go beyond what they simply need to find work," which is exactly the kind of insight you get from people who don't actually spend any time in the classroom with actual young humans. It's just a little more ironic coming from the sector that has hammered relentlessly on how schools should focus on better preparing tomorrow's meat widgets to corporate specs. 

They're going to cite International Baccalaureate and KIPP as exemplars here, ignoring the self-selecting nature of IB and the creaming nature of KIPP, as well as skipping past the part where KIPP and other charters decide that the no excuses model they've been holistically hammering students with might be a bad idea and let's drop it.

Help students adapt to the future of work

All that stuff about going beyond job-getting? Yeah, ignore that and let's get back to producing the worker bees that corporations will want in the future. Plus, more computery stuff! McKinsey is all about automation concerns for future employment, and not so much talking about how many workers are simply under bid by peanut-waged workers in regulation-free countries. Of course, all of these trends are driven, in part, by the work of consulting forms like McKinsey that help corporations squeeze that last drop of blood out of their working turnips.

Invest in new models of teacher prep and development  

I do not disagree, but their ideas are mostly dumb, like using computer simulations to train pre-teachers. This is a dumb idea, and it's the kind of dumb idea you come up with when you start with the premise that a computer has to be part of your solution. Mind you, simulations are great; I did plenty of them in Teacher School with Dr. Schall sitting in the back of the room providing what would turn out to be highly realistic portrayals of the students I would meet in the classroom. My school also required real pre-student teaching hours spent with live human children, 

McKinsey also wants to turn technology loose in the professional development arena, though what they seem to mean is using software to assist untrained teachers, citing the Bridge International program in Liberia, providing school in a can to replace the Liberian public education system. The best they can do is claim that Bridge gave students an extra two and a half years of learning over three years, which of course just means they raised test scores.

Unbundle the role of teacher

Lot of gobbledeegook here, but it boils down to breaking the teacher job into "high-value activities" and other stuff, much in the same way that Ray Kroc broke down the business of supplying customers with food in a way that just happened to drastically lower job requirements and labor costs. 

Allocate resources equitably to support every student  

Here's a crazy thought. What if we jiggered the economic system so that the profits and rewards of successful corporations were more evenly distributed to all the workers, allowing them to accumulate greater wealth and improving everyone's station in life, thereby having the effect of reducing the number of poor communities poorly served by poor schools? 

That, of course, is not what McKinsey is talking about here. They acknowledge the disparities that exist, such as racial ones in the US. They toss out redrawing boundaries, pairing top and bottom districts, and of course this great idea--

Could systems around the world incentivize top schools to offer all their advanced classes and electives, along with mentors, resources, and other forms of help, to high-poverty neighbors? Could that start with the remote-learning instruction currently being rolled out?

The ever popular idea that we just find out what the teachers are doing at West Egg High School, and transplant those ideas to East Egg High School. Maybe even move some of the teachers. You may recall the years of being told that calling poverty a factor in the performance of high-poverty schools was just making excuses, and it was probably that the poor schools had all the crappy teachers. McKinsey's still right there. Put a pin in this subhead, because we'll be back.

Rethink school structures and policies

Here's the old "schools haven't changed in 100 years," only McKinsey is going to say 300 years. They're going to also cite the baloney about covid sliding. They're going to bring up proficiency based learning. Maybe change the calendar. Switch things up, guys!

McKinsey's Fundamental Disconnect   

Here's the thing about McKinsey--they love change and disruption for everyone except the people at the top. They will gladly suggest that education be disrupted in a hundred different ways, as long as those ways don't inconvenience rich and powerful people. So my idea about disrupting the economic system, the rules and laws that have tilted it, so that we don't have huge gaps between the rich and the poor, so that we don't have one of our current fundamental education problems, which is that people who can buy and sell entire schools for their own children get huffy about having to pay taxes to educate the children of Those People. 

Sure, come up with a program, like any computer-centered whizbang that lets some wealthy entrepreneur make a buck while bragging at cocktail parties that he's helping Those People--that's a McKinsey winner. But don't mess with the upper crust status quo.

That includes not challenging any of McKinsey's amateur-hour assumptions  about education, like the notion that test-generated "data" tell you everything you need to know.

The main author on this report is Jake Bryant (who appears to be form Pittsburgh, so, Jake, next time you're home, give me a call). He's the McKinsey help-lead guy for North American education K-12; he's an "expert in online and blended learning." He ran an investment portfolio for the Gates Foundation, and before that, says his bio, he taught middle school in the US and Japan. Check LinkedIn and you find that he graduated from Harvard with a A.B. in Social Studies (that's a BA for you non-ivies), and he taught for a whopping one year, at a KIPP school in LA. I can't confirm that he was Teach for America, but it seems not unlikely.

Emma Dorn, his co-author, is the Global Education Practice Manager for McKinsey. She's been with the company for over twenty years, with a four year break to be an independent consultant at home. She's only been in their education biz for the last six years (since returning from her break). You can catch her on youtube on a variety of topics, including how teachers can stay "nimble" during the pandemic.

Look, I really don't want to be a massive jerk about this, and I know that these are real humans trying to do a job, but the combination of hubris and we-don't-know-what-we-don't-know is troubling. Over the past few decades, education has suffered mightily from the meddling of wealthy and powerful amateurs who haven't a clue about what it's like to be a career classroom teacher, and right now, in the midst of this medical mess, the last thing education needs is to hear more from these folks--particularly when they don't want to help so much as they want to grasp the opportunity to push their half-baked uninformed ideas yet again. 

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