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Education Opinion

The Letter From: Three “E’s” In The School Improvement Industry’s Year Ahead

January 03, 2008 6 min read

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)

The opinions expressed in edbizbuzz are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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