Why the ‘Best’ Ideas in Education Technology and Reform Don’t Win
Education reformers and technologists often lament that the best ideas or tools don’t win. Might those failures have less to do with financial challenges or lack of product-market “fit,” than with a failure to understand the pieces and politics at play in the board game of education?
I thought of this while reading a fascinating and provocative article titled “Want to Fix Public Schools? Fix the Public First” by David J. Ferrero, an educational consultant and former program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Paul G. Allen Foundation, that provides a comprehensive run-down of public-school stakeholders and the interactions between them.
Educational stakeholders, according to Ferrero, fall into three categories: “Professionals” (which include teachers, researchers, entrepreneurs and reformers), “Provocateurs” (including journalists, politicians and advocacy groups), and “People” (including students, parents and taxpayers), all of which interact in complex and dynamic ways. Ideally, new education ideas or reform efforts should align as many interested parties as possible, and leave no one behind.
While noble, this desire can blind even the best-intentioned of us to the fact that genuine and legitimate interests come into conflict all the time. Teachers want and need more resources that taxpayers do not always want to provide. Similarly, when a family sues a school district over equitable distribution of resources, conflict between parties has risen to a point that the legal system must intervene.
Making things even more complicated are conflicting agendas within each stakeholder category.
For example, every educational reformer is trying to convince other stakeholders that their ideas will solve a problem in education. But since there are many problems that need to be solved, and many different potential solutions to each problem, innovators must compete for the attention of stakeholders in other categories.
Are equity issues better solved through rigorous academics, or by prioritizing students’ social and emotional wellbeing? In theory, we can do it all under the rubric of a “whole child” approach. But in a school system with finite resources, “whole child education” is likely to be defined differently in different places to reflect stakeholders’ narrower preferences on how equity challenges are best addressed.
Understanding this complex landscape can help entrepreneurs and educational reformers avoid pitfalls that their predecessors fell into. Such innovators spend much of their time focusing on product, problem-fit, fundraising and budgets—and reasonably so. But what if changing education is not a game of Tinker Toys or Monopoly, but of strategy games like Risk or Settlers of Catan?
Those sorts of board games are less about making things or raising and spending cash than they are about marshalling forces, shaping alliances, negotiating with fellow players and understanding the landscape. To win, you have to amass resources and deploy them strategically, understand the nature of not just land masses but the psychology of fellow players.
Or consider your effort the equivalent of a political campaign requiring you to not just pull together a coalition that gets you 51 percent of the vote, but one that will leave you with the ongoing support needed to achieve your goals once in office.
In the field of education, the coalitions you need to put together might include teachers with staggering workloads. School administrators and district superintendents have their own priorities, like dealing with state mandates or budget issues. Parents want what’s best for their own children; some channel their energies trying to get the school system to change in ways they prefer. Politicians want to be seen as supportive of education, even if they may define support in different or even diametrically opposed ways.
Any educational change effort, from investing in a new product to embracing a reform agenda, must take into account where the interests of these players overlap and diverge.
Ferrero points out how the accountability movement that began in the 1980s succeeded by aligning the interest of not everyone, but rather a critical mass of constituencies in the public education system. Whatever you think of billions of dollars and countless hours invested in academic standards, regular testing and data-collection regimes, these efforts illustrate how dramatic change can happen when the interest of enough educational stakeholders are in sync.
Those who believe their superior products and ideas will win the day tend to lose to those who understand human psychology and the dynamics of coalitions. Similarly, an edtech invention (no matter how brilliant) or reform effort (no matter how necessary) is likely to fail if the people behind them don’t put the time and effort needed to understand the other human beings—in all their wonderful and frightening complexity—who make up the educational ecosystem.