Thursday, September 16, 2010

Education Reform that Isn't

The Choice is the name of a blog that Jacques Steinberg maintains on the Web site for The New York Times. He has chosen a subtitle that doubles as a mission statement, "Demystifying College Admissions and Aid." This morning's post may amount to an admission that he has his work cut out for him. Apparently both MTV and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are getting into the game; and my guess is that their collusion will cook up a whole new brew of mystification, even if that mystification offers itself in the garb of philanthropy. Here is the basic message from Steinberg's opening paragraphs:

As the stern proctor of the hardly hip SAT exam, the College Board would seem an odd recipient of prominent attention on MTV. It is difficult to imagine a scantily clad, lip-synching Katy Perry – to say nothing of Snooki or the Situation – rolling on a beach with a No. 2 pencil and a bubble sheet.

And yet, the music channel and the College Board are scheduled to announce this morning that they are joining together to stage a contest, the “Get Schooled College Affordability Challenge.’’ In it, “current and aspiring college students’’ are being asked to create “an innovative digital tool that helps more low- and middle-income students connect with money for school.’’

The winning individual or team will get $10,000, as well as a $100,000 budget to bring the idea to fruition. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is helping to underwrite the project.

In the interest of my own efforts towards demystification, I have removed the hyperlink that Steinberg attached to the name of this contest between the double quotes. It took me to a page that seemed to consist entirely of MTV promotional material; and, on my first pass, I could find nothing to lead me to details about the competition.

My reaction thus far may best be captured in the immortal words of Butch Cassidy (or, more accurately, Paul Newman):

Who are these guys?

Of course we all know who they are; but, in the movie, Butch's question was more of an existential inquiry into what was driving "these guys" to be so persistent in what they were doing (trying to catch Butch and Sundance). What is driving MTV and the Gates Foundation into partnership, and what are likely to be the consequences?

The latter partner may be easier to address. The Gates Foundation has done a lot of admirable work; but I am afraid that at least Bill, if not his wife, continues to believe that no problem is too hard to be solved by technology innovation. Thus, he has dreamed up an innovation contest that will turn one contestant into a young entrepreneur while presumably benefiting a whole population sector that cannot get a college education without financial aid. Ironically, if the winner is immediately launched on an entrepreneurial path, his/her status as a "current and aspiring" student will probably be jeopardized, since (s)he will have to worry about how to use his $100,000 prize to launch a viable startup, leaving all those intended beneficiaries in a holding pattern while the winning idea runs the usual gauntlet leading to launch.

What, then, is the role of MTV? My guess is that the partnership was Bill's idea. Following a wisdom-of-crowds logic, he wanted to attract as many competitors as possible. What better way to get the attention of a large pool of "current and aspiring college students" than through MTV? Furthermore, if my efforts in link navigation are indicative, MTV has an opportunity to bring more eyeballs to their Web site and probably their broadcast content. In other words I would guess that it was no accident that I had so much trouble following up on the hyperlink that Steinberg provided. (It may even have begun as a more direct link before the marketing suits realized that it had earning potential.)

I do not doubt that the cost factor for a decent education is as serious as that for decent health care. I appreciate any serious effort to reform the process. However, this particular approach is about education in only the most superficial sense of the concept. It is a road paved with good intentions that leads in the same direction as other such roads.

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