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Why Johnny Can’t Pivot

(crossed-posted on  Send me an invitation!)

Back in the day when songs were stories (think mid-1970s), singer Kenny Rogers summarized the problem of the human condition with a country-rock haiku for the ages:

You’ve got to know when to hold’em
Know when to fold’em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run….

The song is ostensibly about a wizened gambler’s wisdom, back in the days when gamblers traveled on trains bound for nowhere and died quietly in their sleep. What the song is really about, though, is the quality of the metric we use to make choices. We make so many choices in the course of a day, they have become the defining fabric of modern life: aisle or window, cup or cone, soft or firm, Android or Mac.

When a start-up engages in this decision-making struggle on business development, it may use the language of “persevere or pivot.” But when a student is faced with similar struggles in school, psychologist typically employs only one term — ‘grit.’ There is no palpable alternative to grit, only “Johnny has grit” or “Johnny is lacking in grit.” Lacking in grit is considered bad. Hold’em, never fold’em.

Grit is a buzzword in educational circles right now. MacArthur “genius” award recipient Angela Duckworth’s research focuses on grit as a indicator of school and professional successes throughout life. Students who have lots of grit, a close cousin of self-control, will align themselves towards a goal over a long period of time. This can-do spirit is positively correlated with long-term achievement such as “surviving the arduous first summer of training at West Point and reaching the final rounds of the National Spelling Bee, retention in the U.S. Special Forces, retention and performance among novice teachers, and graduation from Chicago public high schools.” (

Don’t get me wrong. Grit is great. But I am concerned that there is no equivalent to the dialectic of “persevere or pivot” in this constellation of holding and folding behaviors for young people. We need to remember that there is such a thing as too much grit. With respect to learners, I hope that educational activities for younger learners are clear and possible to accomplish. As learners mature, however, we typically introduce them to more complex, ambiguous tasks that more closely resemble the cacophony of the adult world. There are fewer clear right answers, and sometimes no good answers at all.

And as such, learners need to appreciate that sometimes – often — it makes absolute sense to change course. We do our learners a disservice if we do not teach them how to assess the wisdom of a given course of action in an ongoing fashion. In our rapid-moving world, what was true yesterday is often not true today, and may directly conflict with tomorrow. We need a re-examination of how grit is considered in education, so we produce a generation of learners who can both embrace long term goals and can recalculate course when necessary.

For-profit education follies

My colleagues and I recently had a conversation about disruption innovation and how that could play out in the education space.  Fresh off work on some Master’s level Public Administration curriculum work, I piped up something trenchant about change and bureaucracy, i.e. bureaucracies may not have an incentive to streamline their processes and get all down and disruptive with it b/c the bureaucracy itself is a source of power and privilege, with favors to be collected and goodies to be doled out.  Our culture values lean, agile companies wherein efficiencies are a way to maximize profits.  As such, private enterprise is commonly touted as superior to bureaucracies as they provide more benefits to shareholders.

In the education space, it seems like maximizing profits might take the shape of outright fraud, as was the case with Corinthian College:

Interviews with staffers and students, along with government lawsuits and company regulatory filings, reveal a systematic effort to manipulate data used to recruit students and retain eligibility for federal student aid — the lifeblood of company profits…

Boosting job placement figures was part of a larger pattern of Corinthian’s massaging data on student success, including graduation rates and loan defaults, according to former employees and company records cited in government lawsuits… [an educator] tried to fail a student who rarely showed up for class or completed assignments. Administrators changed the woman’s grades to pass her, he said.

“It’s all smoke and mirrors,” Rubacha said. “They were just chasing the numbers.”

Apparently, CC had been balancing the books by relying on financial aid money from the feds, otherwise known in some circles as ‘sucking off the government teat.” Once the DOE froze the college’s access to these funds, the writing was on the wall.

I am struck by the daring and audacity of a business model such as this one that opens up previously protected domains like education to the free market but depends on government subsidies to exist.  The lamentable behavior of Corinthian College aside, this situation makes me wonder how many other de facto private colleges would not exist without generous handouts.

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