Monday, June 29, 2009

In order to fix education - study Fleetwood Mac

I am attending the National Educational Computing Conference here in DC and went to the keynote address by Malcolm Gladwell last night. I was a fan of his after the Tipping Point. I have become a little less so in recent years – especially after reading Freakonomics and seeing a great second reason given for the reduction in NYC crime. It suddenly dawned on me that maybe anecdotal causal evidence should be suspect.

So there I was armed with a healthy dose of cynicism when Mr. Gladwell launches into a comparison of educating our children and Fleetwood Mac. Since many in the audience were from my generation, it was a good hook. The basic premise is that (he managed a quick plug of his book Outliers) we all think of Fleetwood Mac as a kind of overnight success but it took 10 years, 16 albums, many different musicians to get to that big. Note that the core group of musicians who produced the self titled album and Rumors were an overnight success. So it is a bit of a stretch from the beginning – but it was not too much of a leap.

So Mr. Gladwell states that “studies have shown” that it takes 10,000 hours to master anything and that it is almost pointless to rush that time like the 10 years for Fleetwood Mac. He then points out that on the TIMSS test (the math test where US students are horrible) there is a 120 question psychology survey at the beginning. Heinously long for any survey and most kids don’t like to finish it. Turns out that the kids that answer the most questions on the psych test are also the same kids that perform the best on the math test. His dramatic conclusion is that math isn’t about math aptitude but the patience and ability to slog through lengthy, time consuming work – 10 years just like Fleetwood Mac.

Now – his data can be questioned a bunch of different ways – but I do agree with his premise. Here in the US we have come to the “belief system” that you are either good at math or bad at math. And either way, more practice will not help. We choose to ignore the 10,000 hour rule while other countries that have gone way beyond us choose to give everyone a lot of math practice to master the concepts.

Then I got distracted for a little while because I was outside the hall in a viewing lounge and 15 different people were twittering on his talk – pretty funny to see all those computers up on twitter – half of this little audience were in full tweet.

The second lesson of Fleetwood Mac is that they didn’t really build on their initial success – they built on their failures. A capitalization strategy builds on success and a compensation strategy builds on failures. His theory is that people/groups (like Fleetwood Mac) who build on compensation strategies are much more successful. Thus we should let students fail and they will compensate by being better students. He then made it sound like only people who are dyslexic can make great CEO’s because of their compensation strategies.

Again – I kind of agree with the premise and believe that part of our problem over the last 15 years is raising the most pampered generation in history where no one can fail – everyone gets a trophy for participating and we socially promote kids that can’t read.

The final lesson from Fleetwood Mac is that they tried many different music genres before deciding on the California sound (huge leap here – they decided on that because Stevie Nicks joined the band and that is what she was good at). His conclusion is that student learning is likely a zig zag pattern and not a linear progression but all schools are set up on a linear focus.

Again – the data link is weak but the conclusion is sound. We need more individualized instruction and learning that is not structured on an archaic system but is based on the student’s ability to learn.

So I can agree with Malcolm. In order to fix student learning we need to fully analyze Fleetwood Mac - - but the leap it took to get to that conclusion was pretty lame.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Education Innovation - see Seattle

This week I trekked out to Seattle to check out a couple of latest advances in education companies. I stopped by Global Scholar and Scholarity to get an update on their offerings. I was very impressed.

Global Scholar has an education management system that is pretty amazing and can gather and mine the data teachers need to really understand their classes. As a test geek, I was also very impressed with item level analysis their software can provide so that teachers, who are not test developers, can figure out which questions are good and which need to be tossed. If the data is there, it can be analyzed quickly and easily through this platform. As we look to the classroom of the future, tools like this will create that “disruption” we crave. I think it also makes for a larger grouping of students who are managed through the education process by a senior instructor, a junior instructor and a few analysts.

That can be accomplished on a greater scale with Scholarity. I got a sneak peak of their software which provides Intuitive, Adaptive and Personalized (IAP) learning through their software platform. I was pretty blown away by this innovation. The software analyzes your performance as you work through courses to adapt to your level. As we look for the classroom of 1 that can truly provide differentiated instruction, this platform has the ability today. It provides additional work and practice based on how well you grasp each concept. If you forget something, it takes you back to refresh that knowledge before you move on. It goes at your pace and continues to challenge you every time you master a concept. Plus it checks each step of multi-step algebra problem and points to the exact step where you went wrong. How cool is that.

With groups of students working at their own pace with their Instructor and his/her helpers moving around, students will move much quicker through the material and those who struggle will not be lost as the teacher keeps the pace centered on the average students. And those who are ready to move on, will not be bored waiting for others.

Seattle, with a seemingly endless supply of former Microsoft software experts and ties to inexpensive engineers in India, will supplant New York as the education location in the United States if these two companies are any indicator.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Efficient and Effective Ed Training

Let’s be brutally honest – how many of you have gone to training and really felt like the training was worth the price AND created a lasting change in your performance or the performance of your organization. I have been to some pretty good training and I have taken bits and pieces of that training and applied it in my organization. But I don’t think it ever created lasting change in our performance?

But when you are paying so much for the training shouldn't it work? If you set the bar high on training, most training courses don’t cut it. In fact, after we starting budgeting training dollars here at ABCTE, we really couldn’t find anything that was worth the price that we felt was going to truly transform us into a better performing organization.

So I fell back on using the company book club. I started this at Kaplan after our President had us read some of the better management texts out there such as Good to Great and Straight from the Gut. The information was immediately applicable to our organization and the discussions with our management group really helped push us to change. If it could help upper management, it could help our team. So at our team meetings, we took time to have a book club - discussing relevant topics that could help us do our jobs better.

So when I got here and we needed training it just made sense to do the same. Every six months or so we pick a book for all staff to read. Then we have mixed groups get together at lunch and discuss in a book club like format. We always steer the discussion towards how it can help our organization perform better. We have had very meaningful discussions with all levels of the organization really hearing what our problems are and how our teams think we can solve them.

So far we have read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and The Tipping Point. Both were relevant to our own situation and the discussions have created some incredible outcomes for our management team and the staff.

The total cost for this training consists of the book for each staff member and lunch for each person for each of the three discussions. Total training cost so far for 31 staff for two sets of training - $2,700. Training for 31 that is much more effective and efficient for the price of sending 2-3 people to one training class.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Scalable and Sustainable

With the huge dollars getting tossed around in education right now there is a lot of talk about “scale” and “sustainable” when Sec. Duncan and his staff talk about this opportunity. However, in most operations that are funded by the US DOE, I have never seen either scalable or sustainable as a part of their business model.

At ABCTE we were always careful to ensure that we did have a model that could be scalable. A venture capital site has a good definition that says that a business is scalable if it has two things:

  1. The cost of each incremental dollar in revenue must be going down
  2. The business must be able to grow — even if you throw mediocre resources at it

Next month ABCTE celebrate the end of our initial grant. In most non-profits, this is not reason to celebrate, but here we have made sure that we meet both of the two criteria above and are seeing our cost per revenue continue to drop dramatically. At the same time, we are throwing considerably less resources at our growth.

In two years when the ARRA funds dry up so will the programs that received funding. Education non-profits and government entities don’t build things that are scalable - they build things that expand to the amount of money available. ABCTE is that rare organization that is truly scalable and sustainable – and damn proud of it.

There will be shrieking

It happens every June here at ABCTE – I get yelled at because people fail their exams and are in danger of losing their jobs. About 40% of our candidates respond to our surveys that they are currently working in education. A full 20% are actually the teacher of record and they came in on an emergency license or some other license. Because of their situation, they now have until June 30th or July 31st to complete their ABCTE program or they cannot teach next year.

The problem is that people wait until the last minute to take their exams. So if they don’t pass, there isn’t a lot of time to get things done. In some cases the automatic response by these teachers is to shriek loudly at all levels of the organization hoping that someone will just miraculously pass them. Obviously this doesn’t work. So we all scramble around to get them some help and then in to re-test.

The automatic response you may have is that these people are procrastinators, at worse lazy, and don’t deserve our help. But I take a different view – they don’t have time during the year to get things done. If you have ever taught, you know that first year teaching is physically and mentally exhausting and at night you still have to tweak those lesson plans, grade papers and run your life outside of school. This doesn't leave much room to study which is why we prefer, and strongly encourage, that all alternatively certified teachers get their work done BEFORE entering the classroom. But that is not always the case with the teacher shortages out there today.

So next year we are going to push a little harder in April to reduce the shriekage in June – but knowing how hectic the end of the school year can be, I won't hold my breath.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Leads to Enrollments

We talked about leads in the last post. But leads to build your cash - enrollments do. So how do you move your leads into the customer category.

There are two things we know about the American market. The first is that people are basically lazy. The second is that they love a discount. These were the “knowns” that drove a lot of our marketing at Kaplan and now our marketing here at ABCTE.

At any meeting where we were discussing a new strategy that dealt with our customers we had to hold it up to the Basically Lazy bar. If the bar was too high, customers would never put the effort in to get over the bar and we new it would fail.

Here at ABCTE, our previous website had way too many steps in the process to enroll. We could see that we were losing people during this lengthy application process. We had to reduce the number of steps so that the payment screen came much earlier. After they paid, the rest of the enrollment could take place.

Also, any time someone says “we just have to explain to them” we know it will fail. No one will give you enough time to explain anything. It has to be simple and it has be easy or you are in trouble.

We look at everything we do to make sure we are not making our customers work too hard to give us their money. We have to make sure that our website, our products, our phone trees and all aspects of our service don’t make our customers work too hard or we will lose them.

As for getting customers, discounts are the crystal meth of the marketing world. Once you start, you’re corporate DNA is changed so that you forever addicted. So it is a decision you need to make early on. You know Americans are conditioned to buy when it is on sale. At Kaplan we had a regular discount schedule and we have followed that here at ABCTE as well. We have a Get Back to School and Teach special and a New Years Resolution: Teach. Both are highly effective at driving business. It also gives an excuse to reach out to our leads and encourage them to enroll.

Back in the day, I thought that discounts were just moving people who would have enrolled anyway. After 10 years of this, I can honestly say that they do build your business, especially in a start-up mode, and it can help you in the long term.

To increase your sales in education, make it easy for your customers and throw them a bone every once in a while with a discount. Both are highly effective tools for building your business.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Leads in Education

The value of the “lead” is both overestimated and underestimated in education. At Kaplan we got out of control with lead gathering to the point where it increased our direct mail costs to mail to people that may, or may not have been good. It took us a while to focus our lead gathering on only those people who really might purchase our products.

Meanwhile when I started at ABCTE, we had no real lead generation and capture activity and sales were dismal. Step one was to put our own phone sales team on the phone. I have never been a fan of contract sales groups as they don’t wake up every day wondering how they can get more potential teachers for ABCTE like we do. We brought sales in-house and made sure our phone sales people got the lead information we needed if they didn't get the sale on the first call.

Next we started some google ad buys, worked on getting more traffic to the website and finally put up a webform to capture those who were interested in the program right there on the website. When you provide multiple ways to capture the leads you get a heck of a lot more leads.

With google analytics we are able to determine what works and what doesn’t. We know what adwords give us the most traffic in the states where our program is accepted. Our sales increased dramatically as we worked those leads with emails, postcards and the inevitable discount twice a year.

It worked. ABCTE went from scraping by with our grant and no cash on hand to having a huge cash reserve and sales that will cover our costs. Our next goal is to improve our close rate…

Thursday, June 4, 2009

New Media in the Education World

When my team at ABCTE suggested that we get into New Media I’ll admit to being clueless and figured it to be a waste. But it was hard not to give in when I realized it didn’t really take up that much of my time and it didn’t cost anything. Two big pluses when you are working hard to grow an education company on a low budget.

So a year and half ago I started blogging. The point was to get more webhits by having more searchable content that was in demand. It would also bring more links to our page and help build our reputation in the education world.

So we started Dave on Ed and Finding Excellent Teachers. We were lucky enough to make a few blogrolls and start to get noticed. Gradually over the next year we built up to about 100 hits a day just to our blog – respectable for a relatively unknown group. Next we started participating in a “Carnival of Education”. This was a great way for the blog to get noticed and really starting driving traffic. Each week a different education blogger provides a summary and link to the “best of” each education blogger that week. I of course made sure that the search engines knew about each blogpost by hitting Ping O Matic each time. These links continue to build our relevance in search engines. I continue to blog twice per week and while we don’t get huge hits, the number of hits certainly justify the time. And the occasional venting of rage at the education machine is quite cathartic.

The next step was facebook and I will totally admit to feeling like this was useless. I was already on linkedin. But I built a facebook page, totally annoying my kids, and we have one for the organization. I kept a daily post of what we are doing at ABCTE interspersed with some personal stuff. I then added the blogfeed feature to my facebook (and linkedin) and started to develop fans for my blogs which built more traffic.

I was unsure of the impact from all this until this summer after about 6 months of facebook updates. When I go to conferences now and start to talk about what we are doing people already know. I have heard numerous times – “oh yeah I saw that on your facebook”. It is far better than an email or a newsletter or any other method of keeping people up to date on your progress because people will read a headline. They may or may not go to a link and read something long. But in the sound byte world we live in you want to make damn sure people are seeing your progress.

A few months ago we layered twitter onto our new media program. I will admit that I don’t have the time to do this on a personal level but Mike Holden, our amazing PR person, does a great job on an organization wide twitter that covers my blog, our progress, our teachers and other great events. We are starting to get a lot of retweets which continues to keep the PR machine rolling and build more of a following.

A few weeks ago a woman retweeted our twitter of my blogpost, which autofed to my facebook and linkedin about appearing on a Mississippi blogradio station that night. Now that is new media.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Mission or Metrics

If you don’t measure it you don’t know if you are getting there. When I first came to ABCTE I was stunned to find out that no one really knew if we were on our way to success or disaster. The organization had to become self-sustaining through the fees generated through the program but no one knew how many new candidates we were recruiting. This was a huge problem. One of the most critical metrics for success was not being tracked, no one responsible for it and ultimately it was not moving in a positive direction.

Also, a small non-profit is very much dependent on word of mouth and we didn’t know if our customers liked us or hated us. Finally, as a non-profit with a mission to help alleviate teacher shortages, we really didn’t know how well we were doing to that metric either.

So the first thing we did was start measuring our progress. We started with a simple spreadsheet that showed how many new people purchased our program and how many new teachers we graduated. Separately we started tracking the “would you recommend us to a friend” percentage to look at word of mouth in a survey to our candidates and teachers. (we eventually evolved into the net promoter score for customer satisfaction)

Once we knew where we were in terms of these metrics, we started setting monthly and yearly goals. It is always difficult setting goals in a start-up but within two years you get a lot closer to setting very realistic and achievable goals.

Now that we have these initial metrics in place it is time to move even further back in the process to find other metrics that can help us determine how successful we are in managing the rapid growth of this education business.

The one mistake that can happen in developing metrics in education is to focus too closely on the numbers and not enough on the mission. If you lose sight of the ultimate mission of your group then you lose the inspiration and motivation that comes from having a positive influence on students. You begin to sound more like a used care salesman and less like an evangelist for improved opportunities. When that happens, you most definitely hurt your education business.

You can’t focus on just one. In order to create lasting success in the education world you must balance both mission and metrics.