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Deadweight

In an Op-Ed written by Ok Go member Damian Kulash Jr, he describes how his record company, with the help of YouTube, has made it impossible to embed their new videos in external sites. Since the change, there has been a marked drop in viewings of the Here It Goes Again video:

When EMI disabled the embedding feature, views of our treadmill video dropped 90 percent, from about 10,000 per day to just over 1,000. Our last royalty statement from the label, which covered six months of streams, shows a whopping $27.77 credit to our account.

(Seriously, take some time and click on the above link to the video. $27.77 for 6 months? Wow)

Leaving aside the incredible shortsightedness of a policy that eliminates free marketing, I was struck by the deadweight that musicians carry with them as part of a record deal. Industry lawyers needed to vet this change in policy, industry PR and Marketing people needed to articulate this new strategy, and these people's salaries are paid by the talent of the musicians "represented" by the label.

(Photo credit: betseyweber, original available here)

Except that, as this situation clearly demonstrates, the business needs of the recording industry often run counter to the creative needs and processes of musicians. The recording industry is bloated with administrative deadweight that contributes little to nothing to the people creating music.

And the more I think about it, the more I see parallels between what is happening with music and what is happening with education.

In education, as in music, there is an Education Industry that has differing goals and interests of the people upon whom they depend for their continued existence. While the goals of the education industry do not need to diverge from the actual needs of students and teachers, in practice the needs of the education industry require that organizations spend money that has little or nothing to do with student performance.

A broad range of companies and organizations lobby Congress about Education (at the national level, as well as at the state and local levels); several of the larger textbook companies spend money for lobbyists. It's almost like they lobby on issues that dovetail with the products they sell, to the point where it's difficult to tell if the product line follows the legal requirements, or the legal requirements follow the product line. But in any case, it's probably easier to tease out the relationship between lobbyist influence and business needs than the relationship that any of this has to making schools a better place.

It's also worth noting the money spent on lobbyists spent by the College Board -- you know, the people that brings us the SAT and Friends, and who create a need for a test-preparation industry that rakes in millions from anxious teens and their parents. These players occupy space in the educational market, and generate an incredible amount of revenue, yet I doubt you will find many people making the argument that learning how to take the SAT brings greater intellectual growth than creating a portfolio. What could happen if the resources poured into test preparation were instead directed towards Arts education, or -- to help counter increased rates of obesity -- Outdoor Education?

The money spent on testing becomes even more questionable when one considers the apparent correlation between family income and student performance on tests.

The existing conference model of professional development provides another example where industry needs have diverged from the needs of teachers and learners. Virtually all of these conferences have a vendor driven model (about the only exception I know of is Educon). For vendors, these conferences are an opportunity to connect with (aka market to) the people they view as their customers. For attendees, however, this means that a portion of their professional development experience is cluttered with sessions devoted to salespeople extolling the virtues of their product in the educational process. There doesn't need to be a disconnect between the needs of companies and their customers, but the vendor-driven model tends to put the product as the focus, as opposed to the needs of the learner. A more authentic approach -- and the approach taken by many classroom teachers -- is to assess what students need, and assemble resources based on that need. However, using technology in response to a need -- rather than buying up technology because vendors offer district-wide rollouts -- doesn't help people make sales quotas, and doesn't convince vendors that their sponsorship dollars are well spent.

The next time you are at a conference, wander onto the vendor floor. Do a quick count of the number of booths, and the number of people at each booth, and what the vendors are giving away. The cost of this marketing is reflected in the cost of products sold to teachers, schools, and districts. Given that schools are increasingly being held accountable for the cost of supplies (how many teachers have had to supply paper for your classroom?), it would be nice to see something that resembles restraint from organizations that profit directly from schools.

The process of reworking how we teach and learn requires more than just changing how the interpersonal exchanges between teacher and student take place; it will also require a critical rethinking of how we assess learning, and a critical rethinking of how we equip ourselves to teach and learn. Many companies make a tidy profit within the current supply chain, and they will not passively go away simply because there are better ways of doing things that renders them obsolete. And in case you're wondering, a teacher's lobby doesn't feel like the answer; the American Federation of Teachers has been pretty active, and they haven't done much. I don't know whether we need to get on or off the treadmill, but we certainly need to get moving. The educator's voice -- the principals and teachers working in schools -- has been largely absent from the conversation. How can the people doing the actual work become more involved in shaping the policy?

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