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The Hollywoodization of Education

Posted in Ed Tech on October 8, 2014 by

The best paid teachers in America today — folks like Harvard Business School professors — make around $150,000 per year. Most teachers earn in the tens of thousands annually. Meanwhile, athletes nearly or actually convicted of major crimes can make millions or tens of millions per year. Movie stars pretending to be superheroes can rake in up to $75 million per movie. What’s going on here?

There are a few main factors that affect how much people doing a particular job, in a particular industry, at a particular moment in time, get paid. What are the differences, insofar as they affect compensation, between these two industries?

  • Necessity of product: Education is infinitely more important — our children’s prosperity and happiness, as well as the competitive future of the country, are at stake.
  • Transparency of product efficacy: Entertainment has a much clearer causal link between talent and result. Tom Cruise movies make a lot of money, and a team with LeBron James wins a lot more games (and sells a lot more merchandise and tickets) than one without him.
  • Scarcity of labor: This may appear counterintuitive to anyone who has watched any of the Twilight films, but entertainment talent is much scarcer than education talent. There’s only one LeBron, and there are only a few thousand professional athletes in the world, versus millions of teachers.
  • Distributability of product: Entertainment is traditionally much easier to distribute than education materials. Entertainment audiences have for a long time been happy to accept broadcast content vs. live performances.

So while education is infinitely more important to, you know, every major societal problem and the future of the human race, entertainment has been infinitely easier to distribute. It also has a more transparent causal relationship between quality of labor and product efficacy as well as a scarcer labor force.

Today, both entertainment and education are being rapidly transformed by information technology. Education and entertainment both required broadband penetration to rise before they felt the full force of digital disruption. That hurdle increasingly having been met, they are each now having their internet moment.

What effect will the internet have on the four variables above? For both entertainment and education, the necessity of the product won’t change, nor will the scarcity of labor. In both industries — as with any content-rich industry disrupted by the internet — transparency and distributability will increase.

The Limits of Transparency

What “works” in entertainment is already fairly transparent; the internet is making it increasingly so. Data are now used to track trends and preferences and produce new content; we’ve seen the advent of YouTube and other streaming and subscription sites (both niche and mainstream). Education is different from entertainment in that there is only one component to consuming entertainment product: you watch it. There may be ancillary forms of participation — discussion boards, blog posts, etc. — but they are purely supplemental. Education has two core components: classes and materials, and everyone has to use both. Transparency will affect them differently.

Education materials will become totally transparent in their efficacy. It will be possible to measure exactly how every piece of content affects learning outcomes, down to the percentile of proficiency gain per student per concept. Given how high the stakes are in education, this will compel materials providers to focus their efforts on product quality and service. Any publishers who produce mediocre products, and push them hard with sales and marketing, will destroy their reputations and eventually their businesses — as customers newly armed with data choose products with the strongest learning outcomes. This will be great for students and teachers, and ultimately great for textbook publishers as well.

Teachers’ effect on learning outcomes will be much more difficult to measure than that of materials. Imagine a large school where two teachers both teach the same course to different (randomized) groups of students each year. If the first teacher consistently teaches more concepts than the other, is she a better teacher? What if the other teacher excels at laying a conceptual groundwork that stays with the students longer? What if she makes them fall in love with the material? Or with learning itself? Or just generally helps them become more thoughtful, engaged citizens? What textbooks do is measurable. But teachers do much more than textbooks do, and most of what teachers do is not measurable. This is why I often say that trying to measure teacher efficacy algorithmically is not only potentially very misleading — it would be also be much more difficult and expensive than simply doing what already happens at good schools everywhere: observing teachers in the classroom.

Star Teachers and Salaries

In education, the potential consequences of increased distributability are meaningful both for teachers and the world at large. Before the internet, the value of a star teacher was distributed over dozens, maybe hundreds of people at one time. In contrast, Khan Academy’s method, using archived video, is almost infinitely scalable. MOOCs, which allow professors like Michael Sandel and David Evans to reach hundreds of thousands of students, are less scalable than Khan but still exceptionally scalable relative to bricks and mortar classes. And MOOCs are just the beginning. To date, they only offer part of what constitutes a course: lectures. Eventually, they will add robust course content and supporting services — which are now weak or absent. Today’s online courses are exciting primarily for what they represent: a future where great teachers from anywhere in the world can effectively reach students anywhere else.

But how do we define a “great teacher?” This has been a lingering source of contention between teachers, some of whom hold that teaching is intrinsically an art that cannot be measured, and administrations, some of whom hold that teaching is a science that can be assessed and improved. With online courses comes a new yardstick: popularity. Acting ability is only one part of being a movie star: charisma, luck, and project selection matter too. Similarly, teaching ability will be only one part of being a superstar online teacher. Showmanship, clarity, mass appeal, production values, etc. will all matter too.

Some will decry this as the “Hollywoodization” of teaching, and they will be right. But two very good things will also emerge. First, online distribution of star teachers will dramatically expand education access. Second, teachers’ average salaries will go up. The historical record admits no exception: countless times, across diverse industries, a transparent link between talent and revenues has dramatically increased the earning power of talent while disempowering management. Take entertainment again. Actors didn’t always get paid astronomical sums. From the late 1920s to the 1940s (“the Golden Age”), big motion picture studios had all the power. Fewer than ten studios managed everything, from production to distribution to theaters to talent to personnel. People went to the movie theater to see a “Paramount movie” or a “Warner-Bros film.” Actors had exclusive contracts with studios. It wasn’t until 1948, when the Supreme Court ruled that the studio system violated anti-trust laws, that actors got their big break. At this point, the balance of power shifted from the studios to the talent, who were now able to see what they were worth in the free market. As it turned out, it was quite a lot.

The internet will bring about a similar shift in education. Increased transparency will improve learning materials. And while it won’t be as dramatic as it was in Hollywood, there will be an increased focus on the talent in education: teachers. Not every teacher will choose to teach online. But every amazing educator who does will make the value of teaching more apparent to larger-than-ever audiences. Not every teacher will see better pay. Some teachers will become online superstars and make millions of dollars. Others will dabble online, and noticeably increase their take home pay. It will be inconsistent and gradual, but online education will inevitably do what politicians have long promised, and failed, to do: increase the average salary of teachers and respect for the profession.