Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Being a management consultant who does not suffer fools is like being an EMT who faints at the sight of blood

An April 1st post on foolishness.
When [David] Coleman attended Stuyvesant High in Manhattan, he was a member of the championship debate team, and the urge to overpower with evidence — and his unwillingness to suffer fools — is right there on the surface when you talk with him.

Todd Balf writing in the New York Times Magazine

Andrew Gelman has already commented on the way Balf builds his narrative around Coleman ( "In Balf’s article, College Board president David Coleman is the hero and so everything about him has to be good and everything he’s changed has to have been bad.") and the not suffering fools quote certainly illustrates Gelman's point, but it also illustrates a more important concern: the disconnect between the culture of the education reform movement and the way it's perceived in most of the media.

(Though not directly relevant to the main point of this post, it is worth noting that the implied example that follows the line about not suffering fools is a description of Coleman rudely dismissing those who disagree with his rather controversial belief that improvement in writing skills acquired through composing essays doesn't transfer to improvements in writing in a professional context.)

There are other powerful players (particularly when it comes to funding), but when it comes to its intellectual framework, the education reform movement is very much a product of the world of management consultants with its reliance on Taylorism, MBA thinking and CEO worship. This is never more true than with David Coleman. Coleman is arguably the most powerful figure in American education despite having no significant background in either teaching or statistics. His only relevant experience is as a consultant for McKinsey & Company.

Companies like McKinsey spend a great deal off their time trying to convince C-level executive to gamble on trendy and expensive "business solutions" that are usually unsupported by solid evidence and are often the butt of running jokes in recent Dilbert cartoons.  While it may be going too far to call fools the target market of these pitches, they certainly constitute an incredibly valuable segment.

Fools tend to be easily impressed by invocations of data (even in the form of meaningless phrases like 'data-driven'), they are less likely to ask hard questions (nothing takes the air out of a proposal faster than having to explain the subtle difference between your current proposal and the advice you gave SwissAir or AOL Time Warner), and fools are always open to the idea of a simple solution to all their problems which everyone else in the industry had somehow missed. Not suffering fools gladly would have made for a very short career for Coleman at McKinsey.

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