Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Bring red flags, lots of red flags – Part II: Maybe too-good-to-be-true claims might be too good to be true

[This buzzword-filled and often somewhat patronizing (particularly at the beginning) New York Times Magazine account of entrepreneurs and Ivy League grads from the USA rescuing the poor children of Africa from poverty and ignorance is so filled with disturbing details, portents of disaster, and indications of general bullshit that we will need to take more than one pass at this. You can find part one here.]

If you take down a few pages, there is some good, substantial reporting by Peg Tyre on this story. Unfortunately, as is all too often the case with New York Times Magazine articles, the first act is almost entirely credulous and laudatory. For example:

By 2015, Bridge was educating 100,000 students, and the founders claimed that they were providing a ‘‘world-class education’’ at ‘‘less than 30 percent’’ of what ‘‘the average developing country spends per child on primary education.’’ This would represent a remarkable achievement. None of the founders had traditional teaching experience. May had been an unpaid teacher at a school in China; Kimmelman worked with teachers and administrators developing an ed-tech company. How had they pulled it off? In interviews and speeches, they credited cutting-edge education technology and business strategies — the company monitors and stores a wide range of data on subjects including teacher absenteeism, student payment history and academic achievement — along with their concern for the well-being of the world’s poorest children. That potent mixture, they said, had allowed them to begin solving a complex and intractable problem: how to provide cheap, scalable, high-quality schooling for the most vulnerable, disadvantaged children on earth. Their achievement, they believed, could change the world — the subject line of a 2014 Bridge company email read, ‘‘What do Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jay Kimmelman and Shannon May have in common?’’ The next year, the venture capitalist Greg Mauro, who is a Bridge board member, told The Wall Street Journal that if all went as planned, the company would seek an initial public stock offering in 2017.

The following needs to be an immutable law of journalism: when someone with no track record comes into a field claiming to be able to do a job many times better for a fraction of the cost, the burden of proof needs to shift quickly and decisively onto the one making the claim. The reporter simply has to assume the claim is false until substantial evidence is presented to the contrary. Put another way, the appropriate response is not "How had they pulled it off?"

In addition, the journalist cannot allow those making the claims to frame the argument or decide what qualifies as satisfactory or innovative. In this case,  Kimmelman and May should never have been allowed to label their own tech and strategies as "cutting-edge," particularly since the examples they give appear to be fairly standard and not merely powerful enough to support their highly implausible assertions.

Later on in the piece, Tyre actually does start digging into the business model, where the key drivers seem to be using cheap, substandard buildings, hiring undertrained and unqualified instructors, employing strong-arm collection tactics, and doing lots of marketing. There is nothing especially groundbreaking about this approach and it is unlikely to "change the world," at least not in a good way.

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