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Please Stop Hyping Social Entrepreneurship

Terror The best part of last week's NYT column on social entrepreneurs is the reference at the end to just how annoying (if hard-working) these folks can be.  Indeed.  Basically, what's being described is a fad.  Dressed up as something new and shiny, social entrepreneurship isn't that different from regular old philanthropy and reform.  It works outside the system.  It's generally small-scale.  It relies on outside funding. There's an awfully cozy, clubby feel to it. It doesn't, far as I've ever heard, close down failing efforts or even admit to failures like you'd see in the "real" world of venture capital.  It doesn't really have any big successes, measured in terms of broad and positive impact, in education. 

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Experience suggests that when anything reaches this level of hype, it is about to become declasse. The suggestion of as much lies in Brooks comment about the cachet of a Rand study.

First, statistical significance alone is meaningless and Brooks should know it.

Second, virtually none of the studies, let alone RAND studies, yet show educational significance.

Third, Rand pioneered thinking about program effectiveness as measured by the cost of the output.. None of these studies have taken cost into account. Why bother when you can barely show statistical significance, or much in the way of educational significance?

In any case, I sincerely hope that Brooks can claim to have read not a one of the relevant evaluations, nor to have delved into any of his darling organizations' financials - at least in education. What is most bothersome about all this is that by any measure of effectiveness, the folks who've got the media's attention have yet to deliver show the goods, yet reap the glory.

There's so much real value in the application of market principles and business techniques to education and other social problems. The thing is it's being shown by organizations like Success for All, rather than you name the CMO, and these folks are actually doing the work rather than travelling round the nation talking (mostly to each other) about it. The idea of harnessing business discipline to social purpose is being turned into a worthless caricature of itself with the help of normally level-headed writers like Brooks who can't seem to distinguish the poseurs from the real deal.

This group does have two areas real genius - their capacity for self-promotion and mutual reinforcement is unparalleled in education reform. See my series non a social keiretsu in edbizbuzz starting here: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/edbizbuzz/2008/02/deconstructing_the_social_keir.html

Eventually, what goes around comes around. The social entrepreneurial class can't put off results for too much longer. When the chickens do come home to roost, the studies come in, and we're left with the hangover of a lot of money spent and the philanthropic equivalent of Billy Joel's "Big Shot," will they have discredited the whole idea of market based school reform. Today, opponents can only be saying," Give them enough rope and they'll hang themselves."

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