Status Makes Us All Stupid

A friend once told me what he felt to be an iron rule: “status makes you stupid.”

His point: once people get famous, the quality of their work goes down. I’ve often found this to be true.

Well, I’ll put forth a corollary to this rule: “status makes us all stupid.”

My point: the desire to seek status over actual learning hampers innovation in the field of education. This makes us all a little stupider by denying us access to potential innovative practices. 

Why does this occur?

Innovation comes from both the bottom (disruptive innovation beginning with low cost non-users) and the top (early adopters paying a lot of money for first wave technology and programs). 

I might be biased, but it seems that much of recent public education innovations has come from the disruptive side, with education reformers attempting to meet the needs of students stuck in failing urban school systems.

Less innovation has come from the wealthy end of the consumer spectrum. Elite private schools just don’t seem to be changing that much (at least from what I can tell from afar, if you know otherwise, let me know). 

Why is this?

Well, perhaps these schools are already delivering the near optimal education program.

I’m skeptical that this is true.

More likely: the wealthy are paying for status (and perhaps peer effects) more so than they are paying for educational programming. 

Schools respond when people pay for status: we get beautiful buildings, wonderful extracurriculars, and a lot of social events. 

Of course, these things don’t spread to all schools because they involve costly goods rather than innovations in instruction.

So instead of the wealthy subsidizing the early adoption of innovation, the reverse seems more likely true: it’s the practices of urban charter schools (Teach Like A Champion, Leveraged Leadership, blended learning, etc.) that will end up spreading to the suburbs. 

We would all be better off if innovation was occurring at both ends of the educational spectrum.

So hear’s my plea to the wealthy of the world: quit (mostly) seeking status and subsidize some education innovation.

We’ll all end up smarter if you do. 


10 thoughts on “Status Makes Us All Stupid

  1. Joe Connor

    I think our notion of innovation is too low in education. Innovation is creating a new method, idea or product. Many of the education reformers today are rediscovering old practices and techniques that have been shown to work and rebranding them.

    1. No excuses behavior system – very similar to “old school” Catholic schools
    2. Smaller schools (KIPP average is roughly 400) – most Catholic schools and public schools throughout history in the US were small (i.e. one room classroom etc)
    3. TLAC – teacher moves that have been known for years

    Yes, it can be considered innovative putting all of these systems and routines into one school model, but it is still not real “innovation”. None of this is meant as disparaging. KIPP, Rocketship, Aspire, Lemov and others are all doing great work that is having measurable impacts on students’ lives, but it is still not innovation.

    Real innovations are things that have never been created before or never before been effectively created: the iPad, the Ford assembly line, and the self driving car. None of those products or routines was old or borrowed. I don’t know if there is real innovation occurring today in the education sector. Ideas that come to mind would be mostly blended learning based:

    1. MOOCs
    2. Khan Academy
    3. Blended learning
    4. 4.0 schools

    I disagree with the notion that change will come from the bottom as well. Almost all large technology changes/shifts occur the opposite way. 100 years ago only the rich could have afforded a refrigerator, automobile and a telephone. Nowadays those are standard for most American households. I think it is more likely, based on this theory, that we will see change come from an innovative private school, such as AltSchool or Acton Academy, and then filter down to the remaining public schools.

    What if a private school could afford to buy Oculus headsets for all of their students to re-enact famous historical scenes or view the changing of matter at the molecular level? Eventually (hopefully) the luxury good, Oculus headset, would become cheaper and public schools would be able to afford it at their public funding levels and use it as well.

    What we need in education today is not incremental growth, but exponential growth.

    1. nkingsl

      Joe – great to hear from you. Some thoughts:

      1. I’m not sure that I agree that things like TLAC are not innovative. The car was invented in early 1900s – but the iterations, standardization, etc. made what we have today. Breakthroughs are important – but so is improvement and scaling.

      2. But maybe this is semantics – if you equate innovation to the original breakthrough, then yes, we could use some more asap.

      3. But don’t dismiss disruptive bottom-up – things like Air BnB will transform industries and they started at the bottom.

      4. And while I agree that exponential would be great, that doesn’t mean it’s possible. Perhaps the next two decades will be iterative. This is not uncommon for industries – exponential is more rare than the norm.

      Thanks again,


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  4. Rick Hull


    When you talk about what the wealthy are paying for, aren’t you referring to the tuition that parents pay to the school chosen for their children’s education? If so, isn’t it too much to ask that they experiment?

    Elite private schools do provide status, but it’s arguable the network effect dominates, with better peers, role models, teachers, and post-graduation contacts and opportunities. Selection and sorting should provide distinct benefits in terms of faster coverage of more material.

    Can your plea address these concerns?

    1. nkingsl

      Rick, good to hear from you.

      I agree on peer effects – this has real impact.

      But I guess my take is that it would be in the wealthy’s best interest (to the extent they care about education rather than just status) to experiment with instruction, as they would risk little with some experimentation (in that they could maintain the peer effects) while also playing around with different instructional models that may end bettering the whole field.

      So I guess I see decent upside with little downside.


      1. Joe Connor


        What types of instructional models would you like to see? Are you talking about Waldorf, Montessori etc or an as yet not invented instructional model?

        I think that the chartering model can be a place of innovation too. I worry that charters have become too focused on “No Excuses” models at the expense of other focuses. I think that No Excuses fill a need and are an excellent choice for a certain type of child and family. If the ed reform movements really wants to push for expansion of chartering and education reform then they will have to appeal to middle income and upper income parents through different instructional models. I think Bricolage in New Orleans is a good example of this.

        I also think that No Excuses models are beginning to incorporate more of the whole child models into their classrooms and that is encouraging as well. Success Academy is very intentional with having “play time” for Kinder and 1st graders.

        Ultimately someone needs to start funding innovative learning methods and models. Whether it is the government and philanthropy directing money towards low income students in charters or whether it is a wealthy private school innovating ultimately matters less than the fact that innovation is actually happening. Currently I don’t think there is enough innovation at either end to be optimistic.

      2. Rick Hull

        Ah, of course. I misunderstood your intended audience, thinking as an education consumer rather than producer. I definitely agree that wealthy schools are in the best position to innovate and that their results and methodologies can inform everyone else. However, the more selective schools’ experience would not replicate.

  5. educationrealist

    Teach like a Champion isn’t remotely innovative, and it only ‘works” for schools that lock in the behavior system it supports. It gives many, many teachers th3e creeps. (raises hands). The only people who think TLAC is innovative, much less successful, are people firmly ensconced in a cocoon.

    Probably the biggest innovation of the past 40 years is learning how to teach kids who don’t really want to learn. And teachers do that in all sorts of different ways.

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