ST{R}E(A)M[S]

Middle Run, White Clay Creek State Park, DESTEM–the combined educational disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics–“was first ‘coined’ as an educational term by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the early 2000s.” [William E. Dugger, circa 2011]

Of course, science and math have long been part of the school curriculum. STEM, then, arose out of the desire to apply science and math in the form of technology and engineering.

More recently, a move has been afoot to introduce a more creative element to STEM in the form of Art. The result, alternately designated STE(A)M (somewhat patronizingly, I contend) or STEAM. Two sites that elaborate on this introduction are STEM to STEAM and STEAM Not STEM. As STEAM Not STEM’s home page suggests, the addition of Art is both for its value and to stave off the decline of art in our K-12 curriculum.

I’m on board with the spirit behind STEM and equally on board with the spirit by the extension to STEAM. But at some point, we run the risk of diluting the attention we’re attempting to draw.

With STEAM, do we really mean to exclude Reading/Literacy (the R in the titular STREAMS) and Social Studies (the S)? And once we include them (and foreign language, and electives, and …), aren’t we just talking education as a whole?

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Everyone Knows that Ed Tech is Expensive. But is it?

Education technology offers the promise of better outcomes at lower cost. Lower cost? How can that be–networks and devices and software come at real expense.

If ed tech can enable these better outcomes while allowing a higher student:teacher ratio, and if the savings in personnel more than offsets the cost of the ed tech itself, then its a win on both fronts.

So what does ed tech cost?

For the past 20 years, I’ve served a town in the Boston Metrowest region as a Finance Committee member, a School Committee member, and a technology task force member. As such, I’ve had a front row seat to the implementation of ed tech in a small district (of fewer than 3,000 students).

Over the span of the last 10 years, the district has moved from a relatively ad hoc deployment of ed tech to a much more thoughtfully developed, streamlined, and integrated system.

  • The first step in this modernization was the development of a network infrastructure. A data center at the high school connects to the Internet and via optical fiber to the other four buildings in the district.
  • The second step was the distribution of laptop computers to the educators and the provision of professional development to support their use.
  • The third step was the rollout of a student one-to-one computing initiative. First at the high school level (laptops) and this year at the middle school level (Chromebooks), each student is issued a device.
  • Step four is currently in its early stages: the deployment of instructional technology on top of the infrastructure layer.

A reader might be forgiven for thinking, “Of course the leafy and relatively affluent suburbs of Metrowest Boston can afford an effort like this, but what about school districts with fewer resources?”

Before taking that stance, it’s worth examining what the effort outlined above actually costs.

The budget shows a technology expense just into 7 figures. Yes, that puts us in “million” territory. And this is only for a small district–what about large cities like Lowell or New Bedford or Worcester or Springfield or Boston?

Let’s dive into the numbers. The budgeted ed tech operating cost for the 2015-2016 school year comes in at $1.04M. Add an allocation of ed tech capital at $130k and the total approaches $1.2M.

Expensive, right?

Not exactly. Here’s how that $1.2M breaks down on a per student basis.

  • Ed tech staff: $180
  • Software: $35
  • Equipment: $200
  • Other expenses: $30
  • TOTAL: $445

There are several caveats worth noting. Were the district to expand one-to-one to the elementary level, costs will go up. As the district expands instructional technology, software will go up. So let’s allow for $600/student/year.

What does the district spend overall in a year? A bit more than $16,000 per student. As such, the future ed tech spend represents a bit less than 4% of the total budget.

Meaningful? Yes. But bank-breaking? No, especially if an outcome of the technology deployment allows a higher student:teacher ratio.

 

A promise partially fulfilled

learnlaunch2015The occasion of LearnLaunch’s just-completed 3rd annual conference, “Across Boundaries: Delivering on Edtech’s Promise” (Jan 23-24, 2015, at Harvard Business School in Boston) reminded me of a white paper I’d written while at Lexia Learning almost a decade ago.

I revisit that white paper here.

Breaking through the school productivity ceiling:
the promise of education technology

Unlike almost every other field of human endeavor, education has not seen productivity gains, and as a result finds itself in a perpetual funding crisis that fundamentally limits its ability to improve student learning.

“Productivity” in the context of education merits a bit of elaboration. I originally wrote it in the literal numeric sense of students per teacher. To be sure, a graduating high school senior today knows considerably more than he or she would have a century ago.

Per pupil expenditure is an important measure of school productivity that—while admittedly not measuring relative education quality—has not increased over the last century or so. Take the teacher of the early 1900s, adjust that teacher’s salary for inflation, factor in class sizes that if anything have gone down, and acknowledge that productivity has at best been flat.

I don’t have a source at my fingertips, but I recall coming across statistics showing average high school class sizes in the 1900s being on the order of 40+ versus sub-25 today. And this article from the right-leaning Newsbusters uses Census Bureau data to show a 40% decrease in class size (and therefore productivity) since 1960.

Education technology that will deliver a combination of instruction, practice, and assessment has for years offered the promise of breaking the productivity ceiling.

By “combination,” I was referring to what I call “closed loop” adaptive instructional technology in which the technology itself serves up the next piece of learning based on how the prior piece of learning was received. This is in no way an argument for the removal of the teacher from the loop.

One model is to allow students to work with engaging and effective technology in a relatively unsupervised setting while freeing up a smaller number of teachers (through normal attrition) to work with smaller groups where their expertise is most valuable.

 As an aside, I see educational technology as being the combination of “platform” technology (network infrastructure, hardware, operating and learning management systems, and office and other productivity tools) and “instructional” technology (software that instructs).

Advances in the pedagogy underlying software content coupled with the evolution of hardware and infrastructure allow that promise to be realized within the next five years for any school district willing to pilot and then implement a technology-centric educational system.

Five years would have been 2010, and sadly, we didn’t quite get there. That said, in 2010, numerous examples of instructional technology existed, and the number has only increased since. Upon re-reading, “technology-centric educational system” was poorly phrased. “Technology-powered” or “technology-enabled” would have been far better.

These school districts have the potential to substantially alleviate their funding crises for at least the near and perhaps into the medium term.

In brief, here’s the model. If a teacher with a class of 25 students using conventional approaches can use technology to get better educational outcomes with a class of 30 students, there would be a cost reduction of 20% (less the added technology cost, of course). To put the numbers in perspective, consider that districts in the Metrowest area outside of Boston spend more than $16,000 per student, and that on the order of 2/3 of this cost is in the form of teacher compensation. Call that $10,000. A 20% savings would be more than enough to cover the cost of platform and instructional technology.

To realize this success, a relatively narrow education technology path is necessary.
a. The technology path cannot add operational costs in the form of IT staffing.

Actually, that’s not really the case–the cost of added IT staffing just needs to be factored into the overall cost picture.

b. The evolution of networks and network security are making school software implementations more rather than less complex, driving up the need for unacceptable IT staffing.

Given the many platform and instructional technology options facing schools, complexity is certainly part of the landscape. As the next point outlines, however, the web-based nature of these options dramatically reduces the potential IT burden.

c. Web applications (including “light” downloads with Web-stored data) get away from the expensive and not always reliable network model by putting the implementation burden on the software publisher and not the school district or its IT staff.

d. To date, the relative unavailability of reliable-enough Internet connectivity has slowed the movement from network-based applications to web-based applications.

Contradicting the next point, connectivity continues to be a problem.

e. However, the connectivity problem is diminishing reasonably quickly over time.

f. The viability of Web applications will enable an education technology-driven school model that will improve outcomes and decrease cost. Print and software publishers that fail to embrace this model will lose importance over time as measured in single digit years.

 I probably wasn’t too far off here. The big publishers, having seen their textbook “empires” put at significant risk, have been investing heavily in educational technology. Whether this investment (in the form of internal development and external acquisition) will be enough to allow them to maintain their market share remains to be seen.

Learn Launch conference delivers fantastic conversation on digital learning

boston-skyline
Boston-based LearnLaunch‘s second annual conference (agenda here, but perhaps not permanently–also here as a PDF) brought together educators, students, entrepreneurs, industry participants, researchers, and other thought leaders to brainstorm on the question “How can Edtech scale student success?

The event was first-rate. LearnLaunch adroitly used the late Friday afternoon and Saturday calendar slots to allow attendance by many luminaries from the Boston education scene and numerous locales beyond. I came away with new connections, new ways of thinking about the challenges facing education and the approaches that might overcome these challenges, … and new ideas for blog topics. Over the next few weeks, I hope to explore some of these ideas.

My short answer to the conference question: Edtech can scale student success by delivering effective offerings to schools equipped to receive those offerings. In my most recent post, I touched on the second half of this success–schools needing the infrastructure to implement effective offerings. I’d like to use the current post to address the offerings themselves.

What makes for a better educational offering? I’ll argue that it’s a product or service that improves outcomes, reduces cost, or both. With digital educational offerings, there’s a clear path to doing both.

IMPROVING OUTCOMES: We learn best when we’re engaged. A key element of engagement is being appropriately challenged–not bored, not overwhelmed. In a classroom of 25 students, it’s impractical for a teacher to have every student engaged. Impractical, that is, without the right tools. Well-designed software offers the promise of providing this challenge-level engagement, allowing the teacher to take a step back and apply his or her talents where they’re most needed.

Are critical developments needed to create software delivering on this promise across the spectrum of student ages and curricular needs? No doubt. But are there examples of where this software exists today? Also no doubt–to wit, see Lexia Lexia Reading Core 5 (reading), Symphony Math (math), Harvard’s EcoMUVE (science), and McGraw-Hill’s MuzzyLane-developed Government in Action (social studies), to name just a few.

REDUCING COST: Teachers spend their time in many ways: preparation, collaboration, instruction, assessment, professional development, communication, and tending to various supervisory and administrative tasks. As it has in so many other fields, technology should be able to free up teacher time in most if not all of these areas.

Consider three possible examples of technology-enabled time saving:

Example 1: An elementary school teacher’s 2nd grade class increases from 20 to 25 students. Rather than dilute his time, the teacher rotates groups of 5 students through sessions with reading or math skill development software.

The software presents each student individually with instruction in the form of video or animation. The student practices what she has learned. In the background, the software assesses her responses, diagnoses her needs, and presents her with the next piece of instruction … all at a pace and challenge level matched to her needs.

While each group of 5 students interacts with the software, the teacher continues his work with the remainder of the class. The number of students served increases by 25% with no added staff. In effect, time is saved.

Example 2: A middle school teacher prepares for professional development. Instead of the one size fits all brand of in-service PD (and sometimes the need to travel to receive it), however, she accesses the course content online at a time and place that fits her schedule. Like the student in Example 1 above, she learns at a pace that works for her. A savings of even half an hour a week adds up to valuable time over the course of a school year. But her PD isn’t just available outside of class. It’s also available in short “sound bites” she can hear or read in the classroom in the context of a specific student’s need.

Example 3: A high school English and Language Arts teacher starts his year with a new energy. Why? A new system helps him grade the 100 papers submitted by his 4 classes of 25 students for every assignment. Students check their papers into the school’s learning management system (LMS). The teacher checks his dashboard, sees that 5 students haven’t turned in their work, and triggers a reminder message, avoiding having to track down missing items.

The teacher runs a first-pass grading utility that assesses the papers for spelling and grammar. He takes a second pass himself to judge each student’s style and quality of writing, making comments inline as he goes. Another push of a button and the papers are returned to the students. Even five minutes saved for each of the hundred papers frees up hours of teacher time.

How can Edtech scale student success? The offerings and implementations above show just several of many paths to that success.

Imagine the perfect digital learning offering

one-to-one computingFew are bigger proponents than I am of the application of digital technology to change the K-12 educational landscape. There’s a strong case to be made that technology will enable us to get better outcomes while reducing cost.

Let’s imagine that an education company has developed a suite of digital learning products spanning all grades and subject areas that does just that–learner understanding increases while the cost per learner drops.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s CEO, Linda Zecher, is certainly not alone among education company executives pursuing this vision. In an August 2013 Boston Business Journal article, she’s quoted as setting the goal of having 50% of the company’s revenue come from digital products in 2015 (up from 30% in 2013).

Setting aside the question of how digital revenue will be measured (if a product has a digital component, will its entire revenue be counted as digital?), I applaud that goal.

What I haven’t heard mentioned, however, is what I think is a major roadblock to achieving the goal, especially by 2015. Put simply, a digital education requires students to have access to a device at any time. In short, that means one-to-one computing.

The natural question to ask, then, is what fraction of schools have implemented one-to-one computing? While this data is getting a bit old, MDR/EdNet Insight’s 2011 “State of the K-12 Market” (Part III) finds that based on a survey of 300 districts, only 11 percent report having at least substantially implemented one-to-one (pp. 19-22).

  • Full implementation (5 on a scale of 1 to 5): 3.8% of districts
  • Substantial implementation (4): 6.9%
  • Partial implementation (3): 15.2%
  • Partial implementation (2): 23.8%
  • No implementation (1): 50.3%

In sum, education companies such as HMH may be ready (or readying) for digital, but their customers aren’t yet keeping up–half have no implementation whatsoever. The education companies that succeed will be the ones that offer hybrid print/technology products and services that serve districts both with and without one-to-one implementations as they collectively navigate the transition to digital.

Boston: the Hub of the (Education) Universe*

universePreface 1: Posting at least every other week hasn’t exactly worked out. Here’s a pledge to be better.

Preface 2: *With apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes; per Wikipedia, “The Hub, which is a shortened form of a phrase recorded by writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Hub of the Solar System. This has since developed into The Hub of the Universe.”

It took last evening’s LearnLaunch January Meetup, “International Education: Opportunity Outside the U.S.,” to drive home the title point: Boston is the hub of the education universe.

“Boston is the home of more than 240 startups,” commented panelist, LearnLaunch co-founder, and Boston EdTech fixture Hakan Satiroglu. “But we’ve got more startups,” you might expect the Bay Area to cry. “And perhaps you do.” Boston (and Cambridge) venture capital to go with those startups? Check. “Yeah, yeah, Bay Area, we know.”

How about large education companies? Bay Area, nada. New York City could perhaps make a claim here, but Boston has headquarters or major presences in Cengage, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill Education, Pearson, and School Specialty. Scholastic? Not exactly, but their Tom Snyder Productions division calls Watertown home. Small and midsize players? Check: Cambium Learning Technologies, Curriculum Associates, Lexia Learning, MuzzyLane, Six Red Marbles, and many others.

On the academic front. Massachusetts K-12 education leads the nation and ranks high amongst the best nations on the planet. Oh, and just to slather some icing on the cake, let’s not forget higher education. This fact may not be widely known, but the Hub is home to one or two (or more than 50) colleges and universities, some of which you may even have heard of.

“A jaunty-looking person … said there was one more wise man’s saying that he had heard; it was about our place—but he didn’t know who said it … ‘Boston State-House is the Hub of the Solar System. You couldn’t pry that out of a Boston man if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crow-bar.'” -Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table

Racing Superman to Finland

Originally posted to Wayland eNews Discussion Forum

Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to view three films that address public education in the United States:

(Still on my list is The Cartel: “Teachers punished for speaking out. Principals fired for trying to do the right thing. Union leaders defending the indefensible. Bureaucrats blocking new charter schools. … The film also introduces us to teens who can’t read, parents desperate for change, and teachers struggling to launch stable alternative schools for inner city kids who want to learn. … Together, these people and their stories offer an unforgettable look at how a widespread national crisis manifests itself in the educational failures and frustrations of individual communities. They also underscore what happens when our schools don’t do their job.”)

Here’s my brief take on Superman and Race, and a lengthier discussion of Finland.

Waiting for Superman

Superman, directed by Davis Guggenheim (of Inconvenient Truth fame), follows a handful of students and their families through the process of applying for precious few positions in charter schools. The film in large part frames teacher unions as the problem and charter schools as the solution. Of the three movies, I enjoyed this one the least, and that was by a fair margin. My dislike was not so much because I disagree with the union-charter hypothesis (which in large part I do), but because it struck me as offering no hope.

Race to Nowhere

The message underlying Race is that we overstress our students, with a significant fraction of that stress resulting from homework that often fails to help deliver the educational results we all desire. I came away from this movie much more optimistic, primarily because so much of the proposed remedy (less homework, but more thoughtfully crafted) could be undertaken at the local level. For instance, a teacher, or a principal, or even a superintendent might designate maximum hours per night or week or even “no homework” weekends.

The Finland Phenomenon

Like Race, I enjoyed Finland, although the latter offered less in the way of an achievable solution path. The film examines Finland‘s historically top-rated outcomes on the PISA test (the OECD’s “Programme for International Student Assessment”), which measures student knowledge at age 15 in reading, math, and science. The United States, by comparison, ranks on the order of 20th.

To be sure, Finland as a nation differs dramatically from the United States. With a population less than 5 million, it compares more readily to Minnesota (4th in the US in math, 2nd in reading) in scale while achieving better results than this Scandinavian-settled state. Demographically and socioeconomically, Finland is much less diverse than the US (although “Finnish Language Learners” make up over 16% of the population), and those differences no doubt make the task of education easier. And while MANY in the US VALUE education, EVERYONE in Finland appears to TREASURE it.

Finland began to overhaul its school system in the 1970s when it recognized that its agrarian economy wasn’t sustainable. A major emphasis of this overhaul was on teacher capability. Today, prospective Finnish teachers must pass a rigorous test to gain admittance to their teaching colleges–9 of 10 are turned away. The few who accepted into highly coveted slots then complete a five-year program that yields a master’s degree.

Once employed in a school (and embraced by their strong union), new teachers find themselves both challenged and supported by master teachers. Administrative oversight is light and formal evaluation is nearly non-existent. The result is an environment of “trust through professionalism” that might seem completely foreign to many educators in the US.

Beyond the teacher, Finland has developed a core curriculum at the national level while providing local schools with flexibility in how they implement it. Traditional textbooks are an important part of Finnish schooling, as is educational technology. On the curriculum front, Finland sees as its next task the incorporation of “21st Century skills:” critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and the like.

Relative to the US, Finland schools (which are smaller) …

  • Provide all students an equivalent educational experience
  • Start their students older (age 7)
  • Have students spend less time in school each year
  • Begin the school day later
  • Offer smaller classes
  • Teach in longer lessons
  • Provide more talking time for students in class (60% vs. 20%)
  • Give less homework (3-4 hours per week)
  • Test their students less
  • Value vocational education more highly (45% of students after age 15)
  • Spend less per student each year ($7,500 vs. $8,700)
  • Pay their teachers only slightly more
  • Do little teacher evaluation

As I see it, two differences result in Finland‘s great results: a relatively homogeneous population nearly devoid of poverty and a corps of highly qualified teachers. The US doesn’t appear ready to embrace the former.

As to the latter, following the screening, I asked Harvard researcher Dr. Tony Wagner (the on-screen presence who narrated the story and interviewed numerous educators and students) the following question: “If US schools could offer a ‘trust through professionalism’ environment for educators (a tall task), and if US teaching colleges could offer Finland‘s curriculum (an arguably taller task), would these teaching colleges be able to turn away all but the best 10% of prospective teachers?

Dr. Wagner’s answer was a quick (and expected, and somewhat disheartening) “No.” He elaborated that while Finnish educators earn only somewhat more than their US counterparts, the “best and brightest” in that country aren’t tempted by dramatically higher-paying careers in such fields as law or medicine (pay in Finland for those professions is much closer to that of teachers).

In my opinion, many strong prospective teachers enter the field in the US. Unfortunately, we don’t teach them well in college and we don’t support them well when they go out into K-12 schools. As a result, too many of them burn out, and the most capable of them have options in careers other than teaching.

Finland didn’t show me a clear route to improving education in the United States. But it provides at least some hope by showing that strong outcomes are achievable. Our collective task is to find a path–likely a hybrid of our own ideas and those of other nations–to get us there.