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

Imaginary lines and the Common Core

ccssIf you had asked me five years ago to weigh in on the likelihood of national education standards emerging in the United States, I would have bet against. Heavily. And as we now know, at least for the present, I would have lost.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative arose from a 2009-2010 effort by the National Governor’s Association, in concert with the  Council of Chief State School Officers. As such, they bubbled up from the states, not descended down from the federal level. Not having imagined the former, my bet would have been against the latter.

I’m not qualified to comment in depth on the content of the Common Core. For the most part, serious educators support them–I defer to their expertise. And their impact will vary: the Common Core represents what may be at best something of a lateral move for higher performing states such as Massachusetts but a clear upgrade for lower performing states such as Louisiana.

The issue isn’t so much the contents of the Common Core, but rather, the wisdom of having them. We should have them.

It makes no sense to expect different things of a student simply because he or she lives on one side or another of a river or imaginary line delineating state (or for that matter, even national) boundaries. Key skills and knowledge are needed to contribute to society and be competitive in the global workplace–those skills and that knowledge are far more alike than different as a function of where a student lies his or her head at night.

It’s important to remember that the Common Core doesn’t prescribe how to teach. It doesn’t tell teachers what novels, textbooks, or other educational resources to use. It simply spells out outcomes that successful students should achieve.

A criticism leveled against the Common Core is that its focus on literacy and math drains resources from other disciplines–science, social studies, the arts. This draining isn’t reason to eliminate the Common Core, it’s reason to expand it to those disciplines. And improve it. For instance, let’s weave the so-called “21st Century Skills“–critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, problem solving–more strongly throughout the Common Core.

ccss-mapWe have plenty to divide us. Common education standards shouldn’t be one of those things. Let’s continue to erase the imaginary lines.

A head start

In his October 26 Boston Globe column, “Understanding the language gap,” Derrick Z. Jackson reminds us of the importance of early education. He indirectly references the 1995 work of Betty Hart and Todd Risley and then cites new findings by Stanford University researchers Anne Fernald, Adriana Weisleder, and Virginia Marchman.

It had long been proven that by age 3, children from professional families knew far more words than children in low-income families. But the new confirmation of the gap being evident from birth to age 3 means that interventions may have to occur at an even younger age.

Jackson ends his piece with a quote from Harvard University’s Catherine Snow.

“We’re not going to solve [the inequality gap] with just better pre-K programs or just parent education programs,” Snow said. “I’m not saying they’re not useful. But if we want to change the shape of the landscape, changing the conditions of their lives is critical.” It now seems more critical than ever to change conditions before today’s language gap creates an even greater divide.

Many of the reader comments echo the underlying problem: from birth through age 18, children are in school less than 15% of their waking hours. Even the best schools can’t overcome the inequalities too often present in the other 85%. Addressing these inequalities can seem insurmountable, especially when faced as an overwhelming whole.

Targeted tactical efforts should not be discounted, however. Dr. Snow is correct to point out the value of parent education programs. Jackson notes:

In another study this year, [Fernald] and Weisleder found that Latino caregivers who talked directly to their children, doing simple things like pointing out objects, colors, and creatures, to the tune of thousands of words a day, produced children with larger vocabularies and faster processing. So parent education programs can help.

I only vaguely recall speaking to our children when they were very young with the effect of exposing them to language. And I don’t recall how purposeful that speaking was. What I do recall is coming home from the hospital the first time feeling wholly inadequate for the new task at hand. It should be a simple and inexpensive enough effort to provide all new parents with a short video (part of the “Parenting for Dummies” franchise?) that would include an emphasis on the value of doing things as simple as speaking to our children.

Happy Halloween!

Halloween costume

Education doesn’t have to be all serious. In fact, it’s probably better when mixed with a bit of levity.

The image at right (source unknown) resonated with me–back in 2003 and 2004, while working with Grimes Reading Institute, HILL for Literacy, and Lexia Learning Systems, I led the professional development element of No Child Left Behind’s signature Reading First initiative in Massachusetts.

A good Halloween costume is one that’s clever. A good Halloween costume is one that’s simple. A good Halloween costume is one that relates to its wearer. A great Halloween costume does all of this. This is a GREAT Halloween costume.

What should a school be?

I really wanted to engage with Houman Harouni’s Salon article (originally published in American Reader, “a monthly journal of literature and criticism”), “What should a school be?”

Given the provocative subtitle, “Educationists agree our school system is broken. Maybe it’s time they start asking ‘what is its basic purpose?’,” I wanted to know at least a bit about the perspective from which Harouni writes. A search reveals relatively little—most informatively (that’s damning with faint praise), I found this from the Fall 2009 issue of the Harvard Educational Review.

Houman Harouni is a teacher with experience in both secondary and elementary school levels, in the United States and abroad. He has taught history, social studies, and mathematics, among other subjects. Harouni combines his practice with a research interest in the roles that teachers and students adopt in the classroom, and how factors such as economic class, resistance, and ideology can impact curriculum. He spends his summers in Iran, where he works as a teacher trainer, researcher, and advocate to create equitable educational opportunities for the disenfranchised Afghan refugee population.

Absent a measure of the man, perhaps best to let his article do the talking. It talks a lot. But to its title thesis, “What should a school be?,” it says little.

Harouni begins, “Nothing in the public debate on schooling suggests that education matters.” Nonsense—the very existence of the debate suggests that education matters, even if it doesn’t answer why. Writing just a few paragraphs later, Harouni contradicts his opening: “we know that education matters,” backing his claim with a haphazard litany of “Education matters because …”

Of the points he cites, only one rises to the level of answering why: “education carries the promise of grace, intelligence, and social behavior.” Add the curiously absent “preparation for career” and on page one he’d be well on his way to what a school should be … and well on his way to a cogent and concise two pages.

Instead, he veers off course, hopping from one unsupported absolute to another as he decries the lack of critique by radical philosophers.

“Educationists agree our school system is broken” (never really defining what an educationalist is)

“A system that has stagnated for seven generations”

“Public schools have played their own significant part in destroying communities”

“Schooling is one of the most oppressive institutions humanity has constructed”

Harouni shifts gears to bemoan the current state of education.

“Conservatives, who have always been more honest than liberals, hold that there is little correspondence between what children learn in school and what they need in the job market.”

Harouni opts out of exploring this worthy topic—a topic for a future post.

Liberals, on the other hand, implicitly having prevailed, fashioned an education system whereby

“the content of learning has become totally divorced from any sort of practice—and this is justified by claiming that schools should not train anyone for a particular form of labor, lest we economically pigeonhole children.”

Another worthy topic, also avoided.

“So educationalists are now free to argue that there is no longer any need for learning concrete tasks, and that all students should be trained for managerial skills (again, here ‘all’, excludes the executive elite). These are euphemistically referred to as ‘twenty-first century’ or ‘foundational’ skills.

“Educationalist” don’t argue this, certainly not successfully, as the near absence in schools of these foundational skills attests (yet another worthy topic).

“Now, it is willfully ignoring the end of labor—i.e., the fact that there is no longer any rational need for eight-hour days. Jobs should be disappearing. They are not of course, …”

Disappearing or not, Jobs are needed in greater supply than they are present.

Harouni ends this line of thinking—but sadly for his reader, not for many pages the rest of his article—by mocking the notion that

the future success of the middle class rests on the nation’s ability to ‘sharply increase the fraction of American children with the foundational skills needed to develop job-relevant knowledge and to learn efficiently over a lifetime.’

Harouni pulls this quote from Frank Levy’s and Richard Murnane’s intriguing “Dancing with Robots” (fodder for still another future post). Had I been tasked with answering the “What should a school be?” question, I can’t imagine answering it any better or more concisely.

Next up: “How should a school be …”

Summary of EdNET 2013 Keynote: Big Publishing – Barriers to Entry Are Dead, Long Live Barriers to Entry

School districts and education companies are facing two forces for change: the Common Core and the transition to digital. Resisting these changes is a lack of adequate funding—manifested in part by a lack of technology infrastructure—and a lack of a clear path forward—manifested in the form of effective digitally-delivered content via that infrastructure.

As suggested at the outset by the moderator of the Tuesday keynote session at EdNET 2013 in Denver, districts may be starting to seriously consider diverting existing dollars from teachers (in the form of smaller class sizes) to technology for the primary purpose of improving outcomes, with cost savings potentially coming along for the ride.

Education companies need to pace their digital offerings to match the wide range of district infrastructures they encounter. In many districts, print will continue to be a large part of the curriculum for the foreseeable future.

T H E   P A N E L

  • Robert Lytle, Partner, The Parthenon Group (Moderator)
  • Peter Cohen, President, School Education Group, McGraw-Hill Education
  • Mary Cullinane, Chief Content Officer and Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Jonathan Harber, CEO, K-12 Technology, Pearson North American Education
  • Midian Kurland, SVP Technology and Development, Scholastic, Inc.

T H E   C O N V E R S A T I O N 

Parthenon set the table for the discussion with several opening comments:

  • In the near term, there will be no school funding relief (municipal and state budgets trail that of the private sector economy)
  • The relatively high level of investment in education companies suggests a reason for optimism about education as a market
  • For the first time, when faced with the choice of spending on education technology or reducing class size, superintendents are beginning to lean in favor of–or at least consider–the former

McGraw-Hill: At present, driven by the Common Core, most money is going to reading and math, to the detriment of other subjects.

Pearson: Common Core isn’t just the next in a long line of changes, it’s a fundamental change. The Common Core assessments will drive a different way of delivering instruction. One question is how states will set “cut scores” that determine different levels of proficiency. It will be difficult for states to set arbitrary cut scores now that there will be a point of national comparison.

Scholastic: The initial reaction to Common Core was to slap “Aligned” stickers on existing curriculum. Districts, for their part, have been aggressive about avoiding “false” alignments. Districts want new content, not revised.

HMH: Given allowable differences in the Common Core from state to state, we’re being set up for the “Kind of Common Core.” Districts and states will do an inconsistent job of evaluating whether curriculum does or does not meet the Common Core.

McGraw-Hill: The new standards haven’t been tested. They will morph over time. States will likely address 80% of them, not 100%. In the process, PARCC (one of the two assessment consortia) could lose 10 states. [Not clear if they will drop out, join the other consortium, Smarter Balanced, or form a new consortium.]

– – – – –

Parthenon: Parthenon has a database of all state standards (prior to Common Core). They find that the states are 70% common already. One thing that Common Core will do is create a better/clearer format for coding standards.

McGraw-Hill: Few districts are all digital. The companies on the panel represent $4.5B in revenue—essentially none of that revenue is all digital. [Inference: education companies (a term that all of the panelists prefer to “publisher”) need to be able to deliver curriculum that matches a wide range of digital capabilities, from sporadic computer labs and/or laptop carts to one-to-one implementations.]

Scholastic: Districts want digital capabilities to be added on to traditional offerings at no extra charge. Rather than being cheaper than print, however, digital, when implemented with interactive capabilities, is more expensive.

HMH: Districts are hearing about the coming digital promise, and as a result, are somewhat paralyzed from implementing what’s present now. Education companies have high standards for technical requirements—too many districts don’t have the infrastructure to match.

Pearson: The tablet is game-changing. Apple has sold 6 million iPads into K-12. Los Angeles Unified just purchased 650k iPads on their own. It may be folly, however, for schools to be using debt to purchase consumer goods … that don’t even come with keyboards. In higher education, a one-to-one computing environment (one device for each student) is assumed—K-12 isn’t there yet.

– – – – –

Parthenon: Should devices be pre-loaded with content, or do districts want to add content once they have the device?

Pearson: The 650k iPads in LA Unified are coming with content. [Question for Amplify and others delivering devices: are the devices locked so that they accept only content from the providing publisher, or are they “open?”]

Scholastic: The majority of the LA Unified money is going for the devices, not for content.

McGraw-Hill: Obviously, better outcomes won’t be due to hardware, infrastructure, or bandwidth, but rather, to the content they deliver. As a whole, the system must be easy to use.

– – – – –

Parthenon: Many buildings don’t have the physical infrastructure to support technology. There’s a need for electrical power. And bandwidth isn’t just about what’s available to the campus on average—it’s what’s needed when 30 students in a classroom all start streaming the same video, for instance.

McGraw-Hill: The most important element of making technology work is teacher professional development.

HMH: What’s the timeline to get to scale (that is, significant digital installation)?

Pearson: To get to scale, education companies need to be “outcomes partners” with districts. This means integrating curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development with the technology infrastructure.

McGraw-Hill: Outcomes is the right area of focus. For too long, the industry has been about inputs (content). Outcomes will be reached not by linear paths or scope and sequences, but rather, but having students work in their challenge range (Zone of Proximal Development) on unique paths from which they’ll learn.

Scholastic: As students move along these paths, they’ll be generating assessment data on which instruction decisions can be made. Eventually, this will make the end of year test obsolete.

– – – – –

Parthenon: What’s the role of the parent in all of this?

Pearson: Technology won’t work on its own. Instead, adults will be guiding students. Parents will have access to the learning of their children through portals. In addition, there will continue to be home markets for intervention, tutoring, and test preparation.

McGraw-Hill: Parents in South Korea spend more money on outside-of-school education than the US does. The US parent market is $30B—that can grow to $150B. That spend is well-rounded, by the way: it includes camps, sports, and so on, not just “pure” academics. This spend raises the question of income inequality.

HMH: The need is to bridge home to school, not separate them. The parents most needed at back-to-school nights are the ones who don’t attend, not the ones who do.

Scholastic: Every child doesn’t have involved parents and new technology—there’s a strong need on the part of “school-dependent” children who rely on school not just for education, but also for meals and safety.

Pearson: The growth of the home spend from $30B to $150B (as posited by McGraw-Hill) isn’t plausible.

– – – – –

Parthenon: Do the education companies gathered here have a reason to doubt the bleak forecast for education spending, and if so, why?

McGraw-Hill: “Publishing” is dead, but the Big 3 [Including Scholastic as #4? Presumably, the exclusion wasn’t intentional] aren’t publishers, but rather, “digital education providers.” These are exciting times on the solution side, and on the research side. [This didn’t answer the question of how school spending constraints might be surmounted.]

HMH: It’s odd that the companies on the panel [and others] have been named by their content distribution method [“publishing”].

Scholastic: Let’s not lose sight of the fact that it’s hard [and expensive] to develop curriculum that works. [Inference: curriculum development shouldn’t be the domain of teachers … or students.]

McGraw-Hill: Education companies need the flexibility to evolve content in real-time. To date, adoption contracts have required that content be locked for the duration of the adoption unless a committee explicitly approves the changes. In a digital world, getting approval in such a way will dramatically slow the process, with quality concerns resulting.

Pearson: California has just approved a completely digital curriculum—to Pearson’s knowledge, this is a first for education in the US.

– – – – –

Audience question: If we weren’t limited to the content of today as a starting point, what would educational content look like?

HMH: Content would be dynamic, improving with time.

McGraw-Hill: Content needs to be authored, assembled (scope and sequence important), aggregated, accessed (digital), analyzed, assessed, and adapted. [There was an 8th “A” that wasn’t clear.]

Scholastic: Maintaining content isn’t free—it will be interesting to see how education companies treat content improvement compared with open education resource (OER) providers.

Pearson: It’s tempting to think of K-12 education in the US as an educational system, but in fact, it’s 15,000 educational systems.