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.


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.