Disrupting Ourselves

Did you know your school and students are a potential cash cow? There are lots of edtech entrepreneurs, and the venture capitalists who finance them, who think they can make big profits in the “education sector”. A good deal of this activity is focused on the college level but a not insubstantial amount of money is also flowing into startups trying to create “disruptive innovations” for us in K12.

I stumbled across a recent post about Why VCs Usually Get Ed Tech Wrong, addressing, of course, the business side of things, which linked to another entry on the blog of one of those venture capital firms, Rethink Education, who offer this focus statement on their website:

Our education system is one of the last places to be remade by technology.  That’s about to change.  We are investing in the people, ideas and companies that are rethinking the way we learn and teach.  Today.

Rethink Education seeks to invest in progressive growth-stage companies that are at the forefront of the education technology industry and have the capacity to make positive impacts on our communities.

Very nice. Except what if the system doesn’t want to be remade? What about the large number of educational institutions, probably the majority, that are very comfortable with their traditional processes and are most interested in technology for cost, management, and administrative savings?

Even one of the VCs they quote, someone who has “named education as one of his key targets”, understands those questions.

I wouldn’t want to back a business that’s selling to public schools or characterized by public financing, unions, or government-run institutions. Those institutions are incredibly hostile to change. [my emphasis]

So, if the people with big bucks to invest in the education business sees hostility to change in public schools, why are they putting large amounts of money in this “sector”? The answer is that they aren’t really investing in public schools.

Those edtech entrepreneurs are developing products – electronic textbooks, automated teaching systems, data collection/management systems, and more – for charters, private schools, for-profit colleges, and a variety of other education structures that will be subsidized in large part from public funds. And they’re counting on that area to grow quickly over the next decade or so.

Their customers are not the people working directly with kids. They are selling to administrators, politicians, and chain school owners who think the process of educating children is very complex (which it is) and who are looking for ways to reduce that complexity, homogenize the results and spend less doing it. Those tech companies and their investors who are looking to “disrupt education” are gearing up to sell them the “solutions” to make it happen.

And it is going to happen. Unless those of us who believe in public schools get to the disrupting first. We need to change ourselves, our institutions, before it’s done to us. We need to take a long look at every part of our traditional approach to educating kids and remake it to fit the fast changing, chaotic world in which they (really all of us) will live.

We need to start the hard work of disrupting ourselves.

Doing What’s Right, Not Necessarily Profitable

From Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, in response to questions raised at a recent shareholder meeting about the company’s investment in sustainable energy and the it’s impact on profits.

“When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind,” he said, “I don’t consider the bloody ROI.”1 He said that the same thing about environmental issues, worker safety, and other areas where Apple is a leader.

He didn’t stop there, however, as he looked directly at the NCPPR representative and said, “If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.”

Argue all you want about the merits of their products, iPhone vs. Android, Mac vs. PC, this is an attitude and corporate policy we should see from more CEOs.


  1. ROI=Return on Investment

Charter Schools Are a Great Idea

In the original concept of charter schools, a few innovative educators would be enabled to organize their own school and experiment with new ideas for reforming the old model and improving student learning, all under the auspices of, and using funds from, the surrounding public system. The ideas that worked could be incorporated into “regular” schools. The ones that didn’t would also provide a learning experience.

That’s the theory, anyway. The reality has been far different.

Two different articles that landed near each other in my Instapaper queue over winter break offer plenty of evidence showing that charter schools in the US, with few exceptions, provide lousy instruction and worse results, and are undermining public education.

Possibly the biggest problem is that nearly half of charter students are enrolled in schools being run by corporations,1 often supported by grants from large, well-funded philanthropic organizations with a political agenda like the Walton Foundation. And their schools are rarely held to the same accountability standards (instructional or financial) as public schools.

Beyond serious questions about who are running these schools (more business people, fewer educators), is the fact that study after study shows they produce “mixed results” at best.

A 2009 national study of charter school performance by CREDO, a research unit at Stanford University that supports charter “reform,” found that only about one in five charter schools had better test scores than comparable public schools and more than twice as many had lower ones. Earlier this year, CREDO released an updated study that looked at charters in 27 states, and little had changed. As the National Education Policy Center explained, “The bottom line appears to be that, once again, it has been found that, in aggregate, charter schools are basically indistinguishable from traditional public schools in terms of their impact on academic test performance.”

However, there is an equally fundamental problem with the way the charter concept has been applied that goes back to the original idea: very few charters are not doing anything innovative.

Most are structured around the traditional teacher information delivery model, with students required to learn the same material, in the same order, often using the same resources as has been standard in public schools for decades (if not centuries). And then demonstrate their learning on programmed standardized tests.

Some charters make a big deal out of requiring longer days, Saturday school, and more regimentation (KIPP), others substitute computer-delivered instruction for human teachers (Rocketship). Certainly these changes may work for some students under some circumstances, but as test cases that might be more broadly applied, they are generally worthless. For many public schools, these ideas could be classified as “been there, done that”.

Even with all these problems, what I’ve covered here only scratches the surface of why the charter school movement (pushed by many high profile education “reformers”) are doing nothing to improve American public education and are probably detrimental.

Spend some time and read the two articles, along with some of the many supporting citations they link to, for a much fuller picture of why the theory of the charter concept is a great idea, while the reality of charter schools in this country is a crappy mess.


  1. “such as K12 Inc., National Heritage Academies, Charter Schools USA and KIPP”

Nothing New

More than a few people I follow on Twitter posted this morning about a “special report” on the Forbes magazine website profiling thirty people under the age of 30 who are “disrupting” education. A few also linked to this post by a teacher ranting about the list being completely void of either classroom teachers and students.

Why is anyone shocked and/or surprised at this kind of story?

First, the list comes from Forbes, a publication that bills itself as “The Capitalist Tool”. They focus on people who are working to make a lot of money, in this case in the education industry. Not on those trying to improve the actual process of student learning. The two parts are tenuously connected at best.

Second, reports like this reflect the usual pattern in the overall public picture of education reform. People held up as leaders in the effort to “fix” our “failing” American schools are wealthy philanthropists, corporate executives, politicians, consultants, and pretty much anyone who is not directly connected to working with kids in those schools.

Of course we’re not going to include teachers or students.

Barriers to Innovation

Over the break I read an interesting book about the very different way one company functions.

A Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the future of work” is the story of the author’s time at Automattic, which runs WordPress.com, and does so with almost all their employees living and working in different parts of the world.

It’s an innovative way to run a business* and this thought about innovation by the author got stuck in my head.

The fundamental mistake companies that talk about innovation make is keeping barriers to entry high. They make it hard to even try out ideas, blind to how much experimentation you need to sort the good ideas from the bad.

We in education also talk a lot about innovation – both students learning to be innovative and teachers using innovative techniques to improve student achievement. We just never seem to get past the talking stage.

As part of the same theme, the author also observes that for this company “the big cultural bet wasn’t on process but on people”.

Educational organizations, like our overly-large school district, make a fundamental mistake in emphasizing the processes (rules and regulations that must be followed) over trusting people, something that discourages the kind of experimentation that leads to innovation.

No great insights. Just a couple of things to think about for the new year.


* The idea of having teams work remotely is one that seems to be spreading, even in many established companies. I’m in the middle of a book on this topic called Remote: Office Not Required, written by the founder of 37 Signals which also has most of it’s employees working from wherever they want.

Missing Skills

I wonder if the panel working on our Portrait of a Graduate (see the previous post) has read this.

At the end of 2012, Forbes presented a list of The 10 Skills That Will Get You Hired In 2013. Since Forbes magazine says they are “The Capitalist’s Tool”, and education exists to support the American economy, we need to pay attention to their advice, right?

Anyway, cynical ramblings aside, I know we are past 2013 but things didn’t change that much in the past twelve months, so here are the skills a major business publication says our graduates should have to make them employable.

No. 1 Critical Thinking (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 2 Complex Problem Solving (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 3 Judgment and Decision-Making (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 4 Active Listening (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 5 Computers and Electronics (found in 8 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs) – according to Forbes this includes knowledge of circuit boards, processors, electronic equipment and computer hardware including applications and programs.

No. 6 Mathematics (found in 6 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 7 Operations and Systems Analysis (found in 5 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 8 Monitoring (found in 5 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs) – the monitoring and assessing performance of yourself, other individuals or organizations to make improvement or take corrective action.

No. 9 Programming (found in 3 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 10 Sales and Marketing (found in 2 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

Education reformers and school administrators like to talk about many of these skills, often under the umbrella of “21st century something”. However, the fact of the matter is that most students will never be asked to develop or use these abilities during their time in a K12 classroom.

Remember, what gets tested, gets taught, and of these ten, only a whiff of number 6 will appear on most standardized tests.

The Split Over Profits

In his most recent post, Jay Mathews thinks he sees a surprising split in the school reformer monolith.

Critics of current trends in education reform, such as historian Diane Ravitch, often complain that they are up against a phalanx of business executives and rich investors more interested in making money than improving schools. These people, the critics say, march in lock step to replace our traditional public schools with charters, vouchers and online campuses so they can squeeze profits out of taxpayer dollars.

That sense of unity among the corporate types has been shattered in the past few weeks by a bitter quarrel between two of the reform movement’s most prominent leaders.

As it turns out, the dispute between these two “most prominent leaders” started during a prevention at something called the Value Investing Congress and has far more to do with profits and stock prices than it does improving student learning or other educational policy. One says stock in K12 Inc, “the nation’s largest private operator of public schools”, is a good investment, the other is selling short (which I gather is a negative view of the company).

Mathews extends this trivial financial disagreement into a major split in the reform movement. Instead what he has stumbled onto (and largely ignores) is one of the primary reasons why any improvement of American education has been stagnating over the past decade.

The only monolithic thinking here comes from investors who believe that schools are a good place to increase revenues, with politicians happy to help since it means they can move the money that was being spent on kids somewhere else (plus the investors might kick in some campaign contributions).

There’s a reason why “K12 revenue has grown 32 percent annually for the past decade”, and corporations like Pearson and NewsCorp are working hard to develop standardized materials tied to Common Core and testing systems, plus devices to deliver both.

And it has nothing to do with “the debate over what works best for our kids”.

Evaluating Gates

Earlier this week, the Post gave Bill Gates some prime space on the op-ed page so he could offer “a fairer way to evaluate teachers“.*

And he begins with a really crappy analogy, comparing developing “fantastic teachers” with the way that football teams “identify and nurture” their players.

Completely ignoring that those players, although evaluated as individuals, do not work in isolation. Their success, even that of a star quarterback like Gates’ example, Tom Brady, is very much dependent on the great support of many other people in a well-funded organization.

Teachers, however, in the view of Gates, many politicians, and other education “experts”, are expected to be rated based only on a very narrow measure of their work with absolutely no regard for any other factors.

The remainder of the piece is a messy mix of clichés in which he talks about using “multiple measures” and how “teachers want an environment based on collaboration” without any specifics. Certainly he doesn’t offer anything to convince the reader that he has a clue about the teaching process or how to evaluate it.

Although Gates and his business friends have been accorded a great deal of influence in the discussion over education reform, they do so with no accountability whatsoever.  To correct that situation, Anthony Cody writing at Education Week Teacher proposes The Billionaire Philanthropist Evaluation, noting that the kind of accountability they demand from teachers “is a street that goes one way only”.

Needless to say, Gates does not fare very well, starting with his lack of awareness of the social conditions that impact the learning of many students and extending to his poor understanding of effective instruction.

The bottom line?

Mr. Gates falls below standards in all four of the areas that were observed. His philanthropic activities should be suspended immediately pending his completion of the recommended professional growth activities.

Of course that won’t happen. He has enough money to buy a higher grade.


* Just for good measure, the editors included a video of Gates giving expert opinion on cyber security (which he might know something about considering how buggy Windows was while he was CEO), and… the new pope?

Marketing Without Twitter

I’m not a fan of internet censorship filtering in schools (or really anywhere). I know we want to keep kids away from the really bad stuff on the web, so I’ll grant that some electronic measures are necessary.

Still I see far too many teachers relying on the technology instead of learning to manage internet use in their classrooms, and especially as an alternative to helping their students learn to responsibly navigate the web. Maybe because it’s not on the test.

Anyway, when it comes to filtering, I have to admit our overly-large school district does a pretty good job in keeping a very light touch on the process. At the top level we choose to block sites in certain categories, mostly the stuff the state requires. Staff members then have the option to request that specific sites be blocked (or unblocked) at their school, subject to approval of the principal.

Although in the past many schools chose to put resources like Facebook and YouTube on the block, very few, even at the elementary level, do so now. Blocking Pinterest is currently popular but that will probably change over time and a new boogyman will take it’s place.

However, every so often, a blocking request is submitted that I find somewhat puzzling and, in this case, rather amusing.

Last month a teacher in one of our high schools submitted a request (twice) to have Twitter blocked. It seems there had been some bullying incidents using that service and she seemed to believe that getting rid of the website would help solve the problem. It’s not an unusual approach: blame the technology. I’m guessing she didn’t realize students were likely using their phones to access Twitter, bypassing both our network and Twitter’s homepage.

What I found really odd about the request came from what this person teaches: business marketing.

How the hell do you teach about marking products and services in 2013 without addressing the use of Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites? Every company in the US and elsewhere is scrambling to figure out how to make these tools work for them.

Of all the classes in this school, I would expect social media to be a major topic in those dealing with the modern business world.

By the way, the principal denied the request, although I don’t know if any of this was part of his reasoning.

A Very Solid Business

Between media companies looking to schools for new revenue streams and charter schools as investment opportunities, I think I’m in the wrong end of the education sector.

Charter schools, as you might remember, were supposed to be innovative alternatives to “traditional” schools, funded with public money and often serving poorer communities.

However, according to something called Entertainment Properties Trust, they might also be a nice addition to your investment portfolio.

What is Entertainment Properties Trust? According to its website, it is “a specialty real estate investment trust (REIT) that invests in properties in select categories which require unique industry knowledge, and offer stable and attractive returns.”

And the website also says this: “Our investment portfolio of nearly $3 billion includes megaplex movie theatres and adjacent retail, public charter schools, and other destination recreational and specialty investments. This portfolio includes over 160 locations spread across 34 states with over 200 tenants.”

The video interview with the CEO embedded in the Answer Sheet post is quite strange, although not especially unsurprising given the concerted effort of politicians to sell off as many public resources as possible to the highest bidder.

I especially enjoyed this little piece of analysis.

Well I think it’s a very stable business, very recession-resistant. It’s a very high-demand product. There’s 400,000 kids on waiting lists for charter schools … the industry’s growing about 12-14% a year. So it’s a high-growth, very stable, recession-resistant business. It’s a public payer, the state is the payer on this, uh, category, and uh, if you do business with states with solid treasuries. then it’s a very solid business.

Pick companies in the right states, the ones willing to divert lots of public money into charters, and you have a winning investment.

What we don’t get from the charter industry, and most independent charters as well, is a better education for the money spent, one of the claims often heard from their political advocates.

Missing the Revolution

In a post this morning Will pointed me to a USA Today article that claims Khan Academy is sparking a “global tech revolution in education”. This rant is probably only an amplification of one of the great points he makes but it’s worth repeating.

Actually, there is so much wrong in this breathless, fawning collection of misguided claims that it’s hard to know where to start.  But this statement (one that Will also quotes) is an excellent summation of everything the USA Today writer gets wrong.

“Technology is doing to education what it’s done to countless other industries: disrupting it,” Hu says. “Where education once was static, bound to a textbook, now it’s moving to a global, interdisciplinary model.”

The speaker is the head of head of education technology and services for Goldman Sachs so naturally he sees school as just another “industry”.

However, what Hu totally misses is that, while the education business is certainly working hard to automate the dispensing of knowledge (or at least academic credentials), understanding and using that knowledge is a much more difficult, more personal and hands-on process.

Having students watch a video explaining some bit of information or how to execute a specific process is still static and very much bound to a textbook. Except that instead of the book carrying only text and still pictures to be read and viewed, it now has audio and video. The effect is the same, a one-way transfer of material with no opportunity for a student to interact.

There’s absolutely nothing revolutionary about the Khan Academy materials. There’s nothing revolutionary in using technology to deliver the same old classroom lectures in “bite-size and conversational” pieces with no faces.

Finally, Hu goes on to say that Khan’s success is the “best thing that can happen to this space” (another business investment term) and that the space “needs more smart people who care”.

Will is also exactly correct to call that last part total BS.

The Possibilities of Digital Textbooks

Digital textbooks are all the rage these days.

They’ll save schools billions of dollars, and relieve kids from the burden of carrying around the paper versions. More than a few education “experts” have applied the “revolutionary” tag to the concept.

And on that very subject, the US Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission this week held a big meeting just up the road in Washington on that very subject, with the purpose to determine how the US can “move all K-12 schools to interactive digital textbooks in the next five years”.

So, who attended these high level discussions?

FCC Chairman Genachowski and Secretary of Education Duncan hosted a discussion with CEOs, senior executives, and other leaders from the education technology ecosystem to develop ways the industry and states can meet their challenge to move all K-12 schools to interactive digital textbooks in the next five years.

Representatives included senior executives and leaders from Apple, Aruba Networks, Chegg, Discovery Education, Idaho Department of Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Inkling, Intel, Knewton, Kno, the LEAD Commission, McGraw-Hill, News Corp, Pearson, Samsung, Sprint, and T-Mobile. [emphasis mine]

Education technology ecosystem?

Anyway, with the exception of the participants from Idaho (a known leader of instructional technology innovation, right?), do you see any actual educators in that list? Or any organizations representing the various educational open source initiatives?

No, what you see are the very large companies that already control the printed textbook business, some major tech companies, plus a few tech startups with interests in digital distribution. All of which stand to reap large profits from controlling the digital textbook business.

That’s what Duncan, Apple, Pearson and others really mean when they talk about the “possibilities” of digital textbooks.

Asking The Wrong Question

In his post this morning, Seth Godin discusses how businesses almost always interpret – incorrectly – the impact of new technologies.

The question that gets asked about technology, the one that is almost always precisely the wrong question is, “How does this advance help our business?”

The correct question is, “how does this advance undermine our business model and require us/enable us to build a new one?”

So, what happens if we substitute “school” for “business”?

Just a Monday morning thought.