FIELD REPORT: NYC's EdGrowth Conference


FIELD REPORT: NYC's EdGrowth Conference

The view from a teacher's vantage

By Marisa Busch     Jan 24, 2013

FIELD REPORT: NYC's EdGrowth Conference

We asked Marisa Kaplan to attend NY's EdGrowth conference on behalf of EdSurge readers this week and share what she saw and heard. (It had been postponed because of the havoc caused by Hurricane Sandy.) Here's her report:

"Pick a mission that gets you jazzed," Jonathan Harber advised budding entrepreneurs on the first day of the EdGrowth Summit. The idea of mission, passion and social purpose is why many of us went into education in the first place, so as I sat amongst entrepreneurs, investors, media leaders and policy folks, I felt a sense of comfort. Later, however, as important conversations began to unfold, I felt a sense of loneliness and wondered: How we can incentivize teachers to engage in conversations about education outside the classroom?

EdGrowth Entrepreneur Open

Edtech entrepreneurship competitions bring a broad audience of investors, edtech companies, the media and of course, educators. As an educator and instructional coach, I consistently ask myself: "How would this look in my classroom?" and "Who do I know that might use this?" I imagine myself implementing the tool in the classroom and think about how it would impact my students.

Here were some tools that caught my eye.

RecoVend is a tool that aims to help administrators make choices about educational purchasing at the higher ed level. It took first place at the EdGrowth Entrepreneur Open. It will be interesting to see if the team delves into the K-12 space down the road.

Of the 13 finalists at the EdGrowth Entrepreneur Open, I was most taken with myEDGPS. As a special education teacher, myEDGPS stood out because it supports what I know to be a major contributor to student success: the family. The tool helps families of learners with exceptional needs navigate through the daunting system. Founder Adam Goldberg described a variety of features including a calendar function that helps families stay on top of important dates and deadlines as well as letter generators, which assist families in communicating their needs effectively and to the appropriate individuals. Coaching families and teachers through the process for referring students for evaluation, amending IEP (Individualized Education Plan) documents or advocating for appropriate services is complex. Each process can take months and can quickly get messy. Families need support. A partnership that could be a dream for special educations teachers would be a tool like myEDGPS collaborating with a tool like Goalbook, which provides direction on designing goals and IEP.

Clarity of pitch is so critical during these competitions. Michael Golden certainly caught the attention of the audience, but it was tough to pinpoint just how Educurious might look in action. The company is tackling large issues. At moments, it almost seemed too big. The organization aims to support teachers become facilitators that tap into students’ imaginations through a highly engaging, 21st Century appropriate curriculum, which incorporates technology on a daily basis. Sounds like a mouthful, but the audience seemed to want to know more. In the age of accountability and standardized testing, it's refreshing to hear from an organization that holds imagination and curiosity at the core of its mission.

A Plea for Early Childhood Solutions

Recently it seems that an endless slew of companies are building solutions to support teachers and students in the K-8 and higher education spaces. Sesame Workshop’s Tom Ascheim pleaded with entrepreneurs and innovators in the audience to tackle early childhood, too. He reminded us that there is a window of opportunity to close the achievement gap with young learners—a point that resonated. The Age of Accountability, the adoption of Common Core State Standards, and high stakes standardized testing can fog up our lenses and push our focus towards interventions in high stakes testing grades. Ascheim reminded me of the power of prevention and early intervention and support for the youngest learners so that they do not begin their first days of Kindergarten as struggling students. I’m not sure that I would predict a vast increase in the amount of early childhood solutions in the next year but we can certainly hope for it.

Innovation or Special Education?

Irritating buzzwords like "disrupt" or "blended" or "big data" are typically overused at EdTech conferences. This time around, it was more like "differentiation," "individualization," "adaptive learning," "personalization" and "learning styles." Entrepreneurs, technologists and investors peppered these terms into conversation as if they are new, when in fact they were buzzwords in special education years ago. Great special education teachers differentiate, modify and adapt their teaching to meet the needs of their students. While the technology to make these means more efficient may be new, the pedagogical ideas behind them are not. Sure, there's a need for building efficiency in personalized learning and modifying instruction to meet students' need through technology, but hopefully the people building these tools remember that humans did it first.

John Bailey won admiration when he said: "They’d only be great innovations in the hands of great teachers." I wonder if this rejuvenated excitement around personalization of instruction is a predictor of the future annihilation of the general educator, the rise of the special educator and development of IEPs for all students, since all learners have unique needs.

Team NYU Pulls on the Boxing Gloves

Former NYU dean Catharine Stimpson and commentator Diane Ravitch held their own during a new addition to the agenda for the EdGrowth Summit called "3 Rounds With…" This added an element of debate to the event and encouraged the celebration of controversy. These women demonstrated strength and poise in a room full of attendees that were focused on markets, value and data. Stimpson questioned the rise of MOOCs and spoke about the need for restoration of dignity to the faculty, while Ravitch questioned the way we measure progress, assuring audience members that there is more to progress than high stakes standardized test scores…for example poverty rates. The "3 Rounds With…" sessions were provoking. Hopefully the EdGrowth Summit will keep them as part of next year's agenda.

What Is Our Industry Doing for Mr. and Ms. Smith?

During a panel gracefully moderated by Jill Barshay of the Hechinger Report, Rob Dickson, CIO for Andover Public Schools talked about teachers who aren’t tech savvy. He refers to these teachers as "Ms. Smiths." So many entrepreneurs rely on teachers who already use technology to become early adopters of their products. That left the audience wondering: What is our industry doing for the Mr. and Ms. Smith’s of our schools?

Looking Ahead

My most thought-provoking conversations were with people who have at one point or another worked in classrooms. Until we find a way to bring teachers to participate in these conversations, we will be at a standstill. More people like Karim Kai Ani of Mathalicious, Jen Medbery of Kickboard and Seth Andrew of Democracy Prep need to be prevalent at these kinds of education events. They’re the ones who can carry conversations based on experiences with students and teachers. They are the ones who understand the impact of data, high engagement and school culture on student learning.

I asked many attendees how to engage more educators in these conversations and Diane Ravitch was the only one who proposed an actionable item. She recommended going to the conference organizers and asking them to organize their events on PD days so that principals could send teachers to participate. Imagine how much richer conversations about the landscape of education could be if the people who had their feet on the ground in the classroom were present.

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