FIELD REPORT: NYC's EdGrowth Conference

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 teachers 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 as words like these filled the room. 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 are always interesting, mainly because of the range of lenses audience members peer through at any given time. There is the investor’s lens, the competitor’s lens, the media’s lens and of course the educator’s lens. As an educator and instructional coach, I consistently ask myself questions like: "How would this look in my classroom?" and "Which of my teacher-friends might use this?" I imagine myself implementing the tool in the classroom and think about which of my students would experience a change in their learning by using a particular tool.

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. Congrats to Kyle Judah and I hope he delves into the K-12 space shortly.

Of the 13 finalists at the EdGrowth Entrepreneur Open, I was most taken with myEDGPS. As I've worked as a special education teacher, myEDGPS stood out to me because it supports what I know to be a major component in student progress, 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. Having coached families and teachers through the processes of referring students for evaluation, amending IEP (Individualized Education Plan) documents and advocating for appropriate services, I have seen this system first hand. It is ugly. Each process can take months and can quickly get messy. Families need support and myEDGPS is a step in the right direction. And a partnership that would be like a dream for special educations teachers: seeing  myEDGPS collaborate with Goalbook, which provides direction on designing goals and IEP.

Clarity of pitch is so critical during these competitions. While I couldn’t pinpoint exactly how Educurious looks in action, I can say that Michael Golden caught my attention and created quite a buzz in the audience. Educurious is tackling large issues. At moments, it almost seemed too big, though I couldn’t help but feel intrigued anyway. 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 and so do I. In the age of accountability and standardized testing, it feels refreshing to hear about 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 with me. 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 I will certainly hope for it.

Innovation or Special Education?

I usually expect to hear irritating buzzwords like "disrupt" or "blended" or "big data" at EdTech conferences. This time around it was words like "differentiation," "individualization," "adaptive learning," "personalization" and "learning styles," that got under my skin. Entrepreneurs, technologists and investors are using these words as if they are new, when in fact they were already buzzwords in special education years ago. Great special education teachers differentiate, modify and adapt their teaching to meet the needs of their students, who most likely have a variety of learning styles. While the technology to make these means more efficient may be new, the pedagogical ideas behind them are not. I completely appreciate the need for building efficiency in personalized learning and modifying instruction to meet student need, but I implore people building these tools to remember that humans did it first.

John Bailey won my admiration when he said; "They’d only be great innovations in the hands of great teachers."

On a level of personal interest, 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 IEPs for all students rather than the stigmatization of learners with "special needs." Perhaps this a bit utopian of me, but hey, one can dream.

The more important question that our industry should be asking regarding differentiation is, "How can we differentiate the way we train teachers on technology?"

Team NYU Pulls on the Boxing Gloves

I have to take a moment to applaud Team NYU. 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 us to celebrate 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 and I hope 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. This leaves me wondering: What is our industry doing for the Mr. and Ms. Smith’s of our schools?

Looking Ahead

In reflection, my most thought-provoking conversations were with people who have at one point or another worked in classrooms. I firmly believe until we find a way to bring teachers from the trenches into the auditorium 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.

Lingering Questions

What I'm still asking:

  • How can we incentivize teachers to engage in education conversations outside the classroom?

  • What is our industry doing to support the Mr. and Mrs. Smiths of our classrooms?

  • Can our country change societal views of "The Educator" enough to restore dignity to the field of teaching?

  • What changes can we make at the pre-service training level to provide new educators with the tools they need to bring technology into their classrooms?

Marisa Kaplan is the founder of the education blog, EdGeeks. She is also a literacy and special education instructional coach for K-12 teachers, a private tutor and an educational writer. In addition, she is the Head of Curriculum Development at PenPal News, Community Ambassador at Citelighter and a Mentormob Innovator, and on the advisory board for SxSWedu.

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