NewSchools New New Thing

EdSurge

It was definitely a new NewSchools Venture Fund Summit this year.

On May 6, more than a thousand educators, entrepreneurs and edtech enthusiasts came together for the 16th annual New Schools Venture Fund Summit. Gone were the high-profile speakers such as Mark Zuckerberg and Randi Weingarten. Featured at lunch were students at schools that take radically different approaches to learning. Gluing together the sessions was a serious focus on race and equity. Yes, technology still popped up, including at a “tech showcase.”

But New Schools’ chief executive, Stacey Childress, had a clear message for the NewSchools community: 70% of NVSF’s funds have gone into creating schools. That translates into 171,261 seats in 442 charter schools across the US.

Expect more.

Panelists, including the students from the DC International School, New Classrooms, and Summit Preparatory Charter High School, spoke of the importance of teacher and student voice in edtech tool development, how to diversify the edtech industry starting in early education, and why the best classrooms include students from a variety of different backgrounds.

EdSurge was on the scene, both in our Teacher Tank, where educators did their best Mark Cuban impression as they grilled entrepreneurs from Mystery Science, FreshGrade and Tales2Go, and in the breakout sessions. Here are a few of our big takeaways from the event:

Feeling No Shame

Keynote speaker Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly and presenter of a TEDxHouston talk on the power of vulnerability (watched by 20 million people), mesmerized the crowd with her discussion of the difference between “shame” and “guilt.” Shame, she said, suggests negative self-worth; by contrast, “guilt” involves making a poor choice.

“Eighty-five percent of men and women can remember something that happened that was so shaming that it changed how they thought of themselves as learners,” she said. “And [just about everyone] can remember a single teacher, coach or administrator who pieced back their belief in self-worth when they had none.”

“If we’re using shame as a behavioral management tool, it’s because we don’t have enough tools. It’s unnecessary, dangerous and detrimental.”

Shame-prone kids are more likely to drop out and and suffer from a raft of other problems; feelings of guilt are inversely corrolated with outcomes.

Her conclusion: “Teachers: You have more power than you think.”

Diversity in the Classroom—and Beyond

Open-minded, diverse entrepreneurs, teachers, and legislators—the change-makers of the future—start as open-minded, diverse students. “We need to change how we teach STEM education, to be more focused on social impact,” said Trish Dziko, Executive Director of the Technology Access Foundation. “We don’t have to wait until students get out of college and into STEM career to see a change in mindsets.”

Panelists highlighted how simple, practical measures can make a lasting difference for learners in low-income communities, like President Obama’s ConnectED initiative to provide high-speed internet to 99% of America’s students by 2018. “How can we insure that kids go home and have the right hardware and broadband access to get their schoolwork done?” asked Cedric Brown, managing partner at the Kapor Center for Social Impact.

In a panel on “Diverse by Design” schools, parents from across the nation spoke to the importance of a variety of student backgrounds in the classroom. When Andrew Johnson started to look at schools for his children in Kansas City, MO, he couldn’t find a school representative of his diverse community. So, together with other parents, he wrote a Request For Proposal (RFP), asking for schools focusing on diversity of experience and background. The parents selected a proposal from the Citizens of the World Charter School, which now plans to build a school in Kansas City in the next few years. Kriste Dragon, co-founder and CEO of Citizens of the World, voiced the view of several panelists: “The more we can get parents on the front lines of designing diverse dream schools, the better.”

Ultimately, more exposure to peers of diverse backgrounds has the potential to change the mindsets of tomorrow’s leaders. “In education, we haven’t leveraged diversity as a tool for closing the gap around poverty,” said Aaron Walker, founder and CEO of Camelback Ventures. As he explained, “increasing diversity is not just a political or moral issue, but also a driver of change.”

Teacher Voice in Edtech Design

To make tools for teachers and administrators, entrepreneurs must talk to the educators themselves. Jacob Klein, CEO of MotionMath, spoke of the importance of teacher experience in his product design. An edtech tool “has got to be dead simple to use, and has got to be reliable,” Klein explained. “That focus on ease and reliability is the focus that we bring, as previous teachers, to an edtech company.”

Sometimes a request for one feature leads to another, noted Nitzan Pelman of LightSail. “Teachers told us they wanted to write their assessments,” said Pelman. Through working with teachers, LightSail realized that they really wanted was a way they could engage students about a piece of writing. Highlighting and collaborative notes turned out to do the trick.

And take note, entrepreneurs: Educators value products that are informed by teacher feedback, and want to know how their thoughts affect product changes. “I want to be able to know where feedback is going,” offered Jeff Porter, a fourth grade teacher at the San Francisco Friends School. And that goes for student input, too: Porter stressed how meaningful it would be for students to “know that their ideas will be implemented within six months, or a year.”

Looking Ahead

Closing speaker, Benjamin Todd Jealous, grounded the gathering, once again, around students. Every student deserves an opportunity to arrive in kindergarten ready to learn, and be greeted with a high quality teacher. "We have to make sure that, literally, no child is left behind when it comes to preparing them for a career," he said.

“Today’s young people are the most diverse, connected generation in history,” NewSchools CEO Childress said. “They deserve learning experiences that meet them where they are and help them achieve their most ambitious hopes and dreams. They deserve learning experiences that prepare and inspire them. So they can be free. Free to live the lives they choose. Their futures depend on it—and so do ours.”

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