Perhaps the only clear policy direction emanating from the U.S. Department of Education is its desire to “return power in education back to where it belongs: with parents, communities, and states,” as Education Secretary Betsy Devos remarked at the Conservative Political Action Conference yesterday. Already, amendments that would loosen accountability rules in the Every Student Succeeds Act are working their way through Congress.
This devolution of power may prove irksome for businesses, which will have to tweak their strategies and offerings to rules and regulations unique to each state. Earlier this week representatives from Pearson, the Bill Gates Foundation, the Center for Education Reform, American Public Education, Inc. and SJF Ventures gathered for a robust discussion about the ramifications of policy changes in the education technology industry.
Around 100 attendees representing edtech startups, the New York City Department of Education, venture capitalists, teachers and administrators listened carefully during the event in midtown Manhattan. Here are the five policy implications that edtech companies are watching closely.
1. Most educators don’t have a plan to replace teacher preparation accountability mandates
The recent amendments to ESSA trimmed down accountability rules, removing federal mandates for states to address issues like teacher preparation and student performance data. With states finally free to make decisions about which indicators they will use and how the data will be reported, there seems to be more questions and confusion than answers.
“There is chaos in states and Washington, absolute chaos,” says Jeanne Allen, CEO of the Center for Education Reform. “It is anyone’s guess what the repeal of these regulatory rules will mean, but the good news is there is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to say, ‘I can solve that problem for you,’ and educators will be open.”
According to Allen, it is critical for entrepreneurs to study ESSA to learn the policy rules before entering an education environment. “You can’t just start talking about digital learning if they [educators] have never heard of it. You have to understand their opportunities and be able to pinpoint,” she explains.
According to panelists, learning where the buckets of money are hiding under the title grants can be key to meeting educator needs while simultaneously marketing your edtech solution.
2. Make new infrastructure projects about education
President Trump campaigned on a platform centered around blue collar jobs, with a focus on large infrastructure projects. What these efforts look like is still unclear. But with the possibility of billions of dollars going into these deals, experts say edtech companies should think about arguing a case for channeling these funds into local schools.
“There’s going to be billions spent on infrastructure. Entrepreneurs need to tell policymakers how infrastructure dollars be used to expand what is happening in or around schools. Suggest proposals where your companies can help do things like create roads to schools in rural communities,” says Allen.
3. With ESSA changes, measuring proficiency could completely transform
“When you lift your foot off the gas on accountability, there are going to be some consequences,” says Henry Hipps, Senior Program Officer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The panelists predict that measuring proficiency and school effectiveness through age-cohort graduation rates will shift in the future. As data collection regulations are adjusted, and personalized learning becomes more popular, they believe companies measuring individual growth levels in multiage classrooms will be more relevant. “Some states are ahead on this concept, and others are open to it,” explains Hipps as he advocates for more growth data, “It will be a major stimulus for innovation if proficiency measures change.”
“Local control—be careful what you wish for,” echoes Allen, “Local control means a bunch of school boards who aren’t always the best decision makers when it comes to schools.” She believes companies and organizations that have expertise with data can support school boards, helping them make better decisions by pushing effective growth data collection methods.
4. Decentralizing education means more opportunities to enter, but more difficulties to scale
“God bless you if someone in the room actually creates a national standard and blows it out,” said Don Kilburn, former President of Pearson North America, speaking on difficulties new edtech companies will face scaling ideas. “It's pretty clear on the policy side that power will move back to the states.”
According to Kilburn, removing national standards could allow smaller players with less money to compete with larger companies for state contracts. However, as the decision-making process diffuses, entrepreneurs will need to lower their profit expectations because they will have to go from state to state and district to district, convincing administrators to adopt their edtech tools.
“I think many of you would be very happy if you have businesses that get three to ten million dollars out of a state,” says Kilburn, in an effort to sober up entrepreneurs’ profit expectations.
5. Job skills training is an expanding educational opportunity for rural communities
Most experts agreed that rural communities should expect new public-private partnerships that offer them educational opportunities. They note how adult education has grabbed the attention of policymakers since the election. “If go to to your representative and say I can get more jobs in your state, you instantly have an audience,” says Kilburn.
However, the panelists noted that the skills employees have in rural communities often don’t match the jobs available, so helping companies train workers at an affordable cost is an untapped opportunity. Larger companies are already moving into this territory; Kilburn announced a new initiative at Pearson focused on building management services for corporations that want to have education networks.
In the end, it is not only startups that are struggling to keep up with changes; larger companies are under significant pressure to adjust. “Change is lumpy, uneven and unexpected at times,” says Kilburn as he reflected on the difficult transitions underway at Pearson. “Any organization going into this space—unless you want to get a lot of public criticism—better get some measurable outcomes and have the advancement of the people you’re serving at the heart of your work,” he advises. “If you don’t, you're going to get in trouble at some point.”