Twelve Years Later: What’s Really Changed in the K-12 Sector? (Part 1)

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Twelve Years Later: What’s Really Changed in the K-12 Sector? (Part 1)

By Dave Stevenson     Apr 3, 2019

Twelve Years Later: What’s Really Changed in the K-12 Sector? (Part 1)

In fall 2007, Larry Berger, CEO of Wireless Generation (now Amplify) was invited to submit a paper to an “Entrepreneurship in Education” working group led by Rick Hess, the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. I’d recently moved to Washington, D.C. and he asked me to co-author the piece.

At the time, Wireless Generation was expanding from its roots in K-3 reading assessment into new areas: intervention, professional development, and data systems. As education entrepreneurs know, growth in K-12 comes hard. Sometimes very hard. We were living Marc Andreessen’s startup mantra: “You only ever experience two emotions: euphoria and terror.”

We called the paper “Slow Entry, Distant Exit.” A surprising number of people picked it up and read it. Some entrepreneurs were drawn to the sector after reading it—and made the paper part of their company’s onboarding practice.

We wound up having two unusual exits. News Corp. acquired Wireless Generation in 2010, then made ambitious bets on devices, curriculum, and games. The company was renamed “Amplify.” But its growth lagged expectations, and Wall Street never took kindly to New Corp’s education excursion.

Five years later, Berger led a management buyout of the company, backed by Emerson Collective. We left behind the tablets and spun out a few adjacent businesses. We focused on the essential needs of the market—curriculum, assessment, and intervention—which aligned with our core competencies and interests. Today, Amplify offers two English Language Arts programs for grades K-5 and 6-8, and a K-8 science curriculum. Our mCLASS assessments for K-3 reading are used by more than 2 million students across the country.

In some ways, Amplify has returned to its roots. And readers continue to draw insights and lessons from our past. A friend recently read a 2004 Harvard Business School case study of Wireless Generation’s work in Montgomery County, Maryland, and responded:

“Thanks! Interesting how times have changed in 15 short years. Then, they needed new tech solutions to save teacher time. Now we need solutions to declutter teachers from the new tech solutions.”

The new solutions result from an explosion of apps, companies, content and marketplaces over the past decade. The “Big Three” publishers have stumbled; new players have stepped in and up to become midsize companies. A growing corps of entrepreneurs, supported by record-setting investments in education, are creating new technologies, experimenting with business models, and living their own bouts of euphoria and terror.

But the “clutter” that teachers experience—the long lists of usernames and passwords, the closets overflowing with unused intervention programs, the competing and overlapping district initiatives, the pendulum of policy and practice—isn’t just about new apps. It is a manifestation of the organizational and operational complexity of K-12 schooling in America.

I recently dusted off the old 2007 paper, and reflected on how demand in the K-12 education sector has changed in the dozen years since. A follow-up post will explore what’s changed (or not) on the supply side—both industry and investment.

The State of the K-12 Sector

The edtech boom of the past two decades promised efficacy and new instructional models. Many teachers instead experience it as “clutter.” But poorly integrated standards, curriculum, assessment, and intervention materials have always been a problem.

Integrated program design could—should—be done at the school and district level. But for all the advances in technology, for all the policy initiatives that have washed through, schools still seem to work in more or less the same ways as they did in 2007—or 1997, or 1987.

When it comes to instruction, the work consists of four segments: core curriculum, supplemental (intervention, test prep, little books) curriculum, assessment, and technology (hardware, infrastructure and connectivity). Each of these workstreams are run by separate teams, using independent funding streams, only rarely coordinating. Schools rely—as they always have—on the hero in the classroom, who has to somehow synthesize everything for a roomful of children, every single day.

As a case study, consider a typical district literacy initiative, which is anchored on one of the big basal reading programs. Assessments are separate—sometimes oriented to skills and proficiency growth; sometimes with their own implied instructional scope and sequence. Alongside, the district funds an intervention program, allowing the school to choose among a half-dozen providers. Some are print, others digital; each of them is bewildering for the child, because letters are taught in a different order, and may use an instructional approach that is entirely different from the core basal program. Some schools then layer on a third-party intervention provider, with its own philosophy and materials.

Every aspect of the initiative is well-intentioned. None of it hangs together.

There are still a few school districts that operate like systems, and they stand out. Consider Traverse Bay Intermediate School District in Michigan. For several years, Amplify has partnered with its school officials to roll out the Core Knowledge Language Arts program as a truly integrated project: with internal capacity for coaching and training, integrated assessments that cover the content as taught by week, walk-through and evaluation models designed around the program, and a custom Tier 2 intervention package. Early results are promising.

When schools do their best work, the moving parts are simplified, integrated and aligned. The intervention program aligns with the core. Math concepts are reinforced in science. As principals do classroom walkthroughs, they look for specific instruction based in the curriculum, rather than an academic standard dutifully written on the chalkboard but ignored. Instruction is delivered with fidelity, or “integrity,” as Rebecca Kockler, architect of the High Quality Instructional Materials initiative in Louisiana, calls it. That means deliberately planning and delivering lessons according to a defined scope and sequence.

Decluttering enables execution; that’s the premise of a core program.

Of course, not all schools and school systems implement core curriculum. Some leave it to the teachers to piece things together—in the best case, from a curated collection of lessons, more often from Google, Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers. This is a lot to ask of teachers, and it seems strange to allow the quality of instructional materials to depend on a teacher’s Google-fu. This “Google and good luck” approach throws a lot of options, confusion and competing agendas at teachers.

But districts themselves also pile up products and services in the supplemental (especially intervention), assessment, and technology categories. And each individual segment, rather than a unified initiative, drives the market for instructional materials and services.

I didn’t fully grok it until I took over Amplify’s sales team in late 2016. Core sales are long cycles, requiring a lot of hands-on work with teachers. Supplemental sales require grinding building to building, calling on principals and coaches, except for the occasional district where the Title I office takes the lead. Assessment buying has its own decision-makers—usually in the central office. Sometimes these teams talk to one another—but less often than you’d think.

Twelve years later, demand has not changed. It is as fragmented as it ever was.

In the next post, we’ll look at how this fragmented demand has shaped the supply of materials and services, and the funding that sustains them.

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