‘Back to School’ Hijinks and Lessons for the Education Industry

Market Trends

‘Back to School’ Hijinks and Lessons for the Education Industry

By Tony Wan, Frank Catalano (Columnist), Betsy Corcoran (Columnist) and Rajit Malhotra     Sep 13, 2019

‘Back to School’ Hijinks and Lessons for the Education Industry
From left: Vanessa Webb (Oliver Wyman), John Campbell (Cambium Learning Group), Barry Malkin (Carnegie Learning), Scott Kinney (Discovery Education), Dipak Golecha (Excelligence Learning), Kai-lee Berke (Teaching Strategies)

About 1,200 adults in uniform went “Back to School” yesterday. No, not to their wooden desks, blue books and plastic seats. But to BMO’s annual education industry conference, where company executives, investors, bankers and financiers of all stripes descended in their suits and slacks (but very few ties).

Now in its 19th year, the gathering attracts a growing audience of the “who’s-who” across the education sector—from childcare to healthcare providers, from K-12 to higher education and corporate employers. On the agenda were one-on-one interviews with company CEOs and panel discussions on opportunities and challenges in different markets. In rooms on the upper floors were private meetings to wheel and deal. Copious coffee and snacks lubricated conversations in the hall.

There were also noticeable gaffes that one might expect at conferences tailored for buttoned-up financiers, often involving stale, trite comments and a glaring lack of diversity in the speaker lineup. Nothing highlighted this more than the lunchtime keynote panel, which consisted entirely of men, who all solemnly concurred that they seek companies that are “really adding value to the ecosystem.” Wow, what a relief!

He’s got a (golden) ticket to ride.

A big deal announced this week was private equity firm KKR’s purchase of a majority stake in Burning Glass, a Boston-based data and analytics platform that serves up insights on changes in the workforce and available jobs.

The thing was, Burning Glass wasn’t seeking an investment. But a few months ago, its CEO, Matt Sigelman, hopped on the Amtrak Acela train from Washington, D.C. He was so absorbed in email that it took until Baltimore before Sigelman spotted KKR’s Richard Sarnoff, who chairs the firm’s media, entertainment and education group, across the aisle. “He’s one of the smartest guys I know,“ Sigelman says. So he grabbed a chance for a free consult. A few weeks later, Sarnoff suggested they talk in depth. Viva Amtrak!

Old jobs, new expectations.

In one of the first sessions of the conference, panelists from five different companies agreed that while the types of jobs available on the market are not necessarily changing, the nature of these jobs are. Roles such as marketing managers have existed before, but the required skills constantly evolve. Sigelman, of Burning Glass Technologies, captured this point succinctly: “40 percent of the skills required today for the same job are different than the skills required a decade ago.”

The verdict is still out about which is a more powerful lever in preparing workers for ever-changing roles: reform hiring practices or actively reskill employees? As noted in the panel, personal conviction and company mission buy-in are strong determinants of long-run employee success rather than skills alone. So recruitment may have a slight edge, which supports the increasing reliance on hiring tools such as Revature.

But both levers are important. Frank Britt, CEO of Penn Foster, commented that progressive companies align recruitment with training budgets rather than silo them to provide a comprehensive workforce solution.

It’s a textbook toss-up.

All the major K-12 traditional textbook publishers were present at the event but only one—Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—got speaking time on stage. That may have worked out in favor of the smaller instructional content providers, who did not hold back on how the market has shifted in their favor.

BMO Back to School Conference 2019
From left: Kelly Fuller (BMO), John Rogers (The Rise Fund), Elizabeth Chou (Leeds Equity Partners), Waseem Alam (Weld North Education), Adriel Sanchez (Newsela)

“Before, you used to concede 90 percent of the market to the Big Three,” said Scott Kinney, president of K-12 Education at Discovery Education, referring to Pearson, McGraw-Hill and HMH. His fellow panelist, Carnegie Learning CEO Barry Malkin, noted that smaller players can win adoption through reliable, third-party efficacy studies. “EdReports has become a real big deal in K-12 publishing,” he said, referring to the nonprofit that reviews textbooks for alignment to academic standards. “They have become a litmus test for many districts.”

Continuing a popular theme from last year’s conference, companies also emphasized how the lines have blurred between core materials (like basic textbooks) and supplemental resources (like practice materials and formative assessment tools) in K-12. Districts typically allocate different funding sources for the two types of materials.

“Districts are looking for different ways to get to a good endgame for their students,” says Malkin, “It’s not about core or supplemental. Every district is buying what works for their culture, idiosyncrasies and specific needs.”

In an interview with EdSurge, Nick Gaehde, president of Lexia Learning (owned by Rosetta Stone) noted that “the only place where I think the core-supplemental distinction is meaningful is in funding sources. But I don’t think classroom teachers think that way. And over time, I think that purchases will skew toward what will best help students learn, and the rest of the industry is going to have to evolve along. I think the supplemental-core division is a construct of the publishing industry.”

Privacy concerns may hinder efforts to decentralize purchasing.

One of the prevailing concerns that often discouraged investors from the education technology industry is that K-12 purchasing requires a time-consuming, top-down process where a state or county office would hold sway—and the purse strings—over the products that their districts and schools would use.

Newsela’s chief marketing officer, Adrian Sanchez, noted that in recent years “states have been getting a bit looser on top-down directives, giving districts a little bit more autonomy in purchasing decisions.”

Yet that tilt may not last long, said Elizabeth Chou, who recently joined private equity firm Leeds Equity Partners. She noted a likely “clampdown” due to concerns over student data privacy, and central district offices are on the hook to make sure that edtech tools are secure. So while top-down purchasing decisions may be loosening, “I also think there is going to be a pullback because of student data privacy issues.”

When it comes to data, which do you prefer: single or dating?

Alan Taylor, senior vice president of corporate development at PowerSchool, shared that “97 percent of school IT departments use at least 12 different technology solutions, yet 70 percent of these same IT departments said they want a single-source of student data.”

At a session on school operations, panelists offered different approaches to this problem. PowerSchool and Finalsite offer multiple products that reduce the need for schools to rely on many different IT vendors, while Watermark offers tools that ingest and consolidate data from disparate technology solutions.

Gregg Scoresby, CEO of CampusLogic, pointed out that it doesn’t need to be an either-or scenario. Most successful products provide a system of records or a system of experience, and it is extremely difficult to accomplish both. An efficient education system that moves the needle closer to a “single-source of student data” will require both types of players.

The focus on data bubbled up concerns about privacy and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the U.S. federal law that mandates access to student information by public entities. Not only do these firms have to comply with data regulation, but they also have to think about how data moves across different systems and adhere to particular data standards. By the end of the session it was clear that a one-size approach was not a solution at all when it comes to school efficiency. As Gregg Scoresby noted: You wouldn’t want one app on your iPhone that does it all. So why would you want that in a school?

BMO Back to School Conference 2019
From left: Seth Reynolds (EY-Parthenon), Dave Goldberg (Cadence Education), David Evans (Childcare Network), Ricardo Campo (Endeavor Schools), Jean-Emmanuel Rodocanachi (Grandir), Mark Bierley (Learning Care Group)

You’ll pry that test from my cold, ink-stained bubbles.

Testing is controversial, especially how far the pendulum has swung toward tests for nearly every skill and subject. Panelists at a session on assessment and achievement, all representing assessment firms, seemed convinced there was a burgeoning move away from “endless subject testing,” as CEO Greg Watson of GL Education Group put it—not just in the U.S. and U.K. but even in China as well.

Of more interest now? Getting to the underlying reasons why a student has trouble learning. But don’t let the no-more-testing pendulum overcorrect, suggested an almost wistful Chris Minnich, CEO of the long-time assessment organization Northwest Evaluation Association, or NWEA: “I agree with what you said … [but] um, I still want to know if my kid can read.”

It’s the Cadillac of parental privilege, too.

A session on the potential of education-focused early childhood centers that go beyond “custodial care” (a.k.a. daylong babysitting) was upbeat for several reasons: A highly fragmented market, in which the top 50 providers have less than 10 percent of the market. A lot more working mothers and fathers. And a thirst, even with the threat of an economic downturn, for quality center-based care as parents may need day-care time to find new work or retrain.

While the panelists weren’t in full agreement on whether parents care more about the “brand” of an existing local center, versus a national brand name, brands did appear of outsized importance to one group: the well-off households.

Dave Goldberg, president and CEO of Cadence Education, noted that the more affluent the area, the better its branded schools did. “These are people who drive Mercedes, drink Starbucks, and wear Rolex,” he observed, perhaps wryly, “and their ego does not break down (for childcare) when it comes to brand.”

What’s impact?

Phil Alphonse, a senior partner at The Vistria Group, pointed to the “rise of impact investing” as a disruptive emerging trend in the edtech investment world. “Millennial families want to measure their investment funds responsibly,” he noted, adding another layer of accountability by nudging them to consider “outcomes” as well as financial returns.

BMO Back to School 2019: The all-male lunch keynote panel
From left: Doug Becker (Sterling Partners), Jason Brein (Francisco Partners), Ryan Hinkle (Insight Venture Partners), Richard Sarnoff (KKR), Phil Alphonse (The Vistria Group)

Certainly many investors referenced their social mission on panels and in hallway chatter. But measuring outcomes is still a work in progress. Early indicators include: employee engagement, the makeup of the workforce and racial balance.

Don’t bet on these.

Luncheon keynote panel moderator, Doug Becker, co-founder of Sterling Partners, asked panelists what would be a “no-go” signal in an edtech investment decision. They rattled off some measurable stats:

  • Phil Alphonse: No scale. (Company revenues should be above $10 million).
  • Richard Sarnoff, of KKR: “People we don’t believe in.”
  • Ryan Hinkle, managing director of Insight Venture Partners: Companies proposing to tackle hard-to-beat, core products.
  • Jason Brein, a partner at Francisco Partners: Loss-making companies.

Not exactly rocket science.

A slow-moving quote wreck.

For all of the changes in the education investment landscape over the past decade, some truths appear eternal. Or at least are spoken eternally.

At the keynote luncheon panel, Sarnoff responded to a question about where to invest in education with the snappy, “It is a get-rich-slow scheme. You have to have patience, fortitude … and a kind of belief.”

The get-rich-slow part of the observation, though a guaranteed laugh-getter, is not original. It dates to investor chatter going back to at least 2012, even before the peaks of U.S. edtech funding this decade in 2015 and 2018.

But Sarnoff does get props for expanding upon it, and for his answer when asked whether data privacy was going to matter more as artificial intelligence (AI) enters education. His answered the question with another question: “Is data privacy going to matter when we’re all working for our AI overlords?”

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