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The Evolution of K-12 Education: Part II

As Part II of our series on K-12 Education, Jason Colodne, Managing Partner at Colbeck, spoke with Rose Else-Mitchell, President of Education Solutions at Scholastic, the global children’s publishing, education and media company, to discuss technology and innovation in K-12 Education.

Else-Mitchell has over twenty years of EdTech experience and began her career in the early 1990s as an English teacher in Australia. Moving to New York, she quickly moved into digital literacy products and saw education transform from an industry where learning differences were unspoken to an industry where regulations for equitable access to curriculum have propelled the creation of new digital technologies. Else-Mitchell joined Scholastic in 2000 where she led product development. In 2015 she moved to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt as part of an acquisition of an EdTech/Services business, becoming Chief Learning Officer in 2017. She rejoined Scholastic this past December. She has served as a Teaching Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is Chair of the Industry Council of the EdTech Evidence Exchange.

Public School: A Journey from Print to Digital

Colodne: Tell us a little bit about what drew you to education. I know you started out as an English teacher in Australia — how did that progress to your current career at Scholastic? Else-Mitchell: I tried student teaching back in 1989, and I said, “Well, at least I know now I’m never going to be a teacher.” And the next thing you know, I was accepting a job offer on a Friday for a high-school English position that started the following Monday. It was a fantastic, but humbling couple of years. I loved it. After my first year — which was sort of hellacious, grading all night and getting sick until your immunity builds up — I started going to professional development which got me thinking about different ways to engage students, especially with writing. Kids with dyslexia and ADHD were never spoken about candidly. All kinds of challenges or disorders were discussed in a sort of a whisper amongst teachers, but this was where you saw technology already in play. There just wasn’t a culture in teaching of talking about learning differences or the role of cognition. That’s so different today.

After I left the classroom, I worked for an organization that had years of book and print content that contained all these great literacy practices that elementary school teachers could use. But the question was, how do we get all of this online? I went from teaching curriculum to accidentally doing web development and then building a content management system. And I fell in love with it.

In 2000, I found my way to a division at Scholastic, Inc, called Learning Ventures that was making digital literacy and online professional learning products, way before its time. I would meet people who would say, “Oh, well you’re in publishing,” in reference to something I should know about books or writers, but I didn’t. I didn’t see myself in publishing, or traditional publishing. I thought of the work we did as designing learning or educational delivery. Let’s not say “delivery” — it makes teaching sound like FedEx! Teaching and learning are more of a continuous exchange, or a dialogue than a delivery service. That dialogue can be a perfect thing to adapt for technology, whether it’s a data feedback loop or a motivation system or a speech recognition engine.

Is Education A “Dinosaur” Industry?

Colodne: One common pain point for education is the perception that it’s a “dinosaur” industry resistant to technology. Many sources site the fact that as late as 2016, 70% of textbooks were still print. Have you found education to be a conservative industry? Else-Mitchell: The cliché EdTech sales pitch is, well, if you came into a classroom now from a hundred years ago, it would look exactly the same. Well, it wouldn’t. Here’s one reason it wouldn’t — because there would be black and brown children, immigrant children, girls who aren’t simply learning needlework, sitting in that classroom. That’s a pretty big difference. How can it be backward when so many more children have access to quality education today than they did a hundred years ago? Taking the long view, high school graduation has gone from around 10% in 1900 to over 85% today.

Let’s deal with the myth that print is a dinosaur and no longer useful — by and large, classroom materials have been both print and digital for almost more than two decades or so now. It’s basically the law: schools need to ensure equitable access to curriculum for all students. This has driven innovation in the adherence, and for the gaps against this goal. So, this idea that curriculum and content are a staid and static industry is just false. Besides, many print materials including yes, books, are very valuable in classrooms — they are easy to access without registering, you can share them, add to them — they don’t accidentally crash in the middle of a lesson. It’s not being a dinosaur, sometimes it’s just the best tool. That black and white image of the old schoolroom ends up being this education system bashing storyline, which, I get it — needs to be disrupted that people need to set up as an outdated model to replace with value-rich technology. Value to who? Many people who make those sweeping claims haven’t been in a classroom since they were in school.

Secondly, we all know now that while device ratios have been gradually improving over the past decade, schools are still not 1:1 even as the pandemic keeps schools closed today. And of course, the dirty secret that isn’t so secret any longer is that the supposed greatest country in the world has the least ready infrastructure to ensure internet access for schools and families. I have heard of school districts that can’t even keep up with the needs for hot spots — and that’s if they can get hold of families to issue them. And many community colleges aren’t even providing them. Students just have to hunt for some Wifi.

Now, could districts, schools, or teachers with access have integrated technology more meaningfully and changed the pace, place and mode of instruction faster in light of the innovations available? Sure, but, as we all know, technology itself doesn’t change a complex set of interactions like learning; the people and processes that support it have to be changed too. Even though we have millions and millions of hybrid and remote learners right now, what the Christensen Institute reported recently is that we’re seeing the same kind of instructional modes and habits grafted onto a remote learning context.

The more exciting kinds of movements in education are about student-centered learning, choice, mastery and competency versus seat time — that’s not unique to technology.

Technology can do a really great job with these, and scale them, but it’s going to have to get a lot more sophisticated to do, say, effective project-based learning with feedback better, or help a teacher navigate a meaningful discussion about race and equity in her classroom. I mean, would you rather be on Zoom or your phone all day working with colleagues or on your phone or would you prefer to be in a meeting room at the office working with people on the project? I think even as employees we’re learning what parts of our day or our responsibilities will be much improved when we can be face to face at work and which are just fine at home. It’s the same in school. Once you solve the challenge of access to technology, it behooves us to think deeply about what kids need to learn and how they learn, especially if you think about little kids. I don’t know anyone who thinks it’s fine kids are on screens all day.

The Relationship Between Regulation & Innovation

Else-Mitchell: When people say that textbooks are still print, I say, “Yes, so is the New York Times. But they are also completely digital and have been for about a decade.”

It’s a misleading fact that is thrown about everywhere. Some people argue that their very existence has pushed the industry. For example, between 10–15% of kids are classified under the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities or Education Act) and are eligible for special education services. There are very explicit and, quite frankly, forward-looking rules around what it means to have every child access the curriculum. That means it has to be digital, it has to have read-aloud features, it has to have support for vision-impairment. Likewise, in many states, it is required that core curricula must be in English and Spanish.

And they also haven’t met all the needs in a classroom. A lot of innovators and technologists would say that often what one creates in the margins or the edges over time becomes the center. Some of these tools — speech to text, speech recognition, closed captioning, those kinds of assistive technologies — these may have started out to solve one issue, but they’re going to solve other problems for others, maybe they help dyslexic readers, and add opportunities for all. I worked in partnership with the Center for Applied Special Technologies (CAST) for years on product development because that is where the innovation was happening: early user experience frameworks, such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), visual analytics and the next beach-head EX: emotional design. That’s where you see a lot of innovation. And you can argue that was started because books and textbooks needed to become completely digital for children with learning differences.

Colodne: How much opportunity have you seen for Invisible Learning — i.e. picking up key skillsets subliminally? Many children produce videos, animation, game modifications, and technical guides while playing video games today. Will classrooms become gamified? Else-Mitchell: My daughter is likely doing that on Roblox right now. A couple of points. Learning happens all the time, so we’re always doing some kind of subliminal learning. The best learning tends to be visible and ultimately more powerful when it is reflective and conscious, as you are more likely to apply it again in novel situations.

Rewards systems and their dopamine hits have been built into educational products for quite a long time in different ways. The ding of the Duolingo app is likely in a lot of homes these days. I think reward systems have now moved from being a “nice to have” feature to now almost being table stakes to support what I started calling, “self-driving learning”.

Gamification isn’t just rewards. Some of the best gaming systems that I’ve seen out there build resilience, as well as community, to enhance learning. Mostly these aren’t in traditional educational apps, but there are some examples. Mathletics was an elementary math practice app from Australia that has a leader board with your country flag right next to your name — kids could represent their country, score points, qualify for the next round, and get better at math. You’re playing against your personal best, but you’re playing with others. Not exactly a massive multi-player online game, but pretty far from practice worksheets. One of the things that we’ve seen through the pandemic is that parents are accepting that games are a way for children to be social, and that’s a good thing. That makes them feel better about the gaming part.

Navigating Politically Shaped Markets

Colodne: How much of what makes it into a classroom is shaped by politics? Else-Mitchell: Policy doesn’t necessarily affect how you teach, but it can effect what you teach. The most obvious example is the curricular adoption processes where there is a list of approved materials or products in a state or school district. Some states have very formal adoption processes like Texas and California. The California English Arts guidelines were over 1,000 pages long, and to do business there you have to make products that meet those guidelines. You have to go to market very differently in each of those states based on whether they’re adoption states or more open states — places where you can sell and transact products more openly and directly with the end users, which is probably the district or the school. Many more states have made their processes and funding more flexible and more local over the past two decades.

Back under what is referred to as the “NCLB-era”, (No Child Left Behind), there was a bipartisan effort under President George W. Bush to push for instructional products and services that had to align with scientifically-based reading research. This was often referred to as Reading First and it became a federal mandate tied to funding and accountability measures in States. This was unusual and it suffered as much in observance as in the breach, unfortunately. Generally, local control at a county or even a building level mandates what happens in the classroom.

A more sweeping example happened through a federal program when the Obama administration introduced Open Ed, an initiative which encouraged the use of open-source resources for teaching. Some of the foundations and non-profit companies got behind this and that fueled a plethora of free resources and curricula from a range of companies and organizations. Marketplaces, hubs, clearing houses and credibility systems around teacher-created, state, or non-profit-created content were all pretty disruptive to standard procurement and distribution models — not just disruptive to publishers, but to anyone who thought that part of their value proposition was expertise.

One of the beneficiaries of a model like OpenEd was the learning management system (LMS) companies: places like Schoology or Canvas. Because if you’re going to have all this instructional stuff laying around, downloaded lesson plans, and a random patchwork of materials you found on the Internet, as a teacher, you need a way to connect it together and to a taxonomy of learning standards, I mean, don’t you? So, the LMS stepped in to help solve that problem. Turns out that problem was more of a problem for administrators than for the teacher end-user. At the same time, Google spent a lot of time focusing on the teacher user and reducing friction around access and assigning work.

Colodne: What are some of the key changes you’ve seen in EdTech in the last few years?

Else-Mitchell: One of the key changes we’ve seen in the last five years is a lot of direct marketing to teachers. A lot of the newer EdTech companies have gone directly to teachers through the Google suite or the App store, to make things easier for a teacher. At Scholastic we have been working directly with teachers as users and buyers for decades. Teachers also spend money out of their own pockets which isn’t great when some of them are making less than an Uber driver in some states.

Google itself has changed the dynamics — they aren’t directly selling a product to schools, rather they’re turning kids and teachers into the products themselves. At this point, because of remote schooling, along with Zoom, most parents probably know the Google suite. That direct-to-teacher effort is a huge departure from the Microsoft model which traditionally worked directly with a school district technology team not the teachers.

I think what’s interesting is the fragmentation of sales models that is happening at all kinds of levels. You really need to be able to sell to teachers, sell to schools, sell to districts, and even navigate the specific processes of a state to access the right funding streams. And, ultimately, of all those people that you are selling to, your products most importantly have to sell to kids because they’re your end user — they are the ones that need to be learning from what you make. Also, maybe you know, but kids aren’t regular consumers; you have to work out how their needs and the customer needs can be aligned.

Colodne: How can school districts remain competitive when attracting talent? Else-Mitchell: As is the case in any employee’s working life — what’s the reason most people leave a job? It’s not who they work with, it’s their boss. There’s no formal mentoring in education, so the role of the principal in mentoring and managing young teaching talent cannot be understated. And of course, while it is never the top of a survey of teachers around conditions, better salaries are essential, particularly when you look at cities, because the cost of living is so astronomical you can’t even entertain the idea of living in the district where you teach.

The other consideration is adults switching careers to the profession. Alternative certification is the best way to make it more attractive. There are a lot of people who have come in from other professions and are incredibly successful and incredibly satisfied because they’ve experienced the world elsewhere, they understand what else is out there and they are ready to apply their strengths and life experience in different ways. If they’re sociable people, and they enjoy it, then they come in with more of a can-do mindset. There are many alternative certification paths out there, but I am not sure they all do a good job recruiting people who are mid-career and want a change.

Colodne: Are private schools a competitive threat to education? Else-Mitchell: I think public education is here to stay, but the pandemic is creating some pretty significant tectonic shifts to test it. I haven’t seen a report about private schools that doesn’t show that their growth has been incredible; not necessarily because they are better, but they can operate more independently, and manage differently so they can be open for learning. But the vast majority of kids in the U.S. are in public schools.

There are quite a few private school systems on PE firms’ target lists because of recent growth — and this is a more global trend. They are buying up groups of schools and trying to consolidate them. Then they add a technology eco-system onto that to scale it as a real network. So, I do think we’re going to see some growth there.

Charter Schools are another place where you’ve seen a lot of competition with public schools. Ideally, if there’s a charter in the district, this should create a model where everybody can learn from the innovations, especially in places like KIPP where student achievement may outstrip the local public school. Unfortunately in practice that sharing doesn’t happen very much, and it can become quite divisive as per-student funding is threatened.

In the last decade, I think homeschooling has doubled and pre-pandemic, around 2 million kids were homeschooled. Now, that distinction of home-school, remote, hybrid, flex, virtual feels like it’s collapsed entirely. We think there will be a lot of energy to go back to school buildings, to enable parents to work, for kids to be with other kids — because we know learning is social. As we have seen the ritual of going to school each day fundamentally underpins our very society, especially for poorer or at-risk children. At the same time, some families may be able to choose freedom and flexibility of homeschooling even after schools reopen. What we’ve been seeing is a pretty significant fragmentation of the ecosystem, and the community, whether it’s in product, delivery, basic services, personnel, or location, and that’s a reality we’ll all have to grapple with, pivot to, so we can keep meeting customers’ pretty urgent needs.


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