The Innovation Mismatch: Smart Capital and Education Innovation
Ohanian Comment:The company she keeps. Who would guess Weiss' salary is paid for by US taxpayer dollars? Seems like it should be coming from the Business Roundtable or maybe Wireless Generation and McGraw-Hill. One thing is clear: The Duncan people feel no need to be subtle. Weiss is very clear about the real purpose of the Common Core Standards and Assessments.
First, Weiss explains that because neither teachers singly nor urban school districts collectively, make smart choices in "innovative technology solutions in education," the smart thing is for philanthropic [sic] foundations to stop funding district projects and to start funding technology directly. Hasn't Wireless Generation profited enough from federal policies?
Weiss describes Wireless Generation as "an innovative assessment company" that "steps in to help" when schools have technology troubles. Partnering with DIBELS, Wireless Generation profited mightily from NCLB. Wireless software allowing teachers to score the test on a handheld computer is ubiquitous in schools receiving NCLB funds. Wireless CEO and founder Larry Berger was 2007 inaugural Fellow for the Entrepreneurial Leaders for Public Education Program, created by The Aspen Institute and the New Schools Venture Fund; member of the Board of Overseers for the Annenberg Institute on School Reform; speaker at DIBELS summit, Albuquerque, Feb. 18, 2009, where Wireless Generation team gave speech titled, "Adaptive Algorithms: Aligning Instruction with DIBELS Assessment Results." Included in Berger's biography at GoBiz: "Wireless Generation's mCLASS products and services streamline collection of data about student learning needs and school operations, facilitate data analysis and interpretation, and build educators' capacity to implement data-driven instructional programs that deliver better outcomes for more than 2.5 million children." [emphasis added]
Noted researcher P. David Pearson wrote, "DIBELS is the worst thing to happen to the teaching of reading since the invention of flashcards." But the people in charge don't care about research refuting the claims of DIBELS [and there's plenty more where this came from], just to mention one federal brainstorm taken to scale, aided and abetted by technology.
Promoting a pile of "What can I do Monday?" lessons is worse than pathetic. But no one is surprised that this comes from the U. S. Department of Education, where teaching directly for results and ignoring the intellectual quality of the process is business as usual. As Richard Gibboney pointed out in a take-down of Madeline Hunter in Educational Leadership (Feb. 1987), this sort of thing is managerial, not educative.
Gibboney reminds us to read Dewey, who warned about valuing technique too much. In Democracy and Education (1916) Dewey says that nothing has brought pedagogical theory into greater disrepute than handing out recipes and models to be followed in teaching. "Mechanical woodenness. . . is an inevitable corollary of any theory which separates mind from activity motivated by a purpose."
Gibboney adds, "Purpose is more than a behavioral objective.
For those of you have been snoozing since Gates/Obama/Duncan started revving up for the Common Core, Weiss delivers this wake up call:
DATA rules. . . so education entrepreneurs will "enjoy national markets."
The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.
Our unions are silent. Professional organizations like NCTE are scurrying to get on the bandwagon with publications and online professional development to soften up their members for the Common Core onslaught.
It seems we can only wait with horror to see what assessment-driven "innovation in curriculum" will look like. Certainly, it will make DIBELS look benign.
We should not go down without a whimper. See you at the protest march in Washington, D. C. on July 31.
Cindy Lutenbacher comment: The words "effective" and "proven" and "data-driven" are all designed for those who want to take taxpayer dollars away from kids and put them into the pockets of the already absurdly wealthy; as used here, they have nothing to do with children. This article shows that Ms. Weiss either has no clue or is prevaricating to the point of satire, when it comes to the true education of our young people.
Note: This the first comment at Harvard Business Review. Three cheers.
Editor's note: This post is part of a three-week series examining educational innovation and technology, published in partnership with the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University.
by Joanne Weiss
One of the most poignant summaries of the market for innovative technology solutions in education is that it is forever in its infancy. That statement was true 30 years ago, when the Apple II was introduced into schools and I first started working in education technology, and it is true today.
The problem is not a lack of creativity or great ideas. Nor is the problem one of effectiveness -- educators have had access for decades to sophisticated, personalized, and highly-- effective online instruction and tutors. The problem is rather one of culture and capital. The demands of practitioners and the market supply of innovation from entrepreneurs are simply mismatched.
The capital markets that fund education innovation -- both for-profit and nonprofit -- are largely broken. When for-profit investors fund technology solutions, they naturally seek good returns on their investments. To deliver those returns, developers cater to the largest possible market: large urban and suburban K-12 districts.
Unfortunately, these districts are notoriously weak consumers. They often buy technology and pursue innovation based on relationships and networking, rather than based on effectiveness. Given the relative dearth of valid, reliable measures of student achievement, few innovative programs can demonstrate their efficacy -- so why not select solutions sold by someone you've worked with for years, or buy the products that come with the best give-aways, or purchase from the company everyone has heard of? The result is a large-scale market of technological mediocrity. High-quality solutions do not rise to the top -- and effectiveness is neither recognized nor rewarded.
Enter philanthropic capital. Education is a social good, so perhaps foundations offer better pathways to successful innovation than the market alone? Regrettably not. Foundations typically fund projects, not products. And in education, that usually means foundations give money to schools or districts to build or customize solutions to address their specific needs. Foundations, in other words, tend to fund the users or practitioners, not the entrepreneurs.
Each user, in turn, grapples with its needs in isolation. It creates its own homegrown, fragmented, one-off programs. Their solutions generally don't scale well -- they start breaking down when too many students or teachers or schools or districts begin using them. And as technology changes, district developers don't have the wherewithal to keep up, so the solutions start lagging behind.
In no time, the once innovative solution becomes a "legacy system" that cannot be updated because it's too expensive, or because the programmer who knew the code is gone. It doesn't work on the new hardware the school just bought. It crashes the latest version of the operating system that just got installed. The user interface is outmoded, and the new app or feature that everyone else has just costs too much to add. That's no way to build a market.
Yet there is a third way. We tried it at the NewSchools Venture Fund, where I used to work. We brought together about a dozen chief academic officers from some of the highest-performing school systems and charter management organizations in the country and asked them what prevented them from dramatically improving their students' outcomes. Then we asked the best education entrepreneurs we knew to help imagine solutions that would meet the needs of the practitioners.
The theory of action was that instead of building solutions that catered to the lowest common denominator, entrepreneurs should pursue innovations that enabled the best -- solutions that automated smart, effective processes and could be used to improve practice and process in all schools. If a core group of innovations elevated the quality of teaching or the ease of learning, bolstered teacher effectiveness, or improved efficiency, then for-profit and nonprofit capital might invest to fund the right things -- innovative solutions that would make a difference for students.
Pairing smart practitioners with smart entrepreneurs was a winning combination. Several years earlier, KIPP had raised foundation money to build their own homegrown lesson-sharing website so that teachers across all their schools could share curriculum materials. The school that initially developed the lesson-sharing website loved it. But the other schools found it less intuitive, and it was expensive and difficult to maintain and enhance.
In fact, sharing great curricular content and creating a collaborative, professional, teacher sharing and support network was a big need for many of the high-performing school systems. As it happened, a smart, young entrepreneur from Boston -- a Teach for America alumnus named Alex Grodd -- was working on just the thing. Today that program, Better Lesson, has been enhanced based on input from great practitioners -- and it's being deployed across KIPP and many other schools. KIPP's homegrown solution has been retired.
Achievement First, a [charter] school system in New York City and Connecticut, had a similar story to tell. They built a highly effective, data-driven culture in their schools that depended on a formative assessment regimen. Initially, they administered formative assessments by hand. That proved inefficient as their school network expanded, so they contracted with a local software house to build a solution for them. The new software was more convenient for their teachers and it put better data in their hands faster -- when it worked. But it wasn't built for scale, and it couldn't be modified or upgraded easily.
When it came time to develop version 2.0, Achievement First looked elsewhere. Wireless Generation, an innovative assessment company, stepped in to help. The two -- together with a number of other school systems -- are working hand in hand to create better and more adaptable systems for monitoring assessment data at scale.
Technological innovation in education need not stay forever young. And one important change in the market for education technology is likely to accelerate its maturation markedly within the next several years. For the first time, 42 states and the District of Columbia have adopted rigorous common standards, and 44 states are working together in two consortia to create a new generation of assessments that will genuinely assess college and career-readiness.
The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale. [emphasis added]
In this new market, it will make sense for teachers in different regions to share curriculum materials and formative assessments. It will make sense for researchers to mine data to learn which materials and teaching strategies are effective for which students -- and then feed that information back to students, teachers, and parents.
If we can match highly-effective educators with great entrepreneurs and if we can direct smart capital toward these projects, the market for technological innovation might just spurt from infancy into adolescence. That maturation would finally bring millions of America's students the much-touted yet much-delayed benefits of the technology revolution in education.
Joanne Weiss is the Chief of Staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and previously led the Obama administration's Race to the Top program.
Harvard Business Review