Jane Swift, a former governor of Massachusetts, is the CEO of Middlebury Interactive Languages, a for-profit joint venture created in 2010 by Middlebury College in Vermont and Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc., a publicly traded e-learning company. Middlebury College, which has an international reputation for its foreign-language programs, owns 40 percent of the company, which delivers courses to students in 1,200 school districts in the United States. The unique partnership between a liberal arts college and a private company highlights the political and economic complexities of navigating both the higher education and K-12 worlds. Recently, the Middlebury College faculty passed a nonbinding vote to sever ties with K12 Inc., citing concerns about censorship and the quality of one course. However, the president of the college and its board of trustees remain supportive of the joint venture. Education Week Executive Project Editor Kevin Bushweller interviewed Ms. Swift at the company’s Middlebury offices and followed up with an email interview about the recent faculty vote.
How does the faculty vote affect the current status of the company and its plans for the future?
This development doesn’t have a direct impact on the current operations or the future growth of the company. We are very proud of our relationship with Middlebury and always strive to be good stewards of the Middlebury brand and language pedagogy. At the same time, we wouldn’t have enjoyed our strong growth without K12 and its expertise in digital learning. There will be bumps in the road since this partnership is among the first of its kind, but we are fortunate to have the support and wisdom of both partners. In the end, the progress we have made in increasing access to quality world-language learning—especially to students who have no other options—can be a source of pride for both Middlebury and K12.
What is the key to making public-private partnerships work in the K-12 system?
The biggest thing you need to do as a company is understand schools’ pain points. Something I saw when I was the governor of Massachusetts while trying to do education policy is that there’s a certain arrogance among noneducators that we all think we went to school, and we send our children to school, so that we completely understand the challenges, opportunities, and issues facing teachers and educators. So the most important thing is to assemble a leadership team that is committed to supporting the unique challenges that educators, and particularly teachers, face. You can build a gorgeous product, it can be research-proven to be effective, but if it is not easy for teachers to use in the classroom, if it doesn’t fit the kind of work that they are doing, it is all for naught.
What lessons did you learn as governor of Massachusetts about how the private sector can help government solve problems?
The private sector in Massachusetts, through some organized groups, helped to ensure that the [education] policies that were put in place were bipartisan and embraced by consecutive governors. So in many ways, the business community in a particular state can help ensure the long-term implementation of a set of reforms. I also held roundtables and meetings with teachers to hear their reservations and fears. The business community played a critical role, and still does, in saying what the overarching goals and policies are that have to be achieved to make the Massachusetts education system the best in the country, and hopefully, eventually, one of the best in world.
What are the biggest mistakes ed-tech startups are making?
I think there are some folks who are modern-day gold-rush-type folks. There are some extraordinary valuations being given to companies without a business model, which in some ways negates the very reason why the private sector should be involved in education. I think every entrepreneur, and everyone working with teachers, needs to put their listening ears on and not assume they have all the answers. Don’t underestimate the complexity of problems teachers are facing in their classrooms. Making sure what you are doing is proven is pretty critical as well, although not easy to do, frankly, in education.
What measures do schools and companies need to take to improve the quality of virtual education?
Holding ourselves to some academic research standards is critical. Our products were designed with Middlebury College academics, taking pedagogy that was proven to improve language instruction over 100 years. Research-based design is really important, but then testing the efficacy is important as well. We are also finding that in the design of the products and implementation, we have to be much better as a company around professional-development training and helping teachers who may be uncomfortable with technology.
What needs to happen to build a stronger bridge of understanding between schools and companies?
Having more companies who are committed to student learning and in it for the long term. And I know that sounds a little idealistic, but at the end of the day, all systemic and significant change comes back to a shared vision and shared goal. For school districts, it’s about finding those partners that are willing to work with them to advance student learning. I also think there are some technical challenges. Having [requests for proposals] where quality and research-proven solutions are given as much weight as cost makes a ton of sense.
What is the most important lesson you have learned as CEO of Middlebury Interactive?
This work has reinforced the need for me to partner with teachers. Every person in our company, and if I could wave a wand, every person in for-profit education, should have a deep understanding of what happens in a classroom when your product operates the way it should, but also what happens when there is a problem. We can’t have downtime in the middle of a class.
Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2014 edition of Education Week as CEOs Speak Out