Special Report
Executive Skills & Strategy

The Pace of Educational Change Quickens

By Kevin Bushweller — March 05, 2012 4 min read

K-12 education may be at a pivotal point in its evolution. New approaches to schooling are being tested around the country, technological tools are making it easier to adjust classroom teaching methods to target individual student needs, and an emerging market of educational entrepreneurs is seeking to make money by solving problems.

Indeed, the word “innovation” seems to be in everyone’s lexicon these days; it’s even turning up as part of new education job titles in school districts and states. The ideas that undergird it are animating a growing movement that’s spurring new policies, programs, and products that carry with them the potential to transform how students learn and how schools operate.

Helping to fuel those new ideas and entrepreneurial efforts is a flow of venture capital into K-12 that has exploded over the past year, reaching its highest transaction values in a decade in 2011. Industry observers attribute that rise to such factors as heightened interest in educational technology, the decreasing cost of electronic devices, and new opportunities presented by states’ nearly unanimous adoption of the Common Core State Standards.

“There may be a point when we look back at this time ... as being absolutely critical to education reform,” said Farb Nivi, the founder of Grockit, an online test-preparation service. “People are willing to try new things; they need to do more with less resources.”

This special report, produced with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, examines the education marketplace and new approaches to schooling that are changing K-12. It is part of a larger Education Week project that will evolve mostly on the Web—through blogs, e-newsletters, webinars, and a special online channel—to follow the education industry and efforts at innovation.

So-called “disruptive innovation” has come to virtually every sector of the U.S. economy over the past several years, including those with a substantial presence in the public realm, such as health care. To remain relevant in fast-changing times, major parts of the private and public sectors of the economy have worked to transform and reinvent themselves.

Yet, despite a growing number of pockets of K-12 innovation, education and market experts say that precollegiate education has been slower as a whole to embrace new ways of doing things.

“I would like to see a way for people to be able to do individualized K-12 education and then scale that,” said Laurie Racine, a co-founder of Startl, a nonprofit group that helps startup educational technology companies get off the ground. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near it.”

And U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a January interview, “When you look at how much faster innovation happens in other sectors than it does in education, I always wonder why we are such a laggard.”

Many educators are wary of what may seem like “flavor of the month” ideas and boutique approaches whose worth remains uncertain. They often look skeptically at the many for-profit enterprises that are jostling for a foothold in the K-12 marketplace.

Still, the larger economic and technological forces that are refashioning so much of life in the 21st century are clearly being felt in the nation’s schools. Educators also see the chance to rethink their strategies and methods and to judge innovations on their merits, regardless of the source, and embrace or adapt those that work well for students, families, teachers, and administrators.

This report begins with an in-depth look at how business startups are trying to find their way in the education market. Experts predict many will fail, but those that succeed hope to spread their approaches to school districts in the United States and beyond its borders. Educational entrepreneurs are optimistic that their companies can have a significant impact because they see a lot of problems in education that need solutions.

One of the primary problems facing educators is figuring out how to maximize student achievement. The report addresses that challenge in a number of ways. It takes a look, for instance, at the lessons the Houston school district is trying to learn from its charter schools and how it might apply those lessons to regular public schools. The report also examines how the movement toward hybrid charter schools that blend online instruction and face-to-face learning is heading into a period of greater scrutiny and accountability.

Turning to a policy area that many observers say is a barrier to innovative efforts to improve achievement, the report discusses how states are revising seat-time requirements to shift the emphasis in K-12 from time spent in classrooms to actual competency in academic subjects. New Hampshire, for one, has taken a big step in that direction.

The federal government, too, has played a bigger role in recent years in supporting innovative practices in education, such as through its Investing in Innovation, or “i3" grant program and policy changes to the E-rate to better reflect the new mobile-computing landscape. The report also chronicles the impact and status of such federal initiatives.

Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as The Pace of Change Quickens

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