Special Report
School & District Management

Ed. Companies, K-12 Policymakers Seek Common Ground

By Michelle R. Davis — April 22, 2013 2 min read
Scott Kinney, left, a senior vice president at Discovery Education, and Robert Onsi, a vice president of product development, are shown at a conference promoting digital classrooms at the company's Silver Spring, Md., headquarters. Mr. Kinney and Mr. Onsi have worked with states to ensure that Discovery's digital Techbooks can compete through traditional print textbook-adoption processes.
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Though advocacy by education companies can mean donating to candidates, hiring lobbyists, and getting deeply involved in the political process, some industry players say it’s often more about simply educating policymakers on new options in a digital age.

Ed-tech companies, in particular, say they grapple with laws and regulations that don’t allow for new educational tools that didn’t exist when those rules were adopted, or must deal with legislators with a limited understanding of what new technologies can do to improve teaching and learning.

“This is a new dynamic, and it’s different,” said Michael B. Horn, a co-founder of the Innosight Institute. “It’s another constituency group with interests that sometimes do align with [traditional educational interests] and sometimes don’t align in different ways.” The San Mateo, Calif.-based institute, which conducts research on education and health care, is a proponent of virtual learning and other new approaches in education.

Updating Procedures

Given such a dynamic, advocacy often begins with education, said Scott Kinney, a senior vice president for Discovery Education, based in Silver Spring, Md. In 2009, when Discovery Education launched its digital Science Techbook, the for-profit company found some states unsure of or even resistant to the idea that a digital textbook could be considered as part of the textbook-evaluation process.

Though the company doesn’t employ lobbyists, “we advocate constantly,” Mr. Scott said.

“A lot of people have asked me, ‘How did you get around this?’ or ‘What lobbying have you done to change this law?’ ” he said. “We try to work collaboratively to overcome obstacles.” That’s what happened in Oregon, said Drew Hinds, an education specialist with the Oregon education department.

Mr. Hinds said Oregon made it clear that it could not create a separate system for evaluating digital textbooks, and that Discovery would have to go through the traditional process. It took some explaining by Discovery to determine whether that would be possible, he said.

Over time, the textbook-evaluation process in Oregon has made nods to the digital-textbook side, providing digital devices for teacher reviewers to allow them to evaluate the e-textbooks, and this year, for the first time, incorporating a form to detail the media format for the design of digital materials.

Previously, Discovery had to fill out a form that asked the company to provide irrelevant information about such factors as the weight of paper in its books or the type of glue used to hold them together, Mr. Hinds said. “There have been some procedural changes we had to make to the process,” he said.

Jane Swift, a former governor of Massachusetts and the chief operating officer for Middlebury Interactive Languages, which sells online language courses, said business can play a significant role “in being one of the catalysts for our very successful education reform movement.”

Middlebury Interactive—a for-profit joint venture between Vermont-based Middlebury College and K12 Inc., an online learning company based in Herndon, Va.—announced in January a $2.6 million initiative with the Vermont education department to provide 30 of the state’s schools discounted, unlimited access to the company’s Web-based language classes.

Ms. Swift said it’s reasonable for groups—whether they are private companies or public agencies—to disagree on policy and to hash that out in a public forum. But, she said, “the demonization of folks who participate in the political process is so far from the reality that I’ve experienced that it’s distressing.”

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 April 24, 2013 edition of Education Week as Companies, Policymakers Look for Common Ground

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