Special Report

Common Core Raises Questions on Future of Ed-Tech Spending

By Robin L. Flanigan — June 09, 2014 6 min read
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One of the major challenges ahead for educational technology companies centers around this question: Once schools buy the hardware and install the broadband, will the money districts and states are investing in ed tech to prepare for the common core simply fade away, or will it shift to new priorities?

Several market analysts, ed-tech company officials, and education leaders say they do not expect to see the money disappear, but they instead expect a shift in the use of that money that places an emphasis on the impact of different products.

“What’s going to happen now is that with this proof of efficacy, you’re really going to be able to see who’s doing a better job of making kids ready,” said Deborah H. Quazzo, a managing partner at GSV Advisors, an education-sector-focused investment bank based in Chicago. “This is a great place for us to be able to make sure we’re getting a real return on investment in the quality of the products that are purchased.”

Others echo that perspective.

“Common core is driving a much more sophisticated use of technology, and we’ll see spending increases as we learn more about the impact of new instructional models and pedagogies to support the standards,” said Larry Singer, a managing director for Pearson’s North American schools group.

As technology becomes more affordable and powerful, as well as less threatening to K-12 educators, market players, and observers predict the next wave of ed-tech investments will center on digitally delivered personalized instruction and professional development targeted at the common-core standards and assessments.

And as districts address data security and student-privacy concerns, fully support teachers, and shift to more plug-and-play interoperability solutions that allow applications to work with each other in easier and more useful ways, there will be “more and more of a reality around the personalization of learning than the rhetoric we have now,” noted Steven Pines, the executive director of the Education Industry Association, based in Vienna, Va. “Today, there’s this mantra that we want to have 1-to-1 delivery of instruction, and it’s a wonderful and right path to be on. But it’s more aspirational than it is universally implemented.”

Personalized Priorities

To push past the aspirational rhetoric, the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee used a grant in 2012-13 to let 10 of its 153 schools create tech-rich model classrooms, a move that has spurred a strategic plan to have blended learning environments in every school by 2017-18.

“Blended learning defines the environment, personalized learning defines the instruction,” said Kecia Ray, the executive director of learning technology and library services for the 87,000-student district.

What Does It Cost to Implement Common Core?

Technology will be the biggest expense for states and school districts as they prepare for, and implement, the Common Core State Standards, according to one recent analysis.


SOURCE: Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research

Ms. Ray, who is also the chairwoman of the board of directors for the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, a Washington-based membership association that promotes innovative uses of educational technology, reported that the district expects to receive a $1 million increase in local money this summer to support the use of new technologies in classrooms—all because of instructional and environmental changes spurred by the Common Core State Standards. In Nevada, the 316,000-student Clark County district has started focusing investments on performance-based contracting to help individualize instruction.

“We have extremely high class sizes, and almost one-third of our students are English-language learners, so if companies say they have the tools to meet those needs, we want to build metrics that right away hold them accountable,” said Jhone Ebert, the district’s chief innovation and productivity officer. “If benchmarks aren’t met, then we’ll part ways.”

Some market observers, however, say it’s important to note that the common core is just one of several factors driving ed-tech spending.

Mark Schneiderman, the senior director of education policy for the Washington-based Software & Information Industry Association—whose members include developers of software, digital content, and related school technologies and services—said that while the common core “no doubt has supported a spike in that area, it hasn’t shifted any fundamental long-term technology trends that we’re seeing in states without those standards.”

“Once you start isolating technology for specific programs, you’ve lost the bigger picture,” added Wendy Drexler, the chief innovation officer for ISTE.

Digital PD Trends

New technological requirements in place to meet the demands of the common-core assessments give districts greater opportunities and flexibility in how they use technology. And Ms. Drexler believes more attention will shift to pedagogy and investments in the growing potential of students to create their own learning environments.

“There are 3D printers and the maker movement, and the whole concept of hands-on and collaborative problem-solving,” she said. “Think about the implications for education. Instead of buying tools teachers can use, why not have kids make the tools they need to learn? That’s some proactive stuff.”

There are unprecedented opportunities for companies with products aligned to the spirit of the common-core standards, said Bert Bower, the founder and CEO of TCI, a K-12 publishing company based in Mountain View, Calif. “This is where you’re going to see innovative companies come out and rule the educational world,” he said. “The hardware is the easy, just-scratching-the-surface stuff.”

For its professional-development services, TCI has gone from providing in-person training 100 percent of the time five years ago to 10 percent of the time today. Instead, the company embeds professional development in 20 different ways in every piece of content. A teacher using an HTML5 slideshow about waves has access to embedded note fields that include answers to questions that pop up on the screen, for example, or information about common student misconceptions.

“We’ve tried to get districts to use their money for traditional PD, and they’re not interested, and yet they’re on fire for these products that have embedded PD,” Mr. Bower said. “Everyone wants everything 24/7 now.”

SIIA reported a steady year-over-year increase in online professional-development spending over the past few years. Digital and online professional development was up more than an estimated 11 percent in 2011-12 from the 2010-11 school year, totaling more than half a billion dollars, Mr. Schneiderman said.

Framing the Future

Despite predictions for what school districts will be spending money on in the future, Kathleen Brantley, the senior director of MDR’s EdNET Insight, said people should not lose sight of the fact that a mere 23 percent of districts nationwide in 2012-13 had substantially implemented 1-to-1 computing initiatives, according to an annual survey of technology directors by the education-related information-and consulting-services source, based in Shelton, Conn. Many districts have far to go on the technology front and aren’t yet able to focus heavily on the digital content that would come next, Ms. Brantley said. “They have a strong desire for that goal of a 1-to-1 environment, and they’re nowhere close to that now,” she said.

Once districts do reach that goal, they still have mastered “only the first piece of the puzzle,” said Keith Krueger, the CEO of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, a professional association for school district technology leaders. “In fact, if this is all we do, we haven’t advanced the real potential of technology in education.”

That said, there’s only so much predicting about the potential of technology in education given the speed of technological breakthroughs that wind up as classroom fixtures.

As Clark County’s Ms. Ebert framed it: “We’re going to be getting into things we don’t even know are being invented right now.”

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 Common Core Raises Questions on Future of Ed-Tech Spending


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