After reading EdSurge’s update on personalized learning in Mountain View I felt discouraged and disheartened.
As an educator and a former parent in the school district, I had such great hope in the new direction of math education for my daughter. Yet less than 5 months after the initial roll out, the decision was made to scale back the personalized math education that students were receiving.
In nearly every industry innovation happens – leaders try new directions and test alternative options – some with great success and others not.
But this should have been different.
In this situation we have a school district with forward-thinking, hard-working educators in a community of supportive, involved parents, right in the heart of Silicon Valley – the land of innovative thinking.
Bring in New Classrooms, with their Teach-To-One (TTO) math program that utilizes an adaptive curriculum to develop personalized daily schedules and modalities for students and teachers that allows each student to learn and grow at their own pace.
How could this not work?
I have no insider knowledge, no gossip as to how it all went down. But based on my observations and experience, I believe the issue at heart is one that schools and educational companies have wrestled with for years – and will continue to.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the idea of a Growth Mindset and the iterative process of Design Thinking. But I wonder if in education, and in the court of public opinion, the stakes are just too high? Maybe failure isn’t an option?
We know that perception of products in the EdTech space often becomes the reality for thinly-stretched educators. We also know that parents and communities talk – usually without the full details. I’m concerned that a progressive solution like Teach-To-One now has a tarnished image in a community of highly connected parents and in a region where innovation is ubiquitous.
Equally disappointing is that we now have parents longing for the days of a homogeneously tracked math education – an educational structure we’ve fought for years to eliminate.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Please, let me re-iterate that the educators of the district are good, hard-working, student-minded people (some of whom I’ve had the great pleasure of working with). I can also say that the district partnerships team at New Classrooms is top-notch. There were no-doubt numerous conversations around strategy and implementation that went on behind the scenes.
I believe this is not a people problem but rather an institutional problem – one that we must solve if we want innovative technology to actually impact student outcomes.
While I’ve had the great pleasure of playing various school level roles in EdTech and other program implementation, I have also had the humbling experience of leading initiatives that have crashed and burned. From those experiences, I’d love to pass along some insights to hopefully prevent schools and EdTech companies from making the same mistakes.
Don’t rush – you need to go slow, very slow if you want to go fast.
Educators have big hearts – when we see a solution that could help our students, we want it. We’re also impatient, because again, when our students have needs to be met, we want to meet those needs now, not wait for the next cohort of students to pass through our schools. But when it comes to implementation of EdTech solutions, our big hearts often become our Achilles heels. Leaders rush to “make it happen for next year” and often don’t allow themselves the time to truly manage and lead the change necessary for the solution to take hold.
Now as, an EdTech consultant, I can see that all too often companies worsen this problem. Founders have worked tirelessly to create a product or service that is innovative and impactful. They hire sales teams to go out and sing the praises of their solution. With the incredibly long school sales cycles, companies, especially early stage startups, feel the increased need for sales to extend their runway and demonstrate traction.
But this combination comes at a cost – forsaking the long-term benefit for the short-term gain.
Don’t start with the ‘What’ – take time communicating the ‘Why’.
I had to learn this lesson the hard way. In a previous role, I had the opportunity to lead the adoption and implementation of a learning management system. I expeditiously began the vetting, piloting, procurement, training, and implementation process. But the reality was that the collective needs of the district stakeholders were unclear – an LMS was not what we needed. Had I taken the time to communicate and understand the true ‘Why’, we could have saved time and money.
School leaders spend tremendous amounts of time meeting, discussing, problem-solving and developing strategy. This process occurs – usually behind closed doors – and results in a logical solution. But parents, and oftentimes teachers, have not been privy to those conversations. Consequently, when leaders roll out new initiatives and start with the ‘What’ they alienate the stakeholder groups that are most important in successful implementation.
Educational companies and EdTech providers should seek to support school leaders in continually reminding them of the need to truly assess and understand their internal ‘Why’. If we are really all in this together, client success managers, partnership directors, implementation specialists and sales teams should strive to help schools be informed consumers. (The accounts that you‘ll land will become long-term, loyal evangelists for your brand!)
Don’t expect a drop-in solution to transform schools – they are far too complex.
The TTO mathematics program is the future of math education for many classrooms. The cutting-edge technology combined with sound pedagogy represents a direction we need to head in education. But for many schools, simply implementing a competency based, progressive learning program in a traditional school system will cause a ripple effect that the school community may not be prepared for.
Competency based education has implications for letter grades, credit earning, transcripts, board policy, scheduling, facilities, communication, parent education…just to name a few. School districts are busy, highly inter-connected and understaffed organizations. A silver bullet in one aspect of the organization can lead to exponentially more work in others – good, meaningful, necessary work, but additional nonetheless.
Companies would be wise to invest the time necessary to understand district complexities and even provide high-quality professional insights for busy school leaders. Implementation teams must understand the potential ripple effects – beyond software integration and hardware compatibility. EdTech leaders must help schools prepare for the change, encourage them to expand their horizons, and educate them on the possibilities. Again, the lifetime value of the school account is far more important to the success of the company than short term revenue.
We all know implementation is not easy. Just as there is no one-size fits all EdTech solution, there is no one “right” implementation process. If we’re truly interested in improving the quality of education for our kids, we must all take the time to foster relationships between Schools and EdTech, and just maybe we can all help the great innovative technology of our time have a lasting impact on students.