Private Capital in Public Education-Feedback

1. Response from the Gadfly:

But, of course, there’s a profound trade off. Vendors are not reformers. Consultants are not agitators. Advisors are not change agents. Okay, maybe they’re gradual change agents over the very long haul. In real political cycles, however (and in the lives of real kids), ventures that opt—or are forced—to work with and within the system are not going to transform it, are not going to compete with it, are not going to provide alternatives to it, and are not going to do anything that deeply antagonizes it.

Technology itself has limitless potential in education, as Clayton Christensen, John Chubb and Terry Moe have recently noted (and as Lewis Perelman presciently pointed out in 1992). The sky is the limit in terms of what technology could do to strengthen instruction, foster learning, and boost productivity, not to mention all the back-office, managerial and communications gains that could also be made with its help. The limiting factors on technology’s usage in K-12 public education aren’t inherent in the technology (with minor, manageable exceptions such as electrical capacity, bandwidth, etc.) Rather, what limits the uses and impact of technology in education are the same factors that limit non-technological innovations and reforms, be they teacher compensation schemes, school calendars, accountability schemes, choice programs or whatever.

Here’s the paradox: the best way to deal with the political and regulatory obstacles, if one is bent on reforming education rather than simply making a buck or two from it, is to circumnavigate them by starting and running one’s own schools outside or semi-outside the system, via outsourcing, chartering, etc., as both Edison and K12 first set out to do, winning exemptions from some of the constraints, getting waivers from the regulations, avoiding the collective bargaining agreements, and poking holes thru some of the limitations.

Yet starting and running one’s own schools, whether they’re innovative or not, tech-heavy or not, brings a boatload of problems of its own, all manner of pushbacks and constraints—and much vulnerability to changing circumstances, people and priorities in the policy sphere.

To avoid the latter problems, while enlarging their markets faster than “exceptions” can ever grow, the developers and promoters of technological innovation in education steer away from full-fledged school operations (or, in Microsoft’s case, never enter into it) and instead say they will be “vendors” of curriculum, instruction, software and expertise to the system itself. Which of course means that the system is now their customer and its constraints and norms, its needs and practices, take over. Bringing us very nearly full circle: either one works with the system, in which case one doesn’t do much reforming; or one works from outside to create alternative options, in which case the system strikes back and limits what one can do.

And response to Gadfly

‘Vendors’ is far too shallow a view for EdTech. The emerging situation that your comments (and my paper) didn’t full explore the learning economy/ecosystem growing up around the calcified bureaucracy.  Lots of ‘vendors’ are going direct-to-consumer–building a robust direct service business model before backdooring the system.  As we’ve seen in Sweden, this could lead to the beginning of ‘replace’ rather than ‘reform’ with customer learning vouchers.

We could think of EdTech participants on a continuum:

· Vendor-Pearson, McGraw, Wireless Gen

· Competitor

o Public school operators: Edison, K12, Mosaica

o Private school operators: Meritas, Stafford (and coming soon—a generation of good inexpensive hybrid secondary schools)

· Replacement: a new learning economy

o Peer2peer networks (

o Hire a tutor networks (

o Adaptive content (, Reasoning Mind)

o Adaptive content + tutor networks (

A bunch of new developments more properly would fit into an  ‘augment the system’ category–next gen of the SES category that now includes Sylvan/Huntington.  I think we can assume that (like Higher Ed) that k12 gets much more diverse and is augmented in a larger variety of ways. In some countries/states, this will flip to a full voucher/edu account which can be spent in a number of ways and with multiple providers.

Interesting that Steve Jubb flipped and is pursuing this vision starting with a mentoring social network called TeamPlay–surround the kid with adults that care and create a market place of products/services for student/advisor/parent to choose from.

2. Thoughtful response from Steve Seleznow

Your follow up piece needs to unpack the biggest challenge: if we are able to change time and place for learning and create learner driven systems, what’s the concomitant social organization that needs to be in place at scale in communities? Where do thousands of teens (and others)  go during the day and how are they supervised?  I think the tech is here now (or close) to construct your vision (albeit without the capital), but there hasn’t been much work solving the bigger issues around community organization and social dynamics.

3. And Dava Saba, ABCTE, notes that “Vander Ark is correct – One hundred years of tradition unhindered by progress has to change”

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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