Building EdTech Markets in a Vacuum

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TEXT OF INTERVIEW between Christopher Swanson of Education Week and Kai Ryssdal at

KAI RYSSDAL: State education officials around the country are having a busy day. Today’s a key deadline in the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top. That’s the $4 billion pot of federal money that states can get — get, if they agree to certain policy changes. One of those changes — and this is today’s deadline — is to sign on to a national set of common curriculum standards. That could bring the education marketplace from widely fractured and segmented with dozens of different standardsinto something resembling coherent.
Christopher Swanson is the vice president for research and development at Education Week. Welcome to the program.
RYSSDAL: It’s a mistake to talk about a national education market, I suppose, but this drive to get some uniform core curriculum standards does kind of change the market dynamic for things like testing and textbooks, doesn’t it?
SWANSON: Well, that’s very much the idea, and I think you’re right. Historically, education in general, has been a very localized pursuit. If this common education, this common standards and assessments movement goes where some people are hoping it will, then we may really start to look at something that looks much more like a national education market.
RYSSDAL: And then those purchasers in that market would have the purchasing power. They would be able to say, “Listen, we’ve got 46 states” — or whatever it is — “we need cheaper and better.”
SWANSON: Well, that’s one thing, and certainly part of the explicit discussion about why we would want common standards and common assessments is we can pool our resources, we can develop better tests, we can develop better expectations and that will drive the market in a very different way. If you’re a test publisher, it really changes your mindset in thinking about, “Well, I can market to this state, this state and this state, and they’re all a little bit different.” But if there is much more wide adoption of common expectations for curriculum materials or assessments, then it is really a different kind of game.
RYSSDAL: So if I’m the head of Educational Testing Services in Princeton, N.J. today, watching these votes come in as people raise their core curriculum standards, am I getting a little bit nervous?
SWANSON: Well, you could certainly want to have your plan in order. But whether, if you’re in an established player with a lot of research and development resource and established relationships with states and other plays out there, even if the game really changes, you’re well-positioned to act quickly. On the other hand, you wonder if there could be some wild cards here. Go from 50-plus markets to one market, and if you’ve got somebody out there who can work really creatively and quickly and put together a good product, and maybe, you know, it’s a world in which that kind of fresh, innovative competitor can stand up against some of these more established players.
RYSSDAL: About the federal money that is, in theory, driving the most recent set of events, and pushing people towards core standards: Is it possible that the hundreds of millions of dollars that some states are going to eventually get because of Race to the Top, might actually be dwarfed by the amount of money the could conceivably save by the changing dynamics of the market?
SWANSON: That’s entirely possible, but it’s very highly leveraged investment and attention by the federal government. So couple hundred million dollars here and there sounds like a lot of money, but when you look at kind of the textbook and instructional materials market, that’s an $8 billion industry per year. And when you think of how much potential cost savings, I think nobody’s quite sure about what that would look like exactly.
RYSSDAL: What happens once all this federal money gets leveraged out through the education system and the market dynamics change, then what happens? Now what do we do?
SWANSON: I think it depends on how deeply embedded these changes get in the state education systems, in particular. There’s always a little bit of a wait-and-see here, and I think that this is no exception. But at least now I think there’s some real potential for change in a way that we haven’t seen in a very long time within education, and just the fact that we’re having kind of a public and open, spirited, but positive discussion about the possibility of national standards, that’s a very educational world than it has been in the past. And so, I wouldn’t rule anything out necessarily.
RYSSDAL: Christopher Swanson, he’s the vice president for research and development at Educaiton Week. Chris, thanks a lot.
SWANSON: Thanks Kai. My pleasure.

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