Modern Family: the Confusing & Promising Context of U.S. Education

What’s driving education these days?  On the first full day of the the ASU/GSV Education Innovation Summit (#EIsummit), I sat on the “Modern Family” panel discussing the issues of the day with Larry Berger from Amplify Learning, Tyler Bosmeny from Clever, Margery Mayer from Scholastic, and Iwan Streichenberger from InBloom. EdSurge’s Betsy Corcoran, who moderated the panel, led us through what she called the “education” part of the “education innovation” summit.

We identified 7 current influencers on education:

  1. More challenging student populations: more poverty and mobility;

  2. Common core: different and higher standards;

  3. Online assessment: the rubber hits the road  Sprint 2015;

  4. Bottoms-up student, parent, teacher app adoption;

  5. App explosion and the proliferation of point solutions;

  6. The shift to blended learning; and

  7. Device deployments (often without a plan).

Iwan said he frequently hears, “Technology is making teacher lives more difficult.”  It reminded me of Fullan’s Stratosphere, which suggests that edtech should be irresistibly engaging and elegantly efficient.

Several panelists lamented an ocean of point solutions and slow development of comprehensive platforms. “Big is back,” said Scholastic’s Mayer, referring to the ability of scaled providers to respond to big challenges.  Scholastic’s big announcement of new reading and math blended learning tools is certainly evidence of strong internal development capacity.  However, I noted that we’re still in the early innings when it comes to the learning revolution and startups–some not yet formed–we shape the landscape by the end of the decade.

Advances like adaptive instruction are leading to a disconnect in many classrooms between core curriculum and supplemental learning. The panelist agreed that learning platforms (and tablet bundles) should make it easier to piece together a component solution and manage competency-based environments.

There were calls for edtech to be grounded in day-to-day teacher experiences.  While that’s often true, we also need designed solutions for next gen schools–one is Google (iterative development) the other is Apple (elegant design).  The former is lean startup, the later is thick startup. The growth in seed investment and incubators has produced more of the former–we need more public private partnerships that will create more of the second.

We discussed the need for comparable growth measures to the course and even unit of instruction.  There was also a call for parent access to student achievement data. [See Data Backpack:Portable Records & Learner Profiles]. Iwan suggested that parent communication was an opportunity for startups but Larry noted that request remained nontrivial administratively (with signon and security demands around complicated family dynamics).

Coherence. Clever’s Tyler noted, “Lack of coherence is biggest threat to edtech.” The desire for coherence is nothing new; the difference is how coherence is defined.

A decade ago it became widely recognized through the success of a new generation of charters that a coherent model–where everything works together for students and teachers– was key to consistently high achievement. That coherence was usually expressed in high expectations, standards-aligned instruction, formative assessment, and lockstep cohort progress. The proliferation of digital options from apps to courses runs the risk of a reversion to the “shopping mall high school”–only this time it will be the Amazon version. I think we’ll come to understand coherence in a new way as individual learning pathways for kids where all the pieces feel connected and integrated–a coherent user (learner) experience.

It’s a confusing but promising time time to be an American educator–a time of big challenges and the best chance ever to meet those challenges.

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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1 Comment


The traditional model of schooling has definitely been made defunct with the introduction of so many different influencers on education. As a representative of an author who produces resources for classrooms that implement Common Core Standards, I am very excited to see how the education landscape changes within the next few days, months, and years.
Specifically, CC Standards is a flexible and relentless piece of education reform. I think it is exactly what this country needs in terms of individualized and performance-based learning. How will each state/educator/school/classroom adjust to the implementation of CC? How will results be calculated and studied? What about training the educators?
So many things are still fluttering in the air and hopefully will slowly be tied up soon.

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