Smart Cities: Portland, Countercultural and Interesting

“I think Portland is incredibly interesting,” said venture investor Brad Feld. “They have a smart counterculture of people.” Interesting for sure, as Portland is known for  beer, bicycles, coffee, donuts, climate, and a namesake television show. However, according to a leading policy analyst, “All of the energy and innovation in our community is focused on environmental and sustainability issues and not on school reform.”
Right in downtown Portland, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) is partnered with with Multnomah County Public Library to develop an innovative “maker lab” inspired by YOUMedia in Chicago, a project funded by the MacArthur Foundation and supported by the Institute for Library and Museum Services. OMSI is also paving the way to great STEM education and community learning in the Portland Area. It recently partnered with SparkFun Electronics to offer hands-on engineering and robotics learning for students.
Over at Portland State University, Associate Professor and Chair Gerry Recktenwald in the engineering department is also leveraging SparkFun to provide students with a new learning experience early in their college careers. Students in freshman courses are asked to create and invent small electronics from an inventor kit and 3D printer — a hands-on learning of traditional engineering basics found at other universities.
“It’s going beyond interaction. We’re going to teach you the basics and then we’re going to ask you to demonstrate that you can make it fun to work,” said Recktenwald describing the electrical fans, pumps, and sensors students make with SparkFun kits.
The Portland State engineering school is also partnering with the business school to challenge students to invent, create and bridge entrepreneurial concepts. “It’s really important for our students, particularly engineering students, to know something about business rather than just engineering,” said Associate Professor James McNames.
EdTech Innovation. McNames added that Portland is a hub for innovation and startup interest. Portland State helps play a role in letting knowledge fuel the city. In a time when massively open online courses (MOOCs) and free online universities are disrupting the world of higher education, Portland State is reinventing its value to students. The university is concerned with its ability to improve employability, reputation, assessments and the overall educational experience with hands-on lessons and learning networks to remain competitive in disruptive times.
Curriculum and assessment provider recently released a Digital Citizenship App (see feature) and EasyTech to help districts prepare for online assessments. The leading Indian edtech company, EduComp, is a majority investor in
NWEA is the leading provider of online adaptive assessments. With content partner CompassLearning, NWEA supports delivery of adaptive K-12 instruction.
Re:think is a Portland-based company that is helping young people make decisions about college, and careers based learning styles. ChangeXchange Northwest is working to boost local economies with investments in education that strengthen social and local enterprise.
Vernier Software and Technology is leveraging iPads to teach basics of math, physics, and statistics with video, graphs, and more.
Sublime Learning recently launched new iPad-ready eTeachables, which are self-paced, just-in-time professional development and university courses on how to integrate technology into writing, special education, and more.
Recently acquired Renaissance Learning has offices across the river in Vancouver and a short drive away in Hood River.
OpenSesame raised $8 million in January to grow its business being a marketplace for commercial elearning courses, “to become the iTunes of corporate training courses.”
Clarity Innovations doubled in size (20 FTE) this last year to keep up with client demand for consulting, designing and creating professional development materials to support mobile and blended learning.
ChickTech kicked off its year long high school program here, and is expanding to SFO this fall.
Treehouse, online coding school, moved its headquarters to Portland and raised another $7 million last year from Kaplan Ventures and taking a great interest in supporting Portland Public Schools and supporting K-12 education, in general.
The Northwest Education Cluster has been running meetups and making connections for more than 10 years.
Reform and Growth. Serving 47,000 students with 81 schools, Portland Public Schools is the largest school district in the Pacific Northwest. Just approved, the school board will “reinvest” $506 million into the schools next year- including 2 extra school days, at least 150 teaching positions and most likely, a 2.3% raise for teachers. There are questions over the construction bond passed last year to rebuild three PPS high schools– as the costs are now 19% more than planned when approved in 2012.
“I don’t think of [Portland] as an especially “smart city” when it comes to education reform,” said a national expert and resident. “Yes, we’re “smart” leaders in land use, livability and environmental conservation….But I worry we don’t have the same urgency and innovation when it comes to improving public schools.”
The most exciting work in the K12 space is work that the Chalkboard Project has helped to seed, working with and investing in school districts around the state (not justPortland) who are willing to try new approaches to improve student achievement. Its CLASS project has been a high-touch, not-confrontational approach to working with school districts and teachers to design new approaches to teacher evaluation, compensation and support structures—and many of these innovations are finding their ways to other school districts. There are currently nearly 165,000 students and 7,700 Oregon teachers in the 25 school districts that have participated in the CLASS Project.
Jonah Edelman launched the national advocacy group Stand for Children from Portland and the state chapter is an active advocate for early learning, college readiness, and school choice.
Portland is also home to Grantmakers for Education (GFE), Executive Director Ana Tilton took over in June (see feature).
Bill Porter, founding director of GFE and partner at Education First , points to three projects of note:

  1. The research/advocacy group The Children’s Institute is running a high-profile pilot project at an area school that tightly aligns early education and the early grades to create a more seamless (and hopefully more effective) PK-grade 3 model and built on to their preschool model by opening an Early Learning Wing and Neighborhood center this past fall. With people like Chris Tebben (formerly of Grantmakers for Education) as the board chair, most agree early education is the area where Oregon seems most poised to make headway.
  2. Portland has joined the “Strive” bandwagon and is deep in designing and implementing a similar coalitions of “collaboratives” working to address key points in the cradle-to-career pipeline.
  3. A standout among Social Venture Partner chapters, the Portland chapter has started focusing its investments and capacity building around eliminating the ready-for-kindergarten gap in Portland schools within the next 10 years. This January, they invested in KairosPDX, that will be opening both a Reggio- inspired early learning center and K-5 charter school in the fall of ‘14.

Gateway to College is a national network of early college high schools initiated by an effort of Portland Community College to serve high school dropouts.
Also on the entrepreneurial front, LEP High is bringing business-minded learning to high school students. With a unique learning environment, students who attend the school develop a new found inspiration to create and explore innovations.
Events. IntegratED, hosted by nonprofit OETC, is a boutique EdTech conference each February that attracts presenters and attendees from all over the country. This year it sold out as well as adding a new focus strand, Accelerate, specifically for administrators.
The Breaker Project came to Concordia University bringing together a group of 17-24 year olds to work on a manufacturing, design challenge for two weeks with their final pitch day of May 19th. Their challenge was to attempt to answer the question, what is the future of stuff? Portland is just the third city, after San Francisco and Detroit, to host the Breaker Project- fostering design thinking and testing the viability and social impact of business opportunities they identify for the making and manufacturing industries.
The New Media Consortium (publishers of the Horizon reports) is bringing its annual summer conference to Portland in June 16-19th.  Mini Maker Faire PDX, Sept.13-14, 2014 super fun Maker event, known as the Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth.
Oregon. Nancy Golden, Chief Education Officer of the Oregon Education Investment Board, is working hard to implement change. Still awkward is the relationship between the Oregon Education Investment Board–which is driving most of the statewide reform efforts– and the Oregon Department of Education, the government agency responsible for oversight, finance, compliance and management of the public school system.
Duncan Wyse, president of the Oregon Business Council, has been out front on every policy advance in Oregon including the Oregon’s National Career Readiness Certificate and the Oregon Proficiency Project.
Chris Sturgis calls Oregon’s new grading policy  “a good example of state leadership” and Beaverton School District, even though it is the third largest in the state has made big strides for implementing throughout the district with some great teacher leaders starting to bubble to the surface.
Despite being home to a number of online and blended learning startups (like KCDL sold to K12 Inc. in 2010), Oregon has been slow to incorporate online learning. Keeping Pace says “There are eight full-time online charter schools that serve 4,798 students statewide. These include Oregon Connections Academy with 2,529 students and Oregon Virtual Academy with 563 (with about 120 students in Jackson County). Passage of HB2301 in 2011 will increase online options. Comparing Oregon to another western state like Utah on the Digital Learning Now Report Card suggests a lower level of student opportunity.
Conclusions. Portland is a second tier city when it comes to innovations in learning–on par with cities like Austin and Seattle on our Smart City index. Foundations and business leaders have had some impact but the region lacks the design of impact organizations in first tier metro areas.
Like other left coast metro areas, Portland is a creative hotspot. But also like left coast cities, school districts are resistant to options and innovations. State leadership on proficiency-based learning has started to get some results and it is exciting to see the ed startups begin to connect to the public school systems.

The Smart Cities blog series catalogs innovations in learning in America’s great cities.  We’re writing a book about what we’re learning–and you can help.

Thanks to Alison Anderson, Thor Prichard, John Branam  and Bill Porter for help updating this post.

CompassLearning is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.

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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Nate Angell

What a fantastic post about EdTech in my home city of's amazing to see all these efforts brought together in one place!
I'd like to add one more Portland-based EdTech : I recently joined Lumen Learning, founded by open content pioneers David Wiley (@opencontent) and Kim Thanos (@kthanos). Lumen partners with higher education and K12 systems to eliminate textbook costs and improve student success using open-source curriculum. Lumen also works with foundations like Gates, Hewlett and Shuttleworth to support open education.
= Nate Angell

Amy Bennett

Great article, Tom. Thank you!
Another company for your list: Lightspeed Systems. We just opened our fifth office -- in NE Portland! Lightspeed Systems provides solutions (LMS, MDM, filtering) to help K12 schools safely and easily implement mobile, online, and blended learning.
I've been living in Portland for 22 years and have kids in the public schools -- and I'm excited to see the area become as progressive in edtech as it is in everything else!
Amy Bennett

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