Austin: Great Music, Vibrant Tech, Traditional Ed

There’s a surprisingly vibrant tech and entrepreneurial cluster in Austin but it has been slow to translate into education where things are pretty traditional.  A foundation officer said, “We have been working really hard to get Texas out of the stone age when it comes to charters.” There are some high performing charters and pretty good school districts around in CenTX and a small but growing EdTech community.
In March, the Getting Smart team spent a week in Austin at SXSWedu–which has become one of the three best education conferences. We posted a warm up, all the announcements, and a great wrap up. This year we even cataloged the 110 interesting people we met in the sessions, in the hallways and at the parties!
Cool Schools. Blended maven Heather Staker sends her kids to Acton Academy and describes the super cool personalized elementary school here. We were impressed with the culture of learning and discovery. The founders of Acton are actively looking for passionate people to open Acton Academies across the nation.
Trinity Episcopal School has an Individual Rotation model in place for an hour per day, so it’s an example of a blended learning power hour concept, which Heather blogged about here. Future plans for the school include undertaking initiatives to enhance student agency and embrace other aspects of personal learning design.
Travis Heights Elementary School, an Austin ISD in-district charter school, launched a blended math pilot in November. This new model introduced an element of competency-based learning, allowing students to move through instructional groups as mastery is achieved.
John Fitzpatrick directs Educate Texas which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, development of 135 new schools, and lots of lessons learned.  T-STEM is the biggest and best state STEM network.  Fitzpatrick points to Akins T-STEM Academy and Adkins New Tech High–the first of 14 New Tech academies in Texas. Fitzpatrick and others rave about Manor New Tech (about 20 minutes outside of Austin, profiled here) and the two selective schools in town:

LBJ is also home to an early college high school where students have a shot at earning an associate degree along with their high school diploma.  There are 59 early college high schools and 6 blended early college STEM schools serving more than 15,000 students across the state.
KIPP Austin launched two new middle schools this year that incorporate blended learning components.  KIPP has a high school and 7 feeder elementary and middle schools in Austin.  There are 500 charter campuses in Texas, and two dozen in Austin. KIPP Austin has implemented a Station Rotation in its elementary schools, patterned closely after Los Angeles-based KIPP Empower and KIPP Comienza. (Also, see Lessons from KIPP Math Blends in Chicago.)
Magnolia Montessori For All is an Next Generation Learning Challenges grant recipient and bright new addition to the east Austin scene. (Check out the NGLC profile.)
District. Patti Everitt, Austin Independent School District (AISD), points to Austin Academy for Global Studies (AGS) at Austin High School as a school worth visiting. It’s affiliated with the Asia Society and their International Studies Schools Network which have an incredible track record of preparing newcomers for college.  “It hasn’t gotten much play in the press, but has thrived as an academy within a larger comprehensive high school,” said Everitt.
“It’s a tribute to (former AISD superintendent) Pat Forgione that these programs are still thriving after he had the vision to move forward on creating a portfolio of options.
Dr. Meria Joel Carstarphen served as superintendent of the 86,000 student Austin district from 2009 until 2013 when she took over in Atlanta. Austin is two thirds low income, and one third of the students are new to English. The search for the next superintendent has been running throughout this year.
Making an Impact. For a decade, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation has been helping schools make better use of data.  Last year they spun out the Ed-Fi Alliance, a data standard and toolset. Director Lori Fey and I wrote about it here. The foundation has supported high performing school networks and profiled blended leading models.  
Texas and Georgia are the only two states that provide line item support to Communities In Schools for a safety net of support for kids and families. Part of that support is owed to the strength of CenTX CIS, led by Suki Steinhauser.
Austin is the most recent growth site for Education Pioneers’ expansion across Texas.  Although still a small site, Education Pioneers has already begun to inject talent and add impact to key projects across local districts and charter networks, state agencies and organizations, and national organizations based in central Texas.  Education Pioneers will continue to expand in the Central Texas area as the education reform movement continues to build in Austin and San Antonio.
Higher, Further, Faster. “Innovation is happening at Austin Community College with the new President, Richard Rhodes, who came to Austin from El Paso where he was a real hero on connecting K-16, said Everitt.  “He’s just purchased an entire mall that will become a one-stop center so that students can get everything they need in one place round the clock.  And he’s tackling the remediation issue head-on.”  ACC enrolls eligible high school students through the Early College Start program.
WGU Texas has a compelling model,” said Heather Staker, “because of its competency-based learning focus, which is illustrative for K-12.”Here’s an Innosight case study on WGU. (See feature on WGU teacher prep.)
UT joined the nonprofit MOOC edX committing $10 million to content development.  UT also invested $10 million in local edtech startup MyEdu, a platform that helps students make informed course choices. In January, Blackboard acquired MyEdu but the deal was a bust for UT.
EdTech. Compass Learning produces digital learning solutions. Through a partnership with NWEA, Compass provides adaptive instruction K-12. They also own Renzulli, the learning styles assessment company.
Brain Chase is a new and interesting addition to the EdTech landscape by Allan and Heather Staker launched as an online summer learning challenge for children aged 6-16.  After registering by June 30, each participant will utilize a personalized online game board as they complete online reading, writing, math, and science challenges to move forward on the board and unlock animated webisodes that contain clues to the location of a buried treasure. The first person to guess the location gets to fly with a parent to dig it up and claim a $10,000 college scholarship.
Other Austin EdTech includes:

  • Enspire Learning produces simulations for leadership and management development programs.
  • Civitas Learning, formed by former Kaplan exec Charles Thornburgh, is working on predictive analytics and recommendation engines.
  • Sapling Learning, spun out of UT Austin in 1998, provides STEM homework help. They were acquired by Macmillan in 2012.
  • Querium is a mobile learning and assessment platform for STEM subjects.
  • LearningList is a resource review service for educators helping to drive course-choice quality as an Angie’s List for online courses and other instructional resources.

Dell won a contract  for a K-12 learning platform in St. Paul last year but quietly settled and left town last week.  The company is focused on higher ed solutions.
Wrap. Brad Feld wrote Startup Communities which “documents the buzz, strategy, long-term perspective, and dynamics of building communities of entrepreneurs who can feed off of each other’s talent, creativity, and support.”  As one of the most creative cities in the world, Austin fits these definitions.
The Department of Education talks about Education Innovation Clusters that connects educators, researchers, and entrepreneurs. We’re starting to see evidence of connections between EdTech and teachers as number of cities set up Short Cycle Efficacy Trials including Chicago (e.g., LEAP innovations) and NYC (e.g., PowerMyLearning).  But there’s not a strong connection in Austin between EdTech and schools. It’s easy to imagine an incubator like 4.0 Schools making a big contribution in Austin.
Compared to tech and media, Austin has been slower to develop as an EdTech hotspot. Like other cities, education innovation in Austin runs about a decade behind tech, but a strong and growing group of leaders and organizations show great promise for innovations to come.
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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1 Comment

Arthur VanderVeen

Tom and Caroline,
Good synopsis of the state of ed tech innovation in Austin. Having founded an ed tech start-up here in 1998, and suffered the first ed tech bubble bursting, I'm encouraged by the emergence of a growing ecosystem, albeit slower than we'd like. As you note, innovative schools as partners in innovation are critical to edu-innovation. I'd add to your list David Conover's game design program at Pflugerville's Connally High School, whose graduates are avidly recruited into the game design industry. Local AMD's Changing the Game initiative is also engaging students in STEM curriculum through game design. And the true marker of an emerging edtech innovation culture--we now have our own EdSurge sponsored EdTech meetup!

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