San Francisco: Powering the Global Learning Revolution

The Bay Area is the world’s leading innovation hub–and that includes learning. Ten years ago it was all about Silicon Valley, but recently Oakland emerged as an EdReform hotspot. But the innovation center of gravity has definitely moved north in the Bay Area as San Francisco has become home to leading investors and startups. In a state having earned a failing grade in the 2013 Digital Learning Now Report Card, San Francisco serves as hotbed for digital innovations.
Startups. Mitch Kapor’s startup support is emblematic of Bay Area entrepreneurial activity. Kapor Capital(now in Oakland) has a portfolio of San Franciso startups including:

  • Catchafire: connects talented individuals with social impact organizations;
  • CodeHS: everything you need to teach CS in your high school
  • Chromatik: learn music together (SF & LA);
  • Clever: makes it easy for schools to bring online learning into the classroom;
  • Desmos: very cool graphic calculator;
  • Front Row: free adaptive math program for K-8 classrooms;
  • Inkling: mobile learning content;
  • InternMatch helps students discover meaningful internships;
  • Junyo: marketing support for education businesses;
  • InternMatch connects students with amazing internship opportunities;
  • Motion Math creates mobile learning games;
  • NoRedInk is an online grammar and writing platform;
  • NovoEd: connected and engaging HigherEd learning environment; and
  • UniversityNow is a low cost online higher education alternative.

Additional supported Bay Area startups include Accredible, Brilliant, Class Dojo, Fidelis, Locomotive Labs,Piazza,MindSnacks,Magoosh, and Schoolzilla.
Kapor’s East coast startups supported include ePals, Hopscotch,Mytonomy, Newsela, OKpanda, PlazaFamilia, Qlovi,TinyBop, and Zoobean.
New Schools Venture Fund, which also moved from SF to Oakland in 2013, invested in these local startups:

  • ClassDojo: classroom management app;
  • Curriculet: an ereading platform
  • Locomotive Labs: assistive learning applications for special needs learners; (these three were also supported by Kapor Capital)
  • Blendspace helps teachers easily create and deliver adaptive lessons;
  • BrightBytesdata platform for K-12 schools/districts;
  • Edsurge: EdTech news
  • Educreations: helps teachers create online video lessons;
  • Hapara: learning extensions for Google docs;
  • Kidaptive: storytelling on tablets;
  • Goalbook: differentiated learning
  • PresenceLearning: online speech therapy.
  • Socrative: a K-12 assessment platform
  • Tynker:  apps that teach computational thinking

East coast startups supported by NewSchools including Ellevation, LearnZillion, Newsela and Tales2Go.
Other EdTech startups that call San Francisco home include:

  • LearnSprouta service for K-12 schools and districts that turns raw, abstract data into actionable information.
  • LearnBoost:online gradebook and other teacher classroom management tools, the CTO is a tech superstar well known in tech circles;
  • TenMarks: online math tutoring (now owned by Amazon);
  • Schmoop: student study tools and teacher guides;
  • InstaGrok: learn about any topic by exploring connections;
  • Quizlet: online study tools with crazy traction;
  • Lumosity: online brain games (and TV commercials);
  • Launchpad Toys: Toontastic makes it easy to create iPad cartoons;
  • Edthena: tech-based coaching for teachers;
  • Path Source: video–based career prep;
  • Pathbrite: online digital portfolios backed by Rethink and ACT;
  • Fingerprint Digital is sequence of early learning apps;
  • University Now operates two self paced affordable universities;
  • Udemy: the leading online learning marketplace;
  • Verbling: peer-to-peer language tutoring via video; and
  • Vayable: the best way to find unique travel experiences.

The last three are Learn Capital portfolio companies (where I’m a partner) along with Desmos, Chromatik, and ClassDojo.
San Francisco Investors. While outnumbered by Menlo and Palo Alto venture investors, San Francisco is home to a growing number of edtech investors:

Impact Orgs. San Francisco is home to organizations making a difference nationwide:

In the global category, San Francisco is home to these impact organizations:

SF is a leader in coworking spaces and tech training. While none are edtech specific, each has a different flavor that touches on education: the HUB (social enterprises), RocketSpace (tech entrepreneur),TechShop (“maker” DIY community),PARISOMA, and General Assembly.
Foundations and Funds.Doris & Donald Fisher Fund have been big KIPP and Charter School Growth Fund supporters. John Fisher was also instrumental in forming Silicon Schools Fund which is finding and funding next generation schools that push the boundaries of personalization through technology and blended learning. Brian Greenberg is certainly a top 10 resource in the blended space.
In the punching above their weight category, the prize goes to the Jaquelin Hume Foundation (which does most of it’s giving anonymously) and executive director Dr. Gisèle Huff. Their outsized contributions often starts with small seed investments before any other foundations will have the conversation. Gisele is an iNACOL director (with me) and also chairs the Christensen Institute Board. Hume is a big supporter of The Learning Accelerator which will help districts develop and adopt blended learning models (and the co-author of the Blended Learning Implementation Guide).
The Full Circle Fund has backed many education startups, like Khan Academy, Beyond12, Leadership Public Schools, and more. Silver Giving is focused on improving education and expanding opportunities for youth. The Kapor Foundation transformed into The Kapor Center for Social Impact supports College Bound Brotherhood and SMASH (Summer Math and Science Honors) Academy which provides for high-achieving students of color to have the opportunity to succeed in college.
Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation is a worldwide funder of of impact organizations; just a few of the U.S. organizations funded include Education Pioneers, Matchbook Learning, Students for Education Reform, Spark, and Room to Read. Along with Draper, it’s worth noting the robust social enterprise and impact investing scene in SF including Social Capital Markets,the HUB,Investors Circle,Pacific Community Ventures, and Legacy Ventures. Imprint Capital advises foundations on impact investing in education.
Schools. San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) appears to be in a time warp–the contrast between one of the most creative cities on the planet and the local school districts is stark. The district has higher test scores than other California urbans but it is small and has a relatively low level of poverty.
Brookings gives San Francisco a grade of C on its Choice and Competition Index for its hostility to public options but, like Seattle, a third of students attend private schools. Like East Coast districts, SFUSD has a big selective school, Lowell High.
Last year, the San Francisco Business Times reported that the school board rejected three charter applications, from Rocketship Academy in Hunter’s Point, Flex Academy in the Tenderloin, and Mission Prep Academy. State officials eventually approved all three. A recent 6-1 approval of a KIPP high school suggests that “leadership is becoming more open to good choices for kids,” according to a district partner.
Delivering Instruction. While many urban districts are embracing a portfolio of options, SFUSD is focused on delivering instruction. It seems a bit counterintuitive that a creative city would have a one-best-way school district.
A coherent approach to teaching and learning has driven steady improvement with about 60 percent proficiency on state tests.
“District leadership gives a lot of talk to equity, but they’ve had the biggest achievement gap amongst large urban districts for a long time — something they’re quick to acknowledge,” said a local reformer. “It’s a big district that prides itself on engaging their vocal population that’s politically and civically active and demands participation.”
Carols Garcia, the prior superintendent, created a Superintendent’s Zone (a web of intensive support for failing schools pioneered by Rudy Crew in NYC in 1995). Observers agree the zone holds a lot of promise, but it will take a few years to show results.
The new district leadership under superintendent Richard Carranza is determined to bring coherence and accountability to the district. Richard appointed Guadalupe Guerrero as his Deputy and brought Luis Valentino from Los Angles in a Chief Academic Officer. Guadalupe ran the schools in the Mission Zone and they made substantial gains in Math and ELA with the help of a big School Improvement Grant.
SFUSD has actively engaged in various research partnerships with education schools at prominent research universities like Stanford and University of California at Berkeley. “We have the most diverse array of dual immersion programs which help our students develop second language skills in Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese,” said Chief of Staff Laura Moran. “These students are building the linguistic and cultural competencies for the 21st century.”
Cool Schools. San Francisco is a very hip place, but there are a limited number of cool schools worth visiting. A Bay Area blended learning experts said, “Funny how innovative schools seem to cluster very specifically and have skipped San Francisco.”
There are two Envision Education schools in San Francisco. Envision is an art and tech high school network that with Envision Learning Partners promotes deeper learning nationwide. The group is leading a new collaboration of school networks, “sharing a common student performance assessment system aligned to CCSS based on the Envision College Success Portfolio and Defense,” said CEO Bob Lunz. The Stanford Center for Assessment, Equity and Learning (SCALE) are supporting creation of new valid and reliable tasks and rubrics, all hosted on Show Evidence. This $2.6 million project is funded by a Carnegie, Hewlett, Irvine and Kellogg foundations.
Also on the schools to visit list:

  • San Francisco Flex is one of two Bay Area flex model high schools supported by K12;
  • Mission Dolores Academy, a blended learning Catholic school;
  • KIPP Bay Area runs two San Francisco middle schools and will open a high school in the fall;
  • Tech academies at Lowell, Balboa, and Gallileo where kids are learning coding and creating games; and
  • Brightworks is a small private school that locals rave about.

And in the coming-soon category, Jen Moses, Ron Beller, and Allison Akhnoukh are starting a new school that sounds like it will be worth visiting.
Small Steps. Ben Glazer started an internship with SFUSD in 2008. He created a dashboard that is useful to school leaders in many district schools. In 2010, the district created an innovative “Entrepreneur in Residence” partnership with Eduvant. Under that agreement, the district incubated the development of Eduvant’s core integration and analytics technologies in exchange for free access to the product that was ultimately implemented.
The district “spent the past several years rolling out fiber to all the school sites in anticipation of web-based instructional media,” according to Glazer. “Too often, infrastructure is lost in the mix, but SFUSD has done a great job of proactively ensuring that some of the raw hardware needed to support online learning is in place and ready to handle the significant network bandwidth that a district-wide implementation will demand.”
Presidio Middle School launched an iPad pilot in 2010, and the district has since rolled out iPads to a few schools that have their own on-site tech support. However, there’s little evidence of blended learning.
With the state budget turmoil, “every district is on their own in California,” said Bergeson, “which makes real progress much harder; we have a long way to go. But San Francisco is a place to watch.”
Conclusion. San Francisco is clearly one of the most creative cities in the world. With Oakland and Silicon Valley, it is the global hub of innovation — including EdTech. Why is it then that school districts in the area are so traditional, seemingly impervious to the buzz, talent, and tools around them? You would think these progressive cities would have innovative schools. But other than a few charter networks innovating out of budget desperation, Bay Area schools appear slow to incorporate digital learning.
They certainly don’t get any help from the state. Ridiculously low funding (compared to high costs of labor and real estate), incoherent policies, and barriers to innovation are no help. It’s quite remarkable that the Bay Area remains as vibrant as it is in such a disastrous anti-innovation policy environment.
It’s clear after reviewing innovations in a half a dozen cities that proximity has little bearing on whether an innovation will be adopted by schools. Leadership and governance appear to have more to do with the extent to which schools incorporate innovative tools and methods.
San Francisco schools are slowly improving. To achieve step-function improvement, they’ll need to look around and create new options that incorporate the new tools developed nearby.
CodeHS, Chromatik, ClassDojo, Junyo, NoRedInk, NovoEd are portfolio companies of Learn Capital. PresenceLearning is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.
Thanks to Mitch Kapor, Dave Guymon, and Mary Ryerse for their contributions to this post.
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.

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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