As opportunity goes global, competence and initiative are valued more than ever. For individuals, communities and countries, getting smart is a priority.

Want to make a big impact? Take a judo lesson. First, rather than opposing strength, take advantage of momentum. Second, use levers to move big objects. That means change makers should be trend spotters and savvy about using levers like social media to bend trends toward equity.

Change forces, like technology, demographics, and politics, create windows of opportunity you can take advantage of if you are paying attention. There is usually a small window of time to build a solution, demonstrate some traction, and create something that, as my Learn Capital partner Rob Hutter says, “authentically delights a community of users.”

The Black Swan backdrop. The stock market is at record highs. The Dow reached 16,000 in December 2013 and 18,000 in December 2014. Consumer confidence is up, tax receipts and unemployment rates recovered to pre-recession levels. Real estate prices have rebounded in most areas. However, State K-12 education spending per pupil fell in 29 states since 2008. The need to do more with less continues. As Secretary Duncan announced in 2010, we now operate in a “new normal” age, one with the potential and need for “transformational productivity.”

Federal K-12 education policy (ESEA) should have been revised a decade ago and is badly out of date. It will eventually be reauthorized with less federal influence, and an unfortunate loss of bipartisan support for more equitable outcomes.

It’s a big complicated world. Our mental models can’t keep up. There are more black swan events–big bad stuff that no one predicted.

Despite broken politics, ineffective governance and bad surprises, new tools are powering a global learning revolution. Internet search and cheap devices means two billion people can learn just about anything and connect to the idea economy. After decades of neglect, $2 billion of venture investment flowed into EdTech startups last year. Foundations are supporting the development of new learning environments. School districts are ditching textbooks and phasing a digital conversion. Thoughtful blended learning implementations are producing promising results.

Below we recapped 30 relevant trends. The second table is a set of Judo instructions for impact investors and edupreneurs interested in leveraging some of those trends.

Trends Creating Opportunities & Challenges for U.S. Schools

DemandsMore poverty, English learners & special needs; broader & more demanding expectations
StudentsDiverse, distracted, undisciplined; tolerant, enterprising & hyphenated
EmploymentIncreasing ROI on competence & initiative; expanding certification & alt signaling
FormativeToward continuous feedback in most subjects, background data collection
PoliticsAnti-federal; core unraveling, back to unique state standards
AuthenticFocus on engagement, more performance assessment, deeper learning
CurriculumMore free/open content & tools; more smart/adaptive content
DataMore recommendation engines driving playlists; dynamic scheduling
SummativeHalf of state tests will be unique, no comparability; end of week long tests in sight
AccessToward high access; schools purchasing devices (particularly web appliances); students bringing mobile devices to school (BYOD)
StrategiesSchools adopting personalized and blended learning strategies
GamificationMore learning games & game-based strategies built into apps/systems
CompetencySlow trend toward show what you know, progress on mastery
SystemsShift to ubiquitous cloud computing (basic SIS & HRIS systems still suck)
EngagementMore project-based learning; focus on growth mindset
InvestmentGrowing VC & philanthropic spend on tools & next gen models
ToolsApp explosion, many freemium, weak interoperability
AssistiveMore assistive tech meeting special needs
SchoolsLong trend toward platform-centric networks
PlatformsSlow shift from LMS to interoperable app ecosystems
ConnectionsMore CTE and work-based options
GuidancePersonalized counseling & guidance, virtual mentoring, informed decision support
BudgetTight in most state; squeezed by health & justice; toward weighted, flexible, portable funding
OptionsMore schools of choice, access to FT & PT online learning
ConditionsMore teams & better support for teachers; more model variety
CareersMore options for educators; growth in remote teaching/services
Prep & PDToward blended, personalized, competency-based preparation and development
HigherEdDeclining ROI on 2nd tier degrees; more flexible, affordable competency-based options; more dual enrollment opportunities
PostsecMore job linked non-degree programs: code school, business skills
ProductivityDeveloped world need to do more with less; low cost models in developing world

Big Impact Opportunities

DemandsVocabulary development & language acquisition tools (e.g., Ellevation, Newsela, Rosetta Stone); blended humanities
StudentsYouth and family support systems
EmploymentBadging, certification & alternative signaling systems
PoliticsSponsor innovative alternative (e.g. ReSchool Colorado)
FormativeTools/standards for combining multiple sources of formative assessment
AuthenticR&D on writing feedback tools
CurriculumBuild and share open content
DataBuild/sponsor a data system, host a data competition
SummativeSponsor/build innovative competency-based state measurement system
AccessSponsor state matching fund to support 1:1 take home devices
StrategiesSponsor/develop innovative blended learning school
GamificationGame platform with a viable business model
CompetencyK-12 badge system to manage competency-based progress
SystemsBuild a decent HRIS
EngagementSponsor project/module authoring (e.g., LDC); support adoption of PBL platform
InvestmentAdvocate for investment that improves access and equity
ToolsBuild/sponsor a portable LMS companion
AssistiveMore assistive tech meeting special needs
SchoolsSponsor a platform-centric network (e.g., New Tech Network)
PlatformsSponsor an interoperable app ecosystems; Build/sponsor smart demand
ConnectionsSponsor CTE network (e.g., GPS Education Partners)
GuidanceBuild/sponsor personalized counseling & guidance systems
BudgetAdvocate for weighted, flexible, portable funding
OptionsAdvocate for quality options
ConditionsPilot environments that provide better conditions & supports for teachers
CareersBuild/support portable micro-credentialing system
Prep & PDSponsor a teacher PD marketplace
HigherEdSponsor affordable competency-based option (e.g., College for America)
PostsecMore job linked non-degree programs: code school, business skills
ProductivityDeveloped low cost models (e.g., Bridge International)



  1. This is a great list to conceptualize all of the useful tools being used to shake up the education game in America. At Books That Grow we’re committed to being a part of just that. Our app provides a library of reading materials, each of which can be read across multiple reading levels, to ensure all students can have their needs accommodated simultaneously. See more at


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