What Are the Trending Topics this Back-to-School Season?

As teachers and students head back to school over the coming weeks, what are some of the issues and opportunities that have industry people talking? This list is not intended to be comprehensive, but does include observations about what’s happening with public and private funding, student data concerns, the impact of technology on learning, standards reform, the failure of most professional development, and the role of government in our schools. Here are some of the trending topics for this back-to-school season.

Edtech Investment is officially big business. In the first half of 2015, new investment in education companies reached $2.5B. Yes, “B” for billion. That’s more than in all of 2014. Even though this number is making news, a couple of things to understand are that:

  1. The majority of these dollars are not being spent on products that directly benefit K-12 instruction and learning
  2. An increasing percentage of education investment dollars are going to consumer-facing education products because it’s easier to sell some things directly to teachers, students, and parents instead of through districts where the product sales cycle is long and complex.

There are investment gaps that leave room for new companies and products to address essential instruction and learning needs for both students and teachers.

Big Data is a bogeyman that has both parents and district administrators lying awake at night. How we treat student identifiable data is a serious issue. As consumers, we routinely give up access to our personal data in return for the conveniences supplied by an ever-increasing library of helpful smartphone apps. However, we have to be concerned about data security and data integrity when it comes to student data. As schools increase the number of connected devices on their campuses, the volume of data streams also increases. Where the data goes, who sees it, how it’s used, and how it’s stored are issues that need to be sorted out at the district level. As with other major challenges in our public schools, districts will want to customize a solution that adheres to local priorities.

Sufficient Bandwidth to stream digital curriculum and host online assessments is likely the largest technology hurdle districts are facing this year. Implementing 1:1 initiatives is impossible with insufficient infrastructure and Wi-Fi bandwidth. Roughly one third of schools do not currently have enough bandwidth to support 1:1. The reauthorization of the E-Rate program is targeting this challenge directly by spending more than $5B this funding year. The money is focused on connecting schools and libraries to the Internet and increasing their bandwidth. The White House-led CONNECT ED initiative is a public-private partnership that is investing directly in increasing school connectivity. SETDA recommends 100 Mbps per 1,000 users now with an increase to 1 Gbps per 1,000 users by the 2017-2018 school year. As schools add more devices and increase their use of digital curriculum and assessments, their need for bandwidth will continue to expand. Once schools make a commitment to digital learning, there has to be zero tolerance for downed networks. Building capacity and redundancy become key success factors to successful technology integration.

Chromebooks v. iPads. The balance of power between these two platforms is continuing to shift. In Q3 2014, Chromebook shipments overtook iPad shipments to schools for the first time. For many districts, it’s a simple math exercise. They get more for their money with the lower-priced Chromebooks. Some districts are discerning that different devices make sense for different age groups. For example, tablets for grades K-2, Chromebooks for grades 3-8, and PCs/Macs for high school. Many districts are issuing Chromebooks for grades K-12. As Google Apps for Education (GAFE) become the dominant set of apps used in schools, Google will start to erode Microsoft’s market dominance in business productivity software. We can absolutely expect Google to go toe-to-toe to dislodge Microsoft’s Office Suite. Building a wave of experienced Google users in public schools will create momentum for change as they move into colleges and careers. Although Windows-based PCs still have a strong presence in most district ecosystems, one has to wonder how long it will hold. The reality for districts is that they need to have Apple iOS, Android, and Windows co-exist nicely on their networks and maintain an environment in which iPads and Android tablets, Chromebooks, PCs, and Macs play easily in the sandbox together.

Common Core Standards are here to stay. Most of the states that adopted them have implemented them without fanfare. In states that defected from Common Core for whatever reason, initiatives are in place to establish a state-branded set of standards. There is really no disagreement on the need to increase standards to meet the demands of global competition. Unfortunately, Common Core became a political football that state and national politicians used to capture their moments in the news cycle. The reality is that virtually every state in the union has strengthened their learning standards or will approve stronger standards in the months ahead. What is now clear is that just reforming standards are not enough to transform our schools. For that we have to look at other factors such as digital equity, pedagogy, professional development, technology, and redesigning learning environments.

Professional Development programs are wasting billions of dollars? A just-released report entitled The Mirage says exactly that. The mirage of the title is the notion that we know what works to improve teacher performance if we could only figure out how to do it at scale. It turns out this is a false assumption. TNTP, the authors of the report, share research that shows little difference between teachers who improve their practice after professional development and those who don’t. Since annual federal spending on professional development tops $2.5B and states and districts spend billions more, this is startling evidence that what we’re doing now to help teachers improve their practice is mostly ineffective. If we believe that better teaching encourages better student learning, and there is evidence to support this, then there is a huge opportunity to redefine what professional development should look like and how it can best be delivered to improve teaching quality.

ESEA Authorization at long last appears to be moving forward in Washington. The last reauthorization in 2002 was championed by President George W. Bush and became know as No Child Left Behind. A generous assessment of its impact would be that it had limited positive benefit. While it successfully highlighted the achievement gap of underserved communities, it led to the development of a testing culture that many believe is unhealthy and of limited value. Both the US House and Senate have now passed versions of the new bill. The next step is to hammer out the differences. Points of difference include assessments, accountability measures, how to help low performing schools and Title I expenditures. The Obama administration advocates a plan that ensures that all students have equitable access to public education and are prepared for college and career.

A clear thread running through all of these topics is that we are spending a boatload of money on K-12 education in this country as we declare it a national priority. But we’re coming up short on the return on investment. Not all students are receiving an adequate education. Many graduate without the necessary skills to be successful in college and careers. Most of our teachers are well intentioned but lack the kind of support that moves the needle in helping students learn more effectively. These are weighty challenges that call for systemic changes.

At the same time, we have pockets of innovation in every district where educators, students, and parents are working to meet the diverse needs of our community of learners. We can’t be simplistic or naïve about the enormity of change that is required to re-envision our public schools, but we do have to be honest about what is working and what is not. We work in the education industry because we believe that public schools have the ability to create competent, caring, committed citizens. Not to be overly dramatic, but the future of our country is at stake. Let’s work together to investigate what really does work best and collaborate to make that happen.