Vendors need to guarantee strong customer service, integration with learning management systems, and strict data privacy, say a pair of K-12 tech leaders from Indiana.
Education companies are making sure they have technology and plans in place in case the new COVID variant ends up disrupting in-person learning this school year.
The success or failure of implementing ed tech in a school district is determined by factors including the culture of the staff and decision-making power given to teachers, a new report contends.
Researchers for the EdTech Genome Project identified 10 variables they believe matter most to schools’ successful selection and implementation of new technology — a framework they say ed-tech companies can also use to gain insight into their K-12 customers.
The research, led by the University of Virginia and nonprofit EdTech Evidence Exchange, aims to give educators and ed-tech providers a common language and context for talking about what tools do or do not work, a standard that can help inform future purchasing decisions, according to the report.
The goal is to help districts make better choices for their students about the sea of ed-tech options, and help companies better support district partners, said lead researcher Emily Barton. Ultimately, the project aims to decrease the number of ed-tech products being used ineffectively or not at all, she said.
Researchers found about 60 percent of pre-pandemic purchases — worth at least $26 billion annually — failed to meet usage goals set by schools.
“We simply do not have enough information to support educators’ decision making around ed-tech,” said Barton, an assistant research professor at UVA. “A key piece of that is understanding … that the ‘right’ technology to bring into one environment might be very different than the right technology to bring into another environment.”
The Genome project was born from the EdTech Evidence Exchanges’ expressed mission to help educators make better-informed decisions about the technology they use. A steering committee of teachers, administrators, researchers and association leaders identified the 10 most significant variables based on existing research and lived experience. A working group assembled for each variable spent six months refining their definitions.
The key variables that determine whether ed tech is implemented successfully, according to the report, are how well it aligns with the following in a district:
- Vision for teaching and learning
- Selection processes
- Teacher agency
- Infrastructure and operations
- Implementation systems and processes
- Staff culture
- Teacher beliefs and knowledge
- Strategic leadership support
- Professional learning
- Competing priorities
The report doesn’t offer a “right” or “wrong” vision, culture, or selection process. Rather it defines the dimensions of each variable and what questions districts and companies should ask themselves when implementing ed tech products.
For example, the report argues that weighing teachers’ beliefs about ed tech includes considering their feelings, knowledge, and experience toward technology; and their understanding of how students learn.
Barton said teachers’ beliefs can be “make or break.” If a company representative is walking into a room of educators who are generally skeptical about technology and haven’t had great experiences with digital tools in the past, they may want to spend extra time during training explaining how their product can benefit students to lay a better foundation.
“Understanding the beliefs of the educators they’re working with could really shift and color the way that they present that professional development opportunity,” she said.
As a next step, the Genome project researchers are testing a database, known as the EdTech Evidence Exchange Platform, which would allow educators to look up whether an ed-tech tool or program is successful at a district similar to their own based on the 10 variables. The data for each district would be captured by surveying multiple teachers.
A release date has not been set yet, Barton said.
This comes after the pandemic forced a surge in demand for ed-tech products while schools turned to remote learning and as districts prepare to spend federal stimulus aid money aimed at improving connectivity outside of school.
“We are trying to create this really incredible evidence source for educators who are out there making decisions,” Barton said. “At this point we really recommend educators take a look at these variables and start having conversations with colleagues [and] engage with potential vendors: Where might they have strengths and weaknesses?”
The total value of mergers and acquisitions in the education industry grew by more than 50 percent from the second half of 2020 to the first half of this year, as companies across the market rushed to add to their portfolios, according to a report by investment banking firm Berkery Noyes.
The overall number of individual M&A transactions also rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.
Education companies closed 240 acquisitions in the first six months of 2021, up from 222 deals in the second half of 2020, and 210 mergers in the first half of last year. There were 238 acquisitions in the education industry in the second half of 2019.
The total value of education acquisitions from January through June was $19.4 billion, largely driven by Platinum Equity’s $6.4-billion acquisition of McGraw Hill, the report noted.
Deals made during this period had nearly as much value as mergers and acquisitions for the full year of 2020, when they totaled $21.4 billion.
The investment group, which provides advice and financial consulting to middle-market companies in the technology and information sectors, tracked 1,152 education deals between 2019 and June 2021.
Private equity financed 40 percent of acquisitions during the first half of this year, 8 percent higher than the 2019-2021 overall average.
According to Berkery Noyes, 97 of the 240 deals during this time frame were financed by private equity, venture capital, or some other investment firm, the most in at least three years and a 131 percent increase over the first half of 2020.
Twelve deals in the first half of this year carried values of more than $100 million, and at least seven of those involved the K-12 sector. About one-third of the total transactions had values between $4.5 million and $54.6 million.
K-12 media and tech surpassed professional training services as the education industry’s most active market segment year-to-date.
There were about 50 acquisitions that involved professional training services and roughly 40 deals that involved K-12 media and tech in the second half of last year, while nearly 60 deals touched K-12 media and tech and about 45 deals covered professional training services in the first half of 2021.
The report showed a mixed picture for market activity in various segments for the first six months of this year compared with the second half of 2020.
The rate of deals in the childcare services and higher-ed media and tech spaces increased during this span, but the number of deals in professional training technology, higher-ed institutions, and K-20 services fell. Deals involving K-12 institutions remained stable.
In addition to the McGraw Hill acquisition, notable K-12 deals in the first half of 2021 included a Byju’s purchase of Indian tutoring provider Aakash Educational Services for $900 million, Renaissance’s $650 million acquisition of Nearpod, and Kahoot’s $435 billion addition of K-12 single-sign-on provider Clever.
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is one of many companies across the K-12 market that has sought to create products to help districts address academic remediation for students who have fallen behind during COVID.
A task force assembled by Idaho’s Republican lieutenant governor has objected to the work of two well-known education companies among a long list of materials it says are promoting the “indoctrination” of students on issues of race and gender.
Both AVID, a nonprofit professional development provider, and EL Education, a nonprofit curriculum provider, were included in a list of examples published last week. The task force said the materials were gathered from district websites, parent submissions, and public records requests.
Members took issue with AVID and EL Education’s statements of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the antiracist resources they offer teachers.
Idaho’s State Board of Education quickly rebuked task force’s claims, saying in a statement that the board found no evidence of indoctrination in the state’s schools.
But the situation shows the difficult position education companies could find themselves in.
Many companies in the K-12 market have seen demand rise for curriculum and other products that address issues of racial equity and inclusion. Teachers are seeking out resources that help them discuss current events, such as the killing of George Floyd and protests over police conduct, as well as broader explorations of the history of racial discrimination in the United States.
At the same time, Republican state lawmakers are pushing back against new approaches to addressing racism, sexism, and issues of equality and justice in the classroom.
An Education Week analysis found that 26 states have introduced bills this year that would limit how teachers can discuss those topics, or restrict teaching critical race theory — a decades-old academic concept that sees racism as a social construct, embedded in legal systems and policies.
In Idaho, state lawmakers approved a measure signed into law by Republican Gov. Brad Little that prohibits funding schools that teach students that any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color or national origin is “inherently superior or inferior.”
In a statement, EL Education defended its focus on diversity, saying there are broad benefits to students receiving access to an inclusive curriculum.
“The science of learning and development tells us that students who have a sense of belonging in school learn more,” EL Education spokesperson Alexandra Fenwick-Moore said in an email. “Our curriculum strives to ensure that students see themselves reflected in the content.”
New District Demands
AVID and EL Education are far from the only education company prioritizing equity and taking a public stand against systemic racism.
In an EdWeek Market Brief survey conducted in May, nearly half of the 232 participating education company officials (49 percent) said their organizations had taken a public stand on issues of systemic racism, an increase from 31 percent in the fall. And 49 percent said they had reassessed their product offerings to look for areas of explicit or implicit bias.
The change appears to be driven by district demand. Forty-six percent of company officials surveyed said they have fielded questions from their existing and prospective district clients about how their products account for or serve diverse student populations. In October, just 22 percent said the same.
Nine percent of the businesses surveyed they had specifically lost a sale, or a customer relationship, because their products did not foster diversity, equity, and inclusion, up from 4 percent last fall.
Impact of Task Force Unclear
The 16-member Idaho task force, which includes state Rep. Priscilla Giddings, was launched by Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin in April to “protect our young people from the scourge of critical race theory, socialism, communism, and Marxism,” according to a press release.
Along with screenshots of EL Education and AVID materials, the group’s list of concerning materials included everything from specific assignments to a job description for an equity team leader in Boise School District to a copy of the state’s required teaching certification standards with the term “culturally responsive” underlined to highlight its frequency.
It’s unclear how much power the group will have in potentially changing the state’s education policy. The State Department of Education was not invited to participate, a spokesperson said, but they are “watching and listening.”
McGeachin, who is currently running for governor, has found herself at odds with state leadership before. In May, Gov. Little accused her of abusing her power for a “self-serving political stunt” after she put in place a mask-mandate prohibition while Little, who had supported masks as a COVID-era health measure, was out of town.
Any recommendations the task force makes to state officials or the legislature will be made public, said Jordan Watts, chief of staff for McGeachin.
Neither EL Education nor AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) have backed away from their equity work in response.
Lynn Kepp, a spokesperson for AVID, said the company’s work is unrelated to what the Idaho task force is trying to find because they don’t provide classroom curriculum. They offer professional learning that help educators prepare students for college or careers after high school.
“We have 77 optional offerings that school and district leaders can choose from to find the right fit for their educators,” Kepp said in an email. “The materials included in the task force’s list would not appear in a classroom but rather in voluntary professional learning courses.”
When asked for their response, EL Education released a statement detailing the high ratings their curriculum has received from independent reviewers and evaluators, including an “all green” in every category from reviewer EdReports. The company has worked with schools in every state for more than 28 years, the statement said.
“All students need an education that equips them to grow up and thrive in jobs and communities with people who may have different backgrounds,” the statement said. “EL Education is proud of our highly celebrated curriculum.
“Students engage in meaningful learning about key topics, including the history and cultures that have contributed to our current strength and our nation’s ability to thrive in the future.”
Photo of Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin by John Roark /The Idaho Post-Register via AP.
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The new executive director of the organization representing the state’s ed tech directors says teachers will need myriad forms of support as their schools return more fully to face-to-face instruction.