Netflix’s founder saves the day for one education software startup

The Hechinger Report has been publishing excerpts from Richard Whitmire’s book On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope. In this third and final installment, Netflix founder Reed Hastings steps in to take over DreamBox.

CHAPTER 25: Danner (and Reed Hastings) Discover DreamBox

March 2010: Palo Alto, Los Altos, California; Bellevue, Washington

It’s almost a cliché to say that business plays out differently in Silicon Valley than in, say, Philadelphia or Kansas City, but it’s true, and the fate of DreamBox Learning illustrates the point. John Danner “discovers” DreamBox and mentions his discovery to his friend and Rocketship supporter, Netflix founder Reed Hastings. After Hastings sees DreamBox in action at a Rocketship school, he e-mails his friend Dan Kerns, DreamBox’s chief architect (the two worked together several years earlier; in Silicon Valley, all the best software engineers know one another) to say, nice job. Kerns e-mails back saying, funny you should write now; we’re out of money; nobody’s been paid in a while, and we’re going to have to close or get sold. So Hastings buys DreamBox. Just some startup good ole’ boys who know other startup good ole’ boys doing business quickly and cleanly.

That chain of events started with Danner’s search for adaptive software to use in Rocketship schools. “We were looking for a very specific thing, a piece of software that would work for fifty or one hundred kids in a computer lab, so that when they got confused they didn’t have to raise their hands and ask for help from an adult because with that many kids having an adult remediate all the problems just didn’t work.” But Danner couldn’t find that software, anywhere. “The companies just didn’t look at the world that way. They thought you needed an adult, that it was the job of the adult to get the kids back on track.”

But that didn’t make sense to Danner. This was 2009. Software writers could easily make their program adapt to the student so when the student got confused the program would loop back and address the weakness. Why was adaptive software so hard to find? Well, say the software salespeople, that’s just not how we do it. We write our programs like linear textbooks: students do this lesson, then the next lesson, and if they get stuck they raise their hands. Danner was astonished, but he kept looking. “So we searched for around six months and then we found this company called DreamBox that was doing a math program the right way. When a student got stuck you’d see this thing pop up, ask a couple of questions, and then based on those answers the activities that student was getting would change. It was in tune with what the kid was struggling with. Our first thought was, ‘Why are these the only guys who are doing this?’”

After visiting the DreamBox team in Seattle, Danner knew he had found his program. Rocketship started using DreamBox for its math program, which led to Hastings seeing the program, which led to Reed Hastings purchasing the company. Hastings didn’t want to own the company, so he structured the purchase through a gift to the nonprofit Charter School Growth Fund, a transaction worth around $11 million. “I’m still active in California education politics,” said Hastings. “I didn’t want people to think I was doing this to make more money. If it’s financially successful, the rewards don’t go to me.”

At this point, Ben Slivka bowed out of the company he had created. “It was clear we were not profitable all along. … the choice was to take the bird in the hand or try to stay independent and find more money. Reed made an offer and it was the best deal we had, so we took it.” Taking over as CEO of DreamBox was Jessie Woolley-Wilson, a former executive with Blackboard. “Within a year she turned the company around,” said Danner, “and now they are selling millions of dollars of software … the core lesson here is having a great product while doing bad sales work will get you every time. This company would have died. One reason we were excited about working with them is we wanted to use DreamBox as kind of a script to get to the rest of the software industry and say, look, if these guys can do this type of adaptive software so can you.”

Today, DreamBox has plenty of competitors. In fact, anyone visiting a Rocketship school will see that DreamBox isn’t the only math program teachers like to use. ST Math, many of the teachers will tell you, is more visual and allows students to work with more independence. All this is light years away from what Danner found when he first started his search for adaptive software and found none. “We would ask the designers why they built their program around a teacher always standing there, and they would tell us the teachers are there anyway so they might as well help. That was kind of crazy.”

The birth and near-death of one piece of educational software

Over the next week or so, The Hechinger Report will be publishing excerpts from Richard Whitmire’s book On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope. In this second installment, software engineer Ben Slivka finally ships his educational software but finds his real customer base isn’t what he expected.

CHAPTER 20: Slivka’s Sci-Fi Software Gets Shipped

February 2009: Bellevue, Washington

When Ben Slivka decided to create his own interactive learning software in 2006, the online options for students, parents, and teachers were pretty bleak. For decades, the big textbook publishers had offered up catalog after catalog of new and updated textbooks that were plush and expensive, something akin to Microsoft’s computer-based software. Nobody wants to walk away from cash cows like that. And so, for the same reason Microsoft delayed shifting to the web, the textbook publishers delayed going into online education. What made more sense to them was duplicating their textbooks on CDs or placing them online, thus making them digital cash cows.

But digital learning doesn’t work that way. If it’s not interactive and personalized for each student it might as well be a frayed old textbook. The few independently developed digital math programs were linear, asking students to proceed from one step to the next. And if you run into trouble? Raise your hand and ask the teacher for help. What was the point of that? Might as well return everyone to classroom lectures.

Slivka knew he had an opportunity to create something different, mostly because he and his team weren’t educators. They were software writers, and good ones. Slivka says software engineers are not like journalists. A really good journalist might be twice as good, or twice as productive, as a lesser journalist but a software writer can be exponentially better. A talented software engineer on a roll can do in one night what a team of 150 engineers fail to do over the previous week. The reason DreamBox did what other online programs couldn’t do, says Slivka, is simple: “We had better software engineers.”

Slivka’s team created a platform, essentially an engine with all the nuts and bolts hidden, with a programming language resting on top, a language that actual educators could use to write interactive lessons. The first teacher Slivka hired was Mickelle Weary, who had taught his son at a Seattle private school seven years earlier. “I must have made an impression on him [Slivka],” said Weary, who was a first-year teacher. “You know, first-year teachers often aren’t great, but I tried really hard. I was trying to do individual learning, letting [Slivka’s son] and another really smart kid to do things together.” Succeeding at personalized learning made an impression on Slivka.

The best way to experience DreamBox is to sign on as a prospective parent and take a quick trip through the program. To entice the kids, the math programs might be constructed as treasure hunts displayed as elaborate maps. Students who successfully solve logistical problems along that pathway get a little closer to the treasure. The real treasure, of course, is the hidden mapping that sucks up every move made by your child and then uses that information to build a complete package of math skills. Personalized learning.

“Kids are not books, where one page follows the next,” said Dan Kerns, DreamBox’s chief architect. “They are all over the map. You might have one kid at the ‘normal’ and everyone else at different parts of the bell curve, with the hard-to-reach at one end and the bored at the other. Part of engagement and teaching is finding out what kids need to learn. We have deeply integrated assessment into learning. We’re constantly asking, ‘Does the kid really know the stuff we’re teaching?’ If the machine doubts that, it loops back and gives a refresher. … At the end of the day in a DreamBox classroom all the kids are doing something different. That’s because it has measured and adapted.”

And so, in February 2009 DreamBox was launched. On its own merits, DreamBox may have been as innovative as Dropbox, but the reception was vastly different. Whereas Dropbox soared, DreamBox sputtered. DreamBox was aimed at parents of young children, but how many of those parents were even aware their children needed a program such as DreamBox? That kind of awareness doesn’t even develop until middle school when kids start bringing home lousy math grades.

As it turned out, Slivka had created a software model that was light years ahead of its business model. Few parents were interested in buying a product they didn’t know they needed. Kids weren’t finding it on their own. One interesting development surfaced early, however. The DreamBox team noticed that “parents” listing their family size at between twenty and thirty children were buying DreamBox. As it turned out, these were teachers buying it for their classrooms. “They raved about it,” said Kerns. “They told us it solved real problems they had.” Soon, DreamBox reoriented itself to classroom sales but that wasn’t an easy switch. How many tech-naive school superintendents are going to take a chance on a bunch of startup guys unknown in the education world? It was great that teachers liked DreamBox, but that didn’t necessarily translate into a workable business model. Companies like DreamBox need lots of cash to keep innovating, but the company wasn’t generating that cash and investors were getting hard to find. It wasn’t at all clear that DreamBox, despite being one of the first truly adaptive learning programs to emerge, would make it.

Just who are the people behind today’s educational software?

Over the next week or so, The Hechinger Report will be publishing excerpts from Richard Whitmire’s book On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope. In this first installment, software engineer Ben Slivka — inspired by science fiction — dreamed of creating truly adaptive learning software.

CHAPTER 9: Sci-Fi-Inspired Software

February 2005: Bellevue, Washington

On Ben Slivka’s LinkedIn page you see a swarm of startups, the fruit of his labors as a talented software writer, all of it rooted in his training at Northwestern University as a mathematician and computer scientist. His biggest fame and fortune came from his fourteen years at Microsoft, where he worked on every big project, including starting the Internet Explorer team in 1994. But by 1999 Slivka became convinced that Microsoft had been taken over by “politicians” determined to ride out the Microsoft gravy train, choosing Windows over the web. Not the place for a software engineer of his ambition who believed in the future of the web. So he stepped off the train.

Richard Whitmire

Richard Whitmire

For a time—nine months to be exact—Slivka tried out Amazon. But he left in June 2000 for reasons that only a software purist can understand. Something about Jeff Bezos “being a good human being but his hearing isn’t so good.” In short, Slivka did not share Bezos’s vision. Slivka’s stock options from Microsoft had expired several years earlier, meaning he became wealthy, extremely wealthy, to the point where asking about his Microsoft cash-out (which I did) is considered “rude.” Point accepted.

What does someone in Slivka’s unique position do? He’s not a yacht kind of guy. Definitely wary of spoiling his kids with premature wealth. He and wife became, in his words, “accidental philanthropists.” But as Slivka worked his way through this new world one pathway became clear: education. So Slivka decided to launch a new company partly inspired on long-ago science fiction reading, such as Enders Game by Orson Scott Card and The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson—books that weave futuristic education tools into the narrative. In The Diamond Age, a powerful interactive book lands in the hands of Nell, a street urchin, who then leads a revolution. The theme in short: interactive education tools can change the world.

Slivka agreed with school reformers who believe we are trapped in a century-old industrial model in which children are treated as widgets—light years away from what is possible in education. Traditional school reform didn’t seem to be touching that outdated model. But what if digital creations could leapfrog that system? “What if,” Slivka asked himself, “you could build this massively multiplayer online game—but instead of shooting things, you were mastering all of K–12 education—that would motivate kids and allow them to learn at their own pace and their own way?”

Such a powerful online system, Slivka believed, could transform education, reaching hundreds of millions and eventually billions of kids, far more than even the best teachers in the world could possibly reach. The software would track every move a student made in the program. When a child failed to learn a concept, the software would lead the child to a different place where the concept was presented in a way most suited to that child. It would be the ultimate in personalized education, enabling children to learn exactly what they needed to learn at exactly the ideal pace. It would be a real-world version of “the Primer,” the nanotechnology device that starred in Stephenson’s book.

What Slivka began thinking about in winter 2005 became an actual company the following winter, a startup that eventually became DreamBox. Not surprisingly, any gifted software engineer dedicated to personalized learning would, at some point in the future, come across John Danner, someone who as the result of learning a few big lessons from his year teaching in Nashville shared the same dream of personalized learning.

Reprinted with permission from Wiley. Copyright © 2014.

Why all screen time isn’t created equally

It’s a tempting thought: Put a toddler in front of a computer or video with the right program and they’ll quickly acquire skills like reading, writing and early math.

The thought is so alluring that parents often ask early education teachers what the best apps are, said Lisa Guernsey, speaking at the national seminar of the Education Writer’s Association in Nashville this week.

Photo by Jennifer Dev

Photo by Jennifer Dev

The next question gets asked just as often, said Guernsey, whose book Screen Time, looks at ways electronic media affect young children.

“Is screen time bad?”

Concerns about how much time toddlers and other little learners – dubbed The Touch-Screen Generation in a recent Atlantic article –should engage with screens is becoming more of an obsession in a high tech world.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for kids under two, yet Guernsey has advocated a more nuanced view. She’s also come up with guidelines based on what a scant – but growing – body of research is finding. Guernsey calls her guidelines the three C’s — for media consumption: content, context, and your child; they come with a series of questions that can be tailored to each child.

With all its bells, whistles, apps and toys, technology also creates anxiety for both parents and educators, and research is going to have to follow the charge ahead.

“Not all screen interactions are created equal. What happens when it [screen time] means talking with Grandma? What happens when a teacher is next to a child?” – Lisa Guernsey

For example, I am particularly interested in evidence that the use of technology in a pre-school class is helpful with kindergarten readiness, a huge issue for states that don’t have publicly funded pre-kindergarten, places where children come to school not knowing letters or numbers.

My question comes at a time when states like Louisiana are imposing academic standards for preschool education, and as the state education department there is giving $265,000 for technology to 29 parishes participating in a pilot program.

The program will allow teachers to track development milestones on a computer for children up to age 4, notes Sarah Tan.

Nonetheless, it’s not clear if the schools – or the teachers – are ready, Tan notes in her piece for The Hechinger Report and The Times Picayune.

“We are so far behind in training preschool teachers on the science of how kids learn that parents are coming to asking them questions about what apps they should download…and they don’t know,’’ Guernsey said.

Guernsey is a big fan of reminding parents that technology can’t possibly replace other interactions that both teachers and parents might have with children. She is also aware that there isn’t always a choice of screen time vs. play time in households where parents are stressed and may not have access to quality child care.

“It’s fair to ask, are they missing a chance to finger paint on the back porch with their loving mommy by their side or something else?’’ Guernsey said.

And just like toys and other equipment, even the most educational of apps need some introduction. “You can’t just put out blocks and expect it will be a good learning experience,’’ Guernsey said. “None of this will just happen by osmosis.’’

As for the question of avoiding screen time, Guernsey makes it clear that “not all screen interactions are created equal. What happens when it [screen time] means talking with Grandma? What happens when a teacher is next to a child?

Georgene Troseth, an associate professor of psychology at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development, said the role of parents and caregivers guiding children in the use of technology and what they are seeing and experiencing can’t be underestimated – especially when very young learners have no way of discerning what is real – and which images are believable.

Her own research shows that videos can be useful learning tools, but that youngsters “will learn a lot more if you are there helping them, like you would with a book.”

Not surprisingly, some of her suggestions for using technology don’t sound that much different than what happens when a parent or caregiver sits reading with a child on their lap – asking questions about the story.

The Learning Accelerator on blended learning: `In the future, we’ll just call it learning’

If you’ve attended a major education conference this year or follow education trends, you’ve likely heard a phrase that is creating great excitement: blended learning.

The concept is gaining traction because it allows teachers to work with students at their individual level and at their own pace. Via technology, students get real-time instruction and instant feedback as needed to help them master skills and content. Blended learning classrooms look different: instead of a teacher lecturing in front, you might see students wearing headsets and looking intently at computer screens.

While we are no fans of education jargon here at The Hechinger Report, we do want to know which innovations have the potential to change teaching and learning, narrow achievement gaps and help struggling learners succeed. So we are closely following the evolution of blended learning, also known as personalized learning.

The Learning Accelerator is a non-profit working with school districts across the U.S. to help them get "blended learning,'' off the ground.

The Learning Accelerator is a non-profit working with school districts across the U.S. to help them get “blended learning,” off the ground.

It’s one reason why I wanted to have a conversation with Scott Ellis, CEO of a new nonprofit called The Learning Accelerator that is working with an array of school districts and attracting major foundation funding to help schools get blended learning off the ground.

TLA produced a video that helps illustrate and explain how blended learning works, so you can see for yourself. Ellis believes it is the best idea for improving education in the U.S.

“Schools are going to have to evolve,’’ Ellis told me. “If we can show people how to do this, and how to make it easier, we can make it happen across the country faster. There is tremendous momentum.”

“Technology has transformed every industry on the planet with incredible benefits. Why would education be different?’’ – Scott Ellis of The Learning Accelerator

There are also tremendous obstacles and barriers, and it is part of TLA’s role help identify and remove them in the next five years – and to become a catalyst for transformation. After that, Ellis hopes they won’t be needed.

Education researchers say more than 4 million elementary through high school students participated in some kind of learning online in 2010, and the number is growing. While more and more students are learning on computers — playing educational games, watching teacher lectures, researching projects and taking online courses — a survey of schools by the Federal Communications Commission found that half of schools have “lower speed internet connectivity than the average American household.”

In addition, the national ratio of computers to students in schools is only 5 to 1, according to a U.S. Department of Education survey of teachers published in 2010.

And not all blended learning models are created equally. A lot more research – along with actual results of how students are doing — will be needed before it’s clear how blended learning will succeed. Critics worry about the quality of learning. And while there is some early available research; we look forward to sharing more.

Ellis, an experienced consultant in technology and non-profits, nonetheless is convinced we have entered a “transformational magic moment,’’ for education right now. “Technology has transformed every industry on the planet with incredible benefits. Why would education be different?’’ he says.

TLA’s hope is that the phrase “blended,’’ will simply be incorporated into the word “learning,’’ in the years to come.

Scott Ellis, CEO of the Learning Accelerator. (Photo: The Learning Accelerator)

Scott Ellis, CEO of the Learning Accelerator. (Photo: The Learning Accelerator)

At the moment, TLA is working with states and with school districts in Greeley-Evans, Colorado, Reynoldsburg, Ohio and the Partnership for Los Angeles schools in California, where Ellis says anecdotal evidence shows students are interested, engaged — and less likely to end up in the principal’s office.

“Based on what I see from classrooms, we are going to see significant number of students moving at their own pace and getting the help they need,’’ Ellis said.

It is not just students who want help. Teachers are reporting that they want more training to better use technology in classrooms and get up to speed.

Here are excerpts of my recent conversation with Ellis, which have been edited for clarity and length. Disclosure: The Learning Accelerator shares some of the same funders as The Hechinger Report, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Q. You are so excited about blended learning, but when you go into a school district, do you experience resistance?

A. There are folks who don’t understand what this means and how it will work, so much of what we are focusing on — since this is innovative and new – is starting to work with [educators] who want to move in this direction. They see it is the future and want to be part of it, but a key step is helping to explain what it [blended learning] is and how it works. So when they do it, it is not hard and scary.

Q. What are some of the obstacles you are finding?

A. Technology infrastructure. Over 70 percent [of school districts] don’t have the infrastructure we need and don’t have the connectivity. How can it be that in 21st century United States of America – the leader and driver of so much innovation — doesn’t have every school in the country with blazing internet? Why are we not the leaders?

Q. How does TLA work with school districts?

A. We need every teacher and every administrator to feel comfortable using blended learning and incorporating it with their teaching. We need to help find the people who want to be in these roles and give them the support they need so they can thrive and kids can thrive. Part of it is learning the technology, but it’s more than that. There is a mindset. What does it mean to work in an environment with blended learning so they [students] can learn in different ways but move forward as they master content? It’s a different way of teaching. Part of it is a conversation. It is about describing what the teacher’s role looks like in the future.

Q. How will we know if blending learning works?

A. Student learning outcomes. We are in a phase of innovation so it will take us time. We will talk to students who say… before I was bored, but now I get feedback right away. We are hearing that is hard to integrate tech, but it’s worth it. We will know impact by talking to teachers and kids and parents and seeing kids moving forward at their own pace.

What’s race got to do with it? Everything, as topic eclipses ed-tech talk at NSVF Summit

SAN FRANCISCO – After two major education conferences in a row, I expected aggressive promotion of digital tools and products at last week’s NewSchools Venture Fund Summit, along with requisite promises of their potential to change teaching and learning forever.

After all, I’d heard plenty of that at SXSWedu in Austin, and even more at ASU/GSV – the so-called “Davos of the Desert,’’ conference in Arizona that attracts a well-heeled crowd of investors and increasing numbers of enthusiastic ed-tech start-up ventures.

While plenty of ed-tech was on display at New Schools Venture Summit, a different tone was set from the start, after Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative delivered a blunt, passionate speech on race, poverty and justice.

Stevenson – a New York University law professor — urged the crowd of more than 900 educators, entrepreneurs and policy makers committed to transforming education in underserved communities to do “uncomfortable things.’’

“I want to change the way we talk about race,’’ Stevenson told a rapt audience, one that conference organizers said included twice as many people of color than in 2013.   “We’ve never really talked about the legacy of slavery.”

His was an appropriate theme for the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education – a time for confronting our country’s racist past.

It’s a familiar issue for The Hechinger Reportthis year as we report on the education crisis in Mississippi, a state beset by its legacy of racism and segregation. It’s also the lens we are using to report on the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, the campaign launched in 1964 to attempt to register blacks to vote in that state that ended in the murder of three young civil rights activists.

As these anniversaries approach, recent research by Amy Stuart Wells is shining a spotlight on the many schools and communities that remain segregated by race and ethnicity – places where students have fewer resources than schools that are majority white.

Timing could be one reason why last week’s summit began with Stevenson and ended with a fired-up Howard Fuller of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning, who exhorted school leaders to fight harder for diversity in the education reform debate.

Without it, the reform movement will lose momentum, said Fuller, former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, a longtime proponent of school vouchers.

The need for more diversity among school leaders was another theme. Elisa Villanueva Beard, co-CEO of Teach for America, noted: “Forty percent of students in public schools are Latino or Black and only fourteen percent of teachers are.”

It was no accident that this year’s summit included far more educators of color than in previous years, but Fuller told them that just being in the room was not enough: they must be leaders in their communities.

James Shelton of the United States Department of Education pointed out that if the education reform movement is the civil rights movement of our time, “the movement needs to expand.”

Stevenson – a New York University law professor — urged the crowd of more than 900 educators, entrepreneurs and policy makers committed to transforming education in underserved communities to do “uncomfortable things.’’

Kaya Henderson, chancellor of Washington D.C. schools, agreed and challenged communities of color to join her in doing difficult work in education.

“The values that are important to our community are not at the forefront,’’ Henderson said, noting that the work of closing achievement gaps won’t continue: “Until we get to a point where leaders of color can say what they want to say, do what they want to do and lead the way they want to lead in a way that reflects our community.”

Villanueva Beard of Teach for America described the challenges black leaders face in largely white work places – and how it impacts children.

“Our children should feel comfortable in our organization,’’ she said.

Discussion of race is critical to closing achievement gaps and improving public education, so I was glad it became a part of the conversation last week.

I was busy listening (and live tweeting) that I didn’t have time for the tech video booth, the circus or any product demonstrations

In the months to come, though, The Hechinger Report will be in classrooms across the U.S. to learn more about how new technologies and blended learning have the potential to change teaching and learning.

Along with race, it’s a hugely important discussion with enormous potential to improve public education. We are glad to be part of the conversation.

If no one bothers to talk about the problems, no one is going to bother trying to fix them.

Big question for edtech: But how do we know what’s working?

As more than 900 entrepreneurs and educators converge in San Francisco this week, some will talk academic standards, literacy and charter schools.

Others will bypass weighty sessions at NewSchools Venture Fund summit altogether, preferring to tinker with dozens of new tools and products that promise to “transform teaching and learning.’’

4488250788_83e9158cab_zParticipants can teach to student avatars in a virtual classroom, check out the Two Bit Circus or attend “Hour of Power,’’ sessions that promise to be “provocative, fun and interactive.”

They can also learn about new start-ups, games and ventures with names like BetterLesson, Blendspace, Edthena, Educreations, Hapara, Nearpod, Zaption, eSpark and LearnZillion , all eager to demonstrate.

It’s fun to check out new efforts, even though it’s not clear how many will ultimately survive.

That’s why after attending two major edtech conferences in a row ( and (ASU/GSV), I’m heading straight for a panel entitled: “But How Do We Know What’s Working?’’

It’s an excellent question. And I’m hoping the mix of cheery enthusiasm for “disrupting,’’ the education landscape – a favorite, overused phrase at both conferences– will finally be accompanied by concrete suggestions and evidence.

It’s time to start sharing evidence and data about what makes schools better, and not just from those who stand to profit from innovation in a booming tech market that attracted $650 million in capital investment last year

It’s time to start sharing data, anecdotes and results that help us understand what makes schools better — and not just results gathered by those who stand to profit from innovation in a booming tech market that attracted $650 million in capital investment last year.

I’m hoping this conference will also include views from the classroom along with CEO’s and their promotions staff.

In dozens of conversations with teachers recently, I’ve learned that many are all for new approaches; they are excited about blended learning and its potential to help students work at their individual skill level while receiving real-time instruction as needed, with the help of technology.

But they also want a say in which products they use, as Stacey Childress, Deputy Director of Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, pointed out in Arizona, as she released survey filled with detail. (Disclaimer: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is among the various funders of The Hechinger Report.

It’s not always easy to find teachers at so-called “innovation,’’ conferences, which are often dominated by new products and their potential. Not that there isn’t plenty of discussion about education: at ASU/GSV, there was a spotlight on “The American Dream.’’

Yes, it’s an overused phrase, but GSV Capital chairman Michael Moe touted EIEIO—or “education, innovation, entrepreneurism, immigration and opportunity,’’ as a critical piece of improving education. An excellent synopsis and videos can be found on Ed Surge, available by clicking here.

With all the talk of tech and the pushing of new products and companies (some quite promising) one of the moments I most enjoyed at ASU/GSV came when Arthur Levine of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation reminded a room filled with well dressed investors that they have enormous power to help poor children and improve education.

The NewSchools fund says its summit has a similar message, deeming it an “invitation-only gathering of entrepreneurs, educators, and policymakers who are passionate about the power of entrepreneurs to transform public education for underserved children.”

I’ll be listening and trying to answer the question I started with: How do we know what’s working?

Using better metrics to build better schools

Envision runs a group of three charter high schools in the Bay Area. They champion, as many schools do these days, “deeper learning” and “21st century skills.” Envision enacts this philosophy through a “Know-Do-Reflect” process that uses projects, portfolios and presentations to integrate assessment with learning. They prompt students to turn the lens both inward and outward. The students are asked to self-assess their own progress, and through the portfolio exhibition and performance assessment process, they open up their work to outside evaluators as well.

Education these days is falling into a data gap. There is wide agreement that reading and math test scores alone reflect, at best, a small subset of what we want students to know and be able to do. But concepts like deeper learning, critical thinking, collaboration, and the like are inherently subjective and qualitative. In today’s high-stakes, bad-faith atmosphere, and in a global context, the subjective judgment of teachers, students and school leaders on “is our children learning?” is not trusted as a standalone measure of student progress. For better or for worse, politicians and the public want to see hard data.

One emerging consensus on how to bridge this divide: use outcomes instead of test scores. The idea is that by looking at trends in high school graduation, college entrance, college persistence and college completion, schools can fairly compare themselves by transparent measures that really matter. (Race to the Top provided significant funding to states to create the kinds of databases that make these outcome measures possible). In 2011 KIPP, the charter school chain, released a much discussed report looking at the outcomes of its own students. They found that one in three students who completed a KIPP middle school had graduated from a four-year college at least a decade later.

These were good results. Coming from a population that was 95% African-American and Latino, and 85% free or reduced lunch, KIPP students graduated at quadruple the rates of similar populations. But KIPP publicly declared that they weren’t good enough. They want to create schools where at least 75% of students beat the odds, and have the tools to succeed long after the intensive atmosphere and extra resources of the school are just a fading memory.

The change in metrics has influenced a change in strategy, at KIPP and across the charter school world. To graduate from college, students need to be self-directed, highly motivated, and confident. Bob Lenz, the founder of Envision, believes that those qualities are best cultivated by the performance assessment model integrating learning and assessment. But when it comes to convincing outside observers of the effectiveness of this measure, graduation rates and college persistence are paramount. In a recent case study of two of Envision’s three schools by Stanford University, students demonstrated college persistence far above the norm. At Impact Academy of Arts and Technology in Hayward, CA, founded in 2007, 81% of the first graduating class that started there as freshmen enrolled immediately in college. Of those, 66% made it to their second year. At City Arts and Technology High School, for the class of 2009, nearly 85% of graduates who enrolled in a college stuck with it for at least 4 years.

Tracking outcomes is more complex than reporting test scores. It’s also more relevant.



Almost 70% of teachers are not engaged. Here’s why that matters so much

Wednesday Gallup released a major report on the State of American Schools. Their data paints a picture of schools performing as a complex ecosystem, with the wellbeing, engagement, and performance of teachers, students, and principals all intertwined.

The report combines decades of surveys of 5 million American teachers and principals with the results of the Gallup Student Poll, now billed as the largest survey of American students with 600,000 5th through 12 grade participants, and several large follow-up studies. Gallup’s also drawing on its background developing the Employee Engagement Survey, which has been administered to a total of almost 30 million people in all professions.

The Gallup polls ask students, teachers, principals, and other professionals about their levels of hope, emotional engagement, and wellbeing at work or school. While these qualities may seem like frills, they’ve been demonstrated over time to have powerful correlations with harder metrics, like a company’s profits or a school’s test scores. For example, in 2009, Gallup studied 78,000 students in 160 schools in eight states, finding that a one-percentage-point uptick in a school’s average student engagement was connected to an average six-point increase in reading achievement and eight points in math. Similarly, Gallup researchers have found in peer-reviewed studies that their “hope” measure was a better predictor of grades in college than SATs, ACTs or high school GPA. In a third study, students’ levels of hope accounted for almost half of the variation in math achievement and at least one-third of their variation in reading and science scores.

Brandon Busteed, the executive director of Gallup Education, says that in some ways, the point Gallup is making with this line of research is even more “provocative.” “We definitely want to show that these quote unquote ‘soft’ measures move the quote unquote ‘hard’ measures, like grades and test scores,” he said. “But we’re also asking: is engagement more important or are grades more important? If you ask a parent whether they’d rather have a kid who is getting mostly As and is only mildly interested in what they’re learning or mostly Bs and is super engaged, I can tell you what most parents would pick.”

So how are we doing on these soft measures? According to the survey, 55% of American students scored high on engagement, and just one in three score high on all three measures of hope, engagement and well-being.

Engagement measures have a lot to do with relationships and feeling valued. So it’s not surprising that there’s an intimate connection between the schoolroom engagement of students, and the workplace engagement of  teachers. As the saying goes, “Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.”

Gallup found that students who agreed with the following two statements: 1. “My school is committed to building the strengths of each student” and 2. “I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future” were 30 times more likely to be engaged.

Unfortunately, most teachers are not in a position to share excitement with students. About 70% are classified as disengaged, which puts them on par with the workforce as a whole. This is surprising in some ways, because teachers score close to the top on measures that indicate that they find meaning in their life and see work as a calling. Unfortunately, the structures that teachers are working in–which may include high-stakes standardized testing and value-added formulas that evaluate their performance based on outside factors–seem to tug against their happiness. “The real bummer is they don’t feel their opinions matter,” Busteed says. K-12 teachers scored dead last among 12 occupational groups in agreeing with the statement that their opinions count at work, and also dead last on “My supervisor creates an open and trusting environment.”

K-12 teachers scored dead last among 12 occupational groups in agreeing with the statement that their opinions count at work, and also dead last on “My supervisor creates an open and trusting environment.”

This takes the measure directly to the top. Gallup’s study found that principal talent had a powerful impact on teacher engagement, which in turn affects student engagement.  They recommend that principals adopt a more collaborative management style and help new teachers acclimate by putting them together to form partnerships with more experienced teachers.

Surveys and polls aren’t perfect, of course. But overall, the message of this research is a powerful indicator that we need to do a better job at looking at the full range of factors that affect school performance. Gallup is promoting its student poll to districts as another means of making decisions about what really counts in school.

Do public schools beat private schools? The quality of evidence

Tuition at many of New York City’s top private schools is over $40,000 a year. That’s more than Harvard. It’s grown almost 50 percent in the past decade–faster than private university tuition.  It goes without saying that parents who shell this money out believe that their children will be getting a better education in exchange for all that money.

But what if they’re wrong?

A book published last year by two professors at the University of Illinois-Champaign, titled The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, offered a new analysis of two nationally representative datasets–the NAEP test, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which followed a group of 17,000 children from kindergarten through eighth grade. The researchers, Chris and Sarah Theule Lubiensky, chose to look specifically at math scores, in the belief that math is a purer measurement of the influence of school because students tend to learn very little math at home. They found that after controlling for the known effects of demographics, particularly wealth and social class, private schools (and independently run charter schools) demonstrated no advantage over public schools.  In fact, in several grades, students with similar demographic backgrounds did better in math when they attended public schools.

Other independent studies have had similar results. This separate 2006 analysis of NAEP scores  found after adjusting for demographics, fourth grade students did better in math in public schools, and eighth grade students did better in reading in private schools, while all other differences were not statistically significant. And several different studies of charter school performance have similarly found that their quality is uneven, with a tiny positive gain in reading over that achieved by similar students at public schools and an equally small disadvantage in math.

In recent days, the authors of Public School Advantage have been defending their findings and research methodology against a series of critics who advocate school choice reforms. Most of the evidence on the other side comes from small local studies of outcomes where vouchers were given to some students to pay for private schools; the Lubienskis argue that these studies are small and nonrepresentative.

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For the parent or layperson trying to draw conclusions about private vs. public vs. charter, what stands out in all this is the paucity of evidence. No one should choose a school based on math scores alone. Measures that everyone would agree would be more relevant, such as graduation and college persistence rates, are not available. Schools that emphasize teaching to the test may demonstrate gains that are offset by great losses elsewhere. And even though researchers are correct to control for the effects of demographics on average, on an individual basis they are anything but irrelevant. As a parent from a less advantaged background, getting your kid into a more economically diverse school has a high likelihood of improving her circumstances and opportunities.  Nobody disputes that schools full of rich kids do better. Indeed, the same large charter school study found that when you look specifically at the outcome for poor kids, charter schools do have a small advantage, which is highly relevant because charter schools have a greater concentration of poverty than regular public schools.

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In fact, the biggest take-home for parents looking at the evidence on school performance should be this: family income and education level has far more statistical impact on a child’s performance in school than any characteristic of that school. If you are in a position to consider private school for your child, you probably don’t need to.

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