Many school districts are cautious when it comes to taking risks. And a global pandemic would seem like an especially unlikely time for them to begin taking chances on new products delivered by unfamiliar companies.
EdWeek Market Brief recently surveyed district and school leaders on the circumstances in which they’ve worked with a vendor or organization…
For many companies working in the K-12 market, the past year has been about prevailing in the face of hardship, and positioning themselves for what they hope are more stable and successful days ahead.
As soon as the coronavirus pandemic began shutting down in-person classes in the spring, education businesses across the industry — from the biggest companies in the market to startups — were immediately forced to recalibrate how they could help school systems in states of upheaval.
Those strategic adjustments have been ongoing, from the frantic days of March and April through today, and more changes will surely last through much of 2021.
Initially, many districts warned vendors to quit overwhelming them with sales pitches, as administrators and teachers scrambled to manage the upheaval in their schools. Many districts, however, didn’t wait long before they began reaching out for help, seeking advice from vendors on how to make remote learning work on a scale they’d never imagined.
Now, many districts are laying out plans to return to in-person or hybrid instruction, if they haven’t made that transition already.
EdWeek Market Brief has been tracking evolving needs in the COVID era through our reporting, our surveys of K-12 officials and businesses, and our special reports. We’ve delivered intel to our readers, not only through stories and other online content, but also through our regular webinars.
Here’s our recap of the most important topics we covered in 2020, as judged by those that were most popular among our readers:
Of all of the questions that education companies have been weighing during the confusion of the pandemic, one of the biggest has come down to this: How is COVID changing K-12 plans for purchasing specific types of products and services?
This story, published in the late spring as the full might of the pandemic came into focus, presents the results of an EdWeek Market Brief nationally representative survey of district officials on the products and services they were planning to purchase to respond to the crisis. PPE was a major need, but devices and professional development also quickly came into focus.
One of the clearest challenges to emerge in schools during the coronavirus is teachers’ recognition that students are slipping academically during remote learning — the so-called “COVID Slide.”
In this story, EdWeek Market Brief’s Michele Molnar looked at how curriculum providers have been attempting to help districts with learning loss. Those efforts include a new focus on putting forward engaging and culturally responsive material; creating more targeted, embedded assessments to gauge students’ losses in real time; doubling down on foundational academic areas where students are struggling; and integrating more targeted professional development into teachers’ routines.
EdWeek Market Brief surveyed more than 500 district leaders and 700 teachers about what companies or products have been most helpful to them during the chaos of the pandemic. It was an open-ended question, meaning administrators and educators could write in whatever answer they wanted.
The majority of those surveyed — 54 percent — chose one of three different companies. Hint: There was big premium placed on communication tools and platforms.
Many other providers, however, were also named, including companies offering student information systems and curriculum and assessment, among others.
When school districts emerge from crisis mode, how will their demands for products and services have changed from what they were, pre-COVID?
EdWeek Market Brief’s Brian Bradley and Michele Molnar asked 10 executives at education companies for their predictions for how the pandemic will alter the market.
Among those who weighed in: Mike Tholfsen, principal product manager for Microsoft Education; Andy Myers, president and chief operating officer at Waterford; Coni Rechner, senior VP at Discovery Education; Barry Malkin, the CEO of Carnegie Learning; and Michael Flood, senior VP at Kajeet.
EdWeek Market Brief took a deep dive into how school district budgets are being altered by COVID, and by the future uncertainty of state funding and lost tax revenue.
Much of that impact has yet to be determined — economic downturns typically take a long time to wind their way through to K-12 districts, because of school systems’ reliance on tax streams that may not feel the full brunt of a recession immediately.
Our surveys have found that many more district officials now believe their spending levels will rise, compared with the early days of the pandemic. But that’s partly because those K-12 officials believe they’ll be forced to spend more, as state mandates kick in and COVID-related costs continue, as David Saleh Rauf reported.
The pandemic had an immediate impact on COVID by throwing off the schedule for testing during the spring. And the disruptions have continued since then.
Brian Bradley breaks down how assessment companies are being forced to pivot, from focusing on non-assessment lines of business, to accepting the slowing of RFPs from districts, to navigating new demands for test integrity and security.
A strong majority of education companies say they’ve offered free or discounted versions of what are normally paid products during the coronavirus, an EdWeek Market Briefsurvey of 1,700 business officials this year found.
But then comes the hard part: How do companies steer school districts back to paying for products, so that businesses are generating revenue that will sustain them? Michelle Davis spoke with education companies about their thinking, and how they’re attempting to guide district officials along the path to paid.
EdWeek Market Brief has published several stories looking at districts’ spending priorities, and how they’ve changed over the course of the crisis. Look for another story on this in January.
But so far, several big needs have remained pretty consistent. Districts have put a major emphasis on PD, as teachers have struggled with remote learning, and now with the transition back to hybrid or in-person models. Online curriculum has been a huge priority, and so has the uptake of resources focused on social-emotional learning. (Also see our recent special report, breaking down districts’ biggest SEL needs.)
During the initial upheaval of COVID, many district officials warned vendors that they didn’t want to be inundated with sales pitches, because they were focused on the essential work of reopening and trying to establish normalcy amid chaos.
But at the same time, our research offered a more nuanced picture of district demands of vendors.
EdWeek Market Brief’s surveys of district officials, even from the relatively early days of the pandemic, found that many K-12 leaders were proactively reaching out to companies for help. This story was based on a survey that asked district officials about their outreach to vendors — and what they needed to hear from them to form a long-term relationship.
As the pandemic took hold and schools were rapidly forced to switch to online lessons, it quickly became clear that many parents were being thrust into new, uncomfortable roles in guiding their children’s studies, and trying to keep them on track.
This new parental responsibility meant that education companies that previously had to think mostly about delivering products that work for teachers and students now had to gauge how they could make them useful and understandable to parents, too. Our story looked at how companies have attempted to adjust their products and outreach to accommodate parents, in some cases drawing on lessons from the homeschool market.
Most Popular Webinars
Many of the most popular EdWeek Market Brief webinars were those that sought to help education companies quickly gauge districts’ evolving needs during the pandemic, then pivot to meet them.
Drawing from EdWeek Market Brief reporting, analysis, and survey data, this webinar looked at how school systems were making decisions about curriculum, assessment, PD, data analysis, and other products as they turned full-scale into distance learning.
We took a deep dive into the new expectations that school officials have been putting on vendors during COVID. We were joined by Orange County (Fla.) associate superintendent Rob Bixler and BrainPOP CEO Scott Kirkpatrick.
This webinar focused heavily on the new challenges districts, and vendors, have faced in engaging families in students’ learning during COVID. Our guests included Shauana Hughes-Sims, the senior administrator for parent and family engagement for the Orange County (Fla.) Schools, and Pete Just, the chief technology officer of the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, in Indiana.
In this webinar, we presented the results of EdWeek Market Brief research on district administrators’ and teachers’ biggest PD needs during the pandemic, and how they want that training and support delivered.
We were joined by Sarah Almy, the executive director of teacher and leader learning in the Denver public schools; Eric Hibbs, the superintendent of the Marlboro Township (N.J.) schools; and Michelle Bowman, the vice president of networks and content design for Learning Forward.
In this webinar, we detailed the results of an EdWeek Market Brief nationally representative survey of district leaders and school principals on their biggest SEL needs and what they want from companies’ products focused on students’ well-being and non-academic growth.
Our guests were Juany Valdespino-Gaytán, the executive director for engagement services at Dallas Independent School District, and Kathy Krupa, vice president of partnerships for SEL provider Move This World.
To sum it up, school districts, and the companies that serve them, endured a lot over the past year. Here’s hoping for a safer and more stable 2021, one that leaves room for school improvement, students’ academic and holistic growth, and innovation.
More specifically, the product team at Cognitive ToyBox is prioritizing our 2021 product roadmap. As part of that process we conduct field research to make sure that the feature and user interface improvements on the top of our list are also on the top of our customers’ list. We found for the most part that our plans are aligned to their needs — with a few slightly surprising differences.
Cognitive ToyBox’s recent reviews of teachers’ struggles, and students’ experiences during COVID has shaped its product planning.Click to Tweet
Below are takeaways from our conversations with officials in those school districts on how they’re trying to overcome challenges posed by COVID-19, as well as the support they’re looking for.
Joliet School Public Schools District 86
District 86 began proactively planning for this fall’s hybrid and remote scenarios as early as June. The early childhood team was invited to the district planning meetings, which doesn’t always happen because early childhood sometimes gets overlooked by K-12 district leaders.
A cross section of technology, curriculum, administration, and other representatives from the district met weekly to discuss both hybrid and remote options, with the goal of being able to flip back and forth if necessary.
Over the summer, the district sent each parent a survey, called each of those parents, and also surveyed its teachers. Ninety-one percent of its teachers answered the survey, and of those, the vote was about 50/50 between those who favored hybrid learning, as opposed to solely distance learning in the fall. In early August, the district notified parents that the start of the school year would be fully virtual at all grade levels, with the exception of the district delivering in-person instruction to some special needs children.
It was not an easy decision. Mendoza-Thompson and her teachers have been cautious about increasing screen time, given a growing body of research that indicates that our youngest learners can especially be adversely affected. Distance learning poses a balancing act for preschool parents because they and their children need to be online to interact with their teachers and classmates, as well as to access recommended activities, yet there is also pressure to stay offline. In response, the district has provided educational products that emphasize offline activities for caregivers to do at home with their children. This was one of the areas in which our thinking aligned strongly with the district’s. We had already made sure that the daily activities we curate for at-home use were mostly offline rather than digital experiences, and this confirmation renewed our commitment to that policy.
Another important data point for our assessment product that we learned is that teachers have been creating activities that they can use to assess children when they are on live instructional time, via Zoom. We had already been thinking about ways to make the process of capturing observational data via Zoom easier for teachers.
Hearing more precisely about some of the successes and failures that teachers encountered as they braved the world of remote assessment for the first time sparked a bunch of ideas for our product team.
One more surprising and creative finding was that a strong partnership with their local park district has provided teachers with more flexibility in terms of having additional outdoor facilities to utilize for various in-person (socially distant) purposes. Finding out that the district hadn’t given up on physically being together opened up ideas for how we could develop technologies for a modality that is mostly virtual yet occasionally an outdoor, in-person experience.
Instead of collecting a high volume of assessment data, the district is going deep on the data that it is able to collect. This shift evolved out of necessity, due to the difficulty of evaluating students remotely. However, now they are thinking that approaching assessment with more focus and intentionality will continue as a positive offshoot from this pandemic-enforced virtual learning situation. This finding was more unanticipated, as we had previously assumed schools would still place an emphasis on collecting myriad mandated assessment data points. As some states are relaxing the data collection requirements that some have long argued are overblown, we are watching to see if this is a trend or simply a short-term blip.
Battle Creek School District
Virtual learning has made it necessary for educators to ask parents to take on a lot more academic responsibilities at home, said Chandra Youngblood, the director of elementary education at the Battle Creek School District, in Michigan. She made this observation this spring, as part of a panel discussion moderated by Mort Sherman from AASA — the School Superintendents Association — at the Young Child Expo and Conference.
Youngblood highlighted a number of developments in her district that reflect the changing role of parents. She said the district’s elementary education team was planning to survey parents to determine interest in educational programs and support over the summer. The school system’s literacy tutors were poised help kindergartners with learning loss at the beginning of school.
This fall, the Battle Creek district’s pre-K-5 children returned in person, while students in upper grade levels all started virtually.
The elementary schools are utilizing a face-to-face cohort system, in which kids remain in one classroom except during recess. Specialized instruction such as art is provided by teachers who rotate into the classroom rather than having kids move into an art room. The district can then contract-trace more effectively if necessary. Their class sizes are 21 students or fewer with some as low as nine per class.
Youngblood recently updated us how different aspects of the Battle Creek district’s learning model have evolved during COVID.
Teachers Were Nimble During Summer Learning
A survey sent out by Youngblood’s team revealed that most parents did want a summer program. Battle Creek ended up providing a virtual summer program focusing on literacy for K-5 students. The program was very well-received, although one unanticipated glitch occurred when the district did not receive their hard copy materials due to the vendor’s NYC distribution center being shut down due to COVID restrictions. Teachers stepped up and adjusted as needed. They taught the lessons and substituted other books that families already had on hand until the book shipment arrived during the last week of the program.
Youngblood noted that the supply chain for various products including digital devices was a problem over the summer, and that’s a lingering issue this fall. The district did not run their usual summer Pre-K program because the state’s licensing rules were too difficult to meet. Instead, they created a program for the preschoolers by placing Pre-K and K resources and activities into backpacks that were distributed to the Pre-K families.
Literacy Tutoring Was Set Back
The district’s literacy tutoring program has been negatively affected by COVID-19. The 25-hour per week positions were mostly filled by elderly adults, many of whom are now caring for grandchildren or spouses at home.
There are currently 14 vacancies in the program. Unfortunately, the assessment data are showing that the children educated through virtual learning are not scoring as well as those who are in-person, even part-time.
Teachers’ Roles Changed
Youngblood noted that a good deal of the teachers’ energy is focused on sanitizing and cleanliness. The district brought an expert health official to meet with the teachers to establish a collective understanding about how contract tracing works and to help support the district’s sanitation process.
Unanticipated Tech Support Requirements
Providing tech support for families has been an unanticipated burden on the district. Many parents and caregivers who know how to use apps on their phones are struggling with more unfamiliar yet basic computer skills such as turning on a Chromebook and logging into and navigating a website. The district has needed to hire additional personnel to answer the increased demand for tech support. Learning about this gave us advance warning so we could put additional support in place.
One positive side effect that Youngblood shared is that even though they are back in the classroom for now, kids are being taught using the district-provided digital devices. Their hope is that this will lead to students and their parents being more comfortable with virtual learning and technology in the future. She believes that the district will only increase its use of technology as time goes on to account for when children may be unexpectedly homebound for various lengths of time.
Both of these districts have made broad adjustments in the face of challenges posed by COVID. Hopefully, their experiences can help other other school systems adapt during these difficult times.
Education companies should look to help educators collaborate and master skills beyond rote, tech-based applications, says Ronn Nozoe of ASCD, a professional learning membership organization for educators.