Education businesses need to be intentional about building relationships with people of color in their workforce, explains Kelli Doss, the chief talent and equity officer at Reading Partners.
Lawyers, consultants, others advising education companies say there are clear steps businesses can take to protect their intellectual property abroad.
DreamBox Learning is acquiring the adaptive literacy program Reading Plus, marking the ed-tech provider’s expansion into reading curriculum.
Prior to the merger, DreamBox Learning, which was founded in Washington state in 2006, has been a K-8 digital math program that aims to tailor lessons to students’ needs by using technology that differentiates questions in real time based on how students solve problems.
With Reading Plus, DreamBox Learning says it is bringing on board an evidence-based, program designed to boost students’ literacy skills in grades 3-12. The program is used in more than 7,800 schools by more than 1 million students, according to the company.
The move comes after DreamBox acquired Squiggle Park, an early literacy program for students in K-2. With both programs, the company can expand its K-12 reach and offer schools a dual-discipline program, according to the announcement released July 19.
“We believe the winning formula to shape the future of learning has three components,” said Jessie Woolley-Wilson, President and CEO of DreamBox Learning in announcing the acquisitions. “Dual-discipline offerings that cultivate a strong foundation in mathematics and reading; strong data and analytics solutions that leverage formative data to personalize the learning experience; and professional development to help educators develop their blended learning knowledge and skills.”
Dream Box says it currently serves more than 5 million students and 200,000 educators in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, according to the announcement.
The company grew during the pandemic as school districts scaled up their online programs to switch to entirely remote learning.
“DreamBox’s mission-driven leadership, adaptive learning model, and third-party validation made the decision to join forces a natural next step for Reading Plus,” Steven Guttentag, CEO of Reading Plus, said in the statement.
When the pandemic forced schools to close last year, every student at Chagrin Falls Exempted Village Schools in Ohio already had a device, and most had access to the internet at home. As a result, the district’s director of technology, Mike Daugherty, was cautiously optimistic that they were well prepared for remote learning.
He quickly learned that having access to the internet and having the ability for an entire family to join hours-long video conferences were two different things. In many cases, when students’ connectivity fell short, Daugherty was left to urge families to upgrade their service.
While the country moves toward connecting more households to the internet than ever before, insufficient bandwidth remains a challenge for school districts and limits what tools students can use at home. A survey of 400 districts newly released by the Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, underscores that basic access to the internet is not the barrier in many households – it’s an inability to use bandwidth-intensive content, such as video conferencing and streaming, that many districts would like to make a part of students’ lessons.
The survey of association members, who are district IT leaders, released last month found that 94 percent of districts faced challenges with videoconferencing during remote learning. For most of those districts (66 percent) the problems were caused by insufficient bandwidth. Respondents listed slow connections and multiple users as the top technical problems they faced.
“We saw that over and over again where a family was working from home due to COVID and they’re all on a generic, basic internet connection and nobody can get anything done,” Daugherty said. “That was such a struggle for us.”
Part of the problem is that the federally recommended broadband thresholds for households don’t meet the needs of remote learning, said CoSN CEO Keith Krueger. Families may have plenty of bandwidth to stream or download content, he said, but not enough to upload. And most households have two or more students, compounding the problem.
The experience has caused digital equity to rank as a top concern among districts’ IT leaders. Nearly all the survey respondents (97 percent) said concerns about quality of students’ home access increased. And the number of districts providing off-campus services doubled compared to the year before, reaching 95 percent.
Equity will certainly be on the minds of district leaders as they decide what educational technology to use moving forward, Krueger said.
“The good news is [bandwidth is] better in schools,” he said. Yet, “from a vendor perspective, they are going to have to think more inclusively.”
Inside school buildings, districts have made huge strides toward improving internet access. According to the survey, the majority of responding districts (61 percent) met the FCC’s long-term broadband goal, set in 2014. Three years ago, fewer than a third of districts met that standard, Krueger said.
Having students back in the building will help schools in the Chagrin school district, Daugherty said, especially since the district has a relatively small IT staff that isn’t equipped to provide home support.
Prior to the pandemic, Daugherty’s department fielded around five to 10 technical problems a day, mostly from students who broke or forgot their Chromebooks. During remote learning, that jumped to around 30 to 50 per day.
But home connectivity remains a concern because some practices from the pandemic will continue, Daugherty said.
He expects that his district will continue sending devices home with students over the summer break to lessen the summer academic slide. He also expects teachers to continue to record their lessons so students can access them later as needed.
Aside from equity concerns, district technology leaders listed improving cybersecurity and student data privacy as their top technology priorities.
According to the survey, more than three-quarters of districts (77 percent) do not have a full-time employee dedicated to network security. And only half of districts require cybersecurity training for the entire staff.
Other challenges IT leaders listed during the survey were:
- Budget constraints and lack of resources
- Lack of access to professional development
- Existence of silos in the district
“There has to be a passionate advocacy on the part of technology leaders to articulate what we can do better by making sure we have equity built in,” Krueger said. “Digital isn’t going away. There’s a whole lot of things we can do a lot better, even at school.”
Photo: Alpha Wireless AW3170 panel antennas deployed in a private school district network near the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. (Credit: Business Wire via AP)
Pre-K-12 instructional materials are just one slice of a publishing industry that broadly thrived over the past year.
Data released last week by the Association of American Publishers show that sales of educational instructional materials in March more than doubled, year over year.
Overall educational revenues for instructional materials climbed by $111.7 million, while revenues for pre-K-12 resources reached $61.4 million in March — an 82 percent jump over a year ago.
Sales of higher education course materials rose even more sharply, reaching $50.4 million in March, a 179 percent increase over the previous year.
Education publishers’ gains over the past year have come at a time when public and private investment in education markets has soared. Federal lawmakers have approved three different stimulus measures, the most recent of which will channel $130 million into K-12 education. Venture capitalists poured $16.1 billion total into ed tech in 2020, $7.9 billion more than the previous record set in 2018.
One factor driving the increases in education publishers’ revenues: Two of the three largest state markets for vendors in terms of student population – Texas and Florida – purchased significantly more instructional materials this March than a year ago, according to AAP’s PreK-12 Books & Materials Monthly Report for March 2021.
Florida and Texas K-12 leaders bought $8.5 million and $2.3 million worth of pedagogical materials, respectively, showing increases of 331 percent and 137 percent over March 2020.
On the other hand, sales of instructional materials in California, the state with the largest K-12 population, dropped from $6.1 million to $3.9 million.
In addition to higher monthly sales, Florida also generated a sizable increase in revenues for instructional materials across the full years of 2019 and 2020, growing from $6.9 million to $11.4 million. During the same period, annual sales for California fell from $12.1 million to $10.1 million, and yearly sales for Texas declined from $7.8 million to $7.2 million.
The educational sales data account for materials covering reading and language arts, science, social studies, math, English as a second language, career and technical education, as well as miscellaneous other subject areas.
Other segments of the publishing industry have also seen their revenues increase over the past year. Consumer books grossed $743.9 million in March, a 34.2-percent increase year-over-year, while professional books generated $33.1 million, a 33.2-percent gain.
AAP released the information based on questionnaires they sent to publishers, the group said. The monthly reports draw revenue data from approximately 1,300 publishers.
Publishing sales for this year are more comparable to 2017-2019 levels than to industry revenues last year, which was a “tough” time for the industry, AAP said.
School buildings across the U.S. started closing in March 2020 amid the initial onslaught of COVID-19, forcing districts to quickly pivot away from traditional instructional methods and swiftly reprioritize their spending.
Though the publishing industry posted striking growth rates in March, the industry typically sees stronger performance over the summer, and so the next few months will provide a better indicator of the sector’s resilience, according to the AAP.
Businesses in the education market face new and unfamiliar obstacles in delivering product support and professional development that spans remote, hybrid, and in-person learning environments.
The impact of learning loss during the pandemic won’t just be felt in the classroom. It could also saddle the future economy.
That was the core argument put forward recently by a group of eight business leaders from North Carolina, who made a public plea for state policymakers to address students’ academic slippage during COVID.
Among their recommendations, laid out at a recent online event, were for state policymakers to set up a recurring funding stream to train all of the state’s educators, and to move from a “student tutoring model” for literacy education to a model that supports educators based on the “science of reading.”
Reading proficiency among North Carolina 3rd graders slightly worsened during the pandemic.
According to a report last month by the (Raleigh) News & Observer, accounting for 67.7 percent of 3rd-grade students who had taken midyear assessments, 75.4 percent of 3rd graders were not reading at a proficient level, compared to 73.6 percent last school year.
“Let’s be clear: This is not just a North Carolina problem,” said Kelly King, chairman and CEO of Charlotte, N.C.-based Truist Financial Corp., a consumer and commercial bank holding company. “This is a national problem.”
The impact of learning loss does not appear to be hitting all U.S. school communities equally. A report released by McKinsey & Company in December found that there was a 10 percent drop in average K-5 reading levels among majority-white schools during COVID, but a 23 percent drop in average K-5 reading levels among minority-majority schools.
Another participant in the North Carolina event, Honeywell Chairman and CEO Darius Adamczyk, noted that COVID has likely accelerated the need for higher educational attainment, a demand that is unlikely to abate. Honeywell, headquartered in North Carolina, is a conglomerate with a heavy focus in aerospace and building technologies, among other industries.
Investing in early reading proficiency is integral to weathering a changing economy, and for students to gain education and skills to meet the needs of businesses, Adamczyk said.
“The recommendations we’re making today will address inequities in our workforce and help us develop a strong, diverse, and resilient talent pipeline well into the future,” he said.
In addition to recommending recurring state investments in teacher training in reading, the leaders called for North Carolina policymakers to maintain and even expand funding for pre-K access in the state and to eventually accomplish the goal of enrolling 75 percent of the state’s pre-K-eligible children, and to ensure that every county hits that benchmark.
The state currently funds pre-K programs at about $154 million per year.
Fred Whitfield, president and vice chairman of Hornets Sports & Entertainment, noted that about 9,100 fewer children enrolled in North Carolina pre-K for the 2020-2021 school year compared with the previous school year, eliminating all of the enrollment gains made in the state over the last four years.
Before COVID, enrollment in the state’s pre-K had topped 31,000 children — about 50 percent of the children eligible for the program statewide, he said. Now, pre-K programs in the state are serving only 36 percent of eligible children.
A Big Focus on Pre-K
“The drop in enrollment should not be viewed as a decrease in demand or need for North Carolina pre-K,” Whitfield said. “To the contrary, although we have much to overcome, this proven high-quality program, targeted at some of our most at-risk children, is needed now, more than ever.”
In addition to calling for more support for pre-K, the business leaders are asking state officials to inflation-adjust North Carolina’s pre-K funding for the first time in nine years, to require an annual such inflation adjustment, and to modify county-state cost sharing percentages to help economically disadvantaged counties cover program costs, Whitfield said.
During their presentation, the business leaders cited a 2016 CEO action plan to support improved U.S. literacy rates put forward by Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs at leading U.S. companies.
North Carolina business leaders were inspired by the action plan to initiate several pro-education initiatives, including creation of a comprehensive aligned education system for grades pre-K-3, as well as launching a data methodology to ensure that children stay on track to achieve reading proficiency, said Dale Jenkins, CEO of Raleigh, N.C.-based medical malpractice insurance provider Curi.
A “robust data system” is scheduled to roll out later this year, Jenkins said.
In 2017, the North Carolina General Assembly formed the Birth through Third Grade, or B-3, Interagency Council, which is a joint council between the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
The goal of the effort was to create a vision for a birth through 3rd-grade system of early education, and a system of accountability tied to it, including standards and assessment, data-driven improvement and outcomes, and teacher and administrator preparation and effectiveness.
“We’ve made progress on these goals through the B-3 Interagency Council that was created in 2017 to address these issues among others,” Jenkins said. “We applaud the General Assembly and the governor for moving this forward together.”
The pandemic has fueled demand for academic lessons outside of core curriculum, as districts seek flexibility and digital materials that engage students.
The Biden administration’s recent guidance for how states should carry out federally mandated tests is likely to have implications for the testing industry, potentially affecting everything from the work required to design the exams to scheduling them to companies’ bottom lines.
In a letter to states, the U.S. Department of Education this week informed states that they won’t be allowed to cancel federally mandated standardized exams this school year — unlike last spring, when they were given the right to shelve end-of-year exams.
But the agency gave states the right to propose shortened versions of state exams in English/language arts, math, and science, and is allowing them to delay the assessments, potentially even until next school year.
Typically, test scoring is done over a three-week time period, but a longer testing window increases the chances that the process becomes less efficient, which could raise test providers’ costs, said Barry Topol, managing partner of Assessment Solutions Group. His organization provides assessment cost, management and state accountability systems analysis and consulting to states and other entities.
“The big costs of scoring are the variable costs of monitoring those [test] raters and readers, and training them and having them score,” he said in an interview with EdWeek Market Brief.
Though the department’s letter to states said it won’t invite state requests for blanket waivers of assessments akin to the broad waivers issued by the department last spring, the agency did say it will allow states to seek waivers from federal requirements for school accountability, which would include a waiver from the requirement that states test 95 percent of eligible students, as my Education Week colleagues reported Monday.
And despite the department’s decision to not invite applications for broad assessment waivers, states could still seek them.
For instance, Pennsylvania state lawmakers on Wednesday asked the Biden administration to waive assessment requirements this year because of the pandemic.
Reworking State Contracts
If states take advantage of the administration’s permission to delay this year’s assessments, that could increase logistical and hiring costs for assessment providers.
Asked whether longer testing windows would make it more difficult to efficiently hire test scorers for this cycle, Cambium Assessment President Steve Kromer said the scenario is one that the company can adapt to meet. Scorers are generally receptive, he said, to offers to extend their contracts if necessary.
Cambium Assessment currently has 27 different contracts with states for summative types of assessments, and provides mostly computer-based tests, he said.
As there were last year, there could be contract renegotiations between Cambium and its customers as these states explore the possibilities of delaying or modifying aspects of this year’s tests, Kromer said.
“We would need to understand what the impact of a change would be, in terms of how we adjust our capacity based on our anticipated volumes of helpdesk calls and volumes of computer-based tests,” Kromer said. “We’re going to — as any business — look at adjustments to our capacity.”
If assessment providers are administering tests remotely, an extended test window could place additional cost burdens by requiring extensions of leases for test facilities and computers, Topol said.
On the other hand, if states desire shorter assessments, it could challenge companies to quickly compress the length of these exams while still ensuring the tests are still robust, Topol said.
“One way to do it would be to eliminate those constructed response items, but then you’ve got some issues with are you providing adequate content coverage?” he said. “The later in the school year… that you do that, the faster the vendors have to respond, the more expensive it is, and the more you introduce more chances for human error somewhere in the process.”
Cambium Assessment’s revenue took a hit when standardized tests were canceled last year. The company could sustain some revenue impacts this cycle as well, potentially associated with longer testing windows and modifying test structures, Kromer said.
But other costs could fall, Kromer said.
“You may not have to pay the cost to have [physical test books] taken to one of the states and have all those test books delivered and pick them back up,” he said. “There are costs that would go away.”
Cambium Learning CEO John Campbell talks about how his company’s recent, major acquisitions of Rosetta Stone and the American Institutes for Research mesh with his organization’s strategic vision.