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10 Stories That Mattered in the K-12 Market in 2020

10 stories that mattered in the k 12 market in 2020
MB EOY Dec 24

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:

1 — How the Coronavirus Is Reshaping Districts’ Spending Priorities

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.

2 — Wanted: Curriculum Providers Who Can Help With Students’ COVID-19 Learning Loss

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.

3 — Which Ed. Companies Have Been Most Helpful to Districts During COVID-19?

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.


4 — How Will COVID-19 Reshape the K-12 Market? We Asked 10 Education Executives

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.

5 — Coronavirus Upending District Budgets, With Implications for K-12 Companies

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.


6 — 4 Big Shifts the Coronavirus Is Bringing to the Assessment Industry

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.

7 — Education Companies Are Offering Free Resources Amid the Coronavirus. How Do They Shift to Paid?

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 Brief survey 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.

8 — New Spending on PD, Online Curriculum Likely in the Fall, Survey Reveals

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.)

9 — Districts Are Reaching Out to Companies During COVID-19. Here’s What They Want

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.

10 — Key Lessons From the Homeschool Market That Matter Now More Than Ever 

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.

1 — How Is the Crisis Reshaping School District Purchasing Priorities?

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.


2 — How Can Education Businesses Pivot to Meet Districts’ Demands?

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.

3 — How Can Companies Engage Parents, and Prepare for What’s Ahead?

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.

4 — What Are Districts’ Most Urgent Professional Development Needs During COVID-19?

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.

5 — What Do Districts Need From Social-Emotional Learning Products and Programs During COVID-19?

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.

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House Passes Artificial Intelligence National Strategy That Includes Education To-Do List

house passes artificial intelligence national strategy that includes education to do list
Capitol BlueSky 900x500Socialmedia Getty

K-12 researchers have been pushing the idea that policymakers must get more involved in the ongoing discussion about emerging artificial intelligence technologies and what role they’ll play in classrooms of the future.

And now one branch of Congress has taken its first step — albeit somewhat of a baby step — in that direction.

The U.S. House has passed a bipartisan and nonbinding resolution to create a national AI strategy that, in part, highlights the need for continued planning in the area of education and AI. 

Specifically, the resolution notes the need for things like: 

  • Teacher prep programs that can increase the number of educators in STEM fields 
  • New grant programs to integrate AI ethics courses into science and engineering classes
  • New education programs related to AI that provide industry-recognized credentials and certificates and the inclusion of students from historically under-represented groups in technology education programs to help promote a “diverse artificial intelligence workforce.” 

The resolution — backed by Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), both vocal advocates of Congress spending more money on AI research — focuses on several key areas as part of the national AI strategy: workforce development, national security, research and development and ethics. 

It was created with input from industry experts and the Bipartisan Policy Center, a D.C.-based think tank that said they are hopeful the resolution “will lead to a coordinated federal approach on the best way to develop and use this evolving technology.”

A recently-released report noted that the involvement of policymakers in AI’s development is “imperative” to ensure the technology not only reaches its full potential but that its use in K-12 education is “equitable, ethical, and effective and to mitigate weaknesses, risks, and potential harm.” 

AI has been used in classrooms for years, in products ranging from smart tutoring and essay grading services to AI-enabled assessments. But researchers say AI technology for K-12 is quickly evolving to include more advanced technologies that could one day transform classrooms. 

Since the resolution is nonbinding, it serves as a symbolic gesture from the House on what lawmakers in the lower chamber believe is the best way forward for Congress and the White House to help develop AI technologies. 

In a statement, Kelly said the resolution should signal AI priorities to the incoming administration. 

“If we are to meet the challenges of tomorrow,” she said, “the U.S. must begin investing now in our workforce, education, research and development, and national security to ensure that this technology will positively benefit society.”

Follow EdWeek Market Brief on Twitter @EdMarketBrief or connect with us on LinkedIn.

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In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor

in memory of michele molnar edweek market brief writer and editor

Michele Molnar, an insightful journalist and student of the education industry who was known among colleagues for her kindness and good humor, died over the weekend after a long battle with cancer.

She was 66.

Molnar joined Editorial Projects in Education, the parent organization of Education Week, seven years ago as a reporter, and she played an instrumental role in the launch of EdWeek Market Brief, a business publication and intelligence service, two years later.

During her time as a staff writer and an associate editor for EdWeek Market Brief, Molnar’s reporting spanned many topics, from stories about teaching and learning in the nation’s classrooms to examinations of the leadership of some of the most prominent education companies in the world.michele-molnar

“She was curious, and she was strategic. She was a tremendous collaborator, and she was unbelievably resilient and strong,” said Michele Givens, the president and CEO of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit organization that includes Education Week, EdWeek Market Brief and Top School Jobs.

“She cared about our success and she was competitive on our behalf. Michele was very deft at uncovering what makes education companies tick, beginning with their leadership, and at helping them understand how best to connect their entrepreneurial aspirations and missions with the needs—and the bureaucracy—of school districts.”

Molnar wrote extensively about the challenges that education companies face in trying to pursue innovation and achieve profitability. She dissected the origins of those businesses’ successes, and broke down their shortcomings, including disconnects between their work and the needs of schools.

In some of her best stories, Molnar also offered readers a window into the pressures facing executives of education companies. She wrote about their challenges in encouraging innovative thinking among their employees, in knowing when to take risks, and in acquiring talent and laying out a roadmap for their organizations’ growth.

“I can’t tell you how many times I said to her, ‘How did you find that story?” recalled Kevin Bushweller, an assistant managing editor at Education Week, who hired Molnar in 2013.

She was “very creative in her approach to reporting,” Bushweller added. “She dug around in places your typical reporter would overlook, unearthing the kind of original stories that made Market Brief stand out from the crowd, and grow.”

(Watch a video of Molnar talking about education CEOs’ productivity tips here.)

She also wrote with verve about many topics well outside the education industry.

One example was a compelling profile of Gonzalo La Cava, the chief of human resources for the Palm Beach County school system, detailing his efforts to bring nontraditional candidates into the teaching profession. In that story, published in February, she wrote:

The HR chief’s work in Palm Beach is informed by his immigrant story. His parents emigrated from Uruguay to South Florida more than 40 years ago, when he was still a young boy…

His experience as a student in the Miami-Dade County school system, where he was placed in what were then called English as a second language classes, left him feeling isolated from the rest of his peers.

It’s that feeling that drives him to ensure that students have teachers and school leaders who make them feel welcomed and push them to excel.

La Cava started his career teaching special education students and was struck by how similar his students’ experiences were to his early years in school when he felt like an outsider.

“I could see their struggles in me,” he said.

Molnar’s adaptability as a journalist was not surprising, given the breadth of her work experiences prior to her time at Editorial Projects in Education.

Before she joined EdWeek Market Brief, Molnar was known to Education Week’s editorial team as the author of the publication’s K-12 Parents & the Public blog, where she reported on schools’ efforts to help and communicate with families.

Earlier in her career, Molnar wrote for a variety of publications and organizations, which offered her an insider’s view of the work of CEOs across industries.

The eclectic group of publications and organizations she wrote for included the Community Associations Institute, where she wrote for Common Ground Magazine; OneCoach, where she authored case studies and e-letter articles; and the Special Inspector General for Hurricane Recovery for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

She also established her own communications consulting practice, a business she founded in 1999.

Empathy and Generosity

At Education Week and EdWeek Market Brief, Molnar is remembered for her generosity—and for her irreverent sense of humor.

Bushweller, who worked closely with Molnar when he was executive editor of EdWeek Market Brief, recalled her amusing observations about conversations with sources, events in the news, and the joys of raising two boys.

“Michele had a take on those things that made me laugh, oftentimes very loudly,” Bushweller said.

Some of their best conversations occurred when the two shared walks from Education Week’s offices in Bethesda to a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts. Bushweller later moved to Vermont, but when he returned for monthly visits, the tradition continued.

“We talked about work, family, friends, politics, aging and all the challenges that come with those things,” he said. “I came to appreciate how Michele was one of the best listeners I had ever known.”

She was quick to offer guidance to new colleagues, from experienced reporters to interns, and to praise other reporters’ work. She often surprised her colleagues by preparing treats, and gifts, based on things they’d mentioned in conversation.

Bushweller recalled the comfort Molnar offered to the mother of a former Education Week intern who died unexpectedly several years ago.

“She helped us see beyond our frustrations,” Bushweller said.

Molnar also played a vital role in the launch of EdWeek Market Brief in December of 2015. She worked directly with Givens in shepherding many details of the initiative, and she collaborated with multiple departments to help build a shared editorial and business strategy for the service.

After Market Brief was off the ground, Molnar was the lead author on much of its most important content, from in-depth stories to Q-and-As to special reports. She also moderated many webinars and live event panels, conceiving them and recruiting speakers.

“Michele reveled in the opportunity to build something meaningful alongside her colleagues, through all the messiness and experimentation,” said Givens, adding. “Her absence creates a big hole in our community, but she also leaves behind a big legacy.”

She is survived by her husband, Joe Cantlupe, of Silver Spring, Md., and her sons Benjamin (BJ) and Max, and by her sister, JoAnn Ferreti, and her husband Richard, of Bangor, Pa.

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How Two School Districts Have Adapted to COVID-Era Realities

how two school districts have adapted to covid era realities

Recently we at Cognitive ToyBox inte rviewed Melissa Mendoza-Thompson, the principal of the Marycrest Early Childhood Center in the Joliet School Public Schools District 86 in Illinois, and Chandra Youngblood, director of elementary education at the Battle Creek School District in Michigan. We wanted to find out more about how their summer planning has prepared districts for remote and hybrid learning during the pandemic, and what we could learn from it.

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.

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.

Elementary School Classroom at Battle Creek SD
Battle Creek, MI, Elementary Classroom, fall 2020

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.

Image courtesy of Chandra Youngblood, Battle Creek School District

Follow EdWeek Market Brief on Twitter @EdMarketBrief or connect with us on LinkedIn.

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Cyberattacks on Ed-Tech Companies Rare, But Hugely Disruptive, Report Finds

cyberattacks on ed tech companies rare but hugely disruptive report finds

Cyberattacks carried out directly against ed-tech vendors, while rare, tend to have an especially severe impact on K-12 because they affect a large swath of students across multiple school districts at the same time, a federal report has found. 

The Government Accountability Office, an independent watchdog agency that conducts investigations for Congress, was asked to look into the vulnerability of student, teacher and administrator data as more schools than ever before utilize online tools because of the mass shift to distance learning due to COVID-19.

In a recently released report, the agency analyzed 99 school data breaches over the past four years that compromised the personal information of K-12 students in about 287 districts.

In doing so, the GAO also acknowledged the 99 data breaches it counted more than likely underrepresents the total number of successful hacks that occurred during that period. 

One of the agency’s conclusions: breaches of district, school or classroom data systems were the most common, followed by vendor system hacks. Nearly half of the student data breaches involved district data systems, a third involved school or classroom data systems, and vendor systems were linked to 15 breaches. 

From the report: 

“Vendors typically have many school districts using their products. As a result, a vulnerability in the technology that leads to a data breach can affect thousands of students. In one breach by an unknown actor, a learning assessment platform exposed the personally identifiable information (PII) of students with accounts, including their names and birthdates.” 

Screen Shot 2020-11-12 at 9.47.25 AM

Of those 15 cyberattacks connected to ed-tech vendors, five involved more than one district.

In one instance, the report cites a breach from last school year against an ed-tech vendor system that affected 135 school districts.

And while students and staff are most responsible for K-12  data breaches, the GAO notes that ed-tech vendor error can also play a role. According to the report, the federal watchdog agency counted two occasions where vendors were liable for data breaches.

Both incidents were accidental, according to the report, which did not provide any further detail on those examples.

The report also issued a warning about a new Covid-era type of cyberattack: “Zoombombings” — a term that refers to when videoconferences, on any platform, are breached by intruders.

More than two-dozen instances of breaches involving K-12 classroom video conferences were tallied between April and May of this year, according to the GAO. In one incident, 50 elementary school students were exposed to pornography during a virtual class, and in another high school students were targeted with hate speech during a class, resulting in the cancellation that day of all classes using the videoconferencing software.

“These incidents also raise concerns about the potential for violating students’ privacy,” the report said. “For example, one district is reported to have instructed teachers to record their class sessions Teachers said that students’ full names were visible to anyone viewing the recording.”

The GAO relied on a private database of cyber attacks and leaks collected by Doug Levin of EdTech Strategies for it’s report. School districts are not required to report data breaches, so the federal agency analyzed data from July 2016 through early May 2020 cataloged by Levin’s K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center, which the GAO describes as the  “most complete resource that tracks K-12 cybersecurity incidents.” 

But the agency used a different methodology for counting cyberattacks, resulting in a big discrepancy between what the GAO’s total number of breaches during that four-year period versus the center’s count. Levin’s organization tallied more than 450 breaches during that time, compared to the GAO’s 99.

That’s due to the GAO counting each attack as one incident even if multiple school districts were involved. On the other hand, Levin’s organization counted each district data breach separately, regardless if they were all victims of the hack.

The GAO notes that “in the case where the breach of a large vendor’s data system affected at least 135 school districts, CRC counted this breach as 135 separate incidents, while we considered the incident to be one breach. For these reasons, our incident counts are lower than CRC’s public counts.”

In the report, the federal agency touched on the difficulty of trying to accurately assess the number of K-12 cyberattacks, citing one case where personal information for hundreds of thousands of current and former students in a district was publicly exposed for two years before the breach was noticed.

“The 99 reported student data breaches likely understate the number of breaches that occurred, for different reasons,” the GAO wrote. “Reported incidents sometimes do not include sufficient information to discern whether data were breached … In addition, breaches can go undetected for some time.”

Follow EdWeek Market Brief on Twitter @EdMarketBrief or connect with us on LinkedIn.

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Charter School Company to Pay $4.5 Million Over Alleged Unfair Bidding in E-Rate Program

charter school company to pay 4 5 million over alleged unfair bidding in e rate program
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An Illinois-based charter school management company will pay $4.5 million after reaching a civil settlement with the U.S. government to resolve allegations that it engaged in noncompetitive contract practices related to the federal E-Rate program, the Justice Department has announced.

The government alleged that Schaumberg, Ill.-based Concept Schools hand-picked vendors in an unfair bidding process for contracts awarded between 2009 and 2012. Those agreements were connected to work on the E-Rate program, overseen by the Federal Communications Commission.

Concept Schools’ chosen vendors provided equipment at higher prices than those approved by the FCC for equipment with the same functionality, and Concept Schools didn’t maintain sufficient control over reimbursed equipment, some of which was discovered missing, the government alleged.

E-rate is a $4 billion federal program overseen by the FCC that provides discounts for internet connectivity devices and services for schools and libraries.

Concept Schools entered into a compliance agreement with the FCC, and redesigned relevant internal quality controls and programs, according to a statement from Concept Schools.

“We will continue to focus our attention on achieving our mission of providing a high-quality, STEM-focused and college-preparatory education for our students, as we move past this investigation and set new precedents for excellence during the current COVID-19 pandemic and beyond,” Concept Schools spokesperson Christopher Murphy said in a statement.

“We express our gratitude to our school communities and educational partners for their continued support.”

The investigation was a coordinated effort between the DOJ’s Commercial Litigation Branch, the FCC Office of Inspector General, the FBI, and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General.

“E-Rate contractors and schools receiving E-Rate funds must understand and know that actions that undermine the contracting process, such as conspiring to rig competitive bidding, will not be tolerated and will be investigated aggressively,” FCC Inspector General David Hunt said in a statement.

DOJ noted that the settled claims are only allegations, and there has been no determination of liability on the part of the company.

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Election Results: A Muddled Picture for K-12 Funding and the Education Industry

election results a muddled picture for k 12 funding and the education industry
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to supporters early Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

This year’s election appears to offer mixed results for the nation’s school districts–and for the companies and organizations that serve them–judging from results that are still rolling in.

The overwhelming amount of attention has focused on the U.S. presidential race, where Democrat Joe Biden and incumbent Republican Donald Trump were locked in a process that could take days to resolve because of the narrow vote margin and the slow pace of counting in many vote-rich precincts in key states.

But there were also many key elections and ballot measures in play at the state level, with big implications for K-12 policy and funding.

Check back here for updates as they come in.

A White House Race That Could Sway K-12 Budgets

The battle to control the presidency appears to come down to a few key states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Georgia.

Biden appeared to notch a key victory on the electoral college map when he flipped Arizona from GOP to Democratic control. If he were to win some combination of Pennsylvania and another state in the upper Midwest, it would appear to give him the 270 electoral college votes necessary to win.

Trump appeared to be poised to contest the vote-counting process in those states, as Democrats make gains in tallies conducted overnight and today. The Republican incumbent made false claims overnight about election fraud and vowed to challenge the results in court.

President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House, early Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

If elected, Biden has vowed to greatly expand funding for schools–which has risen under Trump–by channeling new money into Title I and other major federal funding sources. (See Brian Bradley’s pre-election breakdown of the issues at stake.)

Education advocates also see the potential for new federal funding for after-school programs and other needs, if Biden wins.

The party in control of the White House also controls the leadership of the Federal Communications Commission. Ed-tech groups believe a Biden victory would lead to more funding and policy changes that are more favorable to creating new flexibility with the E-rate program, which supports internet connectivity in schools.

Congress: More Gridlock Ahead?

Either presidential candidate’s ability to set the education agenda and funding levels also rests in large measure on who controls Congress. Democrats, who kept a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, had hoped to wrest a majority in the U.S. Senate from Republicans.

But Republicans appear to have fought back challenges in several key races, including Iowa and North Carolina. Some analysts on Wednesday were predicting the results would lead to a 50-50 split in the Senate, raising fears of an even greater degree of gridlock and partisan rancor than exists now.

Many school groups are hoping that Congress will eventually deliver billions of dollars in additional emergency aid for school districts, which have been coping with new financial costs and the continued likelihood of declining revenues caused by the pandemic.

State Legislatures and Key Ballot Items

A total of 6,000 legislative seats in 44 states were up for election on Tuesday. State legislatures and governors typically play a key role in shaping K-12 policy and spending, since states contribute a much bigger share of funding to schools than does the federal government.

Many of those results are still rolling in, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

EdWeek Market Brief is watching the results in several states, including Michigan, which is controlled by the GOP; Colorado and Nevada, which are controlled by Democrats, and Minnesota, which is split.

But as of Wednesday mid-day, the results of those races had not been called.

Education advocates are hoping to channel new funding into K-12 through ballot measures, which would most likely have an impact on districts’ ability to spend on new products and services.

Early results on Wednesday suggested some of those high-profile measures were on their way to victory, while others were on the brink of defeat.

  • California Proposition 15. While pre-election polls had shown that California voters were narrowly in favor of Proposition 15, results from election night indicated that the ballot measure was poised to fall short of passing by a slim margin. The state’s election tallies, which were not yet final, indicated Wednesday morning that a bare majority, 51.7 percent, of voters rejected the ballot measure, while 48.3 percent of voters approved it, out of a total of about 11 million votes cast. State officials said 94.5 percent of the state’s precincts had partially reported results, and that totals could change during the canvassing period.
  • Arizona’s Proposition 208. The measure would create a 3.5 percent income tax surcharge on taxable income above $250,000 for an individual or $500,000 for those filing jointly. All of the new money would go to K-12 education, with half of it meant to create new positions for teachers and classroom support personnel, and boost base compensation for teachers and classroom support personnel. The results, so far, show the measure passing with just over 50 percent of the vote.
  • A Colorado ballot item that created a tax on various nicotine products and devoted the money to schools has been approved by voters, the Denver Post reports. The measure would raise taxes by nearly $300 million annually, according to estimates. The money would help support preschool and rural schools, among other needs.

Check back on this post as election results are confirmed in the days ahead.

Photos: Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks to supporters early Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik). President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House, early Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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A Key Election Issue for the Education Industry: California’s Proposition 15

a key election issue for the education industry californias proposition 15
California Proposition 15

At a time when school districts across the country are desperate for funding, California’s Proposition 15 would seem poised to do its part to help schools in the state in a major way.

The ballot measure, which state voters will vote up or down tomorrow, would raise taxes on commercial and industrial property, by assessing them based on their market value, not purchase price.

Estimates of how much new money the ballot item would channel to schools vary.

But the California Legislative Analyst’s Office has said it would eventually would raise taxes by between $7.5 billion and $12 billion per year. Some of the money would be offset by new costs, such as a decrease in personal and corporate taxes, which would leaving $6.5 billion to $11.5 billion annually. Of that amount, 40 percent would go to schools and community colleges — mostly based on how many students they have, says the LAO.

The measure is likely to have implications for companies and other organizations in the key state education market, if districts end up with new running room to pay for programs and products.

The measure simply needs win a simple majority of votes from Californians to take effect. Recent polls have shown that more voters favor than oppose it, albeit narrowly. A poll released late last month by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that 49 percent of voters back the measure, and 45 percent are against.

Here’s how public opinion has changed from September to October:

California Proposition 15

Democrats and younger voters tend to back the measure much more strongly than Republicans. Less than half of homeowners approve of Proposition 15, the PPIC found.

(The graphic above also alludes to Proposition 16, a constitutional amendment that would repeal Proposition 209 and allow the reinstatement of affirmative action programs in public education and employment, within certain bounds of the law. The measure has been shown to have limited support in polls.)

Proposition 15 measure reflects a turn away from Proposition 13, a ballot measure approved in 1978 that put caps on residential and commercial property, said Mark Baldassare, PPIC’s president. Proposition 15 does not change residential property taxes.

One of the distinctive features of the proposition, he added, is that voters are not being asked to directly change how much they’re taxing themselves and their homes, because the ballot item focuses on commercial property. In that sense, he said, there’s been “nothing like it” in California’s recent ballot history.

“The polls here have been remarkably consistent – voters are divided,” Baldassare said.

For a broader sense of sense of the issues at stake for the education market in the 2020 election, please see EdWeek Market Brief’s recent breakdown by Brian Bradley. He writes about ballot measures, and the impact of races at the state and federal level.

Image by Getty

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Europe’s Largest Ed-Tech VC Firm Launches Second Fund With $54 Million

europes largest ed tech vc firm launches second fund with 54 million
MarketTrends VC 1

Europe’s largest ed-tech venture capital firm has started its second fund.

Brighteye Ventures anticipates investing in 15-20 companies over the next three years at the seed and Series A stages, and writing checks of up to $5 million.

The Luxembourg-based firm’s recent $54 million fundraise for its second fund brings the firm’s total assets under management to $112 million, and it anticipates raising a total of $88 million by the spring for Fund II, the Brighteye Ventures said in a statement.

Brighteye Ventures anticipates receiving funds from a mix of family offices and strategic and institutional investors.

Like its first fund, which committed roughly $60 million in total capital, Brighteye Ventures is expected to spend about half of its second fund on direct-to-consumer products, one-quarter on corporate learning tools, and one-quarter on software that enables existing educational institutions to be “better, faster and cheaper,” Benoit Wirz, a partner at Brighteye, said in an interview.

One possible exception in that calculus is that Brighteye could look to invest a bit more in software for schools and universities, as the pandemic has increased digital penetration within the education market.

“The companies that have done the best [during COVID-19] are full-stack, purely online educational offerings that respond to people’s needs to train, or particularly related to professional skills,” he said. Yet “across the board, I think online educational experiences are doing well.”

Two of the 18 total companies financed by Brighteye’s first fund were based in the U.S., Wirz noted, adding that he expects Brighteye will invest in about one to four U.S.-based companies out of the second fund.

About 80 percent of the firm’s investment targets are based in Europe.

In terms of the types of U.S. companies that Brighteye will look to target through its second fund, the firm is considering software that allows for large-scale delivery of online education, ranging from administrative tools to tutoring platforms to online assessment proctoring, Wirz said.

Wirz also sees enormous potential in efforts to apply artificial intelligence to learning.

“The use of AI for content creation is something that we’re really interested in,” Wirz said. “There’s a number of companies that are doing that quite well.”

Brighteye is also scouting potential uses of AI for narrow professional development applications, Wirz said. He pointed to the firm’s completed investment in Silicon Valley-based TeachFX, which provides a coaching application to improve the quality of dialogue between teachers and students

The firm has invested only about 50 percent to 60 percent of the money committed to its first fund, but the remainder of capital available in that account is reserved for follow-on investments in existing portfolio companies, according to Wirz.

The firm has committed or invested about 5 percent to 10 percent of the $54 million currently in its second fund, he said.

“While Brighteye Ventures has long advocated for greater adoption of tech-enabled learning solutions, we scarcely imagined the size of the move that closing 90% of global schools would provoke in Europe, the U.S. and beyond,” said Alex Spiro Latsis, managing partner at Brighteye Advisors, the sole advisory firm to the fund, in a statement.

Latsis continued, “Post-crisis we expect broader awareness of tech enabled learning tools to continue to drive increased adoption as consumers and businesses look to enhance skills through the coming recession and recovery.”

Follow EdWeek Market Brief on Twitter @EdMarketBrief or connect with us on LinkedIn.

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School Districts’ Most Pressing Social-Emotional Learning Needs

school districts most pressing social emotional learning needs
Market Brief SEL Special Report

District leaders quickly came to recognize the need to address students’ myriad social-emotional learning challenges during the chaos of the COVID era, almost from the time in-person classes were halted in the spring.

A newly published EdWeek Market Brief special report sheds light on the specific social-emotional learning needs districts face during the ongoing upheaval—and the help they want from the private sector.

The report includes a nationally representative survey of 700 district administrators and school principals. One of the questions put to them was: “In which areas do you believe you will need support from SEL programs/product providers as your school district moves to reopen?”

The biggest district needs squarely reflect the COVID era: 60 percent of those surveyed said that creating a positive learning environment amid social-distancing is a priority.

The second-largest number of district and school officials, 57 percent, said easing the concerns of parents and families is a top need.

That finding also reinforces the needs of the moment. Because many school districts have been forced or chosen to conduct learning remotely, parents have become de-facto at-home teachers’ aides, shadowing their children during lessons and trying to keep them focused.

The nationally representative survey was conducted in July. The full report is available to EdWeek Market Brief members.

Other areas where district and school leaders said they’d needed SEL support during reopening are supporting students with mental health challenges (55 percent), creating safe opportunities for students to interact with each other (53 percent), and engaging students amid a reliance on online learning (51 percent).

The special report delves into a variety of other questions about the expectations that districts are setting for the SEL programs and products offered by companies:

  • What are the specific qualities and features that district and school leaders want delivered within SEL products and programs?
  • To what extent are districts purchasing SEL resources developed by external vendors, as opposed to developing those resources in-house?
  • How much are districts anticipating spending on SEL over the next year—and what are the key sources of funding they’re tapping to do so?
  • How are districts conducting up-front assessments of students’ social-emotional learning needs?
  • Which district and school decision-makers have the greatest influence on buying SEL products and services?
  • What kinds of professional development, and PD delivery methods, are most needed by teachers?
  • Where do K-12 officials believe SEL should be embedded in the curriculum, and where are they doing it now?

Ryan Voegtlin, the director of student services in the Anne Arundel school district in Maryland, who spoke to EdWeek Market Brief for the report, said that the pandemic has lent new urgency to finding creative and targeted ways to help students.

Students and teachers feel squeezed not only by the pressures heaped on them by COVID, but by the social unrest felt in communities across the country.

“Our question has been, how do we transition them back into schools and make them feel safe?,” Voegtlin said. “How do you create a positive learning environment when everyone’s wearing masks and social distancing?”

EdWeek Market Brief will be delving into social-emotional learning topics during a panel at next month’s EdWeek Market Brief Summit, a virtual event that will feature district officials, business leaders, and policy experts from across the country.

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