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Walton Foundation Executive Leaves to Launch New K-12 Investment Fund

The Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 education program director is resigning from his role to start an independent K-12-focused investment fund.

With the assistance of a $200 million contribution from the Walton family, Marc Sternberg today is launching A-Street Ventures, an investment fund that will seed and scale innovative K-12 student learning and achievement solutions for students, families, and schools, according to a letter Sternberg wrote announcing his departure and the initiation of the fund.

“As the future of work shifts toward artificial intelligence, automation, and outsourcing to foreign countries, the financial security of, and accessibility to, America’s middle class has never been more in doubt,” the letter says. “In this new world, opportunity and stability will belong to young people who can adapt, think critically, continue learning new skills, thrive in collaborative environments, and lead teams.”

Marc Sternberg

The announcement comes as the education space has seen a recent surge of venture capital investment. Investors put more than $16 billion into ed tech in 2020, roughly double the amount that VCs put forward in 2018, according to a report by HolonIQ.

A-Street, which will be based in Bentonville, Ark., plans to invest in a mix of early-, growth- and late-stage ventures. At the outset, it will focus on digital-first instructional materials and “new paradigms” for student assessment, the letter says.

In terms of assessment platforms, the firm will direct its attention toward curriculum-embedded products that can be used for both summative and formative purposes, to shape instruction and support students and their families, Sternberg told EdWeek Market Brief in an interview.

In addition to its focus on assessments, A-Street will attempt to distinguish itself from other investment funds by focusing on uplifting the teaching profession and supporting high-quality, digital-forward content, he said.

In contrast with most education investment funds, which have a seven- or 10-year outlook, A-Street will look to bolster target companies for at least 15 years before exiting, he said.

The fund plans to primarily focus on companies operating in the U.S. K-12 market, but may also invest outside the K-12 sphere when potential breakthroughs could benefit primary or secondary schools, Sternberg’s letter says.

A-Street will redirect profits toward charitable causes or future investment, though the firm intends to operate with “all the rigor and ambition of a traditional closed-end investment fund,” according to Sternberg.

The fund will be financed solely by the Walton family, he said during the interview. Instead of going back to the investors, funds will be recycled into the current fund and for future accounts. The new firm has not yet communicated with any education companies about investment possibilities, he said.

Sternberg previously worked as the senior deputy chancellor at the New York City Department of Education, after serving as a principal and teacher. He will continue as a senior adviser for the Walton Family Foundation, he said in his letter.

“To the entrepreneurs and the idea-makers: we look forward to supporting your vision,” Sternberg wrote. “Now is the moment for your big thinking, new approaches, and finding common ground that advances progress.”

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Richard Robinson, CEO of Children’s Publishing Giant Scholastic, Dies at Age of 84

Scholastic Chairman and CEO Richard Robinson, who oversaw the company’s emergence as a major force in educational and children’s publishing over nearly five decades, died unexpectedly over the weekend.

Robinson, who was 84, had been in good health before he passed away, the firm said in an announcement.

“We are deeply saddened by the sudden passing of Dick Robinson,” Scholastic’s board said in a statement. “Dick was a true visionary in the world of children’s books and an unrelenting advocate for children’s literacy and education with a remarkable passion his entire life. The company’s directors and employees, as well as the many educators, parents and students whose lives he touched, mourn his loss.”

Scholastic was created 100 years ago, and is the world’s largest publisher and distributor of children’s books, as well as a provider of literacy curriculum, professional services, classroom magazines, and other children’s media.

Scholastic’s Class A shareholders and board of directors will meet independently to select an interim operating head and chart the company’s direction, the announcement says.

In the meantime, a group of four executives will work to ensure that “day-to-day operations continue without interruption,” Scholastic said.  They are James Barge, Scholastic’s lead independent director; Iole Lucchese, executive vice president and chief strategy officer; Andrew Hedden, executive vice president, general counsel, and secretary; and Chief Financial Officer Kenneth Cleary.

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Big Gaps Remain in Students’ Home Internet Access, Survey Reveals

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.

Inequities Persist

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)

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Sales of K-12 Instructional Materials Soaring, New Industry Estimates Show

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.

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Global for K-12 Devices Is Soaring Beyond Supply, Creating Delays for Schools

Demand for K-12 devices continues to soar

Demand for K-12 laptops and tablets continues soar globally, outstripping manufacturing capacity and slowing the ability of school systems all around the world to secure the devices they need, according to a new analysis.

More than one year into pandemic-induced remote and hybrid learning, with record numbers of devices already shipped to schools around the world, orders for Chromebooks, iPads, and Windows-based laptops are still continuing to surge, said Michael Boreham, a senior consultant for education technology at Futuresource Consulting, during a recent online presentation. 

And those device orders, fueled in many countries by unprecedented government investment, are still happening against the backdrop of a compromised supply chain that has been unable to keep pace.

In many cases, orders placed in June of last year weren’t shipped until December, and the K-12 marketplace began 2021 with a “front-end loaded” logjam of orders from the third and fourth quarters of 2020. 

There are “backlogs extending through millions of devices — which have swept through 2020 and into the start of 2021,” Boreham said during a panel at Futuresource Consulting’s Ed Tech Collaborative 2021 event.

He noted that suppliers of components such as touch screens and USB ports also remain stretched thin. 

Meanwhile, the crush of device orders coming from K-12 institutions last year exceeded analyst projections, with the global market increasing shipments by nearly 70 percent and setting a new record.

In all, Futuresource Consulting, a U.K.-based research and consulting firm, estimates 51 million tablets and laptops were shipped to K-12 schools around the world, far exceeding the 36 million device figure projected by the firm midway through 2020 and the roughly 30 million units delivered in 2019. 

Every world region reported boosting devices orders by double digits last year, in what Boreham labeled as “incredibly aggressive growth.” And there are no signs of that slowing down for now. 

“We are still continuing to see intense demand and roll out in 2021, and as we move forward into the next year we expect a similar performance in terms of units and growth rate,” he said. 

In the U.S., for example, Futuresource data shows K-12 device shipments increased by about 90 percent year-over-year in 2020, representing the largest increase of any global region.

There was an increase of nearly 85 percent in Europe, and device shipments in the Latin American market rose by 54 percent. In Asia-Pacific, shipments in Japan jumped by 35 percent, fueled in part by a pre-COVID national 1-to-1 program called the Giga school project. The Middle East/Africa market received 26 percent more devices than it did in 2019.

Government Investment Equals Growth

Boreham attributes much of that growth to an “unparalleled level of investment” from governments across the world, from Peru to Kazakhstan. But for every country rolling out the equivalent of stimulus packages aimed at bridging the so-called digital divide by investing in laptops and tablets, there were some countries that have not or simply lack the political willpower or funding to do so, he added.

The Futuresource breakdown of device shipments also included an update on overall tablet and laptop penetration in different global markets. 

Before the COVID outbreak, at the end of 2019, the U.S. was just under 60 percent in terms of K-12 device penetration and was “edging ever closer” to complete 1-to-1 as more schools were adopting digital curriculum tools. However, Boreham said the U.S. was still far from complete device saturation at the K-12 level.

Over the course of the last year, device penetration at K-12 schools in the U.S. increased to about 80 percent, and Futuresource predicts that market will move toward complete saturation over the next few years. And in Japan, where the government pushed ahead its 1-to-1 ambitions by several years in the last 12 months, device penetration increased from about 20 percent to about 50 percent.  

“Japan now sets the benchmark for where the markets need to be looking,” Boreham said. He noted that Japan’s plan to rapidly adopt devices predated the pandemic and was born out of fear that more investment needed to be made to ensure students weren’t left behind. 

Between the U.S. and Japan, the two countries “siphoned off” a lot of the global K-12 device supply. That also fueled another trend in 2020: the emergence of Chrome as the dominant operating system for laptops and tablets in schools.

In 2019, Windows operating systems were the most prevalent for K-12 devices, controlling about half the market, according to Futuresource data.

But as schools needed cheap and quickly deployable devices, they turned in greater numbers to Google’s Chrome OS by purchasing Chromebooks, said Boreham. And Futuresource estimates that Chrome how holds more than 40 percent of the market. K-12 usage of other operating systems, such as Linux, Android, iOS and Mac OS, remained mostly unchanged.

Image by Getty

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Learning Loss During COVID Will Fuel Economic Losses, Business Leaders Predict

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.”

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‘Global Education Recovery Tracker’ Offers Country-by-Country Status on School Reopening

Johns Hopkins University, World Bank & UNICEF (2021). COVID-19 Global Education Recovery Tracker. Last updated as of 24 March 2021. Baltimore, Washington DC, New York: JHU, World Bank, UNICEF.

Three organizations with a major focus on education have developed a tool that tracks and displays school reopening and recovery planning efforts in over 200 countries and territories.

The World Bank, Johns Hopkins University, and UNICEF have unveiled the COVID-19 Global Education Recovery Tracker.

The online database breaks countries into six reopening categories: in-person education; hybrid/remote education; combination of in-person, hybrid, remote, and closed; schools closed due to a regular school calendar closure; completely closed; and, unknown status/data not available.

The tracker also includes U.S. state-by-state and country-by-country information on the status of vaccine availability for teachers.

“The world was facing a learning crisis before COVID-19,” World Bank Global Director for Education Jaime Saavedra said in a statement. “The learning poverty rate – the proportion of 10-year-olds unable to read a short, age-appropriate text – was 53 percent in low- and middle-income countries prior to COVID-19, compared to only 9 percent for high-income countries.”

These divides have gotten even worse during the pandemic, and COVID-19-related school closures are likely to raise the learning poverty rate by another 10 percent, Saavedra said.

Data through early March show that 51 countries have fully returned to in-person education, and that in over 90 countries, students are being instructed through multiple modes, with some schools open, others closed, and many offering hybrid learning options, an announcement by the organizations states.

Researchers from the World Bank, Johns Hopkins, and UNICEF each have subsets of countries for which they’re responsible for compiling data, which is gleaned from publicly available sources, including government data and news sources, said Megan Collins, a bioethicist, pediatric ophthalmologist and professor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University, who is also a leader of the education recovery tracker project.

Information gleaned from news stories needs to be accompanied by at least one other source for validation, she said.

After researchers gather the data, on a bimonthly basis, the team looks through and validates the data, after which researchers answer survey questions intended to decipher the status of school reopenings and the prioritization of groups considered more vulnerable to contracting the disease, such as teachers, Collins said.

“The survey is broken down into, ‘Are schools in the country open or closed right now? Are teachers being vaccinated as a priority group? Yes or no,” Collins said.

“’If schools are in person, what types of learning modalities are being employed? If schools are virtual, what types of learning modalities are being employed?’”

As of March 24, the U.S., Australia, Japan, Germany, and Argentina, were among the major education markets whose schools were operating with a combination of in-person, hybrid, remote, and closed classrooms.

Fully Open Schools in Russia, France, Spain

Meanwhile, the major markets of Brazil, Mexico, India, Sweden, Norway, and Saudi Arabia were either combining remote and in-person instruction and/or their students were exclusively learning remotely.

The U.K., Russia, France, Spain, and Ethiopia, were among the countries where schools are fully open and students have returned for in-person instruction.

“Institutions like the World Bank are helping developing countries’ education systems by providing the evidence to understand where investments are likely to be most impactful,” World Bank Education Global Practice senior operations officer Kali Azzi-Huck and World Bank senior education specialist Tigran Shmis said in an email.

“This tracker helps us to gather critical data and provide advice on country policies to tackle learning loss and accelerate learning in countries.”

Many education companies in recent years have taken a growing interest in exploring international markets outside their home countries. Those ambitions have been fueled by several factors, including the ease of delivering products and services via ed tech, rising income levels in developing nations, and the hunger for new forms of online learning during the pandemic.

Another resource released by the World Bank, Johns Hopkins and UNICEF, shows country-by-country school status/education modality, along with whether that country has authorized COVID-19 vaccines and whether teachers are currently being vaccinated as a priority group.

One revealing takeaway from the tracker is that teachers in low- and middle-income countries are largely not being vaccinated against COVID-19, and that two-thirds of the 130 countries where vaccine information was available are not currently vaccinating teachers as a priority group.

A few of the challenges that the organizations have faced when standing up and updating this resource include the lag between the time of data collection and publication, mostly due to the breadth and complexity of the data; as well as the inability to get granular data, Collins said.

The tracker is “an amazing opportunity to look at what’s happening globally,” she said. “But it certainly does not have the capabilities to dive down to the level of what’s happening for fourth graders living in a certain district of a certain school system in India.”

Collins said Johns Hopkins has been “uniquely positioned” to provide information during the pandemic, noting that her Hopkins team that is working on the tracker organically formed a year ago to think about ways to help children, initially releasing a tracker looking at school reopenings in the U.S.

“For kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, they’re going to be impacted much more severely,” she said.

“As we’ve had schools thinking about reopening or recovery, what are the students going to need, and what are students going to need the most? [We’ve been] doing issue-spotting, hopefully for educators and policymakers to think about providing the actual resources that are needed.”

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A Window Into Ed-Tech Marketing Strategies During the Pandemic

How is COVID affecting ed-tech marketing?

Ed-tech firms across Europe mostly decreased their marketing budgets or kept them flat during the pandemic, holding back on new and aggressive ad campaigns during a historical period of business uncertainty, a new analysis finds.

But spending on marketing is expected to rebound to pre-pandemic levels — and signs of that are already emerging. 

Those are some of the takeaways from a new report released by European-based venture capital group Brighteye Ventures, which assessed the state of ed-tech marketing in a recently released report

The report is based on a survey of 55 education company chief marketing officers and founders, mostly based in Europe with a few from the United States, and it provides a look at how companies in the ed-tech sector adapted in trying to get the word out about their businesses during the heights of the pandemic last year.

Brighteye Ventures is an ed-tech venture capital firm founded in 2017 with a particular focus on investments in Europe. Last fall the firm announced it was launching its second fund, with a value of $54 million.

Among the key findings from the report: Ed-tech firms reduced marketing budgets across a range of customer target segments, from individual consumers to K-12 schools to universities. The category marked as “government,” which refers to departments of education in various European countries, showed the smallest decline. 

The report also found that ed-tech marketing budgets across acquisition verticals and revenue ranges represented 8.3 percent of revenue in 2020, compared with 11.6 percent the year before and 10.7 percent in 2018. 

Overall, 25 percent of respondents said their marketing budgets decreased by 10 percent to 50 percent due to the pandemic. Forty-two percent said their budgets remained the same, while 34 percent said their budgets rose.

David Guerin, a principal at Brighteye Ventures, said it was not surprising to see that ed-tech firms cut back on marketing during 2020. 

While getting the word out about products remained a priority last year, it was not a “top of the list” concern while businesses around the world were trying to figure out how COVID-19 would ultimately pan out, Guerin said. Other needs, such as managing cash and keeping employees paid likely trumped new ad campaign spending, he said.

But Guerin noted that marketing spending in the ed-tech sector will “definitely” rebound, with early signals of that already happening. 

“We are seeing it in our portfolio. Budgets are going back to where they were,” he said, adding that recent conversations with education companies show they are increasing marketing spends and once again experimenting with new approaches for customer messaging and acquisition. 

Organic Marketing Shows Its Value

During 2020, organic marketing — any free publicity such as word of mouth, webinars or content marketing — proved to be the most effective for ed-tech firms, per the report. About 68 percent of respondents, a more than 10 percent increase compared to 2019, said organic channels represented at least three-fourths of their overall marketing budget last year.

“I would have expected the paid marketing side of things to grow considerably during COVID,” said Guerin. “I was wrong. Organic is still king.” 

And during the pandemic, the main focus for ed-tech firms on the marketing front appeared to be lead generation and acquiring new customers.

The report shows that ed-tech marketing focused heavily on new customer acquisition.

Sixty percent of ed-tech firms that are targeting consumers listed acquiring new customers as their top objective last year. That figure increased to 67 percent for ed-tech firms focused on governments as their target customers. Among ed-tech firms that have governments as their target customers, 67 percent said acquiring new customers was their top focus.

Guerin said the expectation was that retaining existing customers would rank highest last year, but among companies targeting consumers only 7 percent listed that as their No.1 priority. Only 12 percent of ed-tech firms selling to governments said customer retention was their primary objective last year. 

The second priority for ed-tech marketing during the pandemic was building brand value. About half of ed-tech firms targeting universities listed this as their top priority. 

“Do not underestimate the value of branding, and the importance of having a good brand with messaging that resonates with clients,” said Guerin. 

The report also highlights what ed-tech marketers feel are the biggest barriers to success. An inadequate budget topped the list. That comes in stark contrast to results from the same survey in 2019, when ed-tech firms listed inadequate budget as the least significant barrier of four available options. 

One of the other biggest obstacles for ed-tech marketers is a lack of automation of processes, according to the survey. That means ed-tech firms are seemingly missing out on the advantages that come from marketing automation tools, such as automatic client emails and follow up messages, that decrease the time marketers spend on manual tasks.

“I would have never expected this to still be one of the biggest obstacles for marketers,” said Guerin, “but a lot of things are done manually and systems are not connected when they should be connected.” 

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Former NYC Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza Lands Job With Ed-Tech Company

Richard Carranza

Richard Carranza, the former chancellor of the New York City schools, is joining the ed-tech sector less than one month after leaving the nation’s largest school district. 

Carranza, who departed his position with NYC schools in mid-March, will become the chief of strategy and global development at IXL Learning, a Silicon Valley-based online personalized learning platform, the company announced in a statement.

The move marks a particularly high-profile hiring for IXL at a time when ed-tech sector growth and visibility — not just among school districts but within the investor community —  is exploding as a result of COVID-19 remote learning.

For his part, Carranza said he’s excited to make the shift to the private sector. IXL did not say when he will start the position.

“Education is undergoing a profound transformation where teachers are utilizing technology to close learning gaps and provide every child with the tools to build lasting knowledge,” Carranza said.

Carranza abruptly stepped down as chancellor of NYC schools, saying at a press conference that he needed to take time to grieve the loss of 11 loved ones and close friends to the coronavirus. The New York Times noted that Carranza’s departure followed clashes with his boss, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, over desegregation policy in the district.

In his new role, Carranza will “advise IXL Learning on meeting the growing needs of school systems around the world,” the company said. 

Aside from running the New York City schools, Carranza is also a former superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, one of the 10 largest school systems in the country, and the San Francisco Unified School District.

IXL Learning CEO Paul Mishkin said Carranza’s hiring will give the company a new advantage by being able to tap into someone who has worked at the highest levels of public education at three of the biggest school districts in the country. 

It’s not uncommon for high-ranking school district administrators to leave public education for the private sector. (In some cases, they end up returning to public education.) Carranza is also not the first ex-NYC schools chancellor to make the move. Joel Klein, a former NYC schools chief, left his post several years ago and later joined Amplify, a digital learning company that at the time was invested in heavily by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Photo: New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, right, at a September news conference at the Mosaic Pre-K Center while Mayor Bill de Blasio, left, listens on the first day of school. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

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4 Ways Schools Can Support Students and Educators as We Return to In-Person Learning

School districts nationwide have done their best to adapt quickly to evolving public health concerns during COVID, while not compromising the safety of students, families, and faculty.

Still, the return to “school” in the form of in-person classes, virtual coursework, and hybrid models has proven no less chaotic than the abrupt transition to virtual learning we experienced last spring. While academic learning and lesson plans are important, our priority when it comes to getting back to school needs to be clear. There is a childhood mental health crisis sitting just under the surface for an entire generation of children who are not getting what they need developmentally, emotionally, and otherwise.

Throughout remote learning, we’ve seen missed opportunities for adults to check in in-person on students’ emotional and mental wellbeing, leading to an inability to prevent violence, suicide surges, or bullying. There’s been a lack of socialization, especially for younger students, meaning missed opportunities to practice the social and emotional skills that come from play that will serve them for a lifetime, such as waiting turns, managing impulses, active listening, and empathizing with others.

Once we return to the classroom at full capacity, students will have a new set of challenges to overcome. Beyond decreased in-person interaction, the racial and economic disparities that the virus presents are also exacerbating the mental health crisis. Children in marginalized communities often experience high frequencies of trauma, grief, and loss.

Schools are the safe havens that provide an escape — and critical supports. Schools provide mental health resources, support for families in crisis, regular hot meals, a safe place to be, and adults who are qualified to care for children’s safety and wellbeing after experiencing trauma. During the pandemic, access to resources has been limited and students’ wellbeing has suffered as a result — even in scenarios where academic gains have not been compromised. 

So what can we do? Here are 4 ways schools can prioritize the mental health of students and educators as we prepare to return to in-person schooling:

  1. Prioritize deliberate, sequential, evidence-based social emotional learning programs for students and training for staff. In math and reading we learn the basics first and build on those tools to eventually master more complicated skills. Similarly, we base our social and emotional health on foundational knowledge we are taught as young children, and we continue to strengthen and practice these skills as we grow. 
  2. We have to put on our own oxygen masks prior to taking care of others. Be cognizant of educator wellbeing broadly, and understand the systemic impact this has on students. As we return to classrooms, teachers must be guaranteed access to mental health resources and their own social emotional support programs, PPE and safety equipment in their classrooms. Longer term efforts to improve educator wellbeing should include providing benefits like health insurance and a living wage. In too many states, this is not the reality for educators.
  3. Focus on ways to keep schools open, while protecting public health. In Europe, positive COVID-19 cases continue to rise, but schools remain open with limited incidents of spread. Their prioritization of both the near-term physical health of children as well as their long-term mental and emotional wellbeing is an example that we should emulate here. Recently the U.S.’s largest school district, New York City, closed in-person learning in an effort to prevent COVID from spreading. Like our friends in Europe, we should instead be prioritizing advancements and protocols that allow school doors to remain open in a way that protects the health and safety of our educators and students.
  4. Lead with trauma informed, anti-racist practices. For many school communities, the pandemic has compounded the economic and racial inequalities that affect our children. Trauma-informed, anti-racist practices not only support our students through this challenging year, but build safer, more equitable school communities for all of our children. We can learn from educators like Mathew Portell, principal of Fall-Hamilton Elementary and 2020-21 Elementary School Principal of the Year at Metro Nashville Public Schools who shared the trauma-informed practices of his school in a recent episode of the Saracast: Conversations in Social Emotional Learning

As vaccines begin to be distributed, the light at the end of a very long tunnel is finally starting to show. However, it won’t be just this year that looks different for educators, families and students — it will be every year moving forward.

And maybe that’s a good thing. The reality is that our educational system wasn’t built to adequately support educators and students at a time as pivotal as this. In fact, these times have exposed that the system has been lacking for a long time. Let this be a catalyst for us to reprioritize how we think about education and how we can best serve students. The strides that we will need to make to account for the regression of an entire generation are significant, but not insurmountable. There is innovative, effective, life-changing teaching happening right now — but the system as a whole is too rigid to adapt to the 21st century, much less a global pandemic.

We can no longer ignore this, and the work starts now. We owe it to our future generations to make up for lost time and come out of this pandemic working toward a stronger, more innovative, more adaptable education system that supports our youth to navigate life’s inevitable challenges and stressors with resiliency and confidence. 

Image by iStock/Getty Images 

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