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League of Innovative Schools: Fast-tracking Change in K-12

Posted in Knerds on March 23, 2012 by

This week I had the honor and opportunity to attend a meeting of the League of Innovative Schools, hosted by the Houston Independent School District (HISD). Launched in partnership with Digital Promise, a “national center founded to spur breakthrough technologies in education,” the mission of the League of Innovative Schools is to create an atmosphere where entrepreneurs can pilot promising technologies; researchers can evaluate them in real time; and schools and teachers can adopt whatever works best.

As I see it, there are two key problems in the current educational technology market that the League can address, as outlined by the Startup America initiative set forth by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors:

  • The K12 market is very disaggregated.  The buyer in this case is usually the individual school district–which means there are more than 14,000 buyers.
  • Too often, quality research about the efficacy of a given technology doesn’t exist–making it difficult for an entrepreneur to prove, or a district to know, the effectiveness of the product.

The environment introduced by the League gives startups a chance to test solutions and iterate as necessary, a key tenant outlined by Eric Reiss in The Lean Startup. At the same time, districts are able to fast-track changes and cut through the confusion of edtech solutions out there in the market.

One need only to walk the floor at a conference like ISTE to understand how hard it is for schools to evaluate edtech solutions. The sheer number of companies and solutions in the space can be overwhelming to school district administrators. All solutions promise to improve outcomes, provide “Web 2.0” solutions that bring districts into the 21st century… pick your buzzword. It is hard to see through what is fluff and what will really solve problems and move the dial for a school district.

The League makes demand “smarter” by allowing schools to purchase technologies together. Districts can test edtech solutions and provide feedback to the companies–in turn allowing vendors to become true partners with districts and work together to solve big problems. This will allow schools to quickly move past things that are not working, and more efficiently implement things that are working well.

The mission of the League will only become more important as technology permeates our educational system.  I don’t need to look any further than my own six-year-old son to know how important this will be to the next generation of students. While from my view technology has transformed everything we do–the way we buy things, interact socially, and discover information–my son has never known a world in which the internet was not accessible 24-7 (in the palm of his hand, no less). And yet, despite its ubiquity elsewhere, technology is still largely absent from our classrooms; it has not yet transformed the way we teach our children.

This needs to change. If we do not make a significant pivot in this area, I fear that kids like my son will become passive observers to their own education. We need to make the most of technology’s power to engage our students, and revolutionize today’s education system. The League of Innovative Schools is a huge step in the right direction. The meeting in Houston was a great chance to see how companies, the U.S. Department of Education, and school districts are working to bring about change.

In the beginning of the day, my colleague Brad and I had the opportunity to visit Walter W. Fondren Middle School, part of the Houston Independent School District. Two years ago, Fondren was a veritable dropout factory. Now, with a new administration, new teachers, and increased technology in classrooms, the school boasts a 100% college matriculation rate. There are university pennants hanging all throughout the hallways.


Here’s a video of the visit (I make a guest appearance about 50 seconds in!):

Later on, I also had the chance to sit in on a panel with keynote speaker Karen Cator, Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education (and a recent visitor to Knewton HQ!), as well as  reps from three other edtech companies. The panel provided a great opportunity to learn about other edtech innovations and discuss edtech costs, research, and data.

Thanks to Digital Promise and HISD for a great day!