“When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S.” – Rupert Murdoch, News Corporation Chairman and CEO, 2010
"How do we use technology so that we require fewer highly qualified teachers?" —John Kazman, education entrepreneur
by Jeff Odell
I don’t know about you, but the quotes above and the linked articles make me uncomfortable.
Most of us in education entered the field because we wanted to have a positive impact on kids’ lives. We believe that by working hard, by putting our heart into our work every day, we can help our students become better learners, workers, and all-around people. We believe our efforts contribute, in a small but meaningful way, to making the world a better place.
Is that why for-profit companies and venture funds are jumping into K–12 education? Can they say to their shareholders (as we at ANet say to our funders), “Hey, our revenue from schools doesn’t cover our costs, but we’re having a positive impact?”
When for-profit companies spend tens of millions of dollars on slick websites, lobbying, school board elections, and advertising, it represents an investment that they believe they can make back from public schools, district and charter.
Maybe that’s okay. But, in my experience, schools aren’t exactly awash in extra money. They aren’t worrying about how low of a student-teacher ratio is too low, how many art and music classes are too many, or whether to offer a third foreign language. And if for-profits are making money from schools, isn’t there less for these and other priorities?
Of course, for-profit companies have served the K–12 education market for a long time—providing books, supplies, and technology. Where would I have been as an early elementary reading teacher without high-quality texts from the Wright Group, Rigby, Pioneer Valley Press, and others? Or professional development products from Heinemann—the works of Marie Clay, Fountas and Pinnell, Lucy Calkins, Regie Routman? Presumably these companies made a profit from my purchases. And they deserved to.
But there’s a difference between identifying real school needs through long experience working in schools and non-educator “entrepreneurs” swooping in with grandiose talk of “transforming” or “disrupting” education, using business methods to extract savings, or improving teaching (even replacing teachers!) with a nifty piece of technology.
It’s not just that Fountas, Routman, et al. have credibility because they are inspiring master teachers of children. It’s also that they respect teachers and provide knowledge and tools to help them master their craft. This new wave of education entrepreneurs seem to me too ready to dismiss major parts of that craft and propose fanciful replacements. It feels not just arrogant, but reckless. I worry that their approach undermines teachers and takes the focus off of students.
At ANet, we believe dedicated educators deserve respect and support. Our mission is to serve as a genuine partner, making their work easier and more effective. We want to help them provide opportunity for all students—not “disrupt” their profession or profit from the K–12 “market.”
We want to support them as they work to make the world a better place.
Jeff Odell is ANet’s manager of marketing and communications. He taught elementary school (mostly kindergarten and first grade) for 12 years and served for three years on his local school committee.