Edtech: Making an Impact in a Post-COVID World
Serent Capital recently brought together a group of leaders in the edtech industry to discuss the changing realities of education in the post-COVID world. Panel participants included:
- Ian Rowe, Former CEO of Public Preparatory Network, a nonprofit network of single-sex public charter schools located in the South Bronx
- Jonathan Hagmaier, founder of Interactive Achievement and an experienced public school teacher and principal
- Margery Mayer, former president of Scholastic Education and board member on a number of education organizations
- Dr. Tim Stowe, an experienced teacher and school principal now serving as interim Superintendent for the Torrance Unified School District in Los Angeles
And was moderated by:
- Dan Herr, Vice President, Serent Capital, (Dan.Herr@SerentCapital.com)
The pandemic has had a transformative effect on the education system, making remote learning the norm across the country. Our conversation centered on clarifying the current state of education, with a focus on getting insight into the key priorities of district administrators and other education buyers. We wanted to identify the most pressing challenges educators are facing in order to help edtech companies develop solutions that can make a real impact, during, and after COVID.
Our conversation focused on four key areas:
- The state of education in 2020
- A closer look at the most affected areas
- The impact of budget uncertainty on purchasing decisions
- Advice on how to survive and thrive throughout COVID
Let’s dive in.
The state of education in 2020
- Districts are not prepared to reopen. “The reality is that the vast majority of districts and charter schools are still not ready to open,” Rowe noted. “There’s enormous pressure to get the economy up and running again, which then conflicts with some of the health concerns. But it’s not yet clear how that can be managed.”
- Many students will be remote learning for much of the next school year. Rowe added, “we know that a significant percentage of kids for a good portion of the next school year are going to be remote learning, either because parents do not feel comfortable with the environments, or the kids may have underlying conditions which make them vulnerable, so schools will have to have high quality, remote learning solutions.”
- Teachers are working hard to adapt to the remote environment. Stowe pointed to successes with the transition. “We shifted quickly, literally overnight. And our teachers really took to the task. We saw a significant increase in the usage of Google Classroom. For example, daily sessions increased five times to over 4100 daily sessions in April. We saw a twentyfold increase in the number of posts using Google Classroom from 450 daily to over 10,000 in April. So what this told me is that our teachers and students were making significant use of the tools that we had in place.”
- Many students have not engaged at all during COVID. In spite of successes, “one thing that is upsetting is how many kids have gone educationally missing,” Mayer noted. “During this time, LA has reported that at least 10,000 minority high schoolers just never showed up. Boston had the same number: 10,000 kids didn’t show up. As for New York, I don’t think we’re going to probably ever know how many kids showed up or didn’t show up.” Rowe added that in Chicago, only 55% of elementary school teachers logged on during the period of remote learning starting in March.
- Remote learning has not been successful so far. Mayer highlighted efforts to measure student learning during the pandemic. “Remote learning did not work. I think they said that kids on average are getting 70% of what they would get in reading and less than that in math, and those numbers were even lower for low-income children.”
More key takeaways:
- Much of the emergency federal funding for education is contingent on returning to in-person education, so many districts can’t take advantage.
- Even when we do have a vaccine, there will still be a transition period during which many students will still be taught remotely.
- Social service agencies are reporting increases in cases of child abuse, both physical and online.
A closer look at the most affected areas
- Younger learners aren’t prepared for remote learning. Rowe highlighted the challenges of remote learning for very young learners. “I think the students who are probably being impacted the most are the very youngest kids, kids in pre-K through 2. They are suffering simply because they don’t have the ability to sit in front of a screen all day. And especially if they don’t have parental supports at home, it just makes it very, very difficult.”
- Special populations aren’t getting the services they need. Stowe pointed to the challenges special populations are experiencing. “Our English learners, special education, homeless and foster youth — all these students are missing out on critical services and supports that cannot be delivered in the home or online just because it either hasn’t been developed yet or it’s not practical,” Stowe added that Torrance USD has heard from parents that need to go back to work but can’t because their children are unable to care for themselves, putting families in extremely challenging situations.
- Districts don’t have the data they need to plan effective instruction. Rowe stressed that most districts have very little data to really determine where kids are. “Most states canceled their traditional state-level assessments. And I do think that’s another huge opportunity for edtech… I think having diagnostic assessments by grade and by subject would be an enormously valid tool that virtually every district and charter network would be interested in.”
- Physical and mental health has been neglected during COVID. “With kids not being outside as much, students aren’t getting the physical activity that they need,” Tim Stowe added. “And what’s been documented pretty well is the idea of mental health and isolation. And that has exacerbated a situation nationally that was already there. How do we reestablish those human connections and relationships and help teachers and staff and parents work together to support students?”
Additional areas that have been affected:
- COVID has been an enormously challenging time for teachers, who have struggled to adapt to the demands of remote learning. Teachers need more professional development to help them learn to become more effective teachers online.
- Districts are investing in new education platforms and tech tools, but with little evidence that they’re effective and truly working. Edtech entrepreneurs have an opportunity to provide metrics and data that help them get the best use of the tools they’re investing in.
Budget uncertainty and purchasing decisions
- District budgets have been hammered. In the COVID economy, school district budgets are extremely tight. District leaders are likely to spend only on the essentials, as Tim Stowe and Ian Rowe point out.
- Torrance USD expected to take a 10% budget cut in May 2020. Emergency funding drawn from the state’s rainy-day fund spared the district from cuts, but as Stowe notes, “we’re looking at this as a one-year reprieve.”
- In New York, education budgets have been cut by 10%, with the state reserving the right to cut even more during the year, making the budgeting process enormously complex for district school leaders.
- Cleanliness and safety are top priorities. “Cleanliness, health and safety are obviously the top priority,” Stowe noted. “We’ve been doing everything from modifying classrooms to only accommodate 15 or 16 students at time to adding distancing signs and one way hallways. Every school is different. So it really is about those individuals that work in those buildings on the ground making those decisions with our support.”
- Administrators are spending only on the essentials. “You have to be a must-have,” Hagmaier underscored. “You have to be somebody that’s meeting the needs that we’re hearing right now. Everything else is getting cut. That’s a fact. Things they don’t think they have to have, they’re just not gonna have the money for.”
More considerations for working with school districts:
- Many districts are spending on safety-focused capital projects, as well as other physical projects that are hard to do when kids are in the building. The bid climate is good for getting major projects done.
- Since many districts can’t take advantage of federal funding due to requirements for in person instruction, state governors are the real players in many cases who are determining how additional education funding will be allocated.
Advice on how to survive and thrive throughout COVID
- 2020 is a moment of disruption in the edtech space. Mayer contrasted our present moment with the spring, when many thought that COVID would last just a few months. “But now this really does look like a different way of doing education. And we have a time here where we’re going to see some companies that are going to be able to be the new stars in education.”
- Focus on your strengths. Now isn’t the time to try something completely new, Hagmaier advises. “Look how much time it took you to get to where you are now. Focus on your strengths. Let other companies focus on your weaknesses and then go partner with them and just become stronger at what you’re doing. If you’re weak in something, let somebody else be great and go partner with that person. This is a great time for that.”
- Be sensitive to the needs of districts. Remember that district administrators are strategic decision makers. “We’re trying to survive the short term,” Stowe emphasized. “As nimble as we try to be, we have processes and we need to be very strategic with spending additional dollars or even investing time into looking at whether or not something is potentially viable. Right now our human capital is the most valuable asset we have. And we can’t waste a minute.”
- Make it easy to achieve high usage rates. With many teachers not taking advantage of the remote tools already at their disposal, achieving high adoption rates is critical. “Don’t let anyone have an excuse not to use your product,” Hagmaier says. “Right now, I would say to you all, if you really want to move in the future, you need to be able to onboard any client anytime without any human capital, and you need to have at least 95% or higher usage with it.”
More advice for thriving in ed tech during COVID:
- Engagement is more important than ever. Provide as much professional development for teachers as you can and offer lots of useful content to help make your product as valuable as possible.
- Surround yourself with A-players who can help you make smart strategy decisions that can move your business forward. If you look around your team and see people you don’t trust, make a change right away.
Bringing creative solutions to the table is one of the best ways to help solve the tough challenges that school districts across the nation are going through. We believe that teachers and administrators need your innovations more than ever. We hope to give edtech leaders the strategies, insights, and resources they need to align with the needs of school districts and make a positive impact in the post-COVID world.