There’s been an unprecedented move to in education to standardize the curriculum in schools. Because of that there has been a flurry of business activity among startups and tech companies to cash in on the education reform.
Public schools don’t traditionally make good business clients for young tech startups. And with good reason: Taxpayer-funded schools aren’t supposed to be the ones writing big checks for unproven products.
But that logic is increasingly being put to the test in California and 45 other jurisdictions that have adopted new Common Core standards for English and math. The unprecedented scope of the move to standardize K-12 academic achievement targets has resulted in a flurry of business activity among startups, as well as large Silicon Valley tech firms and incumbent textbook publishers looking to keep pace.
Gamified mobile apps, all manner of e-books and classroom analytics tools are just a few of the business models attracting venture capital dollars in the $5.4 billion K-12 education technology industry. In California alone, state estimates peg the implementation costs of Common Core around $3 billion, opening the door for companies pitching cost-effective tech tools.
“There’s a cottage industry now that’s sprung up around Common Core,” said Deborah Stipek, an education researcher and professor at Stanford University. “People in district offices in schools have a really tough job. They have to somehow get past the rhetoric.”
An overview of the billions of dollars associated with Common Core education reform.
A new education gold rush
Judging by venture capital dollars and press write-ups, it might seem like higher education is ground zero for startup activity in the multibillion-dollar education technology industry.
Through startups like Coursera and Udacity, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs groomed at Stanford and Google have attracted much attention — and tens of millions of dollars — intheir bid to translate increasingly expensive college courses into cheaper online formats. Mounting student debt and constant tuition increases contribute to demand for higher education hacks, but reliable revenue streams have been hard to come by for ed tech entrepreneurs.
K-12 schools, on the other hand, are notorious for strong teachers unions and administrative bureaucracy that can make sales more challenging for vendors. Common Core offers new market incentives for entrepreneurs who can navigate those thorny realities.
“The big market condition that it’s enabling is consistency,” Muhammed Chaudhry, CEO of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, said of the Common Core requirements. “Before we had 50 states with 50 different standards.”
Already there is no shortage of startups that have landed products in K-12 classrooms, netting large sums of capital in the process.
San Mateo-based EdModo has raised $40 million to help students and teachers communicate online. In Bellevue, Washington, elementary math curriculum provider DreamBox Learning has secured $32 million and the backing of Netflix CEO (and education reform advocate) Reed Hastings. Meanwhile, ClassDojo, based in San Francisco, has amassed $10 million for its classroom analytics designed to help teachers improve student behavior.
Others, like Portland-based EdCaliber, specifically mention Common Core in their mission statements. EdCaliber, which raised a $500,000 seed funding round last year, advertises a curriculum management system that aims to “turn Common Core into common practice.”
But one unique dynamic in the K-12 education tech market — which investor GSV Advisors projects will be worth $13.4 billion by 2017— is the prominence of nonprofit providers that have a head start over new for-profit entrants. Mountain View’s Khan Academy already counts 10 million monthly users, and Neeru Khosla’s Palo Alto-based CK-12 Foundation provides free online tools to more than 38,000 schools. Both of those organizations have been around for more than six years.
However, even the appealing price tag of free tools sometimes isn’t enough to win over skeptical educators.
“Free doesn’t mean it’s garbage,” Khosla said. “People think they’re going to use it more if they pay for it because they want to get their money’s worth.”
There is one constant at demo events featuring K-12 education startups in Silicon Valley: Lots and lots of iPads.
The proliferation of mobile technology is often used as a selling point for entrepreneurs hoping to get their products into classrooms. But Khosla said there’s one major hitch in the vision for software-powered classrooms: A lack of necessary hardware.
“The biggest challenge is access,” she said, noting that many schools don’t have the technological infrastructure to make ed tech products viable on a consistent basis.
Teacher training is another challenge that Chaudhry’s group has identified. He said the Education Foundation is working with local teachers on classroom pilots to try out startup products in a realistic environment. Along with that effort, he is pushing schools to consider funding mechanisms for new technology investments.
“We have to go 1-to-1 with one device per child,” he said, noting that would likely require public funds on top of corporate donations.
As we previously reported, Apple Inc., Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. are a few major Silicon Valley tech companies selling either hardware or software to K-12 educators.
In the meantime, Stipek said success in the field remains about much more than the number of users a provider can claim.
“I don’t give a whole lot of confidence in just the fact that (the technology) is being adopted,” she said. “It’s what the teacher does with it that really matters.”
Photo credit: Mashable