This piece was originally published on the Huffington Post on May 3.
The convergence in the last 20 years of advancements in computer, cognitive & neuro-sciences has made game-changing educational programs a possibility. In the area of mathematics education, inventors can now see a path to give teachers powerful yet easy to use, radically different digital tools to get all students to be proficient in math and even algebra. The breakthroughs go beyond math for math’s sake, beyond proficiency on tests, to the fundamental purpose of math education for all students: every person possessing the powerful thinking, analytic and problem-solving skills that mathematical literacy promises. To put a number it, a 2011 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study estimated that even modestly increased student math skills would add over $40 trillion to the U.S. economy over current students’ lifetimes.
But the K-12 education market is a poster child for unhealthy markets. Products are developed to politicized market specifications, which are far below their potential. Digital solutions from the past 30 years have not worked, so expectations are low. Curriculum is treated as a commodity, and not even evaluated. Not only do most educators not seriously expect teacher tools or content to make a game-changing difference, but K-12 purchasers are looking for approaches familiar to what they experienced in school. The market even lacks understanding of the indicators of program quality and effectiveness necessary to meet the market spec of standardized test success, so simple or secondary features hold sway instead.
In this market, I believe the leaders achieving radically higher educational goals are mission-driven, not-for-profit organizations. Non-profits, almost by definition, need support beyond current market forces. Visionary and savvy business social investments, though relatively small change to $1B businesses, can be and should be vital support for continuous invention and prove-out.
Many business leaders are looking to “help education” through their corporate social responsibility strategies. Unfortunately, based on my experience inside a non-profit education researcher and publisher, what most businesspeople will be looking for is just marginal improvement. There is an unconscious acceptance of the familiar, of “inch deep” learning rather than breakthrough deeper learning. There is a focus on increasing speed and reducing cost. There is a lack of appreciation for the vital role of the teacher.
So, for those visionary businesses and foundations interested in accelerating a quantum leap forward for all teachers and students in K-12 education outcomes (their future workforce/customers), I’d like to suggest that the following considerations are crucial:
1) Look for non-profits pursuing radically different approaches. Digitizing existing content and approaches is just more of the same, even if ported onto a glossy-screened touch-tablet. People are actually inventing new learning tools, content and processes — like inventing powered flight. Real transformation is going to use teaching and learning models that seem and look and feel radically different from how you learned. Search for that.
2) Look for truly scalable approaches. These three questions will help you evaluate a program’s scalability:
i) Are they applicable to all teachers and students, from gifted to struggling to English learners?
ii) Are they aimed at the heart of the problem right now: at all schools and teachers and training processes as-is? Think Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Houston and D.C. public schools?
Don’t just focus on and invest in the fringes of the school market, which will take years if ever to reach the majority of students in the community, and the nation. Each year, 4 million more children are passing through an untransformed pipeline.
iii) Can they scale up fast and without limit, driven ultimately by non-philanthropic funds? That is, do the economics of the solution enable eventual demand and resources from the main market, i.e. government public schools, to adopt, scale and sustain?
While some non-profits aimed at breakthrough transformation will be in the early stages of research and invention, you can also look for others with solid evidence that their program delivers results, and that there will be market demand and that it is economically scalable.
There are examples of businesses following all of these principles in their social investment in education. Corporate foundations, CEOs and chairs of Cisco, Broadcom, Emulex, Microsemi, PwC, Bank of America, Chevron and others have come together to support a breakthrough math program using instructional software to tap students’ visual reasoning. You would not recognize math taught this way, it is that different.
The lowest performing elementary schools in Orange County were provided grants to launch this math program. Over 80% of those schools are now participating. A 45,000-student district serving predominantly economically disadvantaged English learners, Santa Ana Unified, went district-wide and closed its “achievement gap” with the California state average. And the targeted schools at a county-wide level are greatly outpacing similar schools in Academic Performance Index growth. The proven results have attracted district funding at over 1,000 additional sites. Over 500,000 students are being served, and scale-up is economical.
For any company interested in helping education, keep an eye out for the pioneering non-profits that fit this profile. Your social investment will then be poised to go beyond “help,” to transform and scale to millions.