Where are the teachers? Refocusing the ed tech conversation

In 2012, venture funding of close to a half billion dollars went to K-12 education technology, six new ed tech incubators were launched, and a cohort of “innovators” and “disruptors,” inspired by Harvard’s Clayton Christensen, grew their presence in the sector.

From my seat at the foundation, the wave of innovation is astonishing. We’ve spent seven years advocating for the use of data to improve student educational outcomes, and thanks largely to momentum generated by the ed tech community, we’ve entered new terrain.

However, despite the vast potential of new innovations, my excitement is tinged with hesitation. As a former teacher, I worry that critical perspectives – those of classroom educators – are frequently left out of the tool design process. “Where are the teachers?” asked Anya Kamenetz in a recent column, noting that the recent SXSWedu conference provided a microlevel example of a larger problem in ed reform.

Too often, they’re simply missing from the conversation.

Learning from our mistakes

This teacher gap is one we need to correct. Recent history shows us why. In its early stages, the data-driven reform movement frequently overlooked educators’ day-to-day needs. Too often, teachers’ perspectives and ways of working were undervalued and underrepresented. A bias toward investing in data infrastructure without equal attention to teacher training and support for tool use (not to mention an overemphasis on high-stakes summative tests as a proxy for teacher performance) led to a predictable outcome: A palpable sense of wariness among the very professionals data tools were meant to help.

The good news is that we don’t have to repeat history. Funders, educators, ed reform activists and others are well positioned to shift the sector’s approach in order to ensure that ed-tech innovations truly empower teachers.

Shifting the conversation

Over the coming weeks, the blog will highlight some subtle shifts in the foundation’s approach to our work in ed tech, specifically in data-driven education. These shifts, which seek to provide maximum value and support to teachers, build from key lessons learned in the foundation’s years’ of work in schools, and with teachers and districts. They include:

  1. An increased focus on formative teaching & learning rather than summative assessment. We’ll continue to expand our work to focus more closely on the daily insights teachers gather from students rather than on summative, high stakes assessments.  As noted in prior post by Joe Siedlecki, formative assessments are not limited to formalized assessment instruments or programs, but are, as described by Margaret Heritage of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, a part of a “process that is fundamental and indigenous to the practice of teaching and learning.”
  2. An effort to grow organizations that provide high quality data tools and services that help teachers improve classroom instruction. We’ll seek to identify and fund tools and services that are either teacher-developed, or grown from bottom-up teacher use, vetting and adoption.  The focus will explicitly be on products that save teachers time, eliminate roadblocks to personalization, and help teachers and students enable an environment of learning.
  3. Clarification of what it means for a teacher to be “data literate.” This work will include an expanded focus on developing the teacher skills needed for the highest quality instructional practices, and will place data literacy skill development in its proper context of support for teaching & learning.

A frequent refrain within the foundation, is that data (and ed tech) don’t solve problems; people do.  In the case of student outcomes, the people best positioned to solve problems are teachers. The early data movement left them out of the conversation. It’s time to correct that mistake once and for all.