Rocketship’s Evolution

EdSource has published a new article on the evolution of Rocketship’s instructional model from a lab rotational model to a classroom-centric one. From the article:

Now, as other districts and charter schools are starting to emulate the Rocketship model, which relies on computer-guided instruction as a key component, the K-5 charter school organization is considering leaving it behind, like a first-stage booster, and moving toward a different a 21st century classroom. Instead of rotating students into a “learning lab” – a large computer room – for about quarter of the day as it does now, several of Rocketship’s seven San Jose schools are experimenting with turning their learning lab into one large, all-day classroom incorporating both technology and three teachers and non-credentialed teaching assistants. Over the course of the day, between 100 and 120 students move from individual computer-based instruction to small-group lessons to a large-group setting, moving on cue with amoeba-like fluidity from one activity to another – at least when it’s working smoothly.



Alex Hernandez on ‘Which Way for K12 Blended Learning’

Check out Alex Hernandez’s (Charter School Growth Fund) piece titled “Which Way for K12 Blended Learning.”

Key themes include:

  • Playlists are powerful
  • Ed tech partnerships make sense
  • Don’t underestimate PK-2
  • Online can facilitate offline
  • Districts are finding $ to spend on blended



NGLC Announces $12M for Breakthrough Schools: 30 Planning & 20 Launch Grants

The Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) announced $12M in grant funding for 30 planning grants and 20 launch grants to support “Breakthrough Schools.” The focus is on secondary schools (grades 6-12) that are focused on personalized learning in order to achieve aggressive outcomes: 1.5 years of growth annually and 80% college readiness rates. 

Given Wave IV’s focus on supporting School Developers, now is probably an appropriate time to link back to my post from a few days ago: Hardware is Not a Strategy (and Other Advice for School Developers: Part I).

Finally, if you’re interested in applying for a Wave IV grant, consider taking a look at the resources I’ve compiled on my “Lots of Resources” page.

Hardware is Not a Strategy (and Other Advice for School Developers): Part 1

Our team at the Gates Foundation funds a variety of innovative schools as part of our Next Generation Models strategy. Because of that, people who are developing new schools (let’s call them “School Developers”) often ask us how they should get started.

Since these types of questions come up frequently, I thought it might be helpful to write a series of blog posts to share what I know (and do not). In full disclosure, I have never actually designed or launched a school, but I have had the good fortune of funding and supporting many highly capable people who have. Please take this advice with that caveat in mind.

In Part 1, I will start with what I hope is some practical advice to help School Developers get started:

1: Defining Academic Goals

Even though much of my work involves education technology, I often say, “Hardware is not a strategy.” A School Developer should never start with hardware-centric questions like, “Should I buy iPads, Netbooks or Chromebooks for all of my students?” or “What is the optimum device to student ratio – 1:1, 1:2 or 1:3?” For more insight into why these are the wrong questions to ask, consider reading Cramming Computers: It’s the Same Old Story by Michael Horn.

Instead of starting by selecting hardware, School Developers should begin by defining a specific, measurable set of academic goals that they want their students to achieve. This should include a long-term goal that reflects the summative outcome you want your students to achieve (e.g. 100% matriculation to a competitive four-year institution).

In addition to setting clear long-term goals, you should also set interim goals that you believe will directly lead to your long-term goals. These shorter-term goals should also allow you to measure progress frequently, as well as helping provide the data you need to improve your design. For instance, I believe that the most powerful shift that school leaders can make is to set interim goals that focus on accelerating learning growth toward college readiness for all students. Although this sounds logical, this shift represents a major paradigm shift away from our current assessment and accountability system that prioritizes grade-level proficiency over learning growth.

Moreover, we are currently caught in an unfortunate debate – one side argues that schools should focus on foundational literacy and math skills while the other advocates for developing more complex skills such as creativity and critical thinking (as though they must be mutually exclusive). As Alex Hernandez writes in The Future of Education: It’s a Love Story, this does not have to be an “either…or” debate. I would encourage School Developers to set goals that both ensure that all students master basic skills AND develop more complex skills that will prepare them for college and beyond.

Only after School Developers have defined a set of long and short-term academic goals does it makes sense for them to develop their school models. Again, this is one of those statements that seems logical but it’s amazing how many smart, well-intended School Developers start making crucial academic, financial and operational decisions without a clear sense of the outcomes they hope to achieve.

** Note: kudos to our friends at Alliance for Excellent Education for strongly encouraging this “define goals first” approach in their Project 24 initiative .

2: Develop A Set of Design Principles

Developing a set of design principles that can guide the academic, financial and operational decisions that a School Developer must make is an extremely useful exercise. The ideal is that these principles are broad enough that they can stand the test of time, but specific enough that they guide critical design decisions.

For example, we believe that schools that are more effective at facilitating personalized learning for each of their students will be more successful than those that do not. To inform and bound our grantmaking in this area, we developed the following principles:

  • Student Centered: designed to meet the diverse learning needs of each student every day
  • High Expectations: committed to ensuring that every student will meet clearly defined, rigorous standards that will prepare them for success in college and career
  • Self-Pacing & Mastery-Based Credit: enables students to move at their optimal pace, and receive credit when they can demonstrate mastery of the material
  • Blended Instruction: optimizes teacher- and technology-delivered instruction in group and individual work
  • Student Ownership: empowers students with skills, information and tools they need to manage their own learning
  • Financial Sustainability: sustainable on public per-pupil revenue within four years
  • Scalable: designed to serve many more students if it demonstrates impact

For further context regarding these principles, read our blog post on The Next Generation of (Personalized) Learning. Our hope in sharing our principles is not to convince you to adopt them verbatim, but rather to offer an example of the type of principles that are useful in guiding major and minor decisions, both at the outset of the school design process and thereafter as you adapt your model.

3: Design an Instructional Model

Once you have developed specific, measurable goals and a set of design principles to guide your school design, then by all means start designing the school. Organizations like CEE-Trust, Charter School Growth Fund, IDEO, Alvo Institute, 2Revolutions, Silicon Schools, Public Impact and Ed Elements are all starting to offer design sessions to facilitate design thinking among early-stage school developers. There are many ways to approach this process, but below are a few approaches that may be useful for an individual or team interested in engaging in this process on their own:

  • Blank Slate: Allow yourself the freedom of designing a school from scratch. Ultimately, you may have to deal with real constraints that might prevent you from implementing your design within an existing school, but do not start this process feeling constrained by things like bell schedules and facilities.
  • Student-Centered Design: Start by picking 3-4 actual students that are underserved by the current education system, and dive deep into the root causes of why those students struggle. Use their experiences as the driving force to push your thinking about what “school” would need to look like to ensure they achieve the goals you set.
  • Ask Questions, Answer Them: Joel Rose, founded of New Classrooms and School of One, kick-started his design process by asking 700 questions about how it would work. Then, he and his team systematically answered and re-answered each of those questions to develop and improve the model.
  • Design With the End In Mind: Use the long-term goals that will drive your school to inform your thinking about the types of experiences that students will need to have to achieve those goals. For example, if you want students to succeed in college, you will likely need to develop their ability to take full responsibility for their learning. What specifically would your school need to do in order to accomplish that?
  • External Facilitation: Leveraging an external facilitator like the ones mentioned above can be enormously helpful in driving this process. We have seen that a day-long, roll-up-your-sleeves design session can really generate enthusiasm and catalyze a movement. 
  • Look to Others for Inspiration: While I suggest starting the design process with a blank slate, it may help at later stages in the design process to seek inspiration from the trailblazers. I encourage taking a look at the following resources profiles of innovative schools: The Next Gen Learning Challenges: Wave IIIa, The Dell Foundation’s Blended Learning Case Studies and The Innosight Institute’s Blended Learning Profiles. In addition, the blogging site,, features writing from a wide variety of educators that are deeply engaged in this work.

I am positive there are other techniques that School Developers can use to start this process, but hopefully these ideas offer a helpful starting place. 

Coming Soon: Part II

In Part II of this series, I will focus more deeply on blended instruction to provide more detailed guidance to School Developers who are interested in taking that approach.

My Advice to Education Entrepreneurs at Harvard

Yesterday I wrote a blog post titled Business Models in K-12 Education that was inspired by judging the Education Innovation Pitch Competition at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Today, I want to share a some advice that I offered to a group of students that evening. The student organizers were gracious enough to give me the opportunity to share a few reflections about the current state of education innovation with the audience – a bright-eyed group of 200 students that came from practically every school in the university.

Below is a summary of my remarks (embellished a bit since I now have the benefit of hindsight):

I started by admitting that the outline for my remarks was handwritten on the back of a drawing that my five-year-old daughter, Ella, had given to me to put up in my office. That was the only clean white sheet of paper I had on the flight from Seattle to Boston, and I didn’t think Ella would mind as long as I avoided scribbling across her drawing. “Nothing puts the importance of education innovation in perspective like giving a speech from your own child’s artwork,” I said.

Then, I described what I see as the confluence of several Uber Themes in K-12 education:

  • Ed is sexy; smart, hard-working, visionary students are flocking to this sector like never before (Exhibit A: the full house that evening)
  • The adoption of the Common Core by 46 states has created national momentum toward rigorous college readiness goals for all students, as well as the new types of content, tools and school models needed to achieve them
  • Parents, educators and industry are joining forces to demand that students also master more complex skills such as creativity and critical thinking, and non-cognitive skills such as tenacity and grit
  • The teacher effectiveness and teacher voice movements are bringing new attention to the science and art of teaching, and offering a platform for educators to share multiple perspectives
  • Technology is simultaneously improving, getting cheaper and proliferating rapidly in schools across the country; excitement is building over the potential of technology to facilitate personalized learning (my focus at Gates)
  • Funding in the form of government grants, philanthropic dollars and private capital is increasingly being channeled toward spurring early-stage innovation; at the same time, however, school and district budgets have been cut to the bone in many places

The confluence of each of these is giving rise to the enormous potential for entrepreneurs who are willing to pursue innovative ideas. However, I also advised caution based on the following:

  • Some good ideas may not translate into viable products; just because your solution alleviates a problem for a few teachers does not mean that there is a mass market for it
  • Business models in K-12 education are frequently unclear or unsustainable; this is largely due to the fact that the market is highly fragmented and difficult for small vendors to sell into (read this post for more)
  • Though it holds tremendous promise, technology is not a panacea; too many people are irrationally exuberant at this stage of the innovation curve and are overpromising results (read this post for more on Cautious Optimism vs. Irrational Exuberance)

Reflecting on the themes and the words of caution above, I then offered the following advice to the aspiring entrepreneurs in the audience:

  • Identify real problems; ideally those close to the instructional core so you can measure real impact on student learning
  • Talk to a LOT of real people – teachers, school leaders, parents and especially students – who currently face these problems; be prepared for them to tell you that your idea will not work
  • Do not feel constrained by the existing system; it’s almost always easier for innovations to gain traction outside of the existing system (e.g. summer and after-school, charter schools, tutoring, etc.) before trying to change what happens in the classrooms of traditional districts
  • Develop a realistic business model that can sustain your product or service at scale; this generally requires lots of customers to pay full value for the product or service you provide, which they are often unwilling or unable to do (read more)
  • Finally, start piloting as soon as you have a minimally viable product (MVP); you’ll learn a lot more much faster implementing a solution with real customers than you will drawing prototypes on a white board

In closing, I offered the following observation to the large audience in front of me, “Now is a great time to be in those chairs.” It really is, especially for the education entrepreneurs that have a realistic understanding of the market and build compelling solutions to real problems that customers are willing to pay for.

Business Models in K-12 Education

Last night, I had the pleasure of being one of the judges for a pitch competition that is sponsored by a student-run group at Harvard called BRIDGE @ HGSE. As I listened to pitches from a group of eight really smart, thoughtful teams, I could not help but reflect on the challenges associated with developing a business model in K-12 education. Much has been written on this subject already, though my favorite piece remains Larry Berger’s “K-12 Entrepreneurship: Slow Entry, Distant Exit” published back in 2007.

While Larry’s piece captures an additional level of nuance from the perspective of someone who has successfully navigated the market during his decade at the helm of Wireless Generation, I thought I would take a minute to summarize my current thinking while it’s top of mind. My lens is toward providers of digital content and tools, but I believe my perspective largely applies to all products.

First, there are effectively three basic revenue models for product vendors in K-12 education:

  1. External funders (foundation, government grant) pay for products on behalf of schools or parents; this is effectively “subsidized demand”
  2. Traditional demand (school, district) pays for products
  3. Families pay for products

The problem is that there is typically not enough money from #1 to support massive scale, so inevitably vendors have to figure out how to convince schools, districts and/or parents to actually pay for their product if they want to grow beyond a niche market. This is what typically happens next:

  • A new product vendor looks at the fact that K-12 education is a $500 billion annual market and get really excited. They think, “If only a could capture a 0.1% market share, I’d be set.”
  • After they dig in a little further, though, they realize that the market is highly fragmented with 15,000 districts and 100,000 schools. “This may not be as easy as I thought.” 
  • They start by targeting a few districts and/or charter management organizations (CMOs). They tend to have a few quick wins and start to feel confident.
  • Their attempts to sell into more districts are stifled by a long sales cycle, onerous procurement rules, limited discretionary funds and demands for an “evidence base.”
  • Their attempts to sell into more CMOs may be more successful given the discretion these organizations have over procurement. The challenge is that they represent limited demand and tend to be demanding customers.
  • Rather than deal with districts, some vendors decide that it must be easier to sell directly to principals and teachers. If their product is cheap enough and solves a real problem, they have some success going this route. The challenge is that most schools only have limited discretionary dollars, so this approach does not work for expensive products. Moreover, because each school represents limited demand, it takes a lot of effort to generate real revenue this way.
  • To accelerate the adoption of their product or service, some vendors decide to give away some stuff for free (typically teachers or students) and charge for premium services (typically to districts). This so-called freemium model seems promising in theory, but many vendors struggle to achieve the type of conversion rate from adoption to paying customers that they need to sustain the model.
  • Frustrated at the traditional system, they ask, “Why not go straight to families?” While the rise of apps on mobile devices and tablets has made this an increasingly viable option for smaller vendors with innovative products, most families will not spend more than $5 for an app (note: this data point is anecdotal, not based on real market research). This one-time, small dollar revenue model may work for more limited products, but it is likely insufficient to sustain more comprehensive products that need to generate significant revenue to offset larger expenses (e.g. R&D).
  • For these more comprehensive products, vendors decide they need to charge parents a monthly subscription fee to generate sufficient revenue. They reason that some parents spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on private tutors, so why not charge them $9.95 / month for a product that is almost as good. It remains to be seen whether parents will become more comfortable paying these types of subscription fees for these types of products, but at present this direct-to-parent market is still fairly limited. This approach also tends to narrow the target market to families of means, which creates equity concerns for vendors who wish to serve all students.
  • Finally, some small but promising vendors realize that it may be easier to partner with large, existing vendors with a strong foothold in the market (e.g. licensing technology, leveraging their distribution channels). This may be a viable option for some but the uneven power dynamic between the two players can create complications.

Where does this leave the growing number of innovators who are developing products that may be able to make a real difference in our K-12 education system? I’ll admit that I am not quite sure. On one hand, the rapid proliferation of web-enabled devices as distribution channels creates a real opportunity to reshape the way schools, districts, parents and students purchase products. On the other hand, technology alone will not magically fix the challenge of generating revenue in a highly fragmented market. Moving toward a more functional marketplace will require leadership on the part of states and districts to rethink outdated and unnecessary procurement rules. It will also require entrepreneurs to not only offer products that solve real problems for educators, but also develop innovative business models that allow them to generate real revenue at scale. I’m optimistic we will start seeing more activity on both fronts in the coming years.  

Reblogging Stacey Childress’ post on student outcomes in personalized learning. Join the discussion – what do you think the goals should be?

Thinking Out Loud

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about our support for schools that are redesigning their instructional models in order to personalize learning for students. I listed design principles shared by these schools:

  • Student Centered: designed to meet the diverse learning needs of each student every day
  • High Expectations: committed to ensuring that every student will meet clearly defined, rigorous standards that will prepare them for success in college and career
  • Self-Pacing & Mastery-Based Credit: enables students to move at their own optimal pace, and receive credit when they can demonstrate mastery of the material
  • Blended Instruction: optimizes teacher- and technology-delivered instruction in group and individual work
  • Student Ownership: empowers students with skills, information and tools they need to manage their own learning
  • Financial Sustainability: sustainable on public per-pupil revenue within four years
  • Scalable: designed to serve many more students if it demonstrates impact

In the earlier post I wrote…

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