Thinking about education

It wasn’t long ago when conventional wisdom believed that building software to sell into the education market was really really hard (at best). School budgets are constantly under attack, infinite sales cycles, suboptimal IT infrastructure & connectivity, teacher training…the list goes on and on.

And frankly, many of those issues still exist.

But there are new models & technologies emerging that break through those old rules. The web once again shows us not to paint with a broad brush. So let’s not count out education either. Education is a critical area with enormous potential for innovation.

I’m excited about all of the possibilities. Few thoughts:

0. Impact of open source (software, courses, textbooks)

1. New learning models (peer-to-peer, virtual worlds, gaming, distance learning, online degrees)

2. New platforms (ebooks/kindle, iphone, cloud, collaboration, digital music, art)

3. Better informed parents & students (peer produced reviews is starting to happen with college and graduate schools – we need more of this and also would love to see it at the middle school & high school levels. I’ll leave it for another post how i picked my high school and college as a kid)

4. New types of funding/fundraising/financing (ie cMarket, Donors Choose)

(it’s just after midnight and I’m starting to fade – pls pardon me as I’m sure I’m leaving out important areas. Please add to this list in the comments and I’ll update this post later)

Many of these new models and businesses do not require a sale to the school or the state. They go direct to the parent and/or the student. That’s a big change and we’re going to see more of that.

Some of these new models are freemium based which make it dramatically easier for the teacher and schools to support.

And some of these new models may require a direct sales effort to the schools. But even that is getting better as everyone involved (teachers, administrators, students, parents) has the motivation to improve our current system and try new things. Plus, more students have computers and schools continue to improve their connectivity.

I’m delighted that our firm, Spark Capital, made an investment in 8D World which is our first portfolio company in the education market. We look forward to making more investments in the future of education so please let us know if you are working in this important area.

The public school system is failing those who need it most

Lauren and I went to a lunch yesterday and met with US Senator Michael Bennet.

Senator Bennet talked about a number of things but I felt much of his passion around his desire to fix our public schools. Prior to becoming Senator he was the superintendent for the Denver Public Schools.

He had a balanced view about the blame (all of us adults, not the kids) but he first shared a few data points to make the point loud & clear. Here’s some of the things I learned.

-70% of 8th readers don’t read at their grade level

-a nine year old from a low income family is already 3 years behind their high income peers and has a 1 in 2 chance of graduating high school and 1 in 10 chance of finishing college

– 1.2M of our students drop out of high school every year. Globally we rank 20th amongst industrial nations for high school graduations. Forty years ago we were first

Great education starts with the best teachers. And we are not helping recruit and keep our best teachers either. Current salaries are beyond ridiculous for teachers. We need to fix that. Teacher unions and the administrators need to ditch their current power struggles for the old discussion and ditch sacred cows. They aren’t working. Currently half of our public school teachers quit in the first five years.

There were many more stats and facts shared but the Senator’s punchline was clear when he said, "Our public education system, as designed, does not work well enough for all children in this country, and, for our poorest children, barely works at all.“

I am fortunate that our kids live in a town where we have good public schools. And I am hardly the expert in public school matters across our nation. I learned a lot yesterday about things I knew in my gut. I need to learn more about these issues and how we can help.

I am convinced the first step is stand up and acknowledge the current model isn’t working. We can’t accept it. We can do better.

We made a campaign contribution yesterday. I think Senator Bennet is exceptionally bright and believe he’s focused on the right issues. I hope he keeps his office next year.