Schools need to increase student learning. Publishers need to sell products. This interview with industry veteran Jack Chorowsky explores the disconnect, and talks about what publishers can do about it.
Jack, what do you do?
I work for a New York investment management firm; we invest largely in public equities across industries. My particular focus is on media, education, and technology. Previously, I worked at Pearson and Kaplan, in general management and product management roles, helping them build out digital products and platforms.
We first met at the IIR Education Industry Investment Forum in March. You were exhibiting some amount of frustration with the presentations of some of the companies.
Yes, people were describing how this product or that product was supposed to drive K12 student performance. But K12 publishers go to market in silos, lacking product integration and a solution oriented view, which should matter if you are focused on results.
Consider formative assessment. Publishers are focused on their testing content, because it’s what they do. They produce items that have great reliability and validity and are correlated nicely to standards. But ultimately, formative assessment is designed to deliver differentiated instruction. The test makers don’t behave like they understand the problems involved in delivering differentiated instruction.
The test generates a result -- then what? The teacher must figure out how to take those results and actually deliver the right instruction to the right students. That is a very different way of teaching than what they have done before. If we are asking teachers to make this big shift, how are we supporting them? The industry could be doing a lot more.
And how should it be done differently?
I would ask where is their pain, what can you do to alleviate that pain, and then how do you implement most effectively. Publishers are acting like content developers—they are asking what content do we develop, what can we sell—rather than what does the customer need?
I’m not sure that publishers appreciate the importance of integrating formative assessment with robust just-in-time support: the right prescriptive feedback, the right materials for students and teachers, appropriate professional development, all at the moment in time when it’s most needed.
The company that understands this will start breaking down silos to produce a more integrated solution. Professional Development, for example, won’t be treated as a separate product.
Don’t some of the publishers offer that?
They may have the different pieces of the puzzle, but I don’t think they put them together very well in a customer-focused package that helps drive performance in the classroom. One might take the view that differentiated instruction requires a culture change, and that to execute a culture change you need not just the right materials but someone on the ground to help make things happen. For example, in some of the schools that have been most successful in this area you find teachers getting together, comparing notes and brainstorming what to do in their classes. Publishers could ask: how can we promote and support these instructional team activities. That’s just one idea, but it’s not the way companies are talking about the problem or their solutions.
This sounds more like services rather than products.
Yes, we’re talking about a service component to delivering formative assessment. Maybe you need a services organization. Maybe curriculum, instruction and testing companies offer to put people on the ground if districts buy into their solution at a certain level.
Here’s the problem: the publisher sells a product to the district. Then the district dumps it on their teachers. What resources and assistance do the teachers and the principals have to make it successful? Unless there is a solution to that problem, unless teachers have a way to buy into the differentiated instruction approach, you’re not going to get widespread implementation, and you’re not going to get results.
But, what is the likelihood of having money for those resources?
Districts have money for Professional Development; they pay for PD now. I know this is a finite funding stream, but there must be a way.
How can you do it in a way they can afford?
The services commitment doesn’t have to be so substantial that it breaks the bank. You could imagine a publisher-sponsored master teacher coaching an instructional team once a month. That could be affordable.
Or, maybe they could partner with PD or services firms who do that well already.
One way to phrase this to publishers is to make them see that a services component could facilitate the sale of formative assessment?
Right – we’re talking about a solution sale here.
My world view has been shaped by a consulting project in which I participated years ago; the project looked at schools that were achieving success with differentiated instruction. The study found that the big publishers were not the ones whose formative assessment products generated the best results. Successful implementations tended to be home grown; schools were developing their own tests in-house or were working closely with vendors on custom projects. Why? Because the link between tests and curriculum was tight and right, there was much more buy-in from all concerned, and they were more focused on implementation: on changing the teaching culture, on giving teachers the time, resources, and support to take assessment results and make them actionable.
Publishers need to understand, it is their job to deliver results; they have to know what moves the needle in the classroom. If there is a strong belief that differentiated instruction makes a difference, publishers need to figure out how to make that strategy a success. The data says that where it is well implemented it can be.
You’re saying that curriculum, assessment, PD, and support should all be linked.
Absolutely. Teachers don’t care about product categories. They just have needs and objectives.
It all comes back to customer focus. If you sat down with a product manager for paper towels for P&G, you could ask her a question about how people use paper towels, and she knows everything about what they wipe up, how they are used, how they are bought, etc. If you asked a publisher what they know about how their formative assessment products are used in the classroom, I bet their knowledge of teachers is not nearly as good as P&G’s knowledge of the Bounty customer. Why? It’s not that the data and understandings are not available; it’s because of the mindset.
I don’t know how much P&G spends on market research and related R&D for Bounty, but I’m sure that it’s a sizeable number. Now what happens in educational publishing? In a publisher with thousands of employees, how many are dedicated full-time to understanding how their products are used in the classroom? I bet that number is very small – in the single digits.
The level of investment in this function is simply not commensurate with its importance. You can only help teachers if you really understand them and what’s happening on the ground.
What is going to drive improvement?
If the question is how can the industry drive improvement, I’d say a renewed, more expansive, more creative focus on what works and how education companies can partner with schools to generate results. For example, I’d be looking at successful school reform organizations. KIPP is moving the needle, as are Achievement First and Uncommon Schools. If I were a publisher or a services provider, I’d be wondering whether I could learn something valuable from the experience of these organizations in challenging districts. What are they doing on the ground? Are there take-aways for my publishing program, or my approach to service delivery? Isn’t this worth exploring?
Kaplan is also nipping at the heels of the publishers in a handful of districts. And we are beginning to see an increasing focus on open source content models. Education doesn’t move fast, but anyone who believes they can sit back and continue collecting their checks is going to be surprised over the next 5-10 years.
Lou Gerstner changed IBM from a computer manufacturer into a solution provide. It was a painful process, but now IBM is thriving. If IBM can do it, maybe we'll see similar changes from the educational publishing industry.