Under the category of “policy stuff that doesn’t involve grand controversy and/or vast sums of new spending, yet might actually make the world a better place,” the other day I attended a White House event announcing the launch of Digital Promise, a “new national center founded to spur breakthrough technologies that can help transform the way teachers teach and students learn.” The rationale for the initiative is contained in a Council of Economic Advisers memo so admirably concise and well-reasoned–and I’m not even grading on the “things published by the United States federal government” scale–that I hesitate to summarize it, but will anyway:
America spends a ton of money on education, some $1.3 trillion per year. Half of that is spent by K-12 schools. But K-12 purchasing decisions are highly decentralized, among 14,000 public school districts and over 100,000 public and private schools, each with idiosyncratic (and sometimes lengthy) processes for buying things. They’re also mostly public agencies, creating additional bureaucratic hurdles. That can make it hard for companies to sell stuff to schools. At the same time, it’s hard for school districts–especially small ones–to figure out what stuff is good to buy, particularly when the stuff is something complicated like educational technology. As a result, we’re stuck at a low equilibrium where the private sector isn’t willing to invest much money (relative to the gargantuan size of education overall) in creating high-quality education technology–it’s hard to sell, and schools can’t tell the difference anyway. Thus:
According to a recent estimate, R&D expenditures in K-12 education account for only 0.2% of spending. There is also relatively little venture capital available for the development of education products. In the last five years, estimates suggest that venture capital has totaled perhaps $200 million annually for education companies, backing an average of 25 new businesses per year. This venture capital investment compares to $4.4 billion for biotechnology, $3.0 billion for medical devices, and $4.8 billion for software. The concentration of the market for K-12 educational technologies [substantially among textbook publishers] contrasts with the large number of companies producing content innovations in other market segments. After just three years, independent analysts estimate that there are over 100,000 software developers producing content innovations for smart phones and tablets.
Now that pretty much all schools have broadband and states are moving toward Common Core standards to which high-quality products might be aligned, there are new opportunities to fix this problem. Part of what Digital Promise will do is fund evaluation, R&D, and pilot testing to get after the lack of information about quality. Bigger-picture, the Department of Education wants to help aggregate the demand for ed tech information.
The nation’s fractured system of education governance is such a basic fact of life in public policy that it’s sometimes easy to forget how it’s the root of many of our problems–and that stitching some of the pieces together can make the education world a better place.