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The Influence of Silicon Valley in Education: Disruption and Innovation Returns

Earlier this week, The New York Times ran an article about how the billionaire innovators in Silicon Valley have turned their attention to fixing America’s public schools.

This isn’t the first time well-monied capitalists have thrown money at K-12 classrooms. Education has been a cause célèbre of philanthropist problem solvers for as long as struggling students have been dropping out of local high schools.

The difference, so posits the Times, is that this latest wave of wealthy benefactors are not simply writing checks; they’re incubating new solutions in schools and pitching beta-version prototypes directly to parents and students—in many cases, without much in the way of oversight or even testing.

We’re not talking about fledgling dreamers here, mind you. These innovators rank among the heaviest of hitters—names like Zuckerberg, Hastings, and Benioff.

On one hand, progressive reformers suggest the famously unapologetic move-fast-and-break-things mentality that powers the tech sector’s penchant for industry disruption is something America’s slow-moving public education system needs more of. In the age of school choice, traditional modes of K-12 schooling are underfunded and under assault. The status quo has no future in a changed world.

On the other hand, critics of the Valley’s sudden electric interest in public schools contend there is an inherent risk in what some might categorize as blind-faith acceptance of the engineer’s take on school reform.  Technology will never replace the hard work and training of teachers. And, while education is a worthy endeavor with a longtail economic upside, questions exist about corporate motivation (read: for-profit) in the K-12 enterprise.

The upshot of all this: The solution most likely lies somewhere in the middle. There is little doubt at this point that technology is a powerful tool when applied effectively and with care, both inside and outside the classroom. But like the advertisements used to sell them, many startup innovations often promise more than they ultimately deliver.

To maximize a school’s or district’s ROI (or return on innovation), education leaders need to be both open to new ideas and possibilities and skeptical of their promise. It’s easy to listen to a product demo and buy into the hype. It gets even easier when vendors start throwing numbers at you. They might say, “At school district X, our solution helped improve scores in math and science by more than 500 percent.” Then, “We did it again here. Oh, and here too.”

That’s well and good. But would the same solution work in your community for your students? Silicon Valley engineering can solve all kinds of problems—some we didn’t even know we had. But the only way to know if a solution will work for you and for your community is to consider it in context. Ask students and parents what they think of the innovations your vendor partners are peddling. Talk to teachers. Do the research. Then make the decision that’s best for your schools and for your classrooms.

Because that’s where the real magic happens.

Considering investing in new learning technologies for the upcoming school year? What steps are you taking to vet those solutions with families and staff? Tell us in the comments.