Kevin: Often our schools are left off the front page, and so are the challenges that headline our schools on a day-to-day basis. College to career readiness and career paths that align with economic stability drive the missions of so many of us in the trenches of our industry. Schools and districts continue to forge ahead with bleeding-edge technology and curriculum that dwarfs what so many of us experienced for generations. It bears the questions: Are we adapting as an industry? And are we adapting our practices and expectations to meet the needs of today's young people?
I want to know more. I want to understand what the data tells us about current programs and systems built to prepare young minds in our nation's public schools. I want to learn about the role adaptation plays in supporting young people and career paths we've never imagined. So I've extended the microphone across the country to bring you and I closer to an answer that prepares us for now, right now.
I had the pleasure of discussing these issues with the famed author and future of work strategist Heather McGowan and Karl Rectanus, the man behind the data that tells the true story of innovative education around the U.S.
No one understands the intersection of education and the economy better than Heather McGowan. So welcome to the show, Heather. It's so good to have you on.
Heather: Thank you so much. I'm honored to be here.
Kevin: Heather is a future-of-work strategist and what she does, which is very forward-looking, is help leaders and organizations prepare for what she calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The Third Industrial Revolution, according to Heather, was marked by computerization and labor automation. The Fourth will be noted for the advancement of technology and tools that will help the domain of human knowledge work. It's so intriguing, it's so important. Heather believes we need to explode this paradigm of school, work, retire, die at 67, and as opposed to focusing on that old model, recognize that the real goal in terms of human development is lifelong learning. How do we encourage people to find their sense of purpose and grow in a way that merges the need to be self-sustaining and a contributor to society?
So, Heather, first question I want to ask you is how did you get to this point? You obviously have found your purpose by being this forward-thinking individual, but how'd you get here?
Heather: Well, I usually joke with folks and say I saw an ad for a future-of-work strategist, and I had the right past experience, which just points out how absurd that idea is of how we recruit talent.
So I worked in corporate consulting. I have an undergrad in industrial design, which is really design thinking before they had that word for it. And then I have an MBA with a focus on entrepreneurship and finance. So I'd worked in everything from boutique investment banking to social responsible investing to management consulting to design thinking. So I had a really broad career. And then I sort of stumbled into academia, where I worked for about a decade for college and university presidents and provosts.
And what I started to realize was that the workplaces that I'm working in on the corporate side didn't have the talent they need. And then the higher-ed institutions were not producing the talent that we needed. Neither one of them understood what was happening.
Out of an abundance of frustration, I started writing some articles trying to explain it. And the first was a series called "Jobs are Over: The Future is Income Generation," so think about yourself in an entrepreneurial way. And the second installment of that four-part series went viral and 100,000 people read it in 24 hours and I started getting speaking requests from all over the world. And my first engagement was in Australia and the video of that went viral, and that was 2014. Fast forward to today, this is all I do. I have speaking agents all over the world and I speak full time.
So I essentially made my job, but I did it by being driven by my own curiosity and my own sense of passion around something that I saw as an opportunity. I put the value out there and then the value drew people in. And then that was how I ended up ultimately monetizing it. But it didn't start with, "I'm not going to do the work until somebody pays me for it," which is what I encourage most folks to do. So if you have a point of view, put it out there. You'll figure out how to make value out of it afterwards, but put your value out there.
Kevin: Yeah. I'm struck by what you characterized as your own curiosity. We have found that many young people in our traditional education system, they lose that curiosity and people have this mad scramble to figure out how they're going to make a living, you know, how can they develop pride on the job. You talk a lot about this idea of finding your purpose. Discuss that.
Heather: Sure. So, you know, if you look back at what you were told you were good at in high school, now, if I was living a life based upon what I was told I was good at in high school, I'm quite certain I wouldn't be speaking to you. And that's the problem. We have a tremendous loss of human potential. We have lost Einsteins all over the place. There are policy problems or economic problems. You're better off being born rich than smart, and that is tragic, both morally and economically for us.
So let's look at our system. Our systems of education, K-12 is a sorting process. Figure out who's smart and who you're going to track for university or college. And then once you get into high school, it's focused on taking the right class to get the right test to get in the right schools, pick a major before you step foot on campus, based upon what you're told that you're good at in high school. Huge social mobility implications there, because it's what you're exposed to in high school and what your social circle, what your parents do, your parents' friends do, because you can imagine a future self if it hasn't been presented to you in some way. And we're just hemorrhaging human potential in that process. And we're also having a tremendous loss of engagement. I mean, Gallup's 2016 K-12 engagement survey -- and I can't even imagine if they did it now -- 74% of, you know, kindergartens and first-graders are excited to go to school. By the time you get to high school, that's 24%.
Kevin: So how do we flip it? And I know you focus on not just the individual and what they do. People are so attached to that walk into the school, to the corner. You know, you can get your lockers when you're in middle school. You go to the prom. There's this sort of sentimentality and nostalgia. How do we break that tie to what we know?
Heather: It's gonna take a lot of experimentation and we have some of that going on, but not enough. So one of the examples I like to talk about is on the West Coast, Khan Academy has launched Khan Lab School with their own students. So folks who work for Khan Academy use their own children as, you know, guinea pigs or experiments. And they set up a K-12 system where each kid has to work through competencies. Everybody's organized by independence level, not age level, because that's arbitrary. Everybody has a passion project that they have to work on that they're self-propelled to finish and self-motivated. And then everybody is a learner as well as the teacher. So if I'm good at math, I'm in charge of coaching other folks in math. If I need help in science or social studies, then I have to find somebody who's better at it who can help me.
That sets up the expectation of agency. That sets up a connection to purpose. That tells you learning is your responsibility as well as teaching is a responsibility. And then collaboration is just inherent in the whole process.
Kevin: One thing I love about that example is it also allows for socialization during the collaboration process with young people, which is a big part of what draws the tie to the old system is the sense of community, which you can still have when you experiment and do things a little differently. One thing that you also talk about, which I agree with, when people go speak to students and they say, "Okay, what do you want to be when you grow up?" I started to ask the kids, you know, "What problems do you want to solve?" But I love the way you characterize it. You say, "How do you want to be?" Talk about that.
Heather: Yes. So we've set these identity traps and it's probably been going on for almost a hundred years, but really in the last couple of decades. It used to be, when you went to university, you could just start exploring and then figure out what you want to concentrate in or major on. But that has completely flipped because the whole higher-ed system is focused on getting you a starting job with a high salary. And that's how they declare success, even though it's going to be the first of possibly 17 jobs you have across five different industries. We myopically focus you on the first one with a very set identity.
So we asked young kids, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" We ask university students to pick a major before they step foot on campus. And then the first thing we asked each other as adults is, "What do you do?" And studies in the UK and the U.S. have found that loss of a job can take twice as long as the loss of a primary relationship and most people never fully recover because we've been doing this drumbeat of telling you that your occupational identity is one fixed thing in the future and if you lose it, you lose your whole self.
Now, the world's never been moving more quickly. The career arc is now at least a decade longer. You're going to cycle through many identities. So asking young kids to fixate on a singular point in space is absurd because whatever they pick probably isn't going to be there, it's certainly not going to be in the same way they see it now. So instead, we need to focus less on a fixed occupational identity and more on a resilient and adaptive identity.
Kevin: To that point, I once spoke to a group of middle schoolers at a school in Charleston, South Carolina. And, of course, you know, when you go to a school, they look and say, "Okay, who is this person? What are they here for?" And as I went around the room, I said, "I want to ask you all a question," to follow up on your point. "Are there any problems in your community you see that you feel no one's addressing and you'd like to solve?"
And this seemingly shy girl, 12 years old, racer, and she said, "Well, right across the street, we have a homeless shelter. And the way they have the line in the morning when we come to school, because they're feeding the homeless, is it leaves some of the homeless folks into the street. And I've seen a couple of people almost get hit by cars. If they move the line a little differently, and by the way, if they had more volunteers, because my sister's at the high school nearby, they could volunteer and sign people in, it would make the line go quicker, shorter and safer." And the teacher said, "Wow, we never thought..." She called, you know, I guess the mayor, someone to see, and later she told me they changed the line and they've got young people volunteering.
I just think that's such a good way to look at engagement and meeting these kids where they are as opposed to, "Hey, what do you want to be when you grow up?" Because you don't even know.
If we sometimes miss that, along the lines of school to career, we've started to migrate away from this old folk-ed model where, you know, you have one building, you have a car, and everyone works on it. But as you alluded to, most of the careers of tomorrow, you know, the jobs of tomorrow aren't the jobs today, how can you develop a meaningful approach to school, to career, and make it economically viable in the future?
Heather: Well, I think we have to broaden it. I think that we've done away with a lot of vocational education and that's where we have a lot of shortages in trades and there are wonderful jobs in the trades. University isn't for everybody. That's okay. Everybody learns in different ways. And some people learn through doing and making and some folks learn from doing and making and then may go onto university. We shouldn't have this hard line that suggests this is for you, but it's not for you. And that's absurd. And especially as you look into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the term, the Fourth Industrial Revolution was coined by Klaus Schwab at World Economic Forum, that's when we have a merging of physical, biological, and cyber systems, which essentially means everything has some sort of smart technology in it, whether it's an inanimate objects next to you on the desk or something that's in your body or something that you're wearing.
And when you think about that, then the trades, you know, whether it's plumbing, electrical, etc., those are all going to be technology jobs. You know, it's going to be smart homes. There's an incredible amount of exciting stuff to do there that a lot of young people would be excited about, including me. I mean, if that world is going on today, maybe I would have gone that path. I think it's fascinating. There's a tremendous amount of stuff to do there.
So by just opening it up to more learning through making, whether you go the trade route or you go university route or you go another route, there's so much more learning that can happen when we open it up beyond just regurgitate, recite, give me the right answer because there's so much exploring that can be done through making things.
Kevin: So Heather, let me ask you about your most recent book, "The Adaptation Advantage." That came out at the start of the pandemic. What has changed?
Heather: Yeah. I wouldn't recommend launching a book in the middle of a global pandemic, but if you are a book called "The Adaptation Advantage: Let go, Learn Fast, and Thrive in the Future of Work," we found it to be eerily prescient to the moment. My co-author Chris Shipley and I wrote this book over about three or four years. It really encompassed the last 150 talks I had done with corporations and nonprofits and educational institutions. And it really boils down to three key points.
The future of work, really the now of work, is rapid learning on learning and adaptation. Second point is in order to do this and be successful, we have to let go of the way we've always done it, and equally, if not more difficult, who we think we are, the huge issues around identity, particularly fixed occupational identity traps. And then third piece of this, leadership in this new normal means we're going to be taking folks on learning tours, filled with the unknown and sometimes the unknown unknowns. So it's less about the set expert who can't be questioned and it's more about a curious learning leader who can drive human potential as opposed to just simply productivity.
Kevin: Yeah, couldn't be said any better. Heather, thank you so much. It's been wonderful having you on the show.
Heather: Thanks so much for having me.
Kevin: Our next guest understands the intersection of the economy and education as well or better than anyone. He is a former educator himself, history teacher. He's a serial entrepreneur. I like to think that our next guest is a true Renaissance Man. He's lived in 12 countries. He understands the business of education. He understands the power of data when using it effectively. He's the founder of LearnPlatform. Karl Rectanus, thank you for joining us. It's indeed a pleasure to have you with us.
Karl: My pleasure, Kevin. Thank you so much for inviting us on.
Kevin: So let's talk about LearnPlatform. I want to start there. My understanding is that you had this vision on how to help school districts make better usage of technology. So you pick school districts of a thousand or more students, is that about right?
Karl: We work with districts of all sizes, but most of the districts that use our technology do have more than a thousand students, but we work with individual schools as well.
Kevin: As you pick these districts, part of the LearnPlatform approach is to help these districts better use technology. And you did an audit to see what kind of EdTech tools they were using. You expected that they would just probably have a handful, but in many cases, they had hundreds and you were able to, sort of, work through that. So explain LearnPlatform and how you got there.
Karl: Yeah, I'd love to. I was a teacher and an administrator and it's probably worth noting that I became a CFO for schools because I realized the back office had a huge impact on what I was doing when I was in the classroom, and really wanted to understand how we can ensure that our policies and our purchasing was driving the type of practices and instruction we wanted to. That led me into the entrepreneurial space. LearnPlatform is my fourth successful education innovation organization. There's a few others in the trashcan, but I'm proud of those, as well as these four that have been successful. And LearnPlatform is an EdTech effectiveness system that districts and states primarily use to continuously improve the safety, the equity, the cost efficiency, and the effectiveness of their EdTech ecosystems.
Well, when we came to market in 2015, we built some technology that rapidly evaluated the use and the correlated effect size of different EdTech interventions for students and teachers. So districts could understand, hey, what am I using? And when I use it, for which students is it working? And what was amazing is they said, "You know, that's great, but we don't even know what we're using right now." And we said, "Yeah, yeah, it's going to tell you what you're using, but it also tells you if what you're using works." They said, "Great. Just tell us what we're using first."
And so we expanded our technology to become LearnPlatform. And since then, districts and states have started to learn that while if you ask an EdTech director or CTO, you know, how many tech products do you think you're using? And they say, well, I've got contracts for maybe 100, 150. I know my teachers are choosing to use some of their own stuff, so maybe 200. Well, in 2017, the average school district with more than a thousand students, on average, was using over 500.
Kevin: Wait a minute. You're saying that the average school district is using over 500 EdTech tools, and most of them didn't even know what they were using.
Karl: Every month, that's correct. And that was in 2017. In 2018 and '19, it grew to 700. In 2019, prior to COVID, school districts, on average, were using over 900 different EdTech products per month. And after COVID, since we've had this just massive transition in the market to online learning, to remote and hybrid, no matter the factor, it's over 1300, approaching 1400 different EdTech products used every month within every school district in the U.S.
Kevin: So Karl, I gotta stop you here. This sounds crazy. I believe in data, but there is a thing called too much data, particularly if it doesn't serve the end purpose that schools are supposed to be addressing, making sure they have the tools they need to educate kids. Why would the data tool usage grow at a time when you could get better efficiencies of scale, from a business point of view, particularly if you know exactly the information you're trying to get? Explain why this is happening.
Karl: I couldn't agree with you more. And we are starting to see people make strategic, smart decisions around which tools they should be using. But the dynamic, previously I mentioned, you know, districts said, "Well, we didn't know what we were using." They thought they were using a few hundred. And so we use what is a research-based, sort of, accepted practice, to your point, Kevin, around data. Data then turns into information, which turns into knowledge, which turns into wisdom. And base level data, useful. We see about 1 billion to 2 billion data points every week on what's going on in EdTech. But unless you analyze that and turn that into useful, actionable information, and then ultimately knowledge, that's where our technologies and tools help districts is translating. You can be data-rich, but knowledge poor. This is a statement that business understands. It's one that school districts actually share and understand.
And so the dynamic really, since COVID, we had a massive transition to online or a requirement to not be in person, so look for alternative forms of instruction. And I don't know if you remember, you know, around March 15th last year, but even before that, districts called their EdTech ecosystem the Wild West.
Kevin: So people were selling all kinds of things and they were just grabbing it left and right, this will help solve your problem. And it was a seller's paradise.
Karl: Or we'll give it away for free for the next few months. We're going to come in July 1, when you have a new fiscal year, but for now, we just want to be helpful and supportive. And I think, you know, I honestly believe that's what they wanted, but what that led to was, sort of, a combination of local control, individual educators making their own decisions, school principals designating their own calendars, districts trying to support healthcare while everybody else took their technology. So that led to this massive acceleration.
Kevin: Through LearnPlatform, are you able to shrink that usage of tools in a manageable way and help school districts figure out what they really need?
Karl: Yes, exactly. So you can think about it in three steps, right? First, districts use our system to organize and communicate the things they're already using, to really be able to communicate to teachers, this is what's approved or not approved, to allow parents, which have become totally new stakeholders in the learning process since COVID, to have visibility to which tools and how to access them. They can do that and manage that within LearnPlatform. The second step is they use our system to streamline standardized processes: contract management, request workflows, teachers requesting products, even procurement. Vetting for student data privacy, a complex process we streamlined. And then finally analysis, to analyze and improve.
Kevin: But Karl, the reality, sort of, begs the question, you were a CFO... I remember when I had oversight over DC public schools, you had people who had PhD in education overseeing roof repair contractors, and they knew nothing about it. Are the structures in traditional school districts capable of change in a way that will allow them to get better usage of these tools? And you're doing great. I mean, you have 6,000 schools, you help 4 million students, but we've got 75 million students out here. How can we structurally get it to the place where there's better efficiencies?
Karl: You raise a good point. And my first answer is yes, school districts and states do have the capacity to do this because we've seen them do it. We have supported them to make this happen, whether that's in small districts that may be overwhelmed by the amount and not have the staffing, or, you know, 5 of the top 30 districts use our system and very structured larger organizations, infrastructure for the whole gamut.
Kevin: You mentioned the pandemic. On the one hand, it sounds like the pandemic exacerbated, sort of, this explosion of data tools, ed tools, EdTech tools, but it also sounds like it may help in the long run.
Karl: Well, I think one of the things we have to consider is it exacerbated a number of things, certainly an acceleration of adoption of technology. But one of the things that was prevalent, you know, there's a lot of talk about going back to normal. Normal wasn't working for everybody before. We know that. And we've been looking at this data, districts, schools, over 3 million students show that prior to the pandemic, there was a pretty significant digital equity learning gap between districts, for example, that had less than 25% free and reduced lunch, and those with more than 25% free and reduced lunch. You know, 25% is not a high bar. Those are affluent districts. There was already a gap prior to March 15th of last year.
That gap more than doubled in the six weeks after the closure. It continued to expand through last spring. It started to close a bit in the fall, but it's something that we really need to continue to focus on is identifying how our policies, our purchases, our practices are equipping school districts to serve all students. Because if we don't address these equity gaps, it's going to exacerbate not only what we saw as basically the adoption of products and use of products went up by a fewer number of students. So what we need is more students accessing the tools they need at the time they need them. And that engagement, rather than just access, is what we need to focus on.
Kevin: Well, and you're absolutely right. I do think that the pandemic has, sort of, shined a troubling spotlight on the equity and access issues. You work with schools, you see the difference between the haves and have-nots. Any top-of-mind thoughts on how we cure or close that equity gap?
Karl: One of the things I would focus on, we should absolutely fund access, broadband access to hardware and tools, but we should measure engagements. Because when students engage, that's a leading indicator for learning. If they're not engaging, you've lost them. Yes, great, a community can buy hotspots or can increase broadband, but if, say, my students who live in certain neighborhoods or speak Spanish or have other situations are not engaging, then we know we haven't reached them.
Kevin: This is where I really want to know, one last question or area I want to probe, parents. The pandemic has forced parents to look under the hood. They see what's really going on in their kids' schools. There's been a lot of good stuff that they see, but, you know, now, they see it all. How important to parents in driving this change to get the systems and the data usage where it needs to be, and what role do they play?
Karl: Critical, critical role, and totally different. You're right. The post-pandemic, both the visibility, understanding complexity, understanding of level of impact, you know, this all show is the intersection of education and business. And one of the things that businesses who may be profit-motivated focus on is product-market fit and delivering for a profit.
For school districts, you know, there are certain things that drive decision-making. One of those is fear, right? You know, superintendents aren't going to do things that are going to get them in the paper for the wrong thing. Another is regulation. You know, since early 2000s, No Child Left Behind is a federal policy was the reason we do stuff for a lot of districts and states. But the third one that is really meaningful and have always had power in the decision is parents, is what's going on in my community. Because if parents are engaging on my school board, they're engaging with my teachers, they're engaging with others, parents have always had significant power in the decision-making within districts and states. But I think post-COVID, there's more clarity and understanding of the nuance of what's going on.
Now, superintendents, school board leaders are really listening and hearing from parents, and one of the challenges is, at times, you could only please about a third of the parents. When you've got three options -- don't open, hybrid, fully open -- turns out, parents fit into three categories, you've ticked off the majority, no matter what you choose. That's been hard for folks. But I do think that what superintendents, districts, and parents can look for is when districts communicate clearly, these are the tools that we're using, this is how they comply with student data privacy requirements, here's the button to click to access them, not 16 buttons and 30 different places to go, you know, when they make that easy and acknowledge that families are part of their stakeholder group, not just students, that they start to really communicate in really effective ways. I think I could share dozens of school districts and school district leaders who have highlighted and done this really effectively. I think Dr. Kelley in Oak Park in Illinois has done an amazing job of communicating with families and focusing on equity and access and navigated this. I think larger districts have done the same thing. So I think really acknowledging that parents or, I should say, families are part of the stakeholder group and part of the "customer" as we think about in the business sector, you know, it's been an eye-opening experience for a lot of districts.
Kevin: And the bottom line is that parents who continue to ask more questions, seek better answers, and you said it best. Karl, look, thank you so much. Karl Rectanus, thank you for joining us. You got a lot of insight. It's been a pleasure having you.
Karl: Kevin, a lot of fun. Thanks for having me.
Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to subscribe to the show on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too, explore other episodes, and dive into our discussions on the future of education. Join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Future-of-work strategist, Heather E. McGowan, helps leaders prepare their people and organizations for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Heather’s clients range from start-ups to publicly traded Fortune 500 companies, including AMP Financial, Autodesk, Citi, AARP, and The World Bank. Her academic work has included roles at Rhode Island School of Design, Becker College, and Jefferson University, where she was the strategic architect of the first undergraduate college focused exclusively on innovation.
In 2017, LinkedIn ranked Heather as its number one global voice for education. Pulitzer Prize–winning NYT columnist Thomas Friedman frequently quotes Heather in his books, describing her as “the oasis” when it comes to insights into the future of work.
In 2019, Heather was appointed to the faculty at the Swinburne Centre for the New Workforce in Australia. Her think tank is called Work to Learn because she believes that in the Third Industrial Revolution, we learned (once) in order to work and now, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we will work in order to learn (continuously). Heather is the co-editor and author of the book Disrupt Together: How Teams Consistently Innovate, The Adaptation Advantage and a Forbes contributor.
Karl Rectanus is the co-founder and CEO of LearnPlatform, a mission-driven “for benefit” corporation. LearnPlatform’s edtech effectiveness software as a service is quickly becoming required infrastructure for school districts, state agencies and their partners to save time, save money, and improve student outcomes. The organization’s ground-breaking work in managing and measuring the impact of education technology has created a market category and industry standards of education technology, referenced both in academia and the press, including The New York Times, Education Week, Hechinger Report, The 74 Million, MarketBrief, and EdSurge.
Karl has lived, worked, and studied in over 12 countries, and was a James M Johnston Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill. He completed graduate courses at UCLA’s Anderson Business School and CalTech Executive Extension. He has been named a BMW Herbert Quandt Transatlantic Fellow, North Carolina Teaching Fellow, Education Policy Fellow, and serves on non-profit boards dedicated to equity, access, and effective public policy. Karl, his wife, and three daughters live and work in Raleigh, NC.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.