Innovative Schools Need a Thriving Ecosystem of Digital Tools and Services

June 15, 2015

Innovative schools working toward an expanded definition of student success – in which ALL students graduate with a mastery of academic and critical life skills to achieve their most ambitious dreams – require sophisticated tools and services to help deliver personalized learning experiences for students and effectively leverage teachers’ time and talent.  Without the latest technological innovations in education, it would not be feasible for teachers to efficiently personalize each student’s learning in a class of 20+ students given the wide range of students’ individual needs in most K-12 classroom scenarios.  As more schools implement school designs that incorporate blended instruction, educators will seek effective edtech tools and services that support efforts to deliver personalized learning and promote student ownership of their own learning.  

Over the last few years, edtech innovation and investment has grown rapidly; however, there are still gaps in the market for tools and services that innovative schools need to be successful. For instance, while the availability of high quality digital math content is increasing steadily for most grade levels, digital science content aligned to Next Generation Science Standards is lagging, as are the platform tools and assessments needed to effectively manage competency-based progressions at scale. A key pillar of our strategy for 2015 and beyond is to highlight these and other important market gaps and use grant dollars to mobilize entrepreneurs to tackle these gaps.

Video: NewSchools Entrepreneurs Celebrate Our Work Together in This Holiday VideoWith our Tools & Services strategy, we intend to build on and extend the success of our Seed Fund, which over a three-year period invested in 40+ early-stage tools and services and helped catalyze growth in the availability of edtech investment dollars overall. We wound down the Seed Fund in April 2015 and helped create a new entity called NewSchools Capital which makes equity investments in for-profit edtech companies through its new fund called Reach. We own 50% of NewSchools Capital, and it is run by team members of our former Seed Fund.

Our Tools & Services philanthropic capital makes us a unique player in the edtech tools and services sector, since we use philanthropy to make grants to catalyze development in market segments where innovation is lagging. This is different from venture capitalists who take equity stakes in entrepreneurs who are likely to generate financial returns for their investors. Our goal is to generate more great choices among tools and services that matter most for teachers and students, not to create financial returns for ourselves.

We will do this by continuing to support for-profit and nonprofit entrepreneurs developing solutions that drive better results for students, specifically in areas where there are market gaps in the tools and services that schools need. We will do this through market gap challenges and direct investments in a limited number of service organizations annually. We believe that the accessibility of these critical tools and services will make it easier for schools to successfully adopt innovative models to positively impact student learning.

Beginning in Fall 2015, our Tools & Services team – Cameron White, Esther Tricoche, and myself – will launch a series of national challenges open to for-profit and nonprofit entrepreneurs working to address the most pressing gaps in K-12 education technology. Challenge topics will be chosen based on market research including input from a diverse group of educators and edtech decision-makers from districts and schools. For each challenge topic, we will select 8-15 of the most promising entrepreneurs and connect them with each other and the NewSchools network of experts and innovative schools as part of our challenge cohort program. By providing winning teams with educator feedback, research evaluations, strategic guidance and grant funding through our cohort program, we seek to cultivate high-impact, sustainable and scalable innovations that will improve academic and social outcomes for millions of children nationwide.  

Over time, we believe these challenges and our investments will spur a more robust edtech ecosystem that will help educators, entrepreneurs, researchers and funders better understand what it takes to develop high quality tools and services that benefit students across the U.S.

For more information on our investment strategy, please visit the Tools & Services webpage.