SXSW EDU 2019 and the future of K-12 education

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by Kevin J. Gray, Managing Director, Westchester K-12 Publishing Services
Henry Louis Gates at SXSW EDU 2019

Henry Louis Gates – Keynote address March 6, 2019, at SXSW EDU

What does the future hold for K-12 education? That question was a central theme of this year’s SXSW EDU conference, held in March in Austin, TX. Throughout the hours of sessions and meetings, several recurring themes permeated discussions around the prompt.

First and foremost, there is clearly a concentrated effort within the K-12 industry to recognize that all students must be engaged and that one of the best ways of doing so is to create materials in which students can see themselves and their experiences. The idea of diversity, equity, and inclusion was ever-present. Sessions like the one chaired by Benita Flucker (SVP Shared Services at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) entitled Disrupting Inequality: Innovation for Equity addressed the need head on, exploring ways to bring more African-American voices into leadership roles in ed publishing and ed tech. Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s keynote, Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, also sought to address this need, albeit by a more indirect route of exploring the past to understand how we arrived at the current situation.

Sessions also focused heavily on engaging students through social and emotional learning (SEL). SEL seeks to address the non-content specific skills students will need for success, such as developing resiliency and executive function. Heath Morrison, President of McGraw-Hill’s School Group, chaired a session titled Beyond ABCs & 123s: Going Deeper With SEL, which explored both the theory and practice of SEL education, especially as it relates to students in upper elementary and middle school—two areas where SEL programs tend to lag. EdWeek Market Brief’s Executive Editor Kevin Bushweller also touched on SEL in his talk Can’t Miss Trends in the US K-12 Market, citing that nearly 90 percent of the districts they surveyed have either implemented or plan to implement SEL programming.

It’s evident that K-12 education no longer just means selling basal textbooks based on state adoptions.  Ed tech innovation has changed the industry, so much so that large publishing houses have worked to reinvent and rebrand themselves. Jack Lynch, President and CEO of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, discussed ways that his team has refocused on supplemental programs to meet the needs of all learners during his discussion, The Future of the K-12 Education Industry. Likewise, AJ Goldman (General Manager of Required Materials, Chegg), Matthew Mugo Fields (EVP General Manager, HMH) and Stephanie Allen (VP Digital Product Management, Pearson) debated the relevancy of textbooks and other educational materials, both print and digital, in the talk facilitated by Maia Sharpley (Partner, Learn Capital) titled Is It Time To Kill The Textbook?

Finally, one would be remiss to not mention the focus on literacy, perhaps most evident in the session aptly titled A Gift of Literacy, which was a conversation between LeVar Burton and Alicia Levi (CEO, Reading Is Fundamental). Burton reminded a packed room (and overflow hallway) that literacy is the most fundamental element for engaging students. He discussed the role literacy played in his life at a young age, which later became part of the impetus for Skybrary, an online repository of digital books that seeks to instill a love of learning at a young age. At the end of the session, Burton announced that he was gifting the endeavor to the capable management of Reading Is Fundamental, a move that will allow it to have a greater impact on the lives of students.

The conference reminded me that to address the needs of students, organizations themselves must continually adapt. That mindset is part of why I joined WPS K-12, an employee-owned company that provides the tools for publishers to address the market needs in ways I couldn’t in other development houses. It also reinvigorated some of the efforts we’re currently undertaking, such as changing the way we recruit so that we draw more diverse viewpoints and talent into our organization. Finally, it confirmed that success in the K-12 market means building teams of creative, flexible individuals who are able to envision new ways of helping students and who can draw upon years of best practices in doing so.

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