10 Stories That Mattered in the K-12 Market in 2020

Managing Editor

For many companies working in the K-12 market, the past year has been about prevailing in the face of hardship, and positioning themselves for what they hope are more stable and successful days ahead.

As soon as the coronavirus pandemic began shutting down in-person classes in the spring, education businesses across the industry — from the biggest companies in the market to startups — were immediately forced to recalibrate how they could help school systems in states of upheaval.

Those strategic adjustments have been ongoing, from the frantic days of March and April through today, and more changes will surely last through much of 2021.

Initially, many districts warned vendors to quit overwhelming them with sales pitches, as administrators and teachers scrambled to manage the upheaval in their schools. Many districts, however, didn’t wait long before they began reaching out for help, seeking advice from vendors on how to make remote learning work on a scale they’d never imagined.

Now, many districts are laying out plans to return to in-person or hybrid instruction, if they haven’t made that transition already.

EdWeek Market Brief has been tracking evolving needs in the COVID era through our reporting, our surveys of K-12 officials and businesses, and our special reports. We’ve delivered intel to our readers, not only through stories and other online content, but also through our regular webinars.

Here’s our recap of the most important topics we covered in 2020, as judged by those that were most popular among our readers:

1 — How the Coronavirus Is Reshaping Districts’ Spending Priorities

Of all of the questions that education companies have been weighing during the confusion of the pandemic, one of the biggest has come down to this: How is COVID changing K-12 plans for purchasing specific types of products and services?

This story, published in the late spring as the full might of the pandemic came into focus, presents the results of an EdWeek Market Brief nationally representative survey of district officials on the products and services they were planning to purchase to respond to the crisis. PPE was a major need, but devices and professional development also quickly came into focus.

2 — Wanted: Curriculum Providers Who Can Help With Students’ COVID-19 Learning Loss

One of the clearest challenges to emerge in schools during the coronavirus is teachers’ recognition that students are slipping academically during remote learning — the so-called “COVID Slide.”

In this story, EdWeek Market Brief’s Michele Molnar looked at how curriculum providers have been attempting to help districts with learning loss. Those efforts include a new focus on putting forward engaging and culturally responsive material; creating more targeted, embedded assessments to gauge students’ losses in real time; doubling down on foundational academic areas where students are struggling; and integrating more targeted professional development into teachers’ routines.

3 — Which Ed. Companies Have Been Most Helpful to Districts During COVID-19?

EdWeek Market Brief surveyed more than 500 district leaders and 700 teachers about what companies or products have been most helpful to them during the chaos of the pandemic. It was an open-ended question, meaning administrators and educators could write in whatever answer they wanted.

The majority of those surveyed — 54 percent — chose one of three different companies. Hint: There was big premium placed on communication tools and platforms.

Many other providers, however, were also named, including companies offering student information systems and curriculum and assessment, among others.


4 — How Will COVID-19 Reshape the K-12 Market? We Asked 10 Education Executives

When school districts emerge from crisis mode, how will their demands for products and services have changed from what they were, pre-COVID?

EdWeek Market Brief’s Brian Bradley and Michele Molnar asked 10 executives at education companies for their predictions for how the pandemic will alter the market.

Among those who weighed in: Mike Tholfsen, principal product manager for Microsoft Education; Andy Myers, president and chief operating officer at Waterford; Coni Rechner, senior VP at Discovery Education; Barry Malkin, the CEO of Carnegie Learning; and Michael Flood, senior VP at Kajeet.

5 — Coronavirus Upending District Budgets, With Implications for K-12 Companies

EdWeek Market Brief took a deep dive into how school district budgets are being altered by COVID, and by the future uncertainty of state funding and lost tax revenue.

Much of that impact has yet to be determined — economic downturns typically take a long time to wind their way through to K-12 districts, because of school systems’ reliance on tax streams that may not feel the full brunt of a recession immediately.

Our surveys have found that many more district officials now believe their spending levels will rise, compared with the early days of the pandemic. But that’s partly because those K-12 officials believe they’ll be forced to spend more, as state mandates kick in and COVID-related costs continue, as David Saleh Rauf reported.


6 — 4 Big Shifts the Coronavirus Is Bringing to the Assessment Industry

The pandemic had an immediate impact on COVID by throwing off the schedule for testing during the spring. And the disruptions have continued since then.

Brian Bradley breaks down how assessment companies are being forced to pivot, from focusing on non-assessment lines of business, to accepting the slowing of RFPs from districts, to navigating new demands for test integrity and security.

7 — Education Companies Are Offering Free Resources Amid the Coronavirus. How Do They Shift to Paid?

A strong majority of education companies say they’ve offered free or discounted versions of what are normally paid products during the coronavirus, an EdWeek Market Brief survey of 1,700 business officials this year found.

But then comes the hard part: How do companies steer school districts back to paying for products, so that businesses are generating revenue that will sustain them? Michelle Davis spoke with education companies about their thinking, and how they’re attempting to guide district officials along the path to paid.

8 — New Spending on PD, Online Curriculum Likely in the Fall, Survey Reveals

EdWeek Market Brief has published several stories looking at districts’ spending priorities, and how they’ve changed over the course of the crisis. Look for another story on this in January.

But so far, several big needs have remained pretty consistent. Districts have put a major emphasis on PD, as teachers have struggled with remote learning, and now with the transition back to hybrid or in-person models. Online curriculum has been a huge priority, and so has the uptake of resources focused on social-emotional learning. (Also see our recent special report, breaking down districts’ biggest SEL needs.)

9 — Districts Are Reaching Out to Companies During COVID-19. Here’s What They Want

During the initial upheaval of COVID, many district officials warned vendors that they didn’t want to be inundated with sales pitches, because they were focused on the essential work of reopening and trying to establish normalcy amid chaos.

But at the same time, our research offered a more nuanced picture of district demands of vendors.

EdWeek Market Brief’s surveys of district officials, even from the relatively early days of the pandemic, found that many K-12 leaders were proactively reaching out to companies for help. This story was based on a survey that asked district officials about their outreach to vendors — and what they needed to hear from them to form a long-term relationship.

10 — Key Lessons From the Homeschool Market That Matter Now More Than Ever 

As the pandemic took hold and schools were rapidly forced to switch to online lessons, it quickly became clear that many parents were being thrust into new, uncomfortable roles in guiding their children’s studies, and trying to keep them on track.

This new parental responsibility meant that education companies that previously had to think mostly about delivering products that work for teachers and students now had to gauge how they could make them useful and understandable to parents, too. Our story looked at how companies have attempted to adjust their products and outreach to accommodate parents, in some cases drawing on lessons from the homeschool market.

Most Popular Webinars

Many of the most popular EdWeek Market Brief webinars were those that sought to help education companies quickly gauge districts’ evolving needs during the pandemic, then pivot to meet them.

1 — How Is the Crisis Reshaping School District Purchasing Priorities?

Drawing from EdWeek Market Brief reporting, analysis, and survey data, this webinar looked at how school systems were making decisions about curriculum, assessment, PD, data analysis, and other products as they turned full-scale into distance learning.


2 — How Can Education Businesses Pivot to Meet Districts’ Demands?

We took a deep dive into the new expectations that school officials have been putting on vendors during COVID. We were joined by Orange County (Fla.) associate superintendent Rob Bixler and BrainPOP CEO Scott Kirkpatrick.

3 — How Can Companies Engage Parents, and Prepare for What’s Ahead?

This webinar focused heavily on the new challenges districts, and vendors, have faced in engaging families in students’ learning during COVID. Our guests included Shauana Hughes-Sims, the senior administrator for parent and family engagement for the Orange County (Fla.) Schools, and Pete Just, the chief technology officer of the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, in Indiana.

4 — What Are Districts’ Most Urgent Professional Development Needs During COVID-19?

In this webinar, we presented the results of EdWeek Market Brief research on district administrators’ and teachers’ biggest PD needs during the pandemic, and how they want that training and support delivered.

We were joined by Sarah Almy, the executive director of teacher and leader learning in the Denver public schools; Eric Hibbs, the superintendent of the Marlboro Township (N.J.) schools; and Michelle Bowman, the vice president of networks and content design for Learning Forward.

5 — What Do Districts Need From Social-Emotional Learning Products and Programs During COVID-19?

In this webinar, we detailed the results of an EdWeek Market Brief nationally representative survey of district leaders and school principals on their biggest SEL needs and what they want from companies’ products focused on students’ well-being and non-academic growth.

Our guests were Juany Valdespino-Gaytán, the executive director for engagement services at Dallas Independent School District, and Kathy Krupa, vice president of partnerships for SEL provider Move This World.

To sum it up, school districts, and the companies that serve them, endured a lot over the past year. Here’s hoping for a safer and more stable 2021, one that leaves room for school improvement, students’ academic and holistic growth, and innovation.

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