School Leader Explains Where Ed-Tech Partnerships Can Go Wrong

Associate Editor

Austin, Texas

What do schools really want from ed-tech companies?

The answer: humility, synergy, honesty, sustainability, and accountability.

What do entrepreneurs face from school leaders? Skepticism.

Click to see more SXSWedu coverage.Those are the dynamics at work in the relationships between ed-tech businesses and educators, as described by Chris Lehmann, principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, Pa., during a panel discussion at the South by Southwest education conference here. (My colleague Ben Herold  is writing about attempts by Lehmann to replicate the model by opening a second Science Leadership Academy, in Education Week‘s “Innovation Gamble” series this year.) 

Lehmann, who was named “Outstanding Leader of the Year” by the International Society of Technology in Education in 2013, attracts much attention from ed-tech companies wanting to partner with his school to develop their products, in the hopes of receiving his imprimatur.

Here’s how Lehmann elaborated on the qualities he seeks from ed-tech companies.

Humility: “Nobody has solved education yet. If you walk into a school and tell us you’re going to solve all our problems, we know you’re lying. Don’t lie,” he said. “Come with some humility. We get pitched a lot. We work with people who want to work with us.”

Synergy: “If you’re going to come in and sell us a product, don’t call yourself a partner. You’re a vendor. That’s OK. We need vendors,” he said. But being a partner requires listening, and it means that each party can change the other in the process. “If it’s only a one-way transformation, you’re not a partner. You’re a vendor. Define yourself.”

Honesty: “We want people who are honest,” he said. “If you promise the world and under-deliver, you’ve done harm. When you work in the K-12 space, when you work with children, your first rule is: ‘Do no harm.'”

Dishonesty about an ed-tech company’s business model—about how it plans to make money—hurts schools, he said. “Be honest with us about the process.”

Sustainability: It’s important to talk about sustainability, he said. “If you’re going to give [your product] to us for free for a little while—to make everything we’re doing depend upon you—and then the ‘freemium’ goes away, that does us harm.”

Lehmann said he is frequently approached about piloting a product that will be free. He always asks, “For how long?”

Accountability: “When startups fail, or when the game changes and you have to end a partnership, the parents don’t call you,” said Lehmann, noting that he has had a couple of bad experiences with entrepreneurs who weren’t providing what they said they were. 

“Please know, if you are a bad actor in this space, you don’t see the pain point. You go away. Kids are harmed. Parents are angry. And kids lose. Schools lose,” he said.

Given that history, it’s little wonder that Lehmann said most schools approach ed-tech promises with caution.

“Understand that K-12 folks have a learned skepticism of working with entrepreneurs. We’ve all been burned,” he said. “And understand that it is an act of hubris if you think you’re going to change us, if you’re not willing to be changed as well.”



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