A Brief History of the Ed-Tech Market and Why Startups Should Pay Attention

Founder, CEO & Chief Data Wizard at Schoolrunner
Frame HTML example. Does your SIS look like this?

One of the most common questions I get asked when I describe Schoolrunner is, “Why doesn’t this already exist?”

I asked the question myself when my friend, a high school founder and principal, started calling me about his technology challenges. It took me years to fully understand the misdirected incentives that have gotten us where we are so I think it’s worth documenting.

Starting with the rise of the web-based student information system (SIS) market back in the 1990s, schools were getting their basic needs met by these systems:

  • Scheduling: Giant constrained optimization tool to match all the kids who need to take Algebra I with the available rooms, teachers, periods etc. Complex but necessary.
  • Basic Data: Who showed up and did they pass or fail? (For example, attendance and course grades.)
  • State Reporting: States started passing laws requiring districts to report on how many kids got suspended, failed geometry, etc.

That last bullet point is where it all went sideways. Once a piece of software solves a regulatory requirement for customers, there’s very little incentive to innovate. So when you look at that list of abilities, it’s basically stuck in the 1990s. The market leader in the space was still based around HTML Frames when I started Schoolrunner back in 2012.

Fundamentally though, the SIS market still focuses on administrator needs rather than teacher needs. And it’s a great lesson as an entrepreneur that even if–at a high level–it seems like what you’re building already exists, there’s usually still room to innovate.

If you want to learn more, check out Paul Smith’s great deep dive on the history of the SIS market.


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