SXSWedu Recap: District-Charter Partnerships, Diversity in Edtech, Better Teachers

Howdy from Austin! It’s been a jam-packed week at SXSWedu, an annual conference promoting education innovation. Over the past few days, I’ve gotten to engage in conversations I’m not hearing anywhere else. Summaries and takeaways from three of my favorite panels and events below:

  1. Effective Partnerships: Charters and ISDs panel with Dr. Daniel King (superintendent of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District), Tom Torkelson (co-founder of the charter school network IDEA Public Schools), and Bellwether’s very own Mary Wells.

Those wanting to understand how to advance district-charter collaboration can look to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. The partnership between IDEA Public Schools and the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District (PSJA) is a rare example of a partnership that’s been fruitful for both sides and should ultimately benefit children throughout the Valley. Together, the two entities have designed joint human capital systems for functions such as staff recruitment and new teacher training. Although other cities can look to the IDEA-PSJA district-charter partnership as a successful model, panelists cautioned against underestimating the time, effort, and stakeholder buy-in this type of collaboration requires. IDEA attempted a similar partnership with Austin ISD in the past, but the political dynamic became ugly—and they eventually had to end their partnership. And elsewhere in the country, including New York City, you often hear about charter and traditional district schools as hostile competitors.

  1. Diversity Need in Educational Technology panel with Jaime Casap (Google), Timothy Jones (Martha’s Table, a DC-based nonprofit), and Stephanie Cerda (Manor Independent School District).

The panelists discussed what we know about the lack of diversity in tech companies—Google released abysmal stats last year—and why we must ensure edtech companies don’t follow that same route. Despite the ample discussion around how edtech and personalized learning have the potential to close academic gaps for historically marginalized students, there’s little discourse around why edtech companies are often not diverse from a human capital standpoint. The panelists and audience discussed a few strategies: encouraging tech companies to be more inclusive through staff trainings, raising parent awareness of tech careers, and supporting teachers in high-needs communities to better articulate opportunities in coding and computer science to students. The breadth of these strategies—and the fact that they’re aimed to influence different stakeholder groups—shows there are no silver bullet solutions. But if the edtech industry can develop a more diverse workforce, it could ultimately act as a leader for the rest of the tech sector.

  1. Great Instructors: Are They Born or Built? keynote session with Elizabeth Green (co-founder and CEO of Chalkbeat) and David Epstein (reporter at ProPublica).

If you’ve read Green’s Building a Better Teacher, you know her argument that teaching is a science that must be taught—teachers are made, not born. Yet Epstein argues just the opposite: there are some people who are innately better at teaching, and the profession would benefit if there were more teachers with the cognitive skills that make one born to be a teacher. The two of them duked it out, each one offering research studies and anecdotes to support their theory.

Although both had compelling arguments, I took issue with a couple of their points: Green pointed to Teach For America as proof that the best and brightest don’t always become great teachers, but the research evidence she cited was not rigorous. And Epstein used sports analogies to bolster his argument, noting that professional athletes are born with certain raw skills, but it doesn’t make sense to conflate cognitive and physical skills. I walked away thinking about the policy implications of each of their arguments—Epstein’s stance, for instance, implies that the teaching pipeline must change, by creating different or more selective entrance requirements into teacher prep programs.

SXSWedu continues through Thursday afternoon; follow @SXSWedu for more updates.