Smart Cities: Boston

Blog Series, Learning, Learning Innovations, Smart Cities / by

Boston has been a leader in education for more than 400 years. Drawing from its existing network of universities, learning companies, innovation economy, and technical talent, there are more than 130 education technology and learning-oriented startups in the Boston area.

Start me up! Today, tech veteran Eileen Rudden, co-founder Marissa Lowman, and angel investor Jean Hammond unveiled LearnLaunch, which will provide support services to edtech startups and LearnLabs, an edtech accelerator.

Former NewSchools Venture Fund (NSVF) partner Jordan Meranus recently launched Ellevation, focused on the needs of English Language Learners (ELL). Over this past year, the company has expanded to serve more than 100 district partners in 12 states and is growing most rapidly in Massachusetts.

BetterLesson makes it easy for teachers to find and share resources. The company just crossed the 150,000 teacher mark and passed the one million resources on the site milestone.

EnCompass Education Solutions addresses the needs of families seeking information about autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, and other special needs with myEdGPS, a site to help families navigate through information and services for their children.

Boston funders include Atlas Venture with investments including Grockit, LearnBoost, SimpleTuition, and English Central; and Spark Capital with investments in Academia.edu, Altius, and DIY.

Online/offline. Harvard and MIT partnered to create edX, an anchor event in the year of theMOOC. Berkeley and UT joined the party and so did database powerhouse 10gen signaling the
Shift From Curiosity to Employability.

Despite being home to an early online leader, Maynard-based Virtual High School,Massachusetts is a laggard when it comes to online learning — actually capping virtual school enrollments at 500–and prompting protests from iNACOL. 

Partnership & Portfolio. We don’t often think of consistency as an innovation but it’s a welcomed differentiator in urban education. Mayoral control enabled Tom Payzant’s decade long push that made Boston the best urban district in America by his retirement in 2006. The rise was backed by Boston Plan for Excellence, a local ed fund focused on 1) preparing and supporting diverse, highly effective teachers for Boston’s schools, 2) cultivating ambitious instruction in every classroom with a coherent, data-driven approach to school improvement, and 3) creating break-the-mold new schools that ensure all students are prepared to succeed in college and career.

Payzant was also a portfolio pioneer launching 19 autonomous pilot schools includingTechBoston Academy,Boston Arts AcademyFenway High, andMission Hill with the support of local and national foundations and the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE).

A 1999 visit to the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens (West of Boston outside the 495 loop) with Ted Sizer taught me more about good schools than any other day before or since. Sizer had retired from Brown and he and his wife Nancy had taken on the role of co-principal. Like me, CCE and the Boston Pilots learned a lot from Sizer and theCoalition of Essential Schools.

More recently, Boston Day and Evening Academy has created proficiency-based pathways that allow students to progress based on demonstrated mastery rather than seat time. Students benefit from wraparound services, digital tools that help create a personalized approach, and a school open 12 hours a day.

Education Pioneers h as already attracted nearly 300 talented leaders and managers to advance important Boston education initiatives. “There is tremendous opportunity in Boston to support our teachers and school leaders to advance success for students,” said Kimberly Zouzoua, local Executive Director, Education Pioneers. Over the next two years Education Pioneers will attract an additional 100 leaders and managers to Boston.

The Boston Opportunity Agenda is a collaboration between the City of Boston andBoston Public Schools (BPS), which “have come together to ensure all residents have access to the education necessary for the upward economic mobility, civic engagement, and lifelong learning for themselves and their families” according to its website. Boston Parent’sOrganizing Network keeps the voice of parents front and center for BPS.

BPS has continued steady improvement under Carol Johnson’s six-year leadership resulting improving graduation rates and recognition from the Council of Great City Schools. The BPS acceleration agenda is a solid portfolio strategy ripe for an injection of online and blended learning .

Case Study. Before the end of the decade, they will teach a case at Harvard Business School (HBS) on the challenging transition the education publishers made to digital learning service providers. Local control and the long tail of print textbooks are making the shift extended and uneven. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, headquartered in Boston, is emerging from restructuring with a former Microsoft exec at the helm. Pearson, McGraw, and Cengage all have a significant base in Boston.

Alleyoop is an internal Pearson startup aiming at the consumer college prep market. Another new Pearson offering that emerged from the Boston higher ed team is Propero--a low cost college degree alternative.

The most amazing transition is Curriculum Associate‘s three-year pivot from workbook publisher to developer with the launch of i-Ready, an adaptive instructional platform.

Boston & Beyond. The Nellie Mae Education Foundation in Quincy supports personalized learning efforts in metro Boston and throughout New England. Executive Director Nick Donohue recently joined me the iNACOL board and sponsors CompetencyWorks.

JFYNetWorks is a blended learning program that helps teachers make effective use of online resources. JFYNet Blended Learning Specialists works with teachers throughout the year to align digital resources to students’ needs. Their goal is “to make learning effective and exciting for both students and teachers.” While they are Boston-based, they serve more than 6,000 students per year in 14 districts in 3 states.

Boston edupreneurs will continue to influence learning nationwide. But it’s also clear that while Boston is the third most important source of learning innovations on the planet (after Silicon Valley and NYC) these innovations have not yet widely permeated K-12 schools.

Curriculum Associates and Pearson are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners. This blog first appeared on EdWeek.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is founder and CEO of Getting Smart. He is also a partner in Learn Capital and a director of iNACOL, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners, Strive for College, and Bloomboard.

1 Comments

Tom Vander Ark /

I missed Testive, a Techstars company focused bringing adaptivity and engagement to standardized testing. They are focused on SAT test prep with SAT Habit.