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Q&A: McGraw-Hill Schools Head Talks Common Core, Company's Future

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Like many of the traditional publishers in education, McGraw-Hill finds itself at a time of stark change. It is transitioning its print products into digital ones, developing and acquiring technology, and restructuring its company. By the end of the year, McGraw-Hill plans to spin off its education division into a separate company from its financial services. Caton.Dan.jpgAll of this is happening as technology becomes more available in the classroom and the Common Core State Standards adopted by all but four states looms as a likely game-changer for curriculum and assessment.

So it is probably appropriate that I spoke last week with Dan Caton, president of school education for McGraw-Hill, over the bells, whistles, and buzz of the trade floor at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference, the annual snapshot of how the ed-tech landscape is changing. We talked about the direction of the company, trends in education technology, and whether he believes in the Common Core. Here's an edited transcript:

Education Week: At the Content in Context educational publishers conference in June, you said something very interesting about Common Core. You said it was either not going to be around or would be something completely different in five to six years. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Dan Caton, president of McGraw-Hill School Education: Something as revolutionary as the Common Core standards—and they are really significantly different from what most teachers have been asked to do— requires a significant amount of preparation. It requires training, professional development, and, we believe, instructional materials that have been built to help people implement something like the Common Core. It requires leadership at the school, it requires a lot of change, and it requires some significant funding if it's really going to be put in place.

Any significant change in education like that, that doesn't have that kind of support, is bound to have difficulties being widely assimilated. Some of that is starting to take place. We are certainly seeing more professional development. We are seeing some money, such as Race to the Top, that supports Common Core, go into place. But it still is not a widely well-understood change. That's why we created materials fully built from the ground up to be implemented with the Common Core standards. If they have the will to implement it with fidelity, then I think it can be one of the most successful things in the country. If not, it's going to have a short shelf life.

EdWeek: Do you think the deadline will come for this and states won't be ready? Do you think states will actually see the writing on the wall and start backing out?

Caton: Some states might say, 'We don't have the funding to implement this or we can't do the professional development to implement this.' So they would look for other solutions to their educational issues. What's been a great movement of coming together under a single set of standards could then be less consistent and that could hurt.

EdWeek: There are some changes at McGraw-Hill, too—a new CEO, and at the end of the year splitting into two separate companies. How will the company's offerings and its approach to education change along with its corporate changes?

Caton: I've now spent some significant time with [new McGraw-Hill Education CEO and former IBM executive, Lloyd] 'Buzz' Waterhouse. I think he is going to be a real change agent for the whole industry. He has a significant amount of experience at technology, but his 26 years at IBM weren't just technology, it was educational technology.

He understands that because of the structure of the education system, it's going to be faster and easier in higher ed and that it will take more time to truly transform K-12 education. He is very supportive of all the steps we will have to go through to work with our educational partners to provide all of the things— the infrastructure, the training, the instructional materials, the assessment— that is going to truly make a digital transformation.

EdWeek: What does the digital transformation mean? There are publishers transitioning from printing textbooks to developing technology. Is it that binary for McGraw-Hill?

Caton: The transformation for us has been ongoing for quite awhile actually. We have not published a single publication purely in print for years. Everything we do is available digitally. Obviously, what's more important to us is not just doing digital iTexts. That's what some schools want and we provide it, and we provide it on our own, with partners, as well as with a partner like Apple, who has a whole different iText. That's a transition we've been going through for some time.

What's more of a transition for us and for everyone, is to get toward a more data-driven, personalized education. That's something we are working on. And we already have some products for that, using data on a daily basis to change the presentation of instruction for students. And the mode, whether it's teacher involvement or tutor involvement, or whether it's through a computer or computer game or whatever, might help the student at that particular time and present exactly what they need.

EdWeek: How does the content get to the student, in a different way than it has before?
Caton: It's through games, online tutoring, teacher instruction, and even occasionally books (laughs). But it's the algorithms driven by the student performance, calculated by the computer, that decides which things students are going to do in the day.

EdWeek: I wrote about the pay-for-performance deal that McGraw-Hill entered with Western Governors University. Given the trends we are talking about, is that something you would consider in K-12?

Caton: We have considered it at times. When you are dealing with a private university, it's a little easier to organize all the conditions around something like that. We have discussed it but it's just been a little difficult given the way funding goes on in public schools in K-12. So at this time we aren't offering that.

EdWeek: Can you explain how the funding might prohibit something like that?

Caton: Typically, schools work out their budgets on a year-by-year basis. Especially these days when they can't be sure what's going on with tax revenues, they are a little nervous about committing to anything in the future. As a result, a pay-for-performance arrangement, which ideally, logically, would take multiple years to put in place, becomes difficult for a school district to commit to something that would occur several years down the road.

EdWeek: What have you seen at ISTE that has surprised you or caught your eye?

Caton: The trend in multiple devices is huge—a growing diversity of devices, platforms, and so on. It's refreshing because it shows how much innovation there is, but on the other hand it's going to be distressing for school districts because of that diversity of platforms and devices. It makes it very difficult for them to have a solution that they can depend on. We believe that by being curators of much of this digital content and some of the solutions, we are a source that's reliable. So we spend a lot of time talking to new providers, people just entering this world. We partner with many of them and as a result can offer our teachers and students the kinds of reliable solutions to education that I think they are counting on.

EdWeek: How much of a hassle is it to have to develop products for different devices or operating systems?

Caton: It's a significant problem. It's a big investment. In some cases with new technology it's a roll of the dice, because you don't know that technology will be adopted. But we do that because we feel our mission is to serve all students and all teachers, so that requires us to invest across the board and we do it. Often we find we are right, and sometimes we are wrong.

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