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Smart Cities: Time for Old School to Meet Online in DC

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This is part two in the Smart Cities: DC series. Read part 1 here.

Not surprisingly, the biggest private employment sector in metro D.C. is defense and aerospace. But the nation's capital is also the most important confluence of online learning organizations on the planet.

K12 located in Herndon, is the publicly traded online learning leader (NYSE: LRN). They run 33 statewide virtual schools, and support hundreds of district programs. Last week they released an Academic Report ( reviewed here) revealing the strengths and challenges of online learning.

Other D.C. area public education companies include:

  • Strayer Education (NASDAQ: STRA) offers undergraduate and graduate programs on 92 campuses and online. Like other for-profits, Strayer saw enrollments declined the last two years give new competition and federal regulations.
  • Rosetta Stone (NYSE: RST) the leader in online language learning, is headquartered in Arlington.
  • Discovery Education a subsidiary of Discovery Communications, (NASDAQ: DISCA) is a nonfiction video content giant.


Blackboard is the leader in higher ed learning platforms. Blackboard acquired EdLine in 2011 and made it the K-12 product lead. Blackboard is building a consulting services business around online and blended higher education. Providence Equity Partners acquired Blackboard in 2011.

2U , in Landover, helps brand name colleges develop next-gen programs. Founded by John Katzman, 2U is backed by Bessemer,City LIght Capital, Highland, and Redpoint.

Echo360 is powering the real revolution in higher education with a learning platform that powers blended learning at 10% of US institutions. It is backed, in part, by Revolution Growth.

Saylor Foundation offers 250 free college courses.

Other edtech companies of note include:

  • Washington Post, parent of Kaplan, is in D.C but Kaplan is headquartered in Florida.
  • ePals is a social learning platform.
  • EverFi provides online financial literacy and substance abuse curriculum.
  • Mathalicious provides applied math videos (and occasionally goes off on Khan).


Connections Education , Laureate, and the other Sterling spinouts are up the road in Baltimore (as detailed in Baltimore blog).

There's a growing list of incubators in metro D.C. supporting startups including a few edtech companies. LearnZillion (a Learn Capital portfolio company) is housed at NewSchools office (16th & R) and has more than 2,000 instructional videos produced by dream team teachers (see feature).

New Markets Venture Partners is headquartered north of D.C. and has a big education portfolio (as detailed in the Baltimore blog). There are a couple private equity firms (like Carlyle and Revolution) that will look at an education deal. There was a pretty well attended edtech meetup in December.

National Advocates. National edreform groups headquartered in and around D.C. include:


Advocates for quality options include:


Every few weeks, the leading pro-Core, pro-choice education reform advocacy organizations and related human capital shops get together in D.C. For at least the next few years they have a Department that is largely in sync.

Think tanks that weigh in on education include American Enterprise Institute, Center for American Progress, Brookings,Fordham, Heritage, and theNational Center on Education and the Economy. There's alsoSociety for Science and the Public, the science fair folks, and The National Academies, the experts that opine broadly.

Business advocates for better education include Business Higher Education Forum (see November Getting Smart feature), Business Roundtable, Council on Competitiveness, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Digital learning advocates include the Digital Learning Now!, run by John Bailey, the country's second edtech director, and International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL, I'm on the board), led by Susan Patrick, the country's third edtech director. There's also SIIA and Educause, the higher ed edtech group that hosts NGLC (see 3 part series on 20 next gen models).

UNCF and National Council of La Raza collaborate on Gates Millennium Scholars.

The National Commission on Teaching and America's Future is doing some cool work on learning studios, a challenge-and team-based approach to interdisciplinary studies.

All the associations and employee groups are in D.C. as well including governors, chiefs,state boards, school boards, state edtech directors,district edtech directors, elementary and secondary principals, superintendents, and urban districts.

And there are lots of advisors including Education Counsel, Penn Hill Group, Grayling, and Whiteboard Advisors.

Eight Observations. Urban reform is brutal. It is much harder to transform a failing school than to start a good one. It is easier and cheaper to build a high performing network of schools from scratch than to turnaround a bureaucracy.

Good authorizing is hard work. PCSB is often more interventionist (e.g., fix this or we won't renew your charter) than my early conceptions of on/off authorizing, but it's working.

Like most cities, public charter schools don't have good facilities in D.C. One one hand, the mayor promised to provide a small annual charter school facilities allocation, but the chancellor is closing 15 more schools and won't give charters access to empty buildings. As noted Friday, school operations should be separated from facilities management.

Scholarships and college bound aspirations have some 'pull power.' Making college not just possible but expected is making a difference in D.C. However, scholarships are expensive because of runaway college costs--it's not a cheap solution to the dropout crisis.

Given the Princeton like brain trust in D.C., it's embarrassing that the schools were so bad for so long. Great networks and groups like Charter Board Partners are making it easier for smart people to plug in and make a difference.

D.C. spends more than $19,000 per student which is more than 2.5 times what Mooresville spends (as detailed in the #SmartSeries paperFunding the Shift and in a Getting Smart feature). There is funding available to support blended learning implementations.

It doesn't look like the D.C. schools leverage community assets well including ED, NASA, Smithsonian, Library of Congress, etc. Every museum should have a flex school associated with it (as suggested here). Imagine a high school that spent a year deeply embedded in four different Smithsonian museums.

For all the talk of innovation in D.C., there isn't much in the schools. Despite all the next-gen brain power in the 20036 zip code and the online learning capability in the 20171 zip code, the shift to personal digital learning is in a very early stage in the nation's capital.

Next week Smart Cities will visit the Twin Cities. Who wouldn't want to visit Minnesota in February?

Thanks to Margaret Angel, Naomi DeVeaux, Susan Patrick, Jonathan Oglesby, John Bailey, Jeanne Allen, Debbie Lister, John Troy, and others who contributed to this blog.

Digital Learning Now, K12, and Connections are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners.

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