The Wireless Generation* sale to News Corp is interesting on a few levels, including what’s next for suddenly growing education player News Corp. Intrepid Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss manages to find the one angle that isn’t interesting, basically complaining that this must be shady because it’s for-profit (I think Steven Pearlstein’s job is safe for now…). In fact, the problem is not the existence of Wireless Gen, it’s that we don’t have a dozen companies like it.
If we’re serious about supporting teachers in their work then performance tools like the kind Wireless develops are critical. Giving teachers the ability to access and use data in meaningful ways has broad implications for instruction as well as productivity and cost-control. Wireless is also on the leading edge of work around quasi-open source textbooks, data systems, and reading tools and School of One is an interesting model with a bunch of implications, too. Many of these kind of innovations are unlikely to come from the public sector because of how little money is spent on R & D in education but also how it’s spent – and is likely to be for the foreseeable future. And the bad incentives and politically-driven marketplace in education hardly helps.
But, while it’s great that Wireless succeeded and will continue to, the sale also signals a structural issue in the field. Midsized companies in K-12 education are pretty consistently acquired by large companies. Is that really a good thing? Today the K-12 education market (a $650 billion one) is dominated by a handful of big players and then thousands of really small ones (with mixed results and little accountability or meaningful cues about quality). There is a mostly missing middle. That matters for innovation, or the lack thereof, as well as the flow of investment. And it’s a reason why we don’t have a dozen Wireless Gens and dozens of other ventures pushing the envelope, too.
*I’ve consulted for Wireless Generation but had no stake or involvement in the sale.