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The Q&A: Jackie Lain

In this week's Q&A, we interview Jackie Lain, the president, CEO and founder of Learning List.

Jackie Lain is the president, CEO and founder of Learning List.

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Jackie Lain is the president, CEO and founder of Learning List, an education materials review service company that helps Texas school districts choose the best materials suited to their needs.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: What is your job and how did you end up there?

Jackie Lain: I’m the president and CEO of Learning List.

Prior to starting this company, I was an associate executive director for the Texas Association of School Boards and their director of governmental relations. In that position, I watched as the Legislature transformed the instructional materials industry from one that was very centralized in the purchasing ... to a much more decentralized system where districts have far more flexibility, more accountability and limited funds.

As the law changed, districts increasingly were coming to me complaining that they were tired of buying instructional materials that didn’t meet the state’s standards or live up to the claims publishers made.

Districts spend more on instructional materials annually than on any other regular annual purchase. So this was a very important area when it came to helping districts be more efficient and have effective instructors.

Prior to joining TASB, I had worked for Standard & Poor's and I had been their national director of public affairs. In that position, I learned and saw how high quality independent information helps make a marketplace work efficiently.

So when the Legislature deregulated the purchasing of materials, I thought, “Gosh, they’ve created a market where there is no organized marketplace, and there is no transparent information to help educators make informed purchasing decisions for these types of products.” And that’s why I started Learning List to address those problems.

We provide three different types of independent reviews of each material: You have the alignment to the state standards and now to AP standards; a review of the materials’ key academic attributes; and the key technology requirements, including which devices, browsers and operating systems the material works on.

Then we do an in-depth analysis of the instructional content design to help educators know before they buy what the different components are, how the instruction is organized and what some challenges they might face while using the product.

Trib+Edu: You’ve been doing this for awhile so you’ve seen the trends in the instructional materials industry. What have you seen change over the years?

Lain: We’ve been doing this for three years. Over the three years, we’ve seen more online products come to the market and many more smaller publishers enter the market — and those are publishers without proven track records. That makes the buying decision more complex based on the sheer volume of products available.

We have also seen as more and more online products become available ... districts are inundated with resource clutter. There are so many resources and learning tools, it’s difficult for teachers to incorporate them meaningfully into their instruction. ...

The other crazy thing we see are the swings in prices among materials for the same grade and subject, even among comprehensive and supplemental materials. ...

What we see in prices is that there is no direct relationship between the alignment percentage, in other words, how thoroughly the material covers the state’s standards and the price. What we’re seeing as cost drivers are what used to be the ancillaries, the stuff that publishers use to throw in for free. Now those things are now components of an online product or features of an online product, and you pay for them.

Buying decisions have become far more complex. In fact, I say buying an online instructional material is far more like buying a car than it was like buying a textbook. ...

Today, districts before they begin a selection process, define how much product they need to buy because they’re going to be paying for all the additional features and all the additional components.

There are more and more adaptive products. … Adaptive products are terrific as far as helping teachers differentiate their instruction for different groups of students, but they’re far, far more complicated to review.

Trib+Edu: How does the trend towards online and technology heavy materials impact school districts? How are school districts able to provide a high quality education?

Lain: In some cases, but not always, I think there was a misassumption by the Legislature that online products would be less expensive than print products … but that’s not always true. ...

It has become incumbent upon districts to check and verify the instructional content of the material, the alignment and the content generally to make sure it will fulfill their students’ and teachers’ needs.

But now they have to review the technology side of each product and make sure it will work in their district’s infrastructure. ...

We review those technology requirements for districts because when you’re looking at six or seven products per grade level that’s a heck of a lot of time for an instructional technologist to spend testing technology requirements ... to figure out if this is something they can use.

Trib+Edu: How do you keep up with the curriculum alignments and standards?

Lain: We review products to the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) and we watch when the State Board of Education adopts new TEKS.

When they’re about to adopt new TEKS, the state board calls publishers to submit new products, and so do we. We invite publishers to submit new products that are aligned with those new TEKS.

Our teachers are all veteran teachers. We don’t have any new teachers reviewing materials for us. They have to have at least five years experience; on average, our teachers have 17 years of experience.

Over 80 percent of the people we hire to review materials have a master’s or doctorate in education.

They also have to have extensive experience aligning curriculum. So we put them through rigorous training before they start and as they do each alignment, they get ongoing feedback. ...

Just because a teacher is a great teacher does not mean the teacher has the patience or the ability to do an alignment analysis. That is a very technical skill. ...

We keep up with what’s going on in the Legislature and the state board, and make sure that we’re keeping pace with districts’ needs.

Trib+Edu: What is techquity?

Lain: Techquity is a new word that refers to will students have equitable access to the same instructional content with or without technology. This is an issue that is plaguing districts — wealthy and poor. ...

To achieve techquity, it’s not just whether you can download or print the product. It’s if you can download and print the core instructional content — the actual lessons, not the supplemental activities.

It’s not just student access to the instructional content, but also parent access. This is something that is a growing problem for districts and will be for a while. ...

Some products provide a parent portal that gives the parent the same access to the content as the student. … Parent alienation is something I’m really watching as districts implement online materials. I think that is going to be a growing challenge.

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