Leading Change & Innovation in Today's Educational Environment

Published November 23, 2016

A Q&A with David Levin and Denver Frederick on The Business of Giving radio show.

Denver Frederick, host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City, interviewed David Levin about the evolving educational environment and McGraw-Hill's part in this change. Below is the audio recording and complete transcript of David's interview.

David Levin and Denver Frederick on The Business of Giving radio showDenver: When there is a discussion of how entire industries have been disrupted and radically altered, one that often doesn't get included in that conversation is education. In fact, some fret that our classrooms and the way teaching and learning are conducted are quite similar to the way it was done 50, even 100 years ago. But in actuality, things are changing, and quite dramatically, and there is no one more on the cutting edge of that change and transformation than McGraw-Hill. And it is a great pleasure for me to welcome to the show their President and CEO, David Levin. Good evening, David, and thanks for coming in!

David: Denver, thank you very much.

Denver: You know there have been some significant changes in the ownership and management of McGraw-Hill over the last several years that everyone may not be familiar with. So let's begin by having you tell us what they have been, and precisely who is McGraw-Hill.

David: So I think the story really begins just over three years ago. In 2012, the investors in what was McGraw-Hill, a very old, established company– a 128-year-old company– said that the education business was passé, and the board decided to sell it. It was considered, frankly, a bit of a basket case, and the company was put up to bid. A third-party bought it; an investor group bought it. And that really provoked an opportunity to rebirth the whole company. So, we're now a completely stand-alone, focused-only-on-education business, completely independent and separately-owned. Nothing to do with the other company, which is actually now called Standard & Poor's. We're just McGraw-Hill.

Denver: Very interesting. Well, tell us a little bit about that company, what you do, how it works, and the educational experience you're trying to create for today's student.

David: Well, as you've correctly said, the world of education has been… not quite in aspic… but very, very slow in evolving. And that's not for lack of trying; it's because it's complex to change education. Parents themselves are not that keen necessarily for their children to have something radically different. So, there's an innate sort of conservatism (with a small "c") around how we do this. And, of course, you only get one shot at fifth grade, so having somebody gleefully tell you they're about to experiment with your child is not going to promote a great teacher-parent dialogue.

Denver: Great point.

David: People want confidence as they go into this. We've embarked on this very much saying, "Look, we can see that there is a whole range of things which can come." And in the last few years, we've put a lot of energy and effort into: How do we create a software that supports learners and educators? And the educator's bit is very important, and I know we'll come back to that.

Denver: What does this software do? One thing that I understand, David, is that it creates feedback. So how does that feedback work for the student? And how does that feedback work for the teacher?

David: That's the key point. If we think about the way that people learn: people learn by trying things, by experimenting with things, and by actually trying and failing. Much of the education system is unfortunately aligned so that people are too scared to fail. You only need to think about the big summative assessments, the end of period tests that people do. It's victory or death.

I get a number, and that's my badge for life. Contrast that with the way that young people learn when they're playing a game. They will take their character through the maze; they'll die 50 times, but they'll succeed because they will work out how to cross the maze. That's really called achieving mastery. So, what we wanted to do is to create in software a way that people could fail without having a penalty. They could make the failure a part of their learning and, at the same time, give great feedback to them and to their teacher. Depending on how old they are, their capacity to absorb feedback– and different sorts of feedback– will change. But to an educator, the understanding of where somebody is struggling in a very specific way… not they're struggling with this concept as a whole, but here's the individual step in the maze where they keep stumbling… allows the teacher who's great to intervene and make a difference.

Denver: You just said a moment ago the word "mastery." Tell us a little bit about the concept of mastery.

David: There's a great piece of research done by a psychologist, Benjamin Bloom, in the last century actually–which sounds a bit funny to say, but there it is. We haven't picked it up. He did some tests on how well people performed under different learning environments. So, he looked into lecture theaters and saw that there was a classic curve – a certain number of people got A's, and the balancing number roughly got D's at the bottom; you just apply the curve. And we've all been in places where people say, "Well, it's the curve. You're going to fit on the curve."

He then said, "Now, let me try a different way of teaching and instruction," which is to check the individual is confident, that they have mastered the first step before they progress to the second. So, in other words, before you open Chapter 2, you've got to show that you understood Chapter 1. Before you do Lecture 2, you've got to really understand Lecture 1. And he found that the same group of students performed dramatically better. All the grades moved up. Everybody. And the average moved up a whole grade.

So, mastery in teaching is a methodology which basically says, "I'm going to make sure that you understand the first step before you get on to the second." There's no such thing as A, B, C, or D. Did you know it, or did you not?… which is probably a better way of thinking about all the subjects that we learned.

Denver: Speaking of this feedback, I can see how the student gets feedback in terms of whether they're getting the lesson or not. I can see how it helps the teacher as well because they can look at their class now, all as individuals, and find out where they're struggling or what they're getting. Does this feedback help you at all at McGraw-Hill as you develop your content?

David: Dramatically. So if we think about the way an editor used to work, we'd have a learned group of professionals who would be sitting saying, "Well, I think we need to look at Chapter 3. Did you see such and such white paper? It's time to edit it or revise it." And then that would be a discussion amongst experts in a closed room. Suddenly, we've got the intrusion of the student in reality, because what we've done is we've studied that content with lots of probes and questions, and we know exactly how the students are performing.

So now, the editing is very much more data-driven. What we're able to do is say, "Well, look. We're trying to communicate this basic concept, and we can see that they're stumbling here." That means either the subject is too broad, so they've split it up: Give us more information there; add some additional resource; put a video in; put a simulation in…although the language is not clear enough. And we now are able to measure and track that… if you change just a few words in a paragraph, you can actually dramatically change the proportion of people who get it right. And if you want to put the right video in, you can do the same thing.

Denver: So you are developing content to improve outcomes, and you're being informed by those outcomes.

David: Absolutely. So it's a wonderful, perfect circle of reinforcing yourself and getting better.

Denver: That is fascinating. How about parents? Does this adaptive software help parents with their interaction with their child… as it relates to school?

David: I think the helping parents– an important aspect of this software is: parents can be confused that their children are being encouraged to try things and to express their confidence in them. They're being asked questions that the parents would never ask: How confident are you in this answer? And sometimes that can be a bit disconcerting. At other times, parents are sort of sitting saying, "Why are they doing this?"

The good news for us, however, is that when parents see their child progressing, and they really say, "Wow! They've learned it." We have people who go away for summer school for Math; they take away one of these adaptive Math programs. Then they come back. And the parents are delighted because the kids got engaged, and they really went for it– which is really all that a parent wants.

Denver: That's absolutely right. What is the cost differential, David, between this adaptive software… this digital way of teaching and learning… and the standard textbook that we're all used to?

David: Well, it's very traditional to think about these things. You've got to separate, of course, Higher Ed and K-12. And this is overwhelming. This revolution in using software in education has really started in the Higher Ed and is only now just coming into K-12. In Higher Ed, roughly speaking, it's halving the cost to the student.

Denver: That's dramatic.

David: So it's a very significant drop in price. I think what's more important is that it's improving the outcomes. But the fact that it does both is very good.

Denver: Is there a lot of data on outcomes at this stage of the game… in terms of how this approach is faring against the traditional one?

David: So the database is building. On some of the programs– the most mature– there's very good third-party data confirming that people see it, and get it, and actually can improve the data. On things which are one and two years old, the best things that we've got is the anecdotes and delivered experiences of faculty who sit and say, "I'm abandoning the experiment of comparing and using it …and not using it, because the answer is obvious." So we have that. I think there's a lot more to happen over time on research. But what's pretty clear now is that those faculty who embrace and adopt this never want to go back.

Denver: You have an interesting challenge. You're running an old business– textbooks– alongside a new business. How do you manage that challenge? And as far as your revenues are concerned: How much is coming from textbooks? And how much is coming from digital?

David: Again, there's a big split between the Higher Ed and the K-12 world. In Higher Ed, we're already over 60% in software. So, that's the story, and people will keep thinking about us as the textbook company. But actually we're selling more in absolute terms in the digital way. And that's the actual result for the first half of this year: 62%.

In K-12, simply because the infrastructure is lagging, and because the complexities of putting things into schools are much greater sometimes than they are into colleges– because you've got lots of other constituencies to deal with– meaning that we're further behind. And it's probably now just sitting between a quarter and a third of the revenues in software.

Denver: So what you're doing here, if I get this right, you're sort of flipping the classroom. Would that be correct? Where the lecture and the rote material is being learned through the software– which is going to change dramatically what the classroom experience is like. Speak of that a bit, if you would.

David: Denver, that's a really exciting comment, and you've got it exactly right. The learn by rote–this sort of practice– the effort, the donkey work of learning: this is what the software is brilliant at doing. And if you think that the biggest scarcity in education is that great moment of teacher time, the question is: How do you focus that? So, what teaching in this way allows… or using these sorts of techniques and technologies allow… is it allows you to say, "Student arrived prepared, and we're going to use that teacher time on the things that are difficult or where you are struggling– as opposed to the classic thing of somebody in front of a classroom, leading a class for where the average is, understanding that the top third is bored silly, and the bottom third is completely lost, so two-thirds of the classroom is not being utilized.

Now if you've got this other way of teaching, your so-called "flipping the classroom," what you're actually doing is engaging the whole of that student group because wherever they are, the teacher or the instructor is able to deal with them and their specific problems, rather than broadcast that blindly to the middle of the pack.

Denver: Yeah, and it would seem like it's probably more of a seminar experience when in the classroom you are getting probably more interactions and collaborations and working on projects. So, it's completely different than just sitting there passively listening to a teacher, as you just described.

David: It's a much more active experience. It's much more challenging. It's much more demanding. It's much better for the students. And, frankly, it's outstanding for the teachers, but it does demand more of them.

Denver: You said a few moments ago how a parent of a fifth grader is going to be worried about this kind of change because they only go through fifth grade once. Well, let me ask you about the teachers. Are they threatened by this? Everybody is afraid of robotics; everybody is afraid of artificial intelligence coming and taking their jobs away. Whether those fears are warranted or not, I'd be curious about how teachers feel about this, and whether there might be a divide between the seasoned teacher and a younger person who is new to the field.

David: Well, I don't think it's about age. I think it's very much about how they see themselves in the context of the classroom. And when I say that, I think the crucial thing is understanding that this is actually not about replacing the teacher, it's about empowering the teacher.

So, if you can deliver to a teacher the insights on their individual students so that they can intervene betterand interact better, that's just wholly positive. It is true that there are some – I'd call them some "crazy people" out there who talk about robot teachers in the sky, and I can't imagine anything worse. All of us can probably think back about an intervention by a teacher in a grade which changed outcomes for us personally. I can think of one right now; I'm sure you can as well.

The point here is: How do we empower teachers to have more of those transformational moments where they pass the spark of learning across?

Denver: Well, one of the ways that you underscore your belief in the teacher and the role and importance that they play is through something called the "McGraw Prize," which you give out every year. And you give out three of them: one in Higher Ed, one K-12, and one internationally. If you could just say a word or two about each of the winners this year.

David: Well, it's fantastic of you to raise it. It's also an exciting time of year because we made a big change in this prize. It really is given every year to celebrate three outstanding educators: one in Higher Ed, one in K-12, and one internationally. We decided last year that we'd open it to public nomination. So, let me take the opportunity as we're on the radio, to say you really can nominate somebody you think has been transformational. All you've got to do is go to the McGraw Prize website, and you can make your pitch as to why your teacher, or principal, or whoever has changed your life.

Last year, we had three great winners. In the international section, we had a woman called Sakena Yacoobi. Sakina had built an incredible educational network in the middle of the war in Afghanistan, particularly focusing on educating women. She was an incredibly worthy winner, who is making a massive difference in the lives of not just thousands, but hundreds of thousands of people.

Then we went to the K-12 arena. Alberto Carvalho runs the incredibly complex urban district of Miami-Dade. People often talk about what's going on in the inner city education, and they want to apologize for it, or make excuses. If you went to see what Alberto and his team in Miami-Dade are doing, you should be proud. Because it's an incredibly complicated district; it's got lots of challenges, and they are pushing forward in a fantastic way. And, as ever, the role of the leader is very important, and Alberto has done an amazing, amazing job in that. So he was the domestic winner for K-12.

And then the third winner was on the Higher Ed side. It was a gentleman called Anant Agarwal. Anant has been the leader of creating an institution called EdX. EdX is, of course, powering a large number of the MOOCs, and is really bringing education out to hundreds of thousands, indeed, millions of people.

Denver: Let's stick with Higher Ed for just a moment. You have a very innovative trial of sorts underway in partnership with Arizona State University. How does that work?

David: Oh, it's great. ASU is a fantastic institution to work with because they're very demanding and very ambitious. And the program that we've got with them is inside an entity they call the Global Freshman Academy. They wanted to have an approach which would allow more people to access that first year of college, which is so pivotal, which also has the highest failure rate. And so people are reluctant to go and embark on education if they think they're going to fail.

So what the GFA does is it creates, in a low-risk way, a way to go online for your education, have faculty intervention, and in our case, what we provide for them is the single program, which is the most important, Math. We have a fabulous piece of A.I. called ALEKS. The ALEKS program is now being used. I want to say there are 26,000 people who have enrolled since April, or something like that. It's extraordinary. And what the ALEKS program does is: it's adaptive software; it's working with them; it's providing the feedback to them personally. It's also providing feedback to faculty so that they're able to intervene online to students who are struggling and say, "Hey, here's a way," or "I see a number of you are struggling with this concept. We're having a special class on this." Lots of ways that they can convene groups or sub-groups through the process, and at the same time let the software push on with the donkey work of learning.

Denver: There seems to me, David, to be a personal mission of yours, and I've heard you speak about this: It isn't so much access to college; it is getting those who enroll in college through college–And we've done a couple of stories on this on the show– not only at four-year colleges, but particularly at two-year colleges. Talk a little bit about what's happening there, and what you think needs to happen to get more of these students through to the other end… and graduating.

David: Well, I think the two-year college system in the United States is an amazing gem that this country has got that really needs to be recognized, because it's such a powerful vehicle for empowering citizens to improve their lives. And that's great. And so I'm all for getting more people into the system. But before we do that, we better work at how we get to make them successful coming through. The aggregate statistic I think now is sitting at something like 7 out of 10 failed to complete a two-year associate degree in the three years.

Now, there could be a variety of reasons. Some people don't want to go the whole hog there; they only want one credit for something because it gets them a better job. Some people may transfer. There are reasons to look at the data and say that that crude statistic is perhaps a bit misleading, but only a bit. The overwhelming majority of people who enter the system don't get through.

Denver: And not many people realize that.

David: And it's shocking and people say, "Did you mean 7 out of 10 fail to graduate?" "Yeah, I mean 7 out of 10 fail to graduate." And by the way, that's the average. If you're in a big college system in a major urban area, it could be 8 out 10 are failing. So we've really got to focus on that.

The entry point, and I come back to this, is Math. That's the single, biggest failure point. The second largest is actual English. Getting those foundational skills taught up to a level is so important. That's why we're very focused on using the Math programs that we've got around that. I think the innovations we also see: community colleges work more closely with some of their local high schools. Because sometimes you'll convene a group of teachers, and the high school teachers will say, "Well, our students come out well-prepared." And you'll listen to the people in the community college and they'll say, "Well, we're getting the kids from your school, and they're failing." And the two sides have not met and talked. There's a division that we need to address.

Denver: Yeah. Well, I can certainly see how this adaptive software is just the ticket to do this remedial work for those who are entering community colleges or four-year colleges and really need to get their skill level up. You are a global company, and I know from your background, you brought a global perspective to this job. What countries around the world do you have a tremendous amount of admiration or respect for when it comes to their educational system?

David: Well, every country has got unique circumstances, so it is quite intriguing. If you look —there's a wonderful book out there, "The Smartest Kids in the World," and it will extol the virtues of kids in Finland, say. And then you sit down and say, "Well, the diversity level in Finland is actually, as a society, remarkably homogeneous. So, other than what's going on in some of the Inuit areas, the oppressed minority in Finland are Swedish people. That's hardly the basis for thinking about the challenges in education.

But they've got many things right. And top of the list is the status that is accorded to teachers–where teaching is seen as a profession which is of great value and importance to society, and the very best graduates choose to make their way into the profession. That single thing is the biggest difference. You can talk about a hundred of other differences… how we make certain that teaching as a profession is accorded the respect that it is really rightfully due.

Denver: Right. And we give that respect, I think, in this country more to the wide receiver than we do to the teacher. You also have an interesting partnership with United Arab Emirates. Tells us about how that came about.

David: Well, we've just completed a very exciting and amazing program, actually. We've delivered a complete curriculum in Arabic for STEM– every single subject in Science and Math, for every grade of K-12, in one go.

I mean it's a huge project. And something like just over a quarter of a million students went back to school this year and started with a new program in STEM in the UAE. That's all the kids in public school. What's exciting about it is: it's a wholly modern curriculum, and it was developed using absolutely the best things that we've got, and was put out… and is being used in a community which has made education central to defining itself.

Denver: If you don't mind, David, let me ask you a little bit about your background, and especially the story about how you ultimately ended up as the CEO of McGraw-Hill.

David: I went walking with my 17-year-old son. It was a hundred-mile hike. At the time I was a very excited father with my middle son, on the second of our great hikes. And I spent the first day and a half lecturing him: "Follow your heart"… full of the paternal advice that I could push out in the shortest possible time.

And on the second afternoon, he said, "Dad, we've been going for about 15 miles, and all I can hear is more and more of this stuff. And, frankly, I've got a question for you: "How much of that do you feel every day when you go into the office?" Now, at the time I'd been running a global public company, but based in London for eight years. And I suddenly stopped and within a very short period of time, like 10 or 11 steps, I realized that he had completely floored me. And I picked up my phone when we stopped that evening, and I called the Chairman of the company and I said, "It's time. I've got to resign." And I obviously gave a year's notice, but my son, Joe, had given me that gift.

So that took me out of my old job, and what took me into the new job was a feeling that I wanted to do something which had absolute purpose, where I felt it could be something transformational and exciting. And I met the team inside of McGraw who were building this software. Really, I didn't know very much about it. I'd been involved with software before, but I saw this was outstanding. I saw it really played to a deep need in society to make a difference and I thought, "What a wonderful place to be!"

Denver: Yeah. And as you started that, and you began to reimagine who and what this company was to become, one of the first things you did was take your leadership team on a trip to India. What was your thinking behind that? And what did it accomplish?

David: Well, it could've been anywhere, but it was India. And the important thing was: I wanted to take them out of the context of the classic management retreat– four days in a hotel with no windows, to look at one another, and sort of die looking at PowerPoint.

What I wanted to do is to open up the dialogue between us as to why we were doing what we were doing. So we went out to see schools. We went out to see community projects. We went to see great leadership in action in many different contexts: social, government and, of course, in the private sector. And we wanted to see education in all of its facets. See small innovators… see big innovators…see the challenges of classrooms in a very different place. And it served an incredible purpose, because it kindled amongst the group the passion which was there in each of them. And we were able to share that mutual passion for saying, "This is why we're in this space – to make a difference. How are we going to deal with it? And let's look at some great models!" So it really energized us and brought us together.

Denver: Yeah, and I guess it turned out to be so valuable that you're replicating that experience with some of your local cohorts, on a local basis. How are you going about that?

David: We have now taken about – I want to say it's about 70 people out of the leadership who have been on these immersion programs. And during the course of those, they'll visit social programs here in New York City. They could be at Rocking the Boat in the Bronx or Per Scholas, lots of them. We go to many, many of them. And what it does is it really reconnects people with two things: one, themselves, why they're doing this. It reminds them that there's a purpose in their life. And secondly, out in these small organizations– and some of them are quite big organizations–they see great models of civil leadership, and it's inspiring to people to say, "What do I take away from this? How do I re-energize myself? How am I going to lead like that?" And, of course, it makes a real connection to the city in which we all live and work.

Denver: That is absolutely great. With your company changing so profoundly under your leadership, I would imagine that the employee culture has undergone a similar transformation. Tell us a little bit about some of the changes that you have tried to bring about, and some of the challenges that you still may be facing.

David: Well, when you do have a 128-year-old company–which was quite traditional, quite conservative– you've got a lot of changes that you need to do. A tiny one was the first day I came into the office: I wore jeans. And I've systematically, whenever I'm in the office now, I wear casual clothes… jeans or whatever. And I found that it took about six months before some of my colleagues started…first, to shed their ties, and then to loosen up. And, of course, it had a massive effect on new recruits. You walk into the building and see that we're rather different.

It's a trivial thing. But at the same time, it's quite revealing about the inner culture of a place as to how relaxed and how confident the people are, in and of themselves. So there are plenty of days when I have to put on a suit, but changing to jeans was one trivial example. A much more profound one is how we support people to engage with one another in the workplace. Now, we're distributed. We're global, and we're across the United States. We've got a fabulous piece of social software, and we use that almost like Facebook inside of the company. And rather like Facebook, it is active and vibrant. And people are sharing stories of what they've done well, sharing stories of what's not gone so well, learning from one another. And some people would say, "Oh, it's so…what a waste of time! These people are busy posting." And I'm thinking, "What incredible value!" Because we're promoting that engagement and that sharing of stories inside the business.

Denver: Yeah, a very easy and almost effortless way to organically break down the silos… have everybody know what everybody else is doing, and learn from each other… get to know one another. It just seems to be, absolutely, a perfect vehicle.

David: Absolutely right, Denver. Absolutely.

Denver: Let me close with this, if you were a new parent, and you wanted to get your child off to the right start educationally… in this rapidly changing world, what advice would you give those parents?

David: Well, very straightforward, actually. For all that technology is changing things around us, the crucial things remain the same. It's: How do you engage with your child? How do you engage them in stories and in the narrative?

Read to them. Before anything else, make certain you read them stories. Get them to read books. That is really important, and it's not an old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy thing. It's about helping them assemble who they are. And after that, everything is right. Give them time. Read to them. Engage with them.

Denver: What wonderful advice! Well, David Levin, the President and CEO of McGraw-Hill, thank you so much for a very informative conversation. If anybody wants to find out more about the company, the products you offer, or about the latest research in news and the world of education, where would you have them go?

David: Come to our website, mheducation.com, and they'll find everything they need and more.

Denver: Great. It was a real pleasure, David, to have you on the show.

David: Thanks for inviting me.