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Q&A With CEMD’s Founders: Reflecting on Our Mission to Transform the Education Market and Improve Student Outcomes

Founders Jeff Livingston, Beth Mejia, and Jay Bakhru reflect on CEMD's mission to help district leaders best support underserved students.

The Center for Education Market Dynamics • February 12, 2024

The Center for Education Market Dynamics (CEMD) has been busier than ever in recent months, as we’ve released six reports offering unique insights into the state of the education market and its impact on underserved students. As we gear up to continue this work, we sat down with CEMD’s founders, Jay Bakhru, Jeff Livingston, and Beth Mejia, to reflect on the organization’s founding mission and to look ahead at where CEMD is poised to make an impact next. Here’s what they had to say.

Q: Why did you found CEMD? How does that connect with your mission to impact underserved students?

Beth Mejia: We saw a need when a major foundation who wanted to measure their impact wasn’t able to do so because a simple database of what districts had selected what curriculum didn’t exist. There are surveys on instructional resources. There are market reports that talk about curriculum. Existing resources can tell you what the landscape of products is. But nothing tells us where they are being used. If we don’t have this information, we can’t fix the instructional materials market, we can’t study it, and we can’t provide guidance on it. If we really want to understand what’s happening, and especially if we want to understand what’s happening to underserved students, we have to know this.

Jay Bakhru: We saw that there was a gap in the market. Curriculum is enormously important for the education of all students, but information about what curriculum is actually being used across the country was missing, and that felt like a disconnect. The idea that something that is so critical was not was not systematically being identified felt like an equity issue. Because if we think high-quality curriculum is important for raising student outcomes, and we know it’s particularly important for underserved kids, then not tracking it hides disparities, and hides opportunities to improve the system.

Jeff Livingston: Our work at EdSolutions [CEMD’s partner organization] is built on a very clear purpose, which is that markets are powerful and important tools that are too seldom put to use. We exist at EdSolutions to put market forces in service of impact. It stands to reason, then, that CEMD, is an expression of that mission of Edsolutions. CEMD is our attempt at balancing the information disparity between providers and buyers, and to give buyers in the education space the information that they need to make better decisions on behalf of Black kids, Latino kids, and students who dream in languages other than English.

Q: Why are district leaders so critical in the education market?

Jeff Livingston: What is especially interesting about education markets is that buyers and users are usually different people. Most classroom teachers have very little say about curriculum. But decisions are made on their behalf by district-level administrators. And this is important to take note of, because not only can the goals of those two people be different, they very often are different. So, the art of providing high-quality curriculum at scale is the art of creating programs that buyers will buy and users will use. Ultimately, our goal is to make sure that a district-level decision maker can come to one central place to find out whatever she needs to know about how to choose a program likely to support improved outcomes for the Black kids, Latino kids, poor kids, and English Language Learners in her district.

Jay Bakhru: District leaders play a really important role in curriculum selection and procurement. And when we looked at the data, what struck us was that district leaders play an outsized role in school districts that have large numbers of underserved kids. It was really fascinating to us, that if we wanted to impact this system, districts felt like a place with an information gap. How can you understand what might work for your district if you don’t understand what’s being used elsewhere?

Beth Mejia: The district level is where resources, decisions, and research come together to make a decision about the core learning materials that kids are going to use. Beyond district leaders, this involves many people and many opinions. If you do it right, your community is involved. Your teachers are involved. Your students are involved. And that you have plenty of implementation support.

Q: What do you see ahead that is pivotal in this industry and how do you see CEMD playing a role in that?

Jay Bakhru: In the next couple of years, there are going to be big state curriculum adoptions in Texas, Florida, and California, which collectively impact a significant number of kids, and particularly underserved kids. This is an opportunity where the market is going to see significant turnover and an opportunity for more procurement decisions to be made around standards-aligned, high-quality, and evidence-based materials. So that’s really exciting. It’s also happening against the backdrop of this funding cliff, as federal dollars from ESSER are going to run out, so it’s going to be a resource-constrained environment for many school districts, particularly underserved districts, because they’ve been more dependent on Federal funding in general, and particularly stimulus funding. The third factor is this is happening when we still have not adequately addressed the learning loss from COVID. So, this is an opportunity for CEMD to play a role in fostering better-informed decision making, and giving district leaders the information they need to make some of those decisions amidst this landscape.

Jeff Livingston: One of the big stories is that the market for mathematics curriculum is likely to be reorganized. California, Texas, and Florida are all doing comprehensive math adoptions. That means that decisions about what will be available to students for the next decade, maybe longer, are being made right now. CEMD does data collection, and the fact that we do it annually means we will see how these adoptions are going faster than anyone else will. We will notice who is implementing what, who is purchasing what. And we will have a clearer view of what the math market is going to look like on the other side of this huge adoption wave. What should be happening is that the winners in those adoptions are determined by who is seen as providing the best outcomes. We will know if that is true, and it’s our responsibility to share that with the market.

Beth Mejia: We have the two biggest math market events coming up in California and Texas. And these adoptions don’t just affect those states. They affect the national conversation. Because if you’re a curriculum provider, that’s where much of your budget goes. After looking at Profit and Loss statements, providers look at when states are making curriculum adoption decisions and then put their resources together with that in mind.

As the curriculum landscape changes, my dream is that CEMD’s curriculum selection database enables a culture of looking and trying, and looking and trying, and looking and trying. We’ve heard over and over again from district leaders making purchasing decisions, ‘you can give me research and evidence and I need that. But then I need to know that it’s worked in a place that looks like mine. And we can’t have that conversation because we don’t know.’ Once we know, we can start saying, ‘hey, this place looks like yours, and here’s what they’re doing.’ We might ask, ‘Do we see that there is growth where there is an OER curriculum and a district- selected assessment?’ And it’s not one-dimensional. The experience level of teachers in a district, for example, can change the dimension. But if we use instructional materials as the through line, then we get to see things in ways we haven’t before. CEMD can be an enabler to organizations that know other stuff, but this is the missing piece that we want to get into everyone else’s puzzle.

Want more education market insights that center improving academic outcomes for underserved students? Be sure to check out CEMD’s latest reports and resources.

*These comments have been edited and condensed.
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