Selling PowerSchool to Pearson was not Apple’s biggest mistake in K-12.

I have some experience with both PowerSchool and Apple, and have a few thoughts I’d like to share relating to a recent article by Bradley Chambers that appeared in 9to5Mac. You can read his article here.

In his article, Mr. Chambers states that “…Apple’s decision to sell PowerSchool back in 2006 looks like one of the worst decisions in K–12 in quite possibly their history.”

I respectfully disagree. I believe the biggest mistake that Apple made in U.S. K-12 education was an apparent dismissal of cloud-based computing and an audacious effort to radically transform teaching and learning with iPad. The latter is an effort that continues to this day and while it may sound like a righteous path for some, most teachers have no interest in being radically transformed by a Silicon Valley tech company.

Consider the following statement from Steve Jobs during an interview with Wired Magazine back in 1996:

“I used to think that technology could help education. I’ve probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet. But I’ve had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.

It’s a political problem. The problems are sociopolitical. The problems are unions. You plot the growth of the NEA [National Education Association] and the dropping of SAT scores, and they’re inversely proportional. The problems are unions in the schools. The problem is bureaucracy.”

Steve was hitting the nail on the head right up until the point where he blamed teachers. What he was effectively saying is that technology could help education, but teachers were getting in the way. There is some truth to this, but in most cases teachers have resisted expensive new technology because more pressing needs were being neglected.

Educators have been struggling with a lack of resources and have been working in a state of constant churn and anxiety ever since the passage of NCLB. If we listen to what they’re desperately trying to tell us, what they need are the basics: Safety, smaller class sizes, resources, sanitary learning environments, support for SPED, fair pay, etc. They are also telling us they are exhausted and just want stability. There is little appetite for transformation or disruption, but Apple has been reluctant to diverge from their longstanding vision of ‘Teach Different.’

Conversely, Google demonstrated that it was listening to educators and delivered the two things K-12 education was asking for: Low cost, and ease of use/deployment/management.

This used to be Apple’s domain — affordable computers that were easy to use. In fact, Apple had a real shot at retaking the EdTech throne by being first to market with their 1:1 initiative built around iBook. However, when the company killed iBook and began their push to get iPad in the hands of every student, they effectively took their horse out of the race.

In the vacuum left by Apple, Google stepped forward and introduced education to the promise of cloud computing with affordable Chromebooks. (Note: These two events happened at nearly the same moment. Google introduced Chromebooks on June 15, 2011, and Apple discontinued the iBook one month later on July 20, 2011)

When online state testing became the norm in 2014, Apple found itself at a major disadvantage. All of a sudden there was a massive need for cheap computers (with keyboards) that students could complete their state testing on. The best Apple could offer to counter Chromebooks was iPad. After factoring in the costs associated with the requisite keyboard and case, a school could practically buy two Chromebooks for the price of a single iPad.

Today Google is dominating U.S. K-12 and shows no signs of slowing down. With the recent introduction of a Chromebook tablet that comes close to matching the specifications and capabilities of the new iPad for education, Apple may be at risk of losing their leadership position within the K-12 tablet market segment.

With regard to PowerSchool, I’m not sure that selling the division was a mistake.

The sale of PowerSchool to Pearson in 2006 appeared to be part of a larger realignment by Apple. The company stopped exhibiting at education conferences like ISTE, removed ‘Education’ from the topmost navigation tabs of their website, and it was rumored that their K-12 field sales team was reduced. No one knows exactly what led to the decision to sell PowerSchool save a handful of people, but the introduction of the iPhone shortly after the sale of PowerSchool provides a clue.

Apple remains the most profitable company in the world for their success as a device company. All Apple software exists solely on Apple devices and is designed with a focus on the strengths of those devices.

There was a brief period of time when PowerSchool met that standard. When Apple acquired the company in 2001, PowerSchool ran exclusively on Apple hardware. With the introduction of the Xserve in 2002, Apple was hoping that PowerSchool could help move it’s new box into K-12 education and we even went so far as to package PowerSchool with the Xserve.

Ultimately though, sales of the Xserve were likely primarily to existing Apple customers and expansion into K-12 through PowerSchool would not have met expectations. In the years following the acquisition, pressure would mount for PowerSchool to introduce a version of its SIS that would run on Windows servers. In other words, PowerSchool was probably not helping Apple move its devices into K-12.