Joel Klein has become a master at not mentioning Rupert Murdoch's name during interviews — and for good reason. Amplify Education, the nascent education division within News Corp that Klein runs, might be dependent on separating itself from the highly politicized, controversy-laden Murdoch name.
Trying to position Amplify as a privacy-focused, politically neutral company under the News Corp umbrella is just one of several contradictions underlying Klein's operation.
Klein pitches Amplify as a trendy ed-tech firm, setting up shop for the company in the hipster Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn. And he repeatedly refers to Amplify as a "startup," pausing to point out a ping-pong table in the office where two employees are in the midst of a game. The dress code among his young staff trends toward jeans and sneakers.
Yet Amplify already employs a staff of 1,200, far larger than almost any other startup in its age bracket, ed-tech or otherwise -- the company was founded in July of 2012, and its Dumbo headquarters is offset by a second block of office space in a bland Midtown building near News Corp's headquarters. As CEO, Klein's work attire consists mainly of power suits and ties.
As Klein, 67, sees it, Amplify's contradictions underscore how the company views itself in the market. "I see ourselves as being at the intersection of technology and education," said Klein, the former chancellor of New York City schools.
Put another way, Klein views Amplify partly as a traditional education company like Pearson and McGraw-Hill and partly like technology companies such as Amazon, Apple, and Google, who have been trying lately to break into the $1 trillion education market.
"Unlike the great tech companies, we have a very heavy strand of educational DNA, and unlike the older ed companies, we have a strong focus on tech," Klein said.
Amplify's first product, launched last year, skews more toward the tech side: a fleet of tablets with features designed specifically for the education market. The tablets have a "ruggedized" exterior durable enough to handle the same poor treatment students tend to give to textbooks, and they feature an operating system that enables teachers to send out quizzes and call their students' attention with the touch of a button.
This spring, Amplify unveiled a new, digitally native English language curriculum, which it has begun selling to school districts in a bid to compete with curricula from legacy publishers. Amplify's curriculum embeds videos in classic texts and and allows teachers to track whether students know individual vocabulary words. Though it was released a year after its tablet, the curriculum is at the core of Amplify's vision, Klein said.
"Technology in itself has no inherent value in education," he said. "In the end, having a cool tech platform, without the content, would have been useless."
Amplify's timing, Klein said, gives them an advantage over textbook publishing companies like Pearson. The Amplify tablet was released just as iPads were becoming commonplace, and their curriculum was built at the same time that states were moving to adopt Common Core standards. While older companies have had to adapt their content to both the more rigorous Common Core and the digital shift, Amplify built it in from the ground up.
"We had no legacy investment, and those publishers did. Much of their content...is repositioned rather than really aligned" with the Common Core, Klein said.
Klein talks about Amplify as a "disruptor" of traditional education companies, but that also leaves him grappling with another contradiction. Unlike many ed-tech startups, which have tried to overturn the traditional delivery model by marketing products directly to teachers and parents, Amplify has chosen to hire a team of salespeople to peddle their products to school districts, just as Pearson and McGraw-Hill have done for decades. It's a model that raises the question of whether Amplify is trying to disrupt the education industry's traditional monopolies or simply sit alongside them at the top.
"I would like to disrupt the delivery model too, eventually," Klein said. "But these things don't happen overnight. You have to meet the market where it is, even if you're a disruptor."
It's by virtue of News Corp's massive resources, of course, that Amplify is able to "meet the market" at all, rather than struggling to play catch-up like most young education-tech companies must do.
But Amplify's relationship to Murdoch and News Corp could also be the company's biggest challenge. That dates back to Amplify's origins in 2010, when News Corp bought an education company called Wireless Generation, and have persisted into this year. Klein, as has been widely reported, had to delay his plans for News Corp's education unit after he was named to provide oversight of an internal investigation at the company as a result of the phone-hacking scandal. The state of New York in 2011 dropped a $27 million no-bid contract with Wireless Generation, citing ethical concerns in the wake of News Corp's phone-hacking scandal.
More recently, a relatively tenuous association with Murdoch and News Corp helped bring about the downfall of inBloom, a non-profit designed to compile and store student data. Though inBloom was funded by the Gates Foundation, News Corp had developed the program's infrastructure, prompting a cadre of parents and activists to ominously warn that "Rupert Murdoch can read your child's report card any time he likes and he knows where your kid is sleeping," as one far-left website put it. In the wake of the controversy, all nine states that had agreed to use inBloom dropped their plans.
Klein is quick to emphasize that "the worst thing anybody here could do would be to use student data for anything other than to help school districts." And despite Amplify's careful assurances about student data privacy, Klein acknowledged that, "Emotional things always worry me. But we're prepared."
Now that he is free to focus on education, Klein sounds more like an idealistic startup owner than a weathered News Corp executive.
"Exhilaration is the dominant emotional force in me right now," Klein said of Amplify's future. "There's a sense that we're doing something very big and very exciting."