Analysis: After Amazon’s TenMarks shuts down, what then for K-12 schools and Amazon?

The sudden, relatively quiet notice late last week that Amazon would shutter its TenMarks business and end its TenMarks Math and Writing products at the close of the 2018-19 school year came as a surprise. Not just to a tech industry that had been closely watching Amazon’s moves in education, but also to teachers who were customers.

It also raises a larger question about Amazon’s edtech future in a week that, in sharp contrast, saw Apple proudly proclaim its plans to regain its education market leadership.

Amazon plans to stop offering TenMarks’ math and writing learning apps after June 30, 2019. Teacher reaction was swift, consisting largely of puzzlement and disappointment. Several noted their reliance on it for math instruction, and others said they were being trained on how to use TenMarks in the classroom the very days it was announced by email and on the TenMarks site that it would be shutting down.

For their part, the TenMarks and Amazon Education Twitter accounts have been quiet. The @AmazonEdu handle has not tweeted since November 2017 (and that was to retweet a TenMarks tweet). @TenMarks‘ only tweet since last December was an announcement that the Twitter account itself was shutting down this June.

Some educators have questioned why Amazon didn’t choose to sell TenMarks or its products to another company more invested in education or spin it off to a foundation, rather than just close it down — especially if TenMarks is as popular as Amazon had once said it was. The edtech news site EdSurge reports that recently, Amazon indicated 85 percent of U.S. school districts (or approximately 11,500) were using TenMarks products, up from 7,000 districts at the time Amazon acquired TenMarks in 2013.

Others have suggested Amazon open source the TenMarks Math and TenMarks Writing code.

But overall, Amazon’s decision to shut down TenMarks illustrates a tension between technology companies and K-12 education: Schools want consistency and predictability, but tech companies (especially startups chasing revenue) want traction or they’ll rapidly pivot or simply cease to exist. That can be to the detriment of students and teachers who have adopted the products and relied on them for teaching students and storing student progress data, often year-to-year.

Even Apple, which trumpeted its desire to return to education technology greatness last Tuesday, once sold off its PowerSchool student information software to the education company Pearson in 2006, then effectively exiting the market for education-specific software. PowerSchool, now owned by private equity firm Vista Equity Partners, has since become a dominant force in U.S. K-12 school districts. IBM, similarly, used to be a big player in education. Now that’s a role tech giants Google and Microsoft have.

Amazon could, theoretically, still seek a buyer for TenMarks before closing it down entirely. It’s happened before when edtech startups run out of financial runaway, announce a close, and are rescued through an acquisition at the last minute.

GeekWire has reached out to Amazon and asked if that’s a possibility, and will update this story if we hear back.

In the meantime, educators have no shortage of apps and other software to teach math and even writing. On Twitter, some have said they may consider Bellevue, WA-based DreamBox Learning‘s math program to replace TenMarks Math. Common Sense Education’s review website lists many, many other math products vying for educators’ time and dollars.

For Amazon’s part, its future in K-12 education is unclear. TenMarks was its only core curriculum — that is to say, traditional school “content” — edtech play. But Amazon continues to move forward with education offerings that are more closely aligned with its core competencies: Amazon Web Services for education is being sold to districts, Kindle e-readers and eBooks are widely available, there’s an education purchasing program, parents can use Amazon school lists to buy supplies, and the AWS Educate program is now available for students as young as 14 to learn about cloud computing at no charge.

Amazon Inspire, its site for teachers to find and share educational resources (along with provide reviews and ratings), remains in open beta.

Amazon may have to either hope for short teacher memories or provide a lot of reassurance if it ever does decided to get back into the K-12 digital curriculum business. As one educator said on Twitter, “Another cautionary reminder on why schools shouldn’t outsource curriculum development wholesale to a for-profit third party.”