Q&A with McGraw-Hill's Peter Cohen

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From the January 2014 issue of Columbus CEO
  • Photo by Ryan M.L. Young

As the son of an education professor, McGraw-Hill school education group president Peter Cohen has had an insider’s view into the evolution of the American classroom.

“There’s a convergence of forces in the K-12 space right now that we have an opportunity, not only as a company,  but also in America to transform what happens in schools and to insure that our kids are just as ready for the world after school as kids in other countries,” says Cohen.

Cohen leads the K-12 school education group, the largest of the four divisions in the McGraw-Hill Education Group. The company’s new owner, Apollo Management Group, have branded it McGraw-Hill 2.0.

“We’re working on a sort of rebranding of McGraw-Hill. We kind of consider ourselves to be a 125-year-old startup,” says Cohen. His division represents about 40 percent of MHE’s business. Over the past two decades, MHE’s school education division has purposefully transformed itself from a textbook provider to a digital solutions provider. That shift has transformed every aspect of the company, from its deeper interaction with K-12 schools to its need for a larger knowledge workforce.

Shortly following his appointment as president, Cohen sat down with Columbus CEO to discuss education’s digital revolution.

*Interview has been edited and condensed

Describe your work as president of the K-12 division of McGraw-Hill Education:

Our role here is to serve K-12 schools. We do that mostly in the U.S., although we are responsible for creating programs that work around the world. We have programs that are created here in the United States that are also used in China, used in Mexico, also used in Canada and used in parts of Europe.

Our focus here is really on changing education in the United States. Our mission is to be a dedicated partner to reimagining learning in a digital world.

Is that a big task, especially in a time of such change in education?

It’s a great time of change in education.

We’ve moved to a knowledge economy from an industrial economy, and in a knowledge economy, you expect more out of each of your citizens. And, as you guys have in Ohio, (we’ve) taken a look at raising the bar, making sure that every child is college or career ready when they graduate from high school.

Raising the bar means that we have to do a better job of preparing kids while they’re in school. Consequently, we have to do a better job of providing instructional resources.

From a technology basis, you’ve got changes in bandwidth capability, changes in devices. You have to have changes in practice. The changes in practice in the classroom are incredibly difficult.

That implementation of this technology into the classroom requires significant difference in what we measure, how we measure it and how we help people bridge that gap, which is a unique opportunity for us.

What are your short-and long-term goals for your division?

We really are transforming the company from a business that had been print-centric and oriented towards providing the best instructional resources to teachers and letting them do a great job with those. That’s where we were, and the goal now is to become a digital learning solutions provider.

We want to get the feedback to how students are doing with every component of our program so we can constantly do the research and development to improve that program. That puts us very much in partnership with schools.

Instead of just creating great instructional resources, we’re looking at great professional development for teachers. We’re looking at great analytics in how those programs are working. We’re looking for dashboards to give teachers and administrators the information to know how those students are doing with the program.

From a mindset standpoint, it’s very different place to be focused on improving student achievement as opposed to providing great instructional resources. Our strategy in the short term is transitioning from what we used to be to where we’re headed.

What does that mean? It means we have to have a different type of worker inside of McGraw Hill. We have 1,000 employees here in Ohio, mostly in Columbus and surrounding areas. About half those employees are knowledge workers, meaning they produce programs, they help do the product development around them, they do the market research around them, they support the development of instruction into the classroom.

Then, about half work in our warehouses here. It happens to be our largest area of distribution in the country…all around Columbus, and Gahanna.

So we’ve got two types of workers here, but for the most part we’re looking for knowledge workers. Now we have to look for people who really understand how to create digital objects. How do you build something that is engaging for students (and) easy for teachers to use? It’s a very different mindset than in the past writing a curriculum and creating a book.

Is it invigorating to you as an executive to lead MHE’s K-12 division at a transitional time?

It is. You have the opportunity to now take what has been a 125-year-old legacy and move it forward into the digital age, and not sort of rest on those past laurels.

We really have the potential to change the educational landscape in the United States. You don’t get to do that in very many businesses. At the end of the day, you feel a great sense of responsibility. But at the same time you feel a great sense of excitement around what can be. If we succeed at our job we impact the gross domestic product of the United States, and we impact equity among students.

What does the future hold for the company?

We’re about a $2.5 billion company, we’ve been around for 125 years, but we think of ourselves as McGraw-Hill Education 2.0. Right now we are transforming the company into a digital learning company.

For the folks here, it’s a very exciting time, because you feel like you are part of a very large startup. That’s the kind of the energy we’re trying to produce.

It is really the positioning that we have, it’s the mentality. We want people who are very energized and excited about what we’re accomplishing here.