What’s up with Key? A Response to Dan Meyer

The other week Dan Meyer sent out this tweet.

While we appreciate the compliment (and the resulting increase in traffic), it’s the first part of that sentence I want to address. There have been changes at Key, and Dan’s comment implies the question, “What’s up with Key Curriculum Press?” So allow me to answer that question by telling the story of Key—from my perspective—in three parts: what Key was, what Key no longer is, and finally, what Key continues to be.

Key to Decibels
The Key to Decibels—Key’s informal house band—performs at a company party.

What Key was: Innovators in Mathematics Education

I taught from 1990 to 2004, and since then I’ve continued to visit classrooms regularly and spend time with my friends who are still teachers. Throughout this two-decade period, I’ve been amazed at the pervasiveness of Key materials in high school classrooms everywhere. I have personally seen all of these materials displayed or used in classrooms: Math of the World posters, Key To… workbooks, Discovering Geometry, Patty Paper workbooks, The Geometer’s Sketchpad, posters celebrating African-American innovators in math and science for the Benjamin Banneker Association, Mathercise warm-ups, IMP, Fathom, Discovering Algebra, Living By Chemistry, Paul Foerster’s Precalculus and Calculus, and even the sample test booklet for the California High School Exit Exam.

It wasn’t until about four years into my teaching that I found out who Key was. New teachers have plenty of other things on their mind, and I had never given math publishers much thought. Only when we decided to update our Sketchpad license to Version 3 did I begin to connect the dots and realize that everything I listed in the last paragraph was produced by the same company. Ever since then I’ve had an enormous respect for Key, and with the exceptions of CPM, Logo, Green Globs, and Algebra Lab Gear, every useful, interesting, and motivating teaching resource in my repertoire was published by Key.

Key was founded by math teachers who believed all students were capable of learning mathematics (a belief that was far less common 40 years ago than it is today) if they are provided truly engaging activities. At first, Key focused on teacher-authors who were creating innovative classroom-ready materials, including the groundbreaking textbook Discovering Geometry. Later, Key began to work with educational researchers and software developers to create dynamic, interactive mathematics software, which continues today through ongoing collaborations with various NSF-funded projects. In the late 1990’s, Key embarked on developing a full high school series by expanding an earlier pilot program, which used graphing calculators as a tool for analyzing real-world data, into Discovering Algebra. And in the last decade, Key also developed innovative curriculum for science, notably Living By Chemistry.

What Key no longer is: A Textbook Publishing Company

One industry insider who has dealt with selling mathematics textbooks for over two decades told me that 20 years ago, there were about 40 math educational publishers the size of Key. What has occurred since then, as in all other industries during the same time period, is a series of mergers and acquisitions that left fewer but larger companies, so that today there are essentially only three players left in math educational publishing. I don’t need to mention their names; they are the only three companies that Apple chose to partner with for their new digital textbooks.

During this period of consolidation, Key continued to survive and grow, largely because of the reputation it had established as the premier producer of high-quality, inquiry-based mathematics and science programs. Our base of support came from teachers and educational leaders who valued curricula based on hands-on and technology-assisted inquiry, problem solving, modeling, real-world contexts, and a focus on understanding and mathematical reasoning. There were struggles too: Most district adoption committees chose textbooks that were familiar, traditional, and easy to implement—those from one of the big three publishers—and on one occasion, when a district’s commitment to reform its mathematics program led it to adopt our books, Key found itself fending off a legal challenge that was eventually thrown out of court. Despite all this, sales of Key’s textbooks continued to grow and have an impact in classrooms.

Early last year, Key conducted an in-depth analysis of our market and business strengths. Through this process, it became clear that Key’s future was in the digital realm. As the publisher of the most widely-used dynamic mathematics and statistics environments—Sketchpad, Fathom, and TinkerPlots—Key was well-positioned to focus its development resources on integration with emerging digital technologies, many of which are now being adopted by schools. In order to focus more intensively on its role as the premier provider of dynamic mathematics software, Key made the decision last summer to sell its Discovering Mathematics and Advanced Mathematics series to Kendall Hunt, and more recently to sell our science programs to other publishers as well.

What Key continues to be: Innovators in Mathematics Educational Software

We are proud of our legacy of producing high-quality math textbooks, and we’re happy that they continue to be represented by other publishers. While curriculum has always been one of the strengths of Key, my personal experience in the classroom had much more to do with Key’s other strengths: technology, professional development that works directly with teachers, and organizing events to support an engaged community of math teachers. Over the last couple of years, Key has expanded in these other arenas, such as organizing Ignite events at national and state conferences, which have given voice and visibility to many wonderful educators and educational leaders. And even as I write this, my colleague Elizabeth DeCarli is on the other side of the wall between our offices presenting one of our free Tech Tuesday webinars.

Fundamentally, though, Key is now an educational technology company. As the industry leader in dynamic learning tools—tools that powerfully represent the big ideas in mathematics and statistics in highly visual and interactive ways—Key continues to research and develop new mathematics and statistics software, together with our sister company, KCP Technologies. With more devices going into more students’ hands, including iPads and other tablets, Key is now thoroughly focused on the future of educational software development.

For example, we’ve already developed the first dynamic math app for the iPad that supports multi-touch, Sketchpad Explorer (which you can download for free from the Apple App Store). Also, the latest version of Sketchpad, 5.04, supports multi-touch as well, and is specifically designed for seamless integration with the Smart Board. There are many other projects that I’m not at liberty to discuss, but they are all very relevant to the major technology announcements that are in the news lately, such as Apple iBooks textbooks and interactive animations that can be embedded into HTML5.

For me personally, I feel that the single most important contribution Key has provided to secondary mathematics education is support for a community that embraces pedagogy and policies that increase student engagement, understanding, and a love of mathematics. There are teachers throughout the country who know and respect Key precisely for this quality, and we hope to continue to represent those teachers, through this blog, through conferences and Ignite events, and through the development of powerful digital math tools. Key is still a dedicated group of math teachers, educational researchers, and software engineers, and we are proud to carry on the tradition and reputation that Key established over the last 40 years.

One thought on “What’s up with Key? A Response to Dan Meyer”

  1. We (Great Neck Public Schools–NY) have been fans for a long time. Steve Rasmussen
    visited our high school more than 10 years ago. The Discovering Algebra, etc. texts are some of the best ever written and we are addicted to GSP, Fathom, and Tinker Plots.
    PLEASE get a full version of Sketchpad for the iPad. Sketch Explorer is limited for our ideas.

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