“That’s why Barbara Dreyer is a champ.” The lyrics rang out across the hall at the Center for Education Reform’s 20th Anniversary celebration as the crowd honored Barbara Dreyer, the CEO of Connections Education.
I marveled at Barbara’s aplomb and dancing during the song; I applauded her remarks, her grace, and her strength in helping improve education for all students; and I stood stunned as I learned, for the first time, about the repeated bouts of cancer that she had fought—and continued to fight—through. I walked up to Mickey Revenaugh, her co-founder of Connections Education, afterward and mouthed to her, “I had no idea.”
That was Barbara Dreyer until the day she passed away earlier this week. Although she finally succumbed to the disease wracking its way through her body and bones, she did not lose her battle against cancer. As ESPN SportsCenter anchor Stuart Scott said recently at the ESPYs, “You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.” By that measure, Barbara crushed cancer.
Barbara was a visionary. She helped create the K–12 online-learning movement, a powerful disruptive force that has the potential to create a more personalized and equitable education system that is student-centered so that all students can succeed. Behind her leadership, Connections Education grew into the second largest K–12 online-learning provider in the nation, and Pearson acquired it in 2011 for a hefty sum.
She wasn’t satisfied with just growing the company though. With her at the helm, Connections often seemed happy to halt growth if the student results were not right. That’s the context in which I got to know Barbara.
Barbara was often not the public face of Connections. For the first few years after the publication of Disrupting Class, I barely knew her. My sense was that she must have her head down in Baltimore focusing on improving the company, and others took the Connections show on the road. But when she reached out just a few years ago, I gained a deeper perspective.
She was strong, determined, and had a clear sense of right and wrong. And not all was right in the full-time virtual schools world, which is a large part of Connections’ business. Barbara could see that full-time virtual schools were not working for all students. She wanted to know why, who those students were, and if it was the case that full-time virtual schools weren’t a good option at all for them—or were still better than any of their other options. She also intended to shed transparency on the question by opening up Connections’ data and asking the tough questions publicly in a bid to do the right thing for students. She reached out to me to keep me posted on what they learned so I could help shape that discussion—and, I like to think, as a thought partner interested primarily in results for students.
As we got to know each other better, she invited my wife and I to her home outside of Baltimore—a trip I wish we had taken—but she never mentioned her fight against cancer. It wasn’t that she was hiding from the fight; she was quite open about it because she believed it was important for others to know that you could fight cancer. But for Barbara the work was all about improving educational opportunities for students and transparency in the sector—and that’s where she led every conversation. Nor in a wide-ranging interview with Education Next, where I am an executive editor, that profiled her did she mention it.
When it became clear that far more students would attend blended-learning schools in the future, not full-time virtual ones, Barbara employed her strong leadership skills and helped Connections leap into that game, as it pulled off a classic maneuver from the disruptive innovation playbook by creating a separate division, Connections Learning that Revenaugh leads, to offer blended-learning services to schools and districts.
Barbara led her life with vigor and no hint of sorrow for herself; a clear sense of purpose to improve the lives of all students; and the leadership and entrepreneurship skills to create that better world. The world and students everywhere lost a friend and champion this week. It’s now our turn to continue the fight.