By SHELAGH BRALEY
NORTH BILLERICA, Mass.—Personalization is the future of education, experts say, defining curriculum with real-life skills, data-gathering tools and learning environments that meet individual students’ needs.
“This type of learning leads to better student engagement because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs,” according to the U.S. Department of Education. “It also leads to better student outcomes because the pace of learning is customized to each student. By enabling students to master skills at their own pace, competency-based learning systems help to save both time and money.”
Nowhere is this more important than in communities where the poverty divide has only grown in the last few decades. To disrupt this have and have-not dynamic, school districts are leveraging technology to better understand student needs, and make the most effective use of school resources.
Helping educators down this path is Curriculum Associates, champion of improved education for all. CEO Rob Waldron, deeply impassioned about what’s at stake for students, knows what he’s up against.
“I think the work of education is hard, and it’s principally done in the same way that great doctors and nurses are doing the healing,” he says. He likens that to the role of Curriculum Associates as they create educational materials (print and increasingly digital) that assess where a child is in the learning process.
“We try to figure out exactly where a child is, where they’re ready to learn, and then adjust the content to that child so they’re gaining whatever set of skills they need in the teacher’s view,” he says.
Waldron—a 2016 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year—came on board Curriculum Associates in 2008, taking over for founder Frank Ferguson just when the effects of the recession were hitting schools the hardest, especially in lower-income districts.
“We work with … those kids who are on a spectrum of poverty,” he says, estimating that at least two-thirds of the students they serve receive a reduced lunch subsidy. The benefit of working in these communities is multifaceted, saving already-overstretched teachers a significant amount of time trying to assess where students are faltering, providing a simple way to share results with parents, and addressing students from where they are educationally, to lower their stress and increase success rates. They also serve private schools, Waldron notes.
Waldron says Curriculum Associates aims to create rigorous standards to ensure that students are consistently acquiring the tools they need for the future. “We want to make sure kids are ready, not just depending on people’s feelings—no, the kids are really learning,” he says. “(Teaching to the test) has had all these downstream consequences: You get people prepping for the test and not really learning.”
But what students need to learn is complex, and it isn’t always clear where they fall off track. That’s where Curriculum Associates does its best work.
“Is it a better deal to buy a pound of coffee for $9 or 12 ounces for $7.50?” Waldron asks, re-creating a typical question for students. “That’s a multi-step process, you’re doing fractions in your head,” he encourages. “You knew that ounces were part of a pound. That concept has to be taught.
“We’re behind the scenes capturing how many times a child has had trouble with this. We’ll grab those lessons and pull them out based on the fact that you have to work on conversions before you can work on fractions,” he says, “especially if English isn’t your first language.”
Waldron, a Harvard MBA whose driving force grew from his previous positions with Jumpstart, a non-profit focused on providing a strong educational foundation for preschoolers from under-resourced communities, as well as Kaplan Education, has expanded Curriculum Associates into the nation’s fastest growing K-12 education publishing company. His mission remains to improve classrooms everywhere.
“What we do has made a big difference, not just to teachers but to learners, families, and of course, to the administration of schools that are trying to figure out how to improve,” Waldron says.
He recognizes the trials of a legacy business such as publishing, but sees the opportunity only expanding—as company revenue has quadrupled under his leadership and added more than 300 new employees to the team since 2015. The pressure is also present to continually deliver innovation that meets—even surpasses—industry need.
“If we don’t perform and deliver great results, (our customers) are gone, because they’re subscribing annually. We have to keep making great content,” he says. It isn’t a significant worry, though, according to Waldron. “We have focus groups all the time,” he says, “and the biggest thing I see is our renewal rates. Our top 100 customers have a 99 percent renewal rate—they’re going to buy again next year.”
Those numbers are making an impact on students, with more than 3 million of them already using digital product iReady alone. Curriculum Associates serves more than 10 percent of all U.S. students in K-8 nationwide. “If a child uses our software for 45 minutes a week on average, they will have a 47 to 48 percent gain in English skills and a 65 percent gain in math skills,” Waldron says, citing research completed by the Educational Research Institute of America among others.
The student data tells the real story, and the happy ending is adaptability. When a lesson is deployed to 20,000 students, but only 5,000 get to mastery, the team is quick to respond, assess, change or even toss out the lesson. “Before, it would take five years for that (level of analysis and reaction) to happen,” he says, and goes on to describe how they can further segment student results to drill deeper. “(In specific): Why didn’t African-American boys on free lunch not get mastery of that lesson? We can figure that out.”
While Curriculum Associates continues to grow its customer base, students’ needs and expectations continue to evolve—with more parents and educators looking to digital content to make the difference.
“The change to adaptive learning is huge. It will take a number of years to get great, but I’m super excited about kids getting (lessons) at their level, and I’m excited about how content will improve,” Waldron says.
Growth does not come without its challenges, but for Waldron, solving this education puzzle is an achievable goal.
“I have to figure out how to give (students) hundreds of hours of norms-based content they find engaging … it’s a hell of a challenge. We have to keep cost low. It’s high stakes things like teaching kids how to read,” he says.
“It’s a huge Rubik’s cube that I find really exhilarating.”