By SHELAGH BRALEY
N. BILLERICA, Mass.—More tech companies should come pre-loaded with a good “citizen chip,” says Rob Waldron, CEO of Curriculum Associates.
“The important part for all CEOs is, what are they doing with their citizenship? I view the fact that someone chose me to run the company as a little Waldron luck more than anything else. So I have a responsibility to be of service to those that I must lead, including educators, employees and everyone else.”
Waldron, who joined Curriculum Associates in 2008, has grown the 48-year-old print-to-digital education publishing business exponentially. And while expressing surprise that his values would elicit praise, he continues to tout “decent decisions,” like raising minimum wage to $15, as necessary for a successful company culture.
“One way to ensure a civil society is to make sure people who are running businesses have a big citizenship chip in them. I think tech companies should view their work with citizenship in mind, not just maximizing shareholder return,” he says.
He has proven he can do both, with Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready product alone adding another 1 million-plus students to its user base since September (now at 4.2 million total). It adds up to what he calls, “as far as I can tell, the leading edtech company in the United States without taking any outside capital.”
“A lot of people want to start with a product first, then figure out how to sell it. But I knew if we had the distribution, and good service, which this company had, that it would be an important platform, and we could do the product part,” Waldron says in a recent sit-down with FoundersWire. “All of us—the industry wasn’t serving schools as well as we could.”
Growth by values
In the lobby of its enormous headquarters, a huge TV screen flashes the number of students using the i-Ready platform for their lessons. While it adds levity to the space, along with the “study buddy” cartoon characters on the walls, the display also serves as a real-time reminder that providing those children with value, both economic and societal, is the goal—ensuring these students in mostly under-resourced school districts stay competitive and succeed.
That kind of mission requires leadership, and character that Waldron says began with founder Frank Ferguson, an “optimist” who launched the company in a garage in 1969.
“(Frank is) an optimist, and always has been. He took the long-term view and rejected short-term thinking. He didn’t sell the company and take money out. That takes great character. And having those elements in his company to give the company character, I think, was essential. It’s because we had the values to do it right and get it right … that led to great acceleration,” he says.
Now those same values will generate value for future generations, since Curriculum Associates unexpectedly transferred the majority of its ownership to the Iowa State University Foundation in January. When the foundation sells its shares, a percentage of proceeds (reportedly estimated at more than $28 million in value) will also go to the Boston Foundation. “And if I do my job, they’ll be worth more than that,” Waldron says, laughing.
“We decide as CEOs whether we’re going to pollute, whether we’re going to offer bad benefits, whether we’re going to sell technology that doesn’t quite work yet for the classroom,” he says. “People want to know their business leaders have an eye for their citizenship.”
Cracking the ‘engagement’ code
Given the changing needs of this new generation of students, the pressure is on to create personalized, adaptive tools that keep these digital natives tuned in and learning. That requires a delicate balance of gamification and quality content, Waldron says.
“If you just read, your ability to understand that reading and to be able to use complex texts and recall complex texts is much higher. So the problem is that people provide resources like that, but the kids bow out because they get bored. So you have to focus just as much on time-on-task as you do on the efficacy or the pedagogy of how they engage with the content,” Waldron says.
“Some people just focus on these game-based experiences that actually have very little learning.”
The ideal, he says, is providing both in balance, so they’re engaged by both—and then providing choice within that framework. “By giving them more power, we’ve increased time on task and deeper understanding of the content. It’s a matter of letting them decide, rather than being told to do these lessons.”
Associate Product Manager Marilynn Willey, giving a demo of the i-Ready dashboard, says creating this technology is a team effort, digging into the cognitive, behavioral and emotional drivers of student engagement.
“It’s a philosophical question for us: How are we going to take this notion of progress and translate it into something meaningful for (the students)?” she says. “They pay attention, they want to know, ‘How am I doing?’ And so we’re building to give them more detail, they’re little data drivers. Kids do well when they know where they stand.”
Ultimately, it’s up to educators to recognize that although the channel may change, learning is still occurring—just more on the students’ terms and timing.
“What’s funny sometimes is, we want them to be reading. But then you look, and they are reading—it’s just on their phone. It may not be a book, to be fair, it may be an article, but they are reading,” Waldron says.
“Agency matters. The amount of technology these kids have gives them agency, where they can find information anywhere, at any speed they want to do it. And if we don’t move at their pace, it just won’t work,” he says. “Children need the motivation to be engaged.”