Curriculum Associates is the best ed tech success story in America–in several ways. Eleven years ago, Rob Waldron took the helm of a small New England workbook publisher and turned it into a digital learning leader. The flagship adaptive instructional product, i-Ready, is now serving 7 million students and educators and recently provided its billionth lesson.
In 2017, the company made a historic charitable gift, giving away the majority of its shares which created a $145 million endowment at Iowa State and a $50 million donation to the Boston Foundation.
I recently spoke with Waldron about these impressive milestones and how he sees the education landscape changing in the coming years.
Vander Ark: A decade ago you took over a sleepy workbook publisher. What made you think you could build it into the biggest impact engine of the decade?
Waldron: To be honest, the focus in my first couple of years was far less lofty. We were in a recession, and I was deeply focused on the challenge of, “Can I maintain a company that serves teachers and kids well… but that doesn’t go bankrupt?”
We were operating in a context of 10 percent unemployment locally, and our staff was mostly over the age of 40 doing editorial work. I knew that downsizing would mean these dedicated folks wouldn’t have had many options for where to turn.
Vander Ark: And add to that, the end of the great recession also looked like the end of traditional publishing to many.
Waldron: Exactly. Other big publishers were shedding people profusely, and I was spending most of my energy trying to keep our doors open. Schools didn’t have money at the time, so we focused on partnering closely with them, offering exceptional services and high-quality resources at an affordable price. While others in the industry dealt with the downturn by putting new labels on old programs to scrape by, we built strong relationships with educators by putting people first and responding to their needs.
Vander Ark: How did you build a team to develop the leading adaptive learning engine i-Ready? How did they do it so fast?
Waldron: When I first came to the company, we licensed an adaptive assessment product from a third party. While the science was good, there were a bunch of technical issues and we kept finding that our customers weren’t getting the service they needed. When we cut off that relationship, we had the opportunity to build something ourselves to replace it.
The process was challenging, but our timing was just right. With the recent release of Common Core, educators were looking for an adaptive tool to support student learning of more rigorous standards. Because of our deep focus on service and commitment to transparency, people trusted that we would provide strong support and continue to improve the tool to best serve their students. While bootstrapping i-Ready, we also fixed our print business by launching Ready, allowing us to offer educators a complete, blended print and digital program. We don’t care whether it’s digital or print–the key is what solution is needed by the educator.
In retrospect, the fact that we created these tools without outside capital and were forced to make every decision on our own dime was a huge contributor to the initial success of i-Ready. It made us deeply attuned to the needs of educators and thoughtful about the long-term viability of the solutions we were creating. This future-focused lens continues to be a competitive advantage for us.
Vander Ark: Curriculum Associates quickly became a leader in software-as-a-service. Because it was a new business model in education, we wrote a paper together: Smart Series Guide to EdTech Procurement. i-Ready is a great product, but it seems to be service that is your big differentiator. Five years ago when we wrote that paper, you said it was support services that were the difference between efficacy and inactivity. Is that still true?
Waldron: Great service begets a great product; Over 40 percent of our employees actually do service full-time–everything from monitoring usage reports, providing professional development, meeting with district leadership, on-site tech support, etc. Schools are complicated institutions to run, so our job is to ensure the industry’s top talent is serving these educators and that we are efficient at providing this high level of service across environments.
Vander Ark: i-Ready just hit a billion lessons, Curriculum Associates recently had its 50 year anniversary, and you recently celebrated your first 10 years as CEO. These are big milestones–what have been the biggest changes in the last decade?
Waldron: The way the world used to work, a study of learning could look like a couple graduate researchers reviewing data from 80 students to prove a hypothesis. Today, we have incredibly robust data to inform our program design and make the right choices for students. If, for example, we delivered a lesson on a given subject 15,000 times and only 2,000 students reached mastery, we know there’s something we need to fix… and we do.
You need incredible nuance into the details of lesson design to make the best possible product. By addressing all the “micro-levers,” which could include the minute mark in a lesson when students stop being engaged or a window that takes a half second too long to open, we ensure our tools are as engaging as possible to learners and as supportive as possible to the educators we serve.
Another success factor has been our investment in constant improvement. A few years ago we spent $50 million on R&D in product and tech, and this year we’re spending nearly double as we focus on making current grades and content better. We’re continually rolling out many major releases – last year alone delivering over 60 improvements to i-Ready – and it’s only accelerating.
Vander Ark: And have you done any recent studies on the impact of your programs on student learning?
Waldron: We’ve released several. Most recently, new third party research conducted by HumRRo showed that our Ready Mathematics blended solution meets ESSA evidence requirements and supports student gains. And our most recent study of i-Ready shows that students using the program continue to see remarkable growth, even as we extend our reach to millions of kids. We’re committed to continued research to guide our improvement efforts and deliver the best possible tools to support learning.
Vander Ark: Five years ago you said hiring was key to your successful scaling, is that still the case?
Waldron: Yes. In my experience, an organization is only as strong as the talent that drives it. It is so critical that we have the right people on board, aligned with our values and committed to service, that recruiting continues to be among the most important uses of my time. I still interview every final round candidate… no small feat as we continue to grow! Last year that meant 337 interviews. We are extremely selective, only hiring 1 in 30 who apply, and 1 in 8 who interview.
As a result, our employees are incredibly dedicated to our shared mission. As reported in our most recent anonymous employee survey, 96 percent of people who work for us would recommend their best friends work for us. To me, that’s the best measure of getting it right.
Vander Ark: How have efforts to support equity played into your strategy development, and where do you see the biggest opportunities moving forward?
Waldron: For starters, I like to ground us in the idea that there’s no such thing as a typical student. We believe all students bring unique assets to their learning environments, and we work to ensure our tools leverage these and are accessible to and representative of the diverse populations we serve. We keep in mind, for example, ways in which the decisions we make could impact English learners and students of diverse backgrounds. We’re introducing a Spanish math diagnostic in the near future and making accessibility a much bigger focus in general.
Overall, we’ve found that adaptive tech is uniquely poised to serve all learners. For example, one thing we often see is that some students with special needs might be off the charts in one subject and struggle in another, and adaptive software can pinpoint those nuances and provide teachers with precise information about that student to drive the most effective instructional decisions.
Vander Ark: The Curriculum Associates goal, as you’ve described it, “is to make educators more productive… by making simple-to-use products that save teachers and administrators time, all while increasing student achievement.” Does that still describe the role you see tech playing in schools?
Waldron: We know teachers play the most important role in the classroom, and we built i-Ready to enhance that role, not consume it. While technology can do amazing things, we believe its highest purpose in the classroom is to strengthen the meaningful and uniquely human relationships between teachers and their students that help children thrive. We designed i-Ready primarily to support teachers – our job is to equip them with the most accurate, accessible, and actionable data possible so they can devote their time to teaching.
Vander Ark: How does i-Ready use data? We’re very interested in interoperability, and data security has been another hot topic recently.
Waldron: We believe student data should only be used to support learning, plain and simple. Schools own all i-Ready data, and we just keep it as secure as humanly possible. Identifiable data is only ever shared with trusted third parties such as Clever or Ed-Fi with a school or district’s explicit consent, and we’d never dream of selling data or sharing it for commercial gains. We take data protection very seriously and have implemented training programs and other data protection measures to help keep student information secure.
Vander Ark: One design flaw that we see more often than we would like in schools is that tech is sometimes used for over-assessment. How can schools use a tool like i-Ready while avoiding that trap?
Waldron: I agree that that is a problem and think kids shouldn’t spend time on tests that don’t directly serve their learning. One thing that’s so great about an adaptive tool like i-Ready is that it is extremely efficient, meaning you can identify what students need in fewer questions and with fewer assessments. Because the diagnostic data is so robust, the program reduces the need for other assessments and gives more valuable classroom time back to teachers to do what they do best… teach.
Vander Ark: We hear you’re planning some updates to i-Ready in the near future. What’s coming down the pipeline?
Waldron: In addition to the accessibility and Spanish math diagnostic additions I mentioned earlier, we’ve got a number of other things coming up, including 100 new lessons for middle school students and a core math product for grades K-5 and 6-8. Middle school students will also have access to a new dashboard with an age-appropriate design, an expanded i-Ready Diagnostic item bank with new passages and items, and a collection of new videos to engage them before each diagnostic.
We’re also working to change the student experience with i-Ready to give students more agency, provide educators with historical reporting and more diagnostic information, and offer administrators with new school- and district-level reports with even more robust information on students’ performance and growth.