A Conversation with Education Technology Experts


The founders of Freshgrade, Ellevation, and Amplify on how their technologies are transforming education.

Education technology, or ed-tech, has the potential to empower students, families, teachers, and schools to reach their goals and to achieve education outcomes that might otherwise be impossible.

Companies are discovering new and exciting ways to use technology to improve learning, personalize curriculum for individual student needs, and assess progress. Among many companies pushing the boundaries of ed-tech, three groups working to realize this potential are Amplify, FreshGrade, and Ellevation. We sat down with leaders from each of these companies to learn more.

Steve Wandler, Co-founder, Freshgrade

FreshGrade is an alternative to the traditional report card. FreshGrade’s “living report card” merges both quantitative and qualitative data to provide a more holistic view of what's going on for students in the classroom.

How does FreshGrade even the playing field for all students, and have you seen anything shift for traditionally marginalized students?

Equity in the classroom is one of our core beliefs and a key reason we started the company. I was that student that was horrible at school. I dropped out of high school, actually. Then I saw my son going through those same challenges—of not loving learning, and being told constantly that he wasn't good at what he did. I ask people, “If you were told four times a year in your job for 12 years in a row that you were bad at it, how long would you stay?”

We want to show kids that they're good at something and give parents a better idea of what their kids are learning. FreshGrade allows teachers and students to capture learning in the classroom in a more holistic way than a traditional report card or test. Teachers can share photos or videos of real learning, or upload any kind of document, so that parents can see what's really going on the day it happened, rather than waiting for a report card three months later. There's no “uh-oh” surprise in the parent-teacher conference. We call it a living report card; a way to communicate true learning, rather than only a letter grade.

If you were told four times a year in your job for 12 years in a row that you were bad at it, how long would you stay?

Steve Wandler, co-founder, Freshgrade

How is FreshGrade transforming the education system?

I remember being a third-grader and thinking, "Screw this. I am not doing this anymore. You're making me stay here for another eight years and I'll do it because I have to but not because I want to." With FreshGrade, our challenge was, how do we get students to change their attitudes and genuinely think, “I can't wait to go to school because I'm doing pretty amazing things.”

At FreshGrade we know that many smart students struggle in traditional school. They know the material, they just don't test well. We want to be able to show growth in all academic areas, as well as social-emotional; not just for the parents but for the students that are doubting themselves.

Jordan Meranus, CEO, Ellevation

Ellevation is an education software company developing a transformative set of solutions for educators who work with English language learners, a large and rapidly growing population of students with specific support needs.

Ellevation's stated mission is to help English Language Learners achieve their highest aspirations. How do you do this?

Ellevation does this in two ways. First, we make it possible for educators to spend significantly more time planning instruction for their ELLs. The compliance-heavy administrative processes that all districts must go through to meet federal and state requirements can be incredibly time intensive. We make this process easier and faster and educators are using this time savings to focus more on instruction. Second, we provide the professional development and instructional strategies tied to student data that teachers need to differentiate instruction for their ELLs and teach language through content. The fact is, most teachers haven't received any formal training teaching English Language Learners. Districts are using Ellevation to provide this training and build teacher confidence.

What types of opportunities could be lost for students in districts that don't use Ellevation?

One of the stories that led us to start Ellevation was from an educator who talked about her increasing sadness over the course of a school year knowing she could not reach her student who did not speak English. These students would move further and further back in the classroom over the course of the year, knowing that those students are at increased risk for a whole set of negative outcomes, from dropping out to everything else that comes with that.

In the United States, the fastest growing population of students are English language learners, or children who speak English as a second language. With respect to scale, we are right now reaching about 18% of all English learners in the country and hope to reach closer to 50% of all English learners in the next three to five years.

Larry Berger, Co-founder and CEO of Amplify

Amplify is a digital instruction company reimagining the way teachers teach and students learn. One part of the company aims to ensure all kids learn to read, and love reading, by the time they are 10 years old. Another part of the company makes a science curriculum that inspires students to read, write, and argue like scientists, and an ELA curriculum that inspires kids to read and write.

What kind of impact are you trying to have for students and in classrooms?

In our early reading group we are trying to ask two intersecting questions: "How do we make sure that all kids learn to read?" and, "How can kids learn to love reading by the time they're 10 years old?" Those turn out to be related, but not always mutually supportive goals—meaning some of the basic drill-and-practice exercises that help kids learn to read can be dreary if schools focus on them at the expense of the rest of what kids are curious about. Making someone do the "C-A-T, CAT” drill over and over again may make a student a black belt at phonics. But that student might also learn that reading isn't as engaging as it seemed. We're trying to get that balance exactly right and create a generation of enthusiastic readers.

In terms of the outcomes, we talk about saving literacy lives. If you don't get kids reading by third grade, a slippery slope sets in. Confidence fades, students struggle in other subjects. Saving a literacy life means that kid doesn't enter into that vicious downwards spiral. By getting all students reading by age ten, you can have a huge impact on the educational outcomes, and therefore their lifetime earnings, etc.

Making someone do the "C-A-T, CAT” drill over and over again may make a student a black belt at phonics. But that student might also learn that reading isn't as engaging as it seemed.

Larry Berger, Co-founder and CEO of Amplify

One of the benefits of ed-tech is the ability to measure and track student outcomes in digital products. What is one thing you’ve learned from the data?

We try to figure out what matters in terms of kids doing better academically. Many of the key metrics have more to do with effort than ability. And by middle school, effort has a lot to do with engagement and motivation. Middle school kids won’t do things they aren’t interested in doing.

For example, we are seeing amazingly high correlations between the number of words a kid writes in a year and their end-of-year test score outcome. Our technology helps us count every word a student writes in English class. Of course it could very well be that kids who write more are already primed for success because of other factors, so it is worth further study.

And it makes sense: any coach or personal trainer would say, “Some people may have more talent than others, but the ones who show up every day and work hard will get the results that they are looking for.” Education might follow that same logic: kids who are motivated enough to do the work are going to achieve. The data we collect suggests to me that one of the problems we need to solve is engaging kids so that they are willing to do the work and stay in the game.