About a year ago, we announced BookNook’s first fundraising round. A group of dual-bottom line investors, led by Reach Capital, bet on a company with a very rough alpha product, a handful of pilot schools, and a vision that technology could be used to make engaged, collaborative learning happen for small groups of students.
Ten months later, we are thrilled to announce the completion of our seed fundraising with an additional infusion of $2 million, jointly led by Better Ventures and the Urban Innovation Fund that included new funding from our existing VC investors and new investors Kapor Capital, Redhouse Education, and Edovate Capital.
Early stage startups are in many ways thought experiments—you set out to test a set of hypotheses about how your technology can help people and expect to learn a lot along the way. If you’re doing things right, you spend a lot of time listening, keeping an open mind, and embracing your failures when you hear about what isn’t working.
So what did we learn in the past year? And what are we doing about it?
Hypothesis #1: Small Groups, Big Results
What we hoped to prove: Our biggest bet—and what makes us different from everyone else in the digital reading space—is our focus on small groups as the unit of instruction. Along with our advisor David Pearson, we believe that something special happens when students work together in groups of 4 or fewer—and there is a lot of research to back that up. (more…)
NAEP 4th Grade Reading Scores over time. Screenshot from NEAP/US DOE
This week, the US Department of Education today released the 2017 results of its National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) better known as the Nation’s Report Card.
In what has become a grim ritual for the past 10 years, the numbers show no meaningful improvement in achievement and massive disparities for students of color, students with disabilities, and students growing up in poverty. There are of course some bright spots, but on the whole it truly is a story of “national stagnation.”
During what often feels like a time of political paralysis, when even wildly popular policies like the fix to DACA can’t get done, it’s easy to write this off as another example of something that’s just stuck in limbo. But the truth is quite the opposite. NAEP is telling us three things loud and clear–but there’s one thing it’s not telling us.
1) The New Digital Divide is in Early Reading
While NAEP has been gradually (and somewhat painfully) shifting to an online assessment, this year was the first in which the majority of students took the digital version. This mirrors the trend in state assessments, the majority of which are now also taken on a digital device.
There are several studies that have shown that students perform worse on tests taken online rather than on paper. The reason most commonly cited is that students, particularly those from lower income households, have less comfort and familiarity with the devices they take the test on.
2) Device Access Isn’t the Issue
While there’s no doubt that affluent students have better access to technology, that gap is closing rapidly and the amount of time kids spend on non-television screen time has increasing dramatically –from 5 minutes a day on average in 2011 to 48 minutes in 2017.
A similar transformation is taking place as the ratio of students to devices at school continues to quickly drop. In 2017, 50% of public school teachers reported that they have a device for every student in their classroom.
So if the problem isn’t access, then why is there a persistent gap in how students do on paper versus digital assessments? It’s about how teaching happens–kids are mostly taught reading with paper books and paper handouts, and then tested with digital passages.
If we were going through the paper revolution, moving towards a future where people did less reading online and more reading on paper, this would make sense–but of course, it’s really the exact opposite that’s happening.
3) Money Matters
Whether it’s buying devices or training teachers and paraprofessionals on how to use them, school budgets are hurting almost universally.
Twenty-nine states still have not returned to pre-recession spending levels in education. Nationally, we are spending $450 less per student than we did in 2008, adjusted for inflation. In a typical elementary school of about 500 students, that’s a $225,000 budget difference.
Teachers are on the march in Kentucky in Oklahoma because of their unconscionably low pay, and it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that those states turned in some of the worst scores in fourth grade reading. In 28 states, teachers are paid less today in real dollars than they were in 2000. It’s no wonder that principals report budgets and their teacher morale worry them the most.
At some level it’s a minor miracle that NAEP has more or less stayed flat during a decade of decreased funding and rising poverty among schoolchildren. While simply throwing money at the problem is unlikely to help, smart allocations of dollars to address the crisis in school funding would go a long way in getting achievement growth back on track.
There’s also one thing that we should not take away from the NAEP story, both for this year and the past 10 years:
What We’re Doing Isn’t Working
While there are many matters of reading policy that reasonable people might disagree with, the one conclusion is that we should all be able to agree on is that our current approach at both the state is failing our kids.
Reading is a human and a civil right, and the bedrock of a child’s ability to learn and engage with the world around them. Yet only 37% of American fourth graders tested as proficient readers and among students of color and students growing up in poverty that number drops to 20%.
While 2017’s numbers show an improvement of 4 percentage points over the past 10 years, these are not ‘stay the course’ numbers. If we keep going at this pace, it will be the year 2052 before even a slim 51% majority of American children will be proficient readers.
It’s time for educators and policymakers to rethink their approaches to early reading, by investing more in teachers and schools and by embracing the digital text revolution. This will bring teaching practices into line with how the vast majority of written text is now consumed.
We get only one chance at this–if students don’t master reading at a young age they will face a host of hardships throughout their lives. We owe it to our kids to do better.
Back in 1986, Ohio educator and school administrator Howard Merriman bemoaned “the challenges brought by the incursion of technology into the schools.” He was talking about electric typewriters and programmable televisions, but 40 years later, the problem for schools remains the same, even if today’s technology is vastly different. As current educators try to adopt new technology, they should find Merriman’s impulse familiar as they ask themselves how schools can ensure holistic integration across all grades, subjects and teachers.
What Is Technology Integration?
It’s more than teachers and students using computers, or simply putting course materials online. However, it doesn’t mean having students on computers all the time, either.
This is the 1st post in our new series: “Guide your Students to Success” that will explain how to best use the instructional components within BookNook.
Asking questions that will lead your students to higher levels of comprehension and being more critical learners is not easy. Educators spend a lot of time crafting questions that utilize Bloom’s taxonomy lead their students from being able to recall information all the way up to be able to higher order skills of evaluating and creating. With BookNook’s built in talking points and discussion questions that have been designed by educators, you can ask effective questions using dialogic reading techniques that will increase your students’ comprehension of each text and make your sessions full of energy and student talk time.
These past few weeks at BookNook HQ in Oakland, we’ve been in the midst of our own Olympics. And no, we’re not talking about the March Reading Madness we’re working on with all of the schools using BookNook. We’ve been working hard with Olympic athlete, Kristi Yamaguchi.
In 1992, Kristi Yamaguchi won Gold in Women’s Singles at the winter olympics for the US Ice Skating team. Since that amazing performance, Kristi has worked tirelessly towards improving literacy skill and achievement for students. Enter BookNook, which is in the hands of thousands of students across 14 states. After speaking with Kristi about BookNook’s vision of improving achievement for students across the country in all types of educational settings as well as help students achieve their dreams by encouraging academic success, she agreed to have her books featured alongside BookNook’s already growing library of engaging texts for students.