NewSchools Venture Fund A non-profit venture philanthropy firm working to transform public education for low-income children Fri, 17 Oct 2014 00:04:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Philanthropy’s Essential Role in K-12 Edtech and Strategies for Impact Mon, 06 Oct 2014 20:17:55 +0000 […]]]>

Although “Record Levels of Edtech Funding” has been a recurring headline, there hasn’t been a focus on the role of philanthropy as the majority of funding is coming from the private sector. From our front line view as an active edtech seed investor, we see the need for diverse forms of capital to realize the full potential of technology to differentiate instruction and drive improved learning outcomes

With their long view of the market and a focus on student achievement, foundations are uniquely positioned to fill existing gaps in edtech funding. For example, additional sources of capital are needed to provide high quality technology tools for students with specialized needs and underserved backgrounds.  

So what is preventing foundations from funding edtech? How much money have foundations recently contributed to edtech? Which foundations are leading the way and what innovative approaches are they taking? Find out in Philanthropy’s Essential Role in K-12 Edtech and Strategies for Impact, an analysis of the current state of major foundations and K-12 edtech funding. 

We hope foundations will use this research to find ways to support the K-12 edtech ecosystem given their mission and capacity. Foundations interested in learning more and connecting with other foundations interested in funding edtech can sign up to continue the conversation- we are eager to help!

Thank you to collaborators Dan Runcie, Vivian Wu, and Chian Gong. Thanks also to Diana Barthauer for support with graphic design.

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Data Analytics Tools in U.S. K-12 Sat, 04 Oct 2014 06:38:25 +0000 […]]]> The use of data to influence decision-making isn’t new to K-12 education.  In fact, given the sheer amount of paperwork, surveys and test scores generated, education has the potential to be one of, if not the, most data-driven sector in the U.S., but too often the data that teachers and administrators are saddled with is untimely or inactionable. We’re excited to see that change.

Over recent years, a slew of next generation data analytics tools are changing the way school leaders think about data by: making achievement data more actionable (e.g. BrightBytes, Schoolzilla), providing a more holistic portfolio of students’ performance (e.g. FreshGrade, Equal Opportunity Schools) and bringing more constituent voices to bear on learning (e.g. Panorama Education).  To follow are several examples in which data tools are improving efficiency and equity in K-12.

Investment Approaches in Data

Making achievement data more actionable. The critical questions that K-12 school leaders want answered are rarely captured in a single data set.  Data on interconnected issues such as student performance, behavior and attendance are typically housed in dozens of disparate legacy data systems that have limited functionality and lack integration.  Schoolzilla addresses this problem by providing schools with a data warehousing platform that allows educators to connect and clean various data sources into intuitive, actionable visualizations.  Once the data is connected, Schoolzilla creates customizable data dashboards enabling educators to focus on their key performance indicators as highlighted in this case study and pictured below.  Schoolzilla can also help educators benchmark their school’s performance relative to other schools laying the groundwork for conversations around best practices.

Schoolzilla NWEA MAP Teacher Report 2 (drill-down)[1]

A sample visualization provided by Schoolzilla - visualizing ELA academic performance for a portfolio of schools and an interactive map showing average household income by school location

A sample visualization provided by Schoolzilla – visualizing ELA academic performance for a portfolio of schools and an interactive map showing average household income by school location

More holistic portfolio of student performance.  While test scores are an important measure of student progress and allow school leaders to better understand achievement gaps, they only capture a limited component of a young person’s academic strengths and weaknesses. We are excited about data analytics tools that humanize and provide a more holistic profile of student capability and potential.  A great example is Equal Opportunity Schools (EOS), an organization which partners with high school principals and district superintendents to increase enrollment and success of underrepresented students (e.g. low-income and minority) in a school’s most challenging classes (e.g. AP and IB).  EOS makes their information actionable to school leaders by creating data-rich student profiles highlighting academic success and readiness for rigorous course content.  EOS schools have dramatically increased the number of low-income and minority students in AP and IB classes while maintaining or improving exam passage rates for these courses.

A sample student profile created by EOS which benchmarks performance relative to other AP students

A sample student profile created by EOS which benchmarks performance relative to other AP students

Elevating the student voice.  Panorama Education, a Boston-based edtech company, is helping teachers collect and analyze student feedback. Panorama’s student survey reports are elevating the student voice and providing teachers with actionable analytics to understand where there’s opportunity to improve instruction and engagement. This is one of several examples in which data analytics tools are playing a positive role in impacting change at the point of instruction.

A sample Panorama Education report used by teachers

A sample Panorama Education report used by teachers


Venture Funding for Data Tools

While a new generation of data analytics tools gain widespread adoption in schools, they’re also catching the eye of venture investors.  According to K-12 edtech venture funding data provided by EdSurge, funding for data analytics tools has steadily grown in recent years – 2014 year-to-date venture funding is already up 687% from 2012 at $58M.  For the sake of simplicity, we break data analytics edtech companies into two primary categories:

  • Learning analytics: The use of data to inform and improve instruction and learning (e.g. Ellevation Education, Panorama Education).
  • Institutional analytics: The use of data to make better decisions about how to improve operations at a school-wide or district level. (e.g. BrightBytes, LearnSprout).


The increased funding is driven by Series B funding rounds for MasteryConnect,  BrightBytes, and Series A for Clever. The enthusiasm isn’t unwarranted – according to the McKinsey Global Institute, more open data practices in education have the opportunity to unlock economic value of $800bn to $1.2 trillion annually (this figure includes higher education).  Per their analysis, the primary drivers of value include improved instructional outcomes by identifying more effective pedagogies and cost-savings through more efficient administration.

Looking Ahead

There are still a number of opportunities to more fully realize the potential of data analytics in education such as better privacy tools, greater levels of integration across a variety of systems and actionable data for parents.  Data analytics will remain a prevalent storyline in edtech, particularly as states rollout the first generation of Common Core assessments in the 2014-2015 academic year.  We expect and look forward to an influx of high-quality data tools that will help teachers and administrators answer pressing and challenging questions.

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Investment Approaches of the Seed Fund – Part III Tue, 16 Sep 2014 18:18:45 +0000 […]]]> Tools to Differentiate Instruction in a One-Size-Fits-All Education System

Last weekend, I sat in a sewing class with my ten year old daughter and was surprised to learn that ⅓ of our day would be dedicated to programming our sewing machines. The room full of women, most over sixty years old, happily embraced the automation of tasks like embroidery now possible thanks to the software running their machines. Marc Andreesen is right – Software is eating the world.  

It’s eating education too, but not in the way critics would have you believe. Mainstream media has oversimplified edtech, too often characterizing it as apps aimed to replace teachers. In Matt Richtel’s NYT piece profiling the no-tech Waldorf School in Silicon Valley, he quotes a parent,

The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic, that’s ridiculous.”  

The truth is, the overwhelming majority of education technology entering our K-12 schools today are tools and content designed for teachers to support their 41whHNvibTL._SY355_efforts to differentiate instruction. Those same Silicon Valley, high-tech parents would never consider going about their jobs without the latest software to give them an edge. Yet, our teachers are expected to personalize learning with primitive tools in a one-size-fits-all education system¹. (The green Ward lesson planning book is still widely used.)

The basis for starting the Seed Fund three years ago was to invest in cutting-edge tools for differentiating instruction, the other theses areas grew from there.  


Differentiated Instruction (DI) has become an education buzzword used to convey different ideas from personalized learning to student grouping. In plain language, differentiated instruction means: the methods a teacher uses to respond to individual learning needs in the classroom.

A teacher can differentiate by modifying:

  1. how they teach (process);
  2. what they teach (content);
  3. the product (evidence of learning); and
  4. the learning environment.

Teachers need tools and content to help them efficiently differentiate these four areas while managing a classroom and their overall load of students. Our investment thesis is to seed companies that can differentiate along the following dimensions:

Learning Environment Differentiation: Nearpod and Hapara are workflow or learning environment tools. Nearpod gives teachers the ability to toggle between whole class, small group and individual instruction in 1:1 learning environments while Hapara is a layer of software that helps teachers manage student work in the Google Apps for Edu environment.

Content Differentiation: Children learn in different ways and it’s helpful to present content in multiple formats to increase the odds of reaching more learners. An extreme example of how technology can enable new ways to present conceptually challenging ideas is the Solar Walk app which leverages the touch screen pinch and expand technology of the iPad to represent the scale of the Universe in a very unique way. There is credible research to show Solar Walk increases comprehension of these concepts. Not only are we seeking new, digitally enhanced content, but we also aim to fund content tools able to adapt to the needs of individual students. Companies like Blendspace, eSpark, Zaption, Zeal and Educreations enable personalized content for students thereby optimizing the path a child takes to achieve their learning goals.

Assessment and Feedback: In order to differentiate effectively, teachers need to gather information on a child’s understanding. We look for formative assessment tools that give teachers the information they need to modify their instruction as needed. Assessment and feedback go hand-in-hand; some tools combine the two. The key feature we are looking for is that the teacher has a place in this assessment/feedback loop. Mobile assessment tools like Socrative shorten the assessment/feedback cycle even enabling teachers to adjust instruction on the spot. 

We are seeing some of the strongest innovation in these categories as the tools evolve alongside mobile technology. Its important to note that DI is a foundational principle of the Seed Fund and cuts across all of our investment areas.



Blendspace is a curation tool for educators to personalize learning content for students.

Blendspace was acquired by TES Global/Wikispaces




Corespring is an assessment database.



Educreations is a unique lesson-creation tool for educators, works across platforms.




Dubbed a Pandora for Apps, eSpark enables personalized playlists of Apps in a mobile learning environment.


Hapara logo_New Tag_4C_8_2014


Hapara is a layer of software that sits on top of Google Apps for Edu designed for educators to manage their classrooms in a digital environment.




MasteryConnect is a collaborative, formative assessment platform for K12 educators.




Nearpod is an operating system for educators for 1:1 learning environments.


Socrative Logo


Socrative (acquired by MasteryConnect) is a mobile formative assessment tool for quick checks for understanding and to increase engagement.




Zaption provides advanced video data analytics for educators.


Summary of Investment Approaches in Posts I-3

  1. The STEM skills crisis
  2. Relevance matters more than ever
  3. Better communication leads to better education outcomes for kids
  4. Specialized tools can better reach children outside of the mainstream
  5. Tools to Differentiate Instruction in a One-Size-Fits-All Education System


¹120-150+ students per teacher at the secondary level, summative assessment system, limited planning time, etc

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The School Organizations in Our Portfolio are Growing! Wed, 10 Sep 2014 22:20:39 +0000 […]]]> NewSchools is celebrating the opening of new charter school campuses in Washington, DC, Newark, NJ and Boston, MA. We support the growth of entrepreneur led education organizations in each of these cities through our City Funds.

Boston Fund: Four New Campuses

KIPP MA | KIPP Academy Boston Elementary | K-4
1 New Campus | Total Campuses: 5

Match EducationMatch Next Middle School | 5-8
1 New Campus | Total Campuses: 3

UP Education NetworkUP Academy Holland | K-8
1 New Campus | Total Campuses: 5

City on a HillCity on a Hill – New Bedford | 9-12
1 New Campus | Total Campuses: 3

DC Schools Fund: Four New Campuses

DC International SchoolDC International | 6-12
1 New Campus | Total Campuses: 1

KIPP DCKIPP DC Arts & Technology Academy | PK3-K
                  KIPP DC Northeast Academy | 5-8
2 New Campuses | Total Campuses: 15

Democracy PrepDemocracy Prep Congress Heights | PK3-6
1 New Campus | Total Campuses: 13

Newark Fund: Two New Campuses

North Star AcademyAlexander Street Elementary | K-4
1 New Campus | Total Campuses: 10

TEAM Charter Schools Life Academy Elementary | K-4
1 New CampusTotal Campuses: 7


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Where are K-12 Edtech Venture Backed Startups Based? Fri, 05 Sep 2014 23:58:17 +0000 […]]]> This is the first post in a series to spotlight trends in K-12 edtech venture funding data.

Advantageous location of a startup is no substitute for a great product or entrepreneur, but it may increase the odds of success. In edtech, early success for a startup often hinges on access to talent, early-stage funding, high-quality accelerators, research partnerships and innovation-friendly school districts.

According to year-to-date K-12 edtech venture funding data provided by EdSurge, the San Francisco Bay Area remains the most popular geography for both edtech entrepreneurs and investors alike. Mirroring the broader technology market, Bay Area startups have accounted for 44% of all K-12 edtech venture dollars raised year-to-date at $172M. Additionally, the Bay Area is home to edtech companies raising some of the largest rounds of venture financing this year including: BrightBytes, Edmodo, Remind, and AltSchool.

EdTech Funding by Geo v.2We continue to see strong momentum in deal activity from East Coast startups based out of New York, Boston and the Baltimore/Washington Metro area. As others have noted, these cities have particular alignment with K-12 edtech:

Angels: Early stage capital is critical to retain promising edtech startups. Local angel investors, such as Frank Bonsal (Baltimore), Eileen Rudden, Jean Hammond and Jon Sackler (Boston), Matt Greenfield and Zac Zeitlin (New York) have helped evangelize and catalyze edtech capital in their respective regions.

Community: A number of organizations are helping create the conditions necessary for early-stage edtech entrepreneurs to succeed by developing a community of practice comprised of educators, administrators and entrepreneurs. The #edtechMD, the Digital Harbor Foundation, LearnLaunch and NYC iZone are several such organizations helping develop early stage edtech activity.

Accelerators: Amongst others, Kaplan EdTech Accelerator (New York) and LearnLaunchX (Boston) incubate early-stage ventures and galvanize networks of potential funders (including the NewSchools Seed Fund).

Access to Talent: Top universities on the East Coast are producing a world-class pipeline of talent and a compelling alternative to Silicon Valley. As universities continue to better serve their local startup communities, edtech will benefit.

Research Partnerships: An analog to Stanford and UC Berkeley’s penchant for feeding research and innovation to the Bay Area exists on the East Coast where top-notch research institutions are increasingly developing partnerships with the private sector. A few interesting examples that are bridging research-based solutions with practice include: Edtechnos Evaluator / NYC iZone, Colombia Teachers College EdLab, and the MIT Sloan Edtech case competition.

Bar Graph

Our last chart examines how our own funding on the NewSchools Seed Fund compares to the aforementioned broader trends. 57% of our 45 edtech investments are Bay Area based while 30% is nearly evenly distributed across Washington DC, New York and Boston (it’s worth noting that our team is headquartered in Palo Alto). As edtech ecosystems continue to evolve, we will continue to seek out the most passionate and talented entrepreneurs no matter where they’re based.


Thanks to Diana Barthauer for visuals and the NSVF Seed team for reading drafts of this.  Data made available from EdSurge Ka’Ching Reports.


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Investment Approaches of the Seed Fund- Part II Wed, 20 Aug 2014 03:52:01 +0000 […]]]> Last week I shared some of our thinking behind our investments in STEM, relevance and communication, found here. With this post, I’ll share our approach for investing in special education and english language learning.

Specialized Tools Can Better Reach Children Outside of the Mainstream 

While traditional venture capital has backed consumer-oriented english language learning tools like Rosetta Stone, Livemocha and more recently, mobile apps like Duolingo, we take a very different approach. We target tools for educators in schools serving these students.

Our school system is undergoing a long, slow shift from a mass-production model of instruction to a more differentiated model. This is a good thing and will be better for both the educators and children within the system. While we’re excited that new blended models are pioneering the way for whole school change, their numbers are tiny at less than 1% of US schools. We need to accelerate this shift because achievement data makes it clear that children from less privileged backgrounds and those with particular learning needs have the most to lose from a one-size-fits-all approach to schooling.

As this systematic shift lumbers on, teachers are driving change in their own classrooms. For more than a decade, differentiated instruction has been the #1 topic of interest for professional development. Teachers have long believed they needed more arrows in their quiver to teach the range of learners in their classrooms. And now, with the ubiquity of technology devices and the content ecosystems that come alongside them, teachers are actively adopting tools and content to teach diverse learners — despite the many constraints imposed by a system designed for mass-production.


The demand for educator-focused specialized learning tools and content is strong. Because technology offers unique and easy ways to differentiate curriculum and instruction, our baseline approach across all investment areas is to find products that build these features from within – it should be the norm of all education technology products¹. Newsela, mentioned previously as a tool to promote relevance, is one of the best examples with a built-in lexile leveler to reach beginning and advanced readers alike.

We have narrowed our criteria to areas with: a) high need b) an over-representation of poor and minority children² and c) opportunities to build a scalable and sustainable business. Given limited follow-on funding options, we invest in areas with Federal and State categorical funding available so the company can become cash-flow positive quickly. This space is primed for impact investors and Foundation mission-related investments (MRI’s). Our investments are focused in:

English Language Learners (ELL)

Click to Enlarge
Click to Enlarge

The fastest growing sub-population of students in the US is English Language Learners, currently at about 11%. Thirty percent of schools have more than a quarter of students from an immigrant background. PISA data shows that students in the US with an immigrant background³ more often attend schools with a) more children from a socio-economically disadvantaged background, b) have lower quality of educational resources available and c) have fewer staff per students, among other disadvantages (see table ii.4.9).

Special Education (SPED)

About 12% of US students have identified special learning needs. Special education teachers have some of the toughest jobs and the poorest tools available. It is an area virtually devoid of innovation and yet these teachers have some of the greatest needs for personalized learning tools. After all, differentiated instruction began in special education classrooms. Faced with the reality of a classroom of diverse learners, special education teachers adapted their instruction and developed new pedagogical strategies.

In both ELL and SPED, we look for tools and curriculum to help educators support the learning needs of their students while efficiently meeting compliance demands for categorical funding. We would like to do a lot more investing in this category and are researching needs for rural children and early-diagnostic tools for classroom teachers to screen for learning disabilities so those children can get help sooner. We are at the tip of the iceberg in understanding how technology can positively impact the lives of children with special learning needs — and we are keen to invest in entrepreneurs who are leading this innovation and will equip our educators with the best tools possible.


LocoMotive Labs designs exceptional assistive and play-based learning applications to empower kids with special needs to be independent learners.



Goalbook creates research-based resources that empower teachers to design rigorous and engaging instructional plans for diverse student needs.


ELEV tagline logo cmyk

Ellevation is exclusively focused on the needs of English Language Learners and the educators who serve them.



PresenceLearning makes online 
speech therapy and occupational therapy practical, affordable and convenient for special needs children while providing an extraordinary therapy experience for each child.

¹Stanford professor Jo Boaler calls differentiated learning tasks, “low-floor, high ceiling” – we look for products similarly designed.

²The overrepresentation of certain ethnic groups in special education programs (and underrepresentation in AP and gifted programs) has been a recognized problem for 30+ years.

³Among OECD countries, only Luxembourg, Switzerland, Australia, new Zealand, Canada and Israel show a higher concentration of students with an immigrant background in schools (the OECD average is 14%).

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Investment Approaches of the Seed Fund- Part I Fri, 15 Aug 2014 18:00:16 +0000 […]]]> Our Seed Fund supports high potential entrepreneurs developing technology solutions for the biggest challenges in K-12 education. We look for areas where the power of technology can improve our education system and its ability to maximize the learning Seed_Investment_Thesis_Vennpotential of every child. We borrow our approach from venture capital¹ in that we develop investment theses informed by listening to educators, researching technology trends, studying student achievement data, and listening closely to the practitioners in our schools and organizations.

In contrast to a fixed theory of change, we are continuously updating, modifying and revising our theses as we gain more visibility. Most of our investing is thesis-driven though we remain open to breakthrough ideas where the entrepreneur is educating us on the opportunity.

Below are three of our investment theses (in no particular order) and how some of our investments line-up against them. The remainder will come in follow-up posts.

The STEM skills crisis

The greatest unmet demand in our economy is for STEM-related jobs. Two million high-demand, high-skilled jobs go unfilled in the US because employers can’t find enough qualified workers. It’s also an equity issue: females, Blacks and Latino’s are critically under-represented in some of the fastest growing and highest valued consumer technology companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter.


Our thesis is founded on two data points: a) about 50% of HS math and science classes are taught by a teacher with inadequate background² b) more than 60% of students who chose a STEM career did so because a teacher sparked their interest³.

Given the importance of teachers to inspire and prepare our children for STEM fields, we seek education technology startups targeted at helping teachers. Specifically, we look for content companies to bolster teachers’ STEM knowledge and support their efforts to deliver high-quality instruction even when they lack the requisite certification, background or skills (as often is the case with computer science).


Tynker is a computational thinking curriculum for K-8, targeted at educators without a background in computer science.


logoCodeHS is a coding curriculum for High Schools, targeted at educators without a background in computer science.

YouCubed was founded by Stanford University professor Jo Boaler. Their mission is to harness the power of new technologies to transform mathematics education in the US and beyond by, helping teachers combat myths about failure and ability.



Mystery Science is an elementary science curriculum helping teachers to deliver inspiring and high-quality lessons even when they lack a science background.



CodeNow introduces under-represented high school students to computer programming through partnerships with leading technology companies and their software engineers. 


Motion MathMotionMath makes rigorous and fun math learning games.


Relevance matters more than ever

School is becoming less relevant to children all over the world who now carry in their pockets access to the world’s knowledge, not to mention addictive video games. But even before smartphones, school’s suffered from a relevance crisis, described by Y Combinator founder Paul Graham:

…we never had anything real to work on. Humans like to work; in most of the world, your work is your identity. And all the work we did [at school] was pointless, or seemed so at the time. At best it was practice for real work we might do far in the future, so far that we didn’t even know at the time what we were practicing for. More often it was just an arbitrary series of hoops to jump through, words without content designed mainly for testability. (The three main causes of the Civil War were…. Test: List the three main causes of the Civil War.)

Over a million students per year dropout, failing to see the relevance of school to their future. Another 250,000 opt to attend school full-time online, without a live teacher. Virtual schools are the fastest-growing category of school choice with enrollment jumping 21% last year while enriching online providers like Schools have struggled to define their relevance for decades but the problem has become more acute with smartphones and everywhere access. Children can find answers, code, connect to an online community, build, sell things, blog, review and learn online — all without schools. We are becoming increasingly connected and it’s not just our laptops or smartphones. The Internet of Things (IoT) is coming. In just six years, Gartner estimates that 26 billion devices will be connected to the internet (e.g. your plant pots, watch, scale, and things we cannot yet conceive of). 


Our thesis is that technology can help bring the real world into the classroom, making it more relevant. Children are naturally hungry for authentic problems to solve, real content to delve into and opportunities to create and contribute to our world. Not only can we help children better understand why the content and skills they are learning matter, but to also apply their learning to build something of value for themselves and community.

Nepris Logo_blue-gray-300x77

Nepris enables collaboration between educators and industry professionals to bring real world relevance to every classroom to engage students in STEM, to expose them to real job skills and to inspire them through role models.



Newsela publishes high-interest news articles daily at five levels of complexity. Newsela develops nonfiction fluency and critical-thinking skills necessary to master informational text.



TuvaLabs empowers students to think critically about data, ask meaningful questions, and communicate their observations and findings. TuvaLabs pushes students to use their knowledge, values and skills to become active members of their own communities and global citizens of the world.


logo-70df3d6d4b63613e44353ee614f4a6b8ListenCurrent teaches students to Listen with the Power of Public Radio and makes it easy to bring authentic voices and compelling non-fiction stories to the classroom.


Better communication leads to better educational outcomes

At a basic level, education is communication between parent, teacher and child, or in ed-school jargon, the Golden Triangle. It is critical to optimize for better communication because it has a significant impact on a child’s school performance.


Technology can reduce communication friction and enable more effective, frequent and purposeful communication between parent, teacher and child. Schools are just beginning to utilize basic communication tools that consumers have been using for years like text messaging, news feeds, translators, push email and social networks. We seek out startups leveraging consumerlike communication technologies to help parents, teachers and children better understand and support each other. This area, in particular, is undergoing major change. Currently, our focus is to dramatically improve parent engagement rates through tools that invite parents into the learning process and encourage a positive partnership between parent, teacher and child. 


Class Dojo is a classroom tool that helps teachers improve behavior and involve the parent in that process.



FreshGrade is a next generation gradebook and communication platform that aligns parent, student and child in the learning process.


schoolmintlogoSchoolmint reduces the friction of school enrollment/admission by managing the process simply and securely.


¹Of course, the big difference between us and a venture capital firm is that we are optimizing for impact, not money.

²About 2/3 of high school math students and 1/3 of those enrolled in physical science have teachers who did not major in the subject in college or are not certified to teach it.

³57% of boys and 68% of girls who chose a career in science technology engineering and math (STEM) had a teacher or class that sparked their interest.

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Equity, Diversity & Edtech Mon, 21 Jul 2014 15:44:58 +0000 […]]]> The “wall of silence” is crumbling. For the first time, Silicon Valley’s technology companies have begun releasing data about the diversity of their employees. The disclosures help to quantify a reality that many have suspected or experienced firsthand: Less than five percent of the collective workforces of Facebook, Google and Yahoo are black or Hispanic; four out of five team members are white or Asian men.

These statistics mirror broader trends. Only 13 percent of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs nationwide are held by black or Hispanic workers; at the same time skills related to STEM are “particularly scarce relative to [employer] demand.”

Gaps begin early in the education pipeline and persist into adulthood: Black and Hispanic students (who account for more than 40 percent of the K-12 population) are not only less likely to be prepared for Kindergarten, graduate from high school or attend “elite and competitive” colleges; they are also less likely to study subjects like computer science or to be part of successful startups. (According to a report by CB Insights, more than 80 percent of venture capital-backed early-stage companies have all-white teams.)

These disparities stem in part from phenomena such as implicit biases and cultures of insularity. They are also driven by (as well as reinforce) cycles of poverty. In the past 40 years, the proportion of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch has doubled to 70 percent, as racially-defined gaps in income and wealth continue to grow.

* * * * *

A student from GLIDE's youth art summer program playtests an app at co.lab. (Photo:  Erin Beach)

A student from GLIDE’s summer youth arts program playtests an educational game. 
(Photo: Erin Beach)

As important as these issues are in regard to consumer technologies, they are perhaps even more critical when considering the users and makers of edtech, an industry in which the holy grail of technology-enabled “personalization” risks becoming “an empty vessel into which one may pour any number of competing theories of learning or favored education policies.”

Increasingly, students’ academic and social experiences are influenced by edtech programmers, whose perspectives and priorities may differ significantly from users’. Nonetheless children from low-income households spend more time than their higher-income peers consuming media each day. As Hack Education’s Audrey Watters asks, “Who writes all these algorithms that will ‘personalize’ our learning through technology? [...] For whom is ‘personalization’ defined (and by extension, for whom is ‘personalization’ programmed)?”

When it comes to edtech, Silicon Valley may be “leading the charge” in some ways (including job growth); nevertheless its contributions must be contextualized within “knowledge and a library of evidence far broader than that which the disruptive narrative includes.” If the “edtech revolution” is to fulfill its promise of closing gaps, it must be understood as part of a broader struggle toward equity and inclusion.

In order to analyze the social impact of edtech, we must begin by disentangling access and usage. Access is necessary, but not sufficient, for improving outcomes; variations in usage matter. Learning environments are characterized by “envelopes” which consist of both technology resources and social resources (e.g. scaffolding, modeling and support from parents and teachers) — these play a prominent role in shaping individual students’ educational possibilities.

Despite increased access to mobile devices and the rising (if tentative) popularity of BYOD, there are barriers that prevent many low-income children from accessing high-quality digital content at home and at school. And even where access exists, disparities can remain: Research has shown that gaps in resource allocation can exist even between students within a single school.

What can edtech developers do to encourage equitable usage of their products? One crucial step is establishing authentic communication with students, teachers and parents from low-income schools — this is the only way to ensure that real problems are being solved. Startups can also take steps to reduce friction to distribution and adoption in a wide variety of classrooms. In addition, early stage companies can prioritize the recruitment of culturally and socioeconomically diverse teams as well as investors, which may increasingly include non-profit foundations.

* * * * *

Students at Startup Weekend Oakland - Black Male Achievement. (Photo: Sierra Jewell)

Students design projects at Startup Weekend Oakland – Black Male Achievement.
(Photo: Sierra Jewell)

And yet, there are more systemic issues to address related to diversity in the design and usage of edtech. Enhanced empathy is important, but it only goes so far. In order to create outcomes that are truly equitable, edtech decision-makers must work to redefine the relationship between students — especially low-income students — and technology.

Educator Jose Vilson argues that “the lack of teachers of color is a symptom and not a cause of the education gaps we currently see.” In the case of edtech, it seems plausible that a lack of representation by (instructional and technological) designers of color is both a symptom and a cause of unfulfilled demand for content and products that reflect the diverse experiences and needs of low-income users.

There is work to be done combating conditions that inhibit equity and diversity at the professional level. In the meantime, a growing group of organizations is addressing these challenges through community-based, technology-enabled educational interventions. Black Girls Code teaches young girls and pre-teens of color in-demand skills in technology and computer programming. Science Genius leverages hip hop pedagogy to engage urban youth and educators in STEM exploration. Hack the Hood connects youth to real-world consulting projects building websites for local businesses and nonprofits. Qeyno Labs harnesses the interests of high potential youth from low-opportunity settings through radically inclusive hackathons. And new ideas are being generated all the time.

In a world where “genius is not always defined by academic success”, important questions remain about how to assess the educational value of technology. In some classrooms, consumer trends like user-generated content could intersect with ideas like portfolio-based assessment to create opportunities for more diverse interpretations of “achievement”. But to become genuinely transformative, educational technologies must function as part of a system of supports that equip low-income students with the skills they need to identify and solve challenges in their own homes and communities.

Cameron White is Associate Director of co.lab, an edtech accelerator by NewSchools Venture Fund and

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If you’re interested in the roles that STEM and creativity can play in empowering youth, check out the video below from Summit 2014 panel “From STEM to STEAM: Creativity as a Lever for Social Justice.”

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Youth UpRising: Changing a Community, One Young Person at a Time Thu, 17 Jul 2014 21:55:25 +0000 […]]]> YU LogoIn the Castlemont neighborhood of East Oakland, one in four people live in poverty. The teenage pregnancy rate is three times the Alameda County average. Homicide is the leading cause of death for residents aged 14-24. These are grim statistics, but there is hope for neighborhood change.

A local Castlemont nonprofit, Youth UpRising, is set on revitalizing the neighborhood by investing in its young people. At the Youth UpRising center, youth make music, receive academic tutoring, develop GED completion plans, gain job experience, and have access to a health clinic. They receive services taken for granted in more affluent neighborhoods but highly valued in communities of poverty like Castlemont. In just nine years of operation, Youth UpRising has served more than ten thousand young people.

14_06_10_NSVF-Youth-Uprising-1Olis Simmons, Youth UpRising President and CEO, is unwavering in her commitment to increase the educational and professional opportunities for students in the Castlemont neighborhood. With declining enrollment and historically low graduation rates, Simmons believes that the existing public schools in the Castlemont area do not put students on track for college and career readiness.

This summer, Simmons and her team submitted proposals for two charter schools: Castlemont Community Primary Academy and Castlemont Junior Academy. With support from NewSchools’ Oakland Fund, Youth UpRising plans to open the pair of schools in the 2015-2016 school year, beginning with a transitional kindergarten, kindergarten, and sixth grade. The schools will add a grade level each year, until they cover transitional kindergarten through eighth grade.

14_06_10_NSVF-Youth-Uprising-3Lisa Haynes, a former principal, leads the application effort. She developed a school model for the applications built on best practices from high-performing schools in low-income neighborhoods, including Common Core alignment and blended learning. Haynes remembers the moment she decided to work at Youth UpRising. She saw a student who dropped out of her school working at a Youth UpRising event, wearing a suit and charming guests. At her school, he fell through the cracks; at Youth UpRising, he found the support he needed. Now, Haynes and Youth UpRising are developing high-achieving community schools to support all students.

NewSchools is proud to partner with Youth UpRising to bring education entrepreneurship to the Castlemont neighborhood. “A good charter school has the power to transform a community,” says Gloria Lee, President and COO of NewSchools. “Based on the expertise of the schools’ leadership and the educational philosophy they’ve proposed, Castlemont Community Transformation School has the potential to be a game-changer for East Oakland.”

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Seneca Goes “All-In!” on Education Tue, 15 Jul 2014 16:36:38 +0000 Seneca Family of AgenciesMichael’s school career got off to a rough start. It was only the first week of kindergarten, and he started kicking, biting, and pinching his teacher. His teacher tried every technique she knew to stop him. Not surprisingly, Michael’s teacher resorted to sending him to the principal’s office. Soon, Michael was spending less than 20% of his school day in the classroom.

In many other schools, Michael would be transferred out of a mainstream classroom and placed in a special classroom alongside students with similar difficulties. There, despite the best efforts of educators, he would likely continue to struggle behaviorally and academically throughout his school career.

14_05_05_NSVF-Seneca+Lighthouse-2-2Fortunately, Michael enrolled at Lighthouse Charter School, a partner in Seneca Family of Agencies’ new All-In! school-based approach to support students. Michael’s teacher requested help and the All-In! team at Lighthouse quickly responded with individual therapy and workshops to develop his behavioral skills. Michael’s teacher and his therapist met with his family and provided home support. This comprehensive response to Michael’s challenges transformed his school year. By the time school let out, Michael was spending ninety-five percent of his day back in class. Without Kristi Dahlstrom, leader of the All-In! program at Lighthouse, Michael could not have received this comprehensive, coordinated care.

Seneca-Pull-QuotesHere in Oakland and other urban areas, too many students are like Michael: students that arrive at school with serious emotional and behavioral problems caused by childhood traumas. These students are disproportionately identified for Special Education and placed in programs that put them on a different track away from other students, often in separate classes or schools. They frequently end up in remedial schools or juvenile hall and often fail to graduate from high school.

Seneca Family of Agencies is working to change this harsh reality. Seneca, already a recognized leader in providing mental health services for youth, has designed All-In! to provide students with comprehensive 14_05_05_NSVF-Seneca+Lighthouse-3-2mental health, behavioral and academic support in school, before placing students in special education programs. “Schools belong to their students,” says Jessica Stryczek, a regional director for All-In!, “so our program makes schools fit their students.” With the proper care, Seneca believes that many students with emotional and behavioral problems can stay in mainstream classrooms.

Seneca started out as a small residential center for troubled foster kids. Today, Seneca is a powerhouse agency providing a wide variety of mental health services across California. All of Seneca’s work is rooted in its guiding philosophy of Unconditional Care: never give up on a child in need, no matter the circumstances. As a therapist from another agency said to NewSchools, “The students served by Seneca might not realize it, but they have been given a priceless gift, because Seneca will never give up on them.”

The Seneca team is compiling quantitative data about the school-wide impact of the All-In! program being piloted in partnership with Lighthouse Community Charter School, Education for Change, and San Francisco Unified School District. “We’re anticipating positive outcomes that will include improved attendance, decreased suspensions, improved emotional well-being, and increased student achievement,” says Lihi Rosenthal, Seneca’s Executive Director of Education.

NewSchools’ investment in Seneca reflects our commitment to innovation and our mission of transforming public education for underserved students. At our annual Summit in April 2014, NewSchools awarded Seneca Family of Agencies the “Organization to Watch” prize. It is our hope that others in education will watch and learn about this innovative and impactful approach to reaching our neediest students.


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