Panorama Expands School Surveys, Brings Insights to Education

Good data is hard to find. Whether you’re applying it to business intelligence or security, across industries like retail, travel, or healthcare, the quality of information used to make decisions is crucial.

To solve this expanding problem, a number of technology companies have emerged around cleaning and organizing data, making it more shareable, and understanding the context around business interactions.

Yet in education, the problem is more basic: much of the key data doesn’t even exist, not to mention the fact that educators, policy makers, and parents often don’t agree on what data is necessary to collect in the first place. For all the talk of iPad classroom apps, online courses, and standardized test scores, administrators still lack quantitative assessments of daily life in their schools: What percentage of kids don’t feel safe going to class? How do teachers feel about the administration and their ability to focus on teaching? What are their best practices?

This would seem to be an opportunity for data-related tech companies to improve the education system—yet not many are tackling it. “If we could get every adtech person to work in education or edtech, that would be a job well done,” says Aaron Feuer, co-founder and CEO of Panorama Education, based in Boston.

Feuer’s company is one of the few going after the hard problem of data collection in K-12 schools. With more than $4 million in backing from Y Combinator, Google Ventures, Mark Zuckerberg, and other investors, Panorama Education has been quietly growing: it’s up to 30-some employees, and its software is used in 200-plus school districts around the U.S., as well as a few international pilot studies.

Panorama provides school districts with software to run surveys of teachers and students and analyze the results. The company has been designing its own survey questions and developing its product to be a measurement and analysis tool for the things that matter most to schools. As Feuer puts it, “What does the superintendent need to know?”

Aaron Feuer

Aaron Feuer

In working with districts, Feuer says, the startup’s goal has been to “paint a comprehensive picture of a school.” And now, he says, “for the first time we have something close to a 360-degree view.”

To give an idea of the level of detail captured in the company’s surveys and analysis tools: A school might learn that bullying is a problem—no surprise there—but more specifically that 10 percent of students don’t feel safe, and that a major issue is that teachers don’t seem to act when they see signs of bullying, Feuer says.

Another example: a district found that a subset of students thought their teachers didn’t notice when they were absent. That gets to the issue of whether kids think their teachers care about them. “That’s much more helpful than just an attendance record,” Feuer says. To brainstorm solutions, his team talked to other districts across the Panorama network. They came up with a couple of recommendations: teachers could take attendance out loud, instead of silently checking off names, and teachers could meet as a group and try to institute a buddy system for each student.

One of the next steps for Panorama is to facilitate more sharing of ideas across schools and districts. “Every school has problems. But there are so many schools in this country,” Feuer says, that for almost any given issue, “someone has tried something that works.”

Panorama has been compiling national benchmarks from its data. Using such tools, Feuer says, a school might conclude that it’s above average on engaging families, say, but below average on providing professional development for its teachers and getting students to do their homework in a quiet place.

In May, Panorama released a new, in-depth teacher survey with questions about 14 key topics, including professional feedback and coaching, faculty and student growth potential, school leadership, staff-leadership relationships, and teacher-family relationships. The company has been working with specialists in psychology and education to craft the right set of questions. (There are limitations to survey-based data, of course, but until wearable sensors track all of our kids’ and teachers’ interactions—see a company like Humanyze for the corporate equivalent—educators will have to make do.)

It’s all part of Panorama’s plan to become the go-to source for K-12 education data and analytics. The next goal, beyond helping schools and districts understand their strengths and weaknesses, is to help administrators act on the data. The idea is to say, “These are things you might consider trying if you want to get better,” Feuer says. “We can give you 10 ideas you could try.”

 

Aaron Feuer pitches Panorama Education at Y Combinator Demo Day, August 2013. (Photo by Wade Roush)

Aaron Feuer pitches Panorama Education at Y Combinator Demo Day in August 2013.
(Photo by Wade Roush)

 

Feuer’s own education is a product of the Los Angeles public schools and Yale University. His outlook is an upbeat mix of realism and idealism, and unlike a lot of startup CEOs, he’ll say what he thinks. Along with co-founders Xan Tanner and David Carel, he started Panorama Education in 2012 while still an undergrad at Yale (something he doesn’t recommend doing).

The company’s steady progress runs counter to the oft-heard refrain that it’s hard to sell software to school districts. Feuer notes that getting the right product-market fit is key for any edtech startup, along with building the right relationships.

Indeed, it appears Panorama has made the leap from early-stage startup to a real business—though it will undoubtedly face new challenges as it grows. The competitive landscape includes education companies such as Tripod, LearnSprout, and My Student Survey. But as the quality of education data improves, and as policy makers and educators increasingly use metrics to assess schools and teachers, look for more tech companies to jump into the sector.

That means Panorama’s opportunity, for one, should continue to grow. “It’s very serious and very real right now,” Feuer says.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Editor in chief. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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