BetterLesson Grabs $6M to Make Teacher Development More Personal

When former teachers Alex Grodd and Erin Osborn started BetterLesson in 2008, their startup was part of a surge of companies creating online repositories of lesson plans and helping educators collaborate with peers near and far.

Now, the Cambridge, MA-based company has its sights set on another growing trend in education technology: personalized professional development for teachers. And BetterLesson has more cash in its coffers to pursue the opportunity.

The company on Tuesday announced a $6 million investment from Reach Capital, New Markets Venture Partners, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Intuit co-founder Scott Cook and his wife, Signe Ostby, and other individuals. BetterLesson has raised $11 million total from investors, plus $4.25 million in grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Learning Accelerator, says Grodd, the company’s CEO.

The new money will help fund the evolution of the company’s business model. “ is still a place for teachers to find amazing lessons,” he says, with more than 400,000 teachers using the site’s online classroom material each month. “But the real big play is integrating those lessons into a system that will change teacher practice.”

The company’s new virtual service pairs teachers with “coaches”—mostly former teachers—who help them identify and attack classroom challenges, and guide them as they try out new instructional tactics.

Educating educators is expensive. Schools spend $18 billion each year on teachers’ professional learning activities, according to a 2014 report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Boston Consulting Group. But all that money apparently isn’t getting the job done; the report found that teachers say most professional development programs are largely ineffective, irrelevant, and not connected closely enough to their work teaching students.

More startups are trying to come to the rescue with technology aimed at updating the “old-school,” “one-size-fits-all” model of workshops and assemblies, as Grodd puts it. Other companies trying to improve teacher development include BloomBoard and TeachBoost.

The overarching idea is that if technology and new classroom practices are enabling more customized instruction for students, the same can be done for teachers. But there’s no clear winner yet in this sector, Grodd says.

“I think that the professional development market is very fragmented,” he says, pointing to the volume of traditional local vendors and consultants, as well as a number of tech startups. “There isn’t any sort of behemoth in this space.”

Grodd thinks there are a few ways BetterLesson’s approach could stand out. For example, some competing tech companies focus on helping school districts manage their process of evaluating teachers. But that can make teachers uncomfortable with the technology.

“Oftentimes teachers can be a little cagey, given the way these evaluations are structured,” he says.

By contrast, BetterLesson’s professional development service is “non-evaluative” and allows teachers to focus on “structured experimentation” in the classroom, Grodd says. Administrators want to see positive results, but teachers are given room to try things out without an administrator looking over their shoulders. “Because the coach is not the evaluator, the teachers feel free to really open up,” Grodd says. “We’re really able to have teachers let their hair down and be honest, and cultivate a growth mindset in them.”

Here’s how BetterLesson’s professional development system works: At the beginning of the school year, its software matches each teacher with a BetterLesson coach, based on their “instructional profiles,” Grodd says. So, an inexperienced middle school math teacher might work with someone who taught middle school math for 15 years.

For the next nine months, the teachers receive one-on-one mentoring via online video chats held every two weeks with their BetterLesson coach. The mentors encourage teachers to innovate in their classrooms by drawing on techniques that are used to quickly build tech startups by “failing fast.” Teachers will try new instructional strategies, measure how well they’re working, and quickly adjust their methods accordingly, Grodd says. “This was an area [where] Scott Cook has been incredibly helpful,” he says. “It’s an area that we deeply believe in, in terms of design thinking and fast-cycle learning.”

To help administrators track progress, BetterLesson enables teachers to create an online portfolio of completed student assignments and examples of teachers’ work. For example, teachers could record videos showing how they put new instructional strategies into action. “We have to be able to continually show that we are helping teachers improve and create better learning experiences for the students,” Grodd says.

BetterLesson’s online library of educational content is powering the professional development service. The company developed a … Next Page »

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