Michelle Brown walked into her first classroom with no resources to teach her students how to read and write, and she is certainly not the only teacher to have that same experience.
That reality spurred Brown into action as she knows that literacy rates, especially in low-income school districts, have barely improved in the last 10-15 years and sees the effects negatively ripple throughout the nation’s communities.
Low literacy rates are not new but Brown’s edtech startup CommonLit is. The startup’s flexible, interactive research-based instructional materials to support literacy development are high-quality and free.
CommonLit’s wealth of first-hand experience and holistic approach to solving a problem with free resources has led it to begin successfully transforming an industry that countless startups have failed out of.
From the Start — CommonLit’s Beginnings
CommonLit lives up to its tagline of being “by teachers, for teachers.” The former teachers making up the startup’s team channel their own classroom experiences to bring literary resources and progress-tracking tools to grades 5-12.
The team’s former English teachers have all had experience teaching in low-income schools, and many are Teach for America alumni. Brown and Sarah Mielbye, CommonLit’s director of content development, respectively, met 10 years ago. Brown recounted,
“Through a weird serendipitous coincidence, we were reunited as co-teachers in the same classroom at Roxbury Prep (Uncommon Schools) in Boston. Our students made huge reading gains, outperforming the state average. I decided that we had a model that needed to be shared.”
CommonLit’s team has no shortage of relevant backgrounds from a former School Design Fellow at the NYC Department of Education to a literacy blogger. From their collective experience, CommonLit’s team is fiercely mission-driven and in agreement with U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. words:
“Reading is the most fundamental academic skill our children need to master to become successful in school and in life. Access to books and proven literacy instruction are critical to narrowing the achievement gap in education to help children thrive.”
In fact, Secretary King Jr. used to be the principal at the school where Brown and Mielbye taught.
Knowing how important literacy is to students’ education (and overall well-being) and the lack of tools to help teachers and students succeed at school, CommonLit has been on a focused journey well before its recent good news.
With about 40 million U.S. public school students in grades 5-12, CommonLit saw a real need to respond to the fact that over half of those students graduate high school without the reading and writing skills necessary to thrive in this economy. Brown explained,
“We don’t think about this as a market opportunity — it’s an urgent social problem that we have to mobilize to fix.”
Hard Work and High Achievements
At the beginning of the school year, CommonLit scored $3.9 million from the Department of Education. How is such a small startup taking such big strides in a crowded and competitive space? As 1776’s managing director Rusty Greiff said,
“First, it’s free which provides an opportunity, differentiation and challenge. But more importantly, CommonLit curates really smart, accessible and diverse content that engages the learner more than traditional textbooks and smartly tracks progress for each student.”
The startup is actually a 501(c)(3) nonprofit edtech organization, which further helps separate it from the pack of organizations working to equip teachers to improve literacy. Brown’s decision to make CommonLit a nonprofit was obvious. As a nonprofit, CommonLit can focus its resources where it can really make a difference. Brown said,
“My goal was not to make money; my goal was to help students in low-income schools receive the same high-quality literacy education that students in high-income areas get.”
CommonLit has also been smart about playing off of a few major trends. As schools and education leaders trade in hard-copy textbooks for open educational resources (OER), CommonLit’s free digital curriculum appeals to teachers wanting to easily customize and share. Similarly, the number of students with reliable access to computers at school has doubled since 2012.
CommonLit began seizing this digital opportunity to create rigorous reading content driven by best practices and laser focus. Brown said,
“I predict that the winners in the edtech space will be products that are focused on getting one subject right.”
CommonLit has clearly been getting something right as the startup has earned goodwill from teachers across the United States. Grieff said,
“They are building a better solution, and users like it. I know that sounds painfully simple, but engaging teachers and students is hard work. CommonLit has built a solution that people really like.”
As CommonLit’s reach spreads along with its positive feedback from teachers, funders like AT&T, AmerisourceBergen, Fast Forward, Google.org and Teach for America find appeal in how rapidly the startup can scale and have measurable success in improving students’ reading. Brown said,
“Ultimately, CommonLit is taking what works and bringing it to scale so that more teachers can use it.”
The Next Chapter
Now, just one year after moving to Washington, D.C. and becoming a 1776 member, CommonLit has excellent funding that will go toward further developing its software and content. The startup is also beginning new projects thanks to its new grant, Innovative Approaches to Literacy, from the U.S. Department of Education.
CommonLit is ramping up and hiring more employees to help continue that trajectory. Brown said,
“Almost every week this school year, we’ve hit a new traffic milestone.”
Still, if you look over at CommonLit’s office space, you won’t see the team celebrate. They’ll likely take a few seconds to congratulate each other on Slack, and then get right back to work. As Brown explained,
“At the end of the day, it feels really good to go home and think about how many classroom debates and discussions we helped spark. We’re helping students differentiate between fact and fiction, make original arguments, communicate clearly, and understand complex informational texts. Helping students develop these skills is so important for our economy — it will ultimately ensure that more people are civically engaged and have access to high-wage jobs.”
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