A reading revolution is brewing in American classrooms, and one company is quietly leading the charge.
Newsela, a 3-year-old startup that promotes literacy in K-12 education, gives teachers curated news articles to share with their students.
With the help of intelligent software that adjusts article text to match a student’s reading level, teachers can use comprehension quizzes to get immediate feedback when kids are stumped.
And since Newsela is currently in 75% of American K-12 schools, it kind of already is.
Newsela is part of a movement called personalised learning. It’s a fan-favourite in Silicon Valley, where big name tech executives and investors like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Reed Hastings have poured billions of dollars into schools that strive to engage students one-on-one. They say it’s the future of American education.
“I think there’s an opportunity to figure out for each particular student their cognitive and non-cognitive skills, and then give them a chance to be really good at that,” Brook Byers, senior partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and a Newsela board member, tells Business Insider.
Newsela is used in all sorts of ways. Implementation ranges from one teacher sharing articles about Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem to an entire school district adopting the program, in which kids receive tablets that run all the software and articles in Newsela’s library.
Matthew Gross, Newsela’s founder and CEO, says he started the company for two reasons. The first is personal: When Gross’ son was in 2nd grade, he struggled with reading. After meeting with his son’s teacher, Gross learned the class was reading Dr. Seuss — a few notches in difficulty below what he felt was appropriate for 7-year-olds.
It occurred to him soon after that classrooms needed more flexibility.
“How do you hold a meaningful class,” he asks, “when you assign a text where it’s either so advanced that a whole bunch of the readers can’t understand it, or it’s so simplified that you’re never going to get kids where they need to go?”
That’s why Newsela has hired journalists to take the days’ news and change the language to the appropriate reading levels, whether it’s a Washington Post article on Donald Trump or a speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr. As kids pick up new literacy skills, the language becomes more sophisticated.
Gross’s other reason for starting Newsela is that teachers often lack adequate insight into whether their kids are becoming better readers. Gross recalls visiting a school in Queens, New York where he saw a student stare at his reading for what seemed like hours. He didn’t seem to be absorbing the material.
Gross developed Newsela to help teachers target exactly those kinds of kids. Students and teachers can annotate a given reading to fix specific pain points, like vocabulary and grammar. Teachers can also drop questions in the margin to check comprehension in real-time quizzes.
Here’s a student responding to a prompt in real-time:
Even in its limited run, Newsela has reportedly led to big jumps in achievement. When it looked at kids scoring below the 50th percentile in reading who regularly read Newsela articles and took quizzes, the startup saw an average increase of 12 percentile points in a three-month period.
“That’s like passing hundreds of thousands of kids,” Gross says. “It’s like they’re speeding by them in the left lane of the highway.”
Newsela plans to partner with other research firms in the coming years to expand the existing data set even further. Every new piece of evidence helps the company tinker with its program to best serve American students.
If classroom technology keeps up its current pace of growth, particularly in low-income areas, Gross believes the coveted 1:1 ratio — one device for each child — will finally come to fruition in the coming years.
“At that point, where one-to-one is the dominant paradigm within schools, everything changes,” he says. “So we’re building for that day.”
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