The following is a conversation between Michelle Brown, Founder and CEO of CommonLit, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: Literacy is an issue of major concern to parents, those in the field of education, and, to a degree, each of us. So if there was a literacy digital platform that was generating 20,000 new users every school day, you might be interested in knowing what they’re doing, and how they were doing it. And you’re going to find that out tonight with Michelle Brown, the Founder and CEO of CommonLit.
Good evening, Michelle, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Michelle: Thank you, Denver. It’s great to be here.
Denver: You’re teaching students from low-income backgrounds in rural Mississippi. What happened? What was the impetus that got you started on this journey to be starting CommonLit?
Michelle: That’s great. My journey really starts after college. I went to Butler University. I was an English major; I graduated in 2009, so 10 years ago. I joined Teach for America, and I was sent to rural Mississippi to teach seventh grade reading in a high-poverty school. On Day one, I walked into a classroom there that had nothing – no resources, no books – and I spent the next two years of my life scrambling to build a curriculum for students and just searching the internet for hours and hours. It really amazed me even then– 10 years ago– as it does now – that there wasn’t one institution that had released a research-based, free digital reading program, and that teachers were sort of piecing things together with whatever they could find.
So fast forward, I kept teaching. I moved to Boston. I taught at a high-performing charter school in the Uncommon Schools Network where, on Day one, they handed me a curriculum that had been perfected by veteran teachers – over 13 years – and my feeling was just like, “What are we doing?”
Denver: Where was this in Mississippi?
Michelle: Exactly. I was like, “Why isn’t this digital? Why hasn’t someone put this online?” And so that was kind of the core impetus for starting CommonLit.org.
…about 60% of students leave high school unable to read and write at grade level.
And the ACT, a few years ago, published a report that actually said that the students’ eighth grade score is one of the best predictors of life outcomes.
Denver: Where are we with regard to literacy in this country today? And by that, I mean: What percentage of students are reading at grade level?
Michelle: It amazes people to learn this, but about 60% of students leave high school unable to read and write at grade level. We also know that something happens in middle school. If you actually look at the numbers, we’re getting better at teaching students to read by grade three, but then the achievement gaps widen around middle school. And the ACT, a few years ago, published a report that actually said that the students’ eighth grade score is one of the best predictors of life outcomes.
Technology really does change the way we behave.
Denver: That’s a pretty powerful statement.
So, as you begin to put this whole thing together – what was going to become CommonLit – you were looking for best practices, some foundational information, based on maybe your own experience, but particularly based on the existing research. What are some of those best practices that you’ve built this organization on?
Michelle: Let me just back up and say: I think that the reason I was so interested in best practices is because I was sort of fascinated by how technology, specifically, could nudge people to change their behaviors, like I think if you just go out on the street in front of your office and see how many people are riding around on scooters, in business suits, with coffee splashing all over them. Technology really does change the way we behave.
And so what I was interested in doing, and this is what I focused my grad school experience on, are: What are the research-based best practices that have been proven over and over in peer-reviewed studies and randomized experiments that make a difference for kids in middle and high school, for adolescents?
And so, there are a handful of them. I’ll give you one example. Teaching academic vocabulary explicitly is one of the best practices, with 14 citations. What that means is that actually teaching kids high-leverage words – not like obscure words – high-leverage academic words that you would see whether you’re in a reading class or a math class or a science class… a word like “associate.”
Denver: Sort of second tier.
Michelle: Exactly. Tier 2. And to just see that word and practice with that word over and over and over again. So that’s one of the best practices that we nudge through CommonLit.org. What we mean by nudge is it’s actually hard to ignore that best practice if you’re using CommonLit. We’re going to make sure that it happens.
Denver: Well, give us the broad strokes of the intervention – the product, what the student and teacher experience. What’s it like working with CommonLit?
Michelle: It’s actually really a whole-school model. And so, what we did is we thought: What is the foundation of a world-class reading program? Or if you look at very high-achieving schools across the country: “What are the things that they have in place?”
We found that there were four things. The first and the foundation is: they have a core curriculum. What I mean is like a baseline that they offer teachers, with all of the materials that teachers need every day, that sort of builds over time throughout the year.
Michelle: That’s foundational.
The second is aligned assessments. So, you might be surprised to learn… or listeners might be surprised to learn… that many school districts and teachers say that the tests that they give students don’t actually measure what was taught. And so, sometimes what you’re getting from your district, you can imagine that would feel like a real “gotcha” if you’re a teacher. It’s like, “Wait a sec. I didn’t even teach this this quarter.”
Michelle: And so, how can you actually identify whether students are struggling? And how you can make a change? So, having assessments that actually align to the curriculum.
And then the third is the formative data. It’s basically a dashboard that school leaders or district leaders can look at. And fourth is teacher professional coaching. As a coach, coaching and practice and reflection is so important, and it’s the same for a teacher.
Denver: Now, when you go to CommonLit, is this free, or do you have to pay for it?
Michelle: That’s a great question. So, our business model is that everything that’s foundational, that whole core piece, is 100% free for teachers and students. I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve grown virally. And then I think in the long run, by doing professional development, we can sustain those operations and deliver a world-class reading curriculum that’s fully digital for less than the cost of a pencil per student, which is crazy when you think about efficiency and philanthropy and putting your dollar to good use.
We believe that what you put in front of students to read matters so much; it can change your perspective.
Denver: It is crazy.
Where does your content come from?
Michelle: All over. So content is everything. We believe that what you put in front of students to read matters so much; it can change your perspective. And so, we’re very, very picky. We have a team of eight curriculum writers. We have news articles, poems, short stories, historical documents. We collect from anthologies. We commission works from new up-and-coming writers to ensure that our stories feature diverse characters and protagonists. So, it’s really quite diverse. We have like Amy Tan, Malcolm Gladwell, you name it.
Denver: And that’s one of your best practices, too, which is a diverse array of literature.
Michelle: I love that you know the best practices. That’s great. I’ll quiz you later.
Denver: Well, as long as it was in the text, you know what I mean? It has to be appropriate to the text and the quiz, which is another one of your best practices.
Michelle: Yes. I love it. It’s great.
Denver: So, let me see if I have this right, Michelle. You were doing seven course plans every single day in Mississippi because you had kids in your class from A to Z in terms of their capability. Are you saying here that teachers and students can go to this library and get something that’s just right for them?
Michelle: That’s right, but it’s actually a little bit more nuanced than that. And so, let me sort of paint the picture for you.
You’re a teacher and you teach seventh grade reading, and you have a class of students who read at seven different grade levels, but you also know that it’s a best practice for you to have a shared classroom experience. You want to teach students about a concept. You want them to be able to all read and interact with something that’s grade-level appropriate.
With CommonLit, you can assign differentiated supports or ladders, if you will, for different students by enabling or disabling those supports – like read aloud, translation, guided reading mode – just to give those students an extra bridge to grade-level content.
…we have built our entire platform to be in the service of the curriculum.
Denver: Well, you built this around the education first, but you’re a high-tech nonprofit.
Michelle: That’s right.
Denver: So, speak to us a little bit about the tech part of this.
Michelle: When people ask whether we’re a non-profit or a tech company, I usually say we’re more of a tech company. What I mean by that is… we have built our entire platform to be in the service of the curriculum. And so, while there are other organizations that do have free curriculum, one difference is that they didn’t build the technology iteratively at the same time they wrote the curriculum.
And so, the experience of CommonLit is very intertwined with the content and the way the particular poems are presented, for example, the line breaks, enjambments, and things like that. So, it’s been a really quite interesting journey.
Denver: Let me ask you a little bit about your explosive growth. I said in the opening: you’re getting 20,000 new registered users every school day, like 13 million or something. There’s a lot of other offerings out there which are for free, and they don’t get this kind of growth. So, what do you attribute part of it to?
Michelle: I think that there are few things. I think there are three things. I think first is that in 2013, 45 states signed on to the Common Core. And so we had new standards, and people were looking for new content to align with those standards.
The second thing is: in 2015, the influx of technology in schools – iPads, Chromebooks — were flooding the schools, and they were there in classrooms whether teachers or students were ready for them or not, and for better or for worse. And so, I think those two factors, along with just the attention that we had to quality content… and our timing, was just like the perfect storm. And so, you’re right. We now, on average, on a school day, register 20,000 teachers and students.
Denver: That’s amazing. It really is. And you recently brought in a team to measure your impact, how effective you are. What did you find out?
Michelle: This was so interesting. So, what we did is we had three questions. One is: When students used CommonLit, do they do better on CommonLit assessments that we wrote? The answer from that across our entire sample was yes. But you can imagine that doesn’t really say much because if you use Flappy Bird more, you get better at Flappy Bird.
And the second is: Are the gains within CommonLit correlated to gains on an outside assessment that CommonLit didn’t write that’s been nationally normed? And so, we looked across the state of Florida at schools’ growth on the Florida State Assessment in English language arts and found that there was a strong, strong correlation between frequency of use on our platform and student gains on that assessment. So that was a great finding.
Denver: It sure is.
Michelle: Our third question was: Does CommonLit have a greater impact in low-income schools, which is specific to our mission? And the answer was a small, but yes, a special effect for low-income schools.
Denver: Well, with the wonderful success you’ve had in this country, you started looking overseas, going global. Tell us where you stand with that.
Michelle: About 18 months ago, we got a $3.5 million grant from Google.org to expand our work in Mexico. And so, we partnered with a great organization called UNETE. You might be familiar with it. And what they do is they work with rural and under-resourced schools across Mexico. I think they have like maybe a thousand or something like that, and they bring in internet and hardware into the schools.
And so, we came in and brought the CommonLit platform and also training for the teachers who are now piloting it now. So, we’ve had great success there. We’ve learned a lot about working internationally, and, frankly, just that our assumptions about viral growth do not port in an international context. We’ve learned a lot about how teachers around the world discover teaching resources and how it’s so different and actually far more centralized in Mexico than in the US.
Denver: Michelle, let’s get to the organization a little bit. When you start up CommonLit, something like this, you’re probably going back and forth – Do I make this a non-profit? Do I make this a social good business? Maybe a benefit corporation? A lot of things that you had to weigh. Tell us about what some of those things were and why you decided on the nonprofit model.
Michelle: So, this wasn’t a very easy decision.
Denver: It never is.
Michelle: And I can tell you that, at the time when I was deciding this, there were so many education technology startups that were raising tons of money in early-stage venture capital. And then meanwhile, talking from other entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs… that institutional foundations aren’t always equipped to – they don’t always open their doors wide for very, very early-stage nonprofits.
Denver: No. They want proven concepts.
Michelle: Exactly. They’re looking for proof. But, at the end of the day, I felt that I wanted to invest all of the organization’s resources in R&D, and instead of focusing in the early stages on a business model and sales and marketing and having a booth at a conference, I just wanted to double down and show efficacy.
Denver: And it takes time, and it’s very difficult to do when you have some venture capitalists there wanting the return, and you really forget about what you’re trying to do, and you’re trying to please them because they put up the initial money.
Well, you also received a $4 million grant from the Department of Education a number of years ago. With that grant you said, “We got a lot of stuff to do here. There are high expectations,” and you scaled up the organization very, very quickly. You did some things very well and probably a few things that you learned some lessons from. Tell us about those.
Michelle: So, in 2016 – and at the time, we were a three-person team, and I was not collecting a salary at that point either – I was working out of a shared office space, sort of like a WeWork in Washington, D.C.
…what I’ve learned now is that you have to think about company culture way earlier than you think… I think you need to define it first, or it will define you.
Denver: Took your wedding money and put it into this.
Michelle: Yes. And we were still kind of just like watching our Google Analytics. And then, I found this federal grant on Grants.gov called Innovative Approaches to Literacy and I read it and I thought, “You know what? The research study that I did meets the What Works Clearinghouse standard for quasi-experimental design. I think that I can win this.” And so, I spent a couple months just building this entire plan for basically the roadmap of the organization, which was remarkably bright. We stuck to it quite well, and we had to hire like 15 people in 40 days or something.
And so, I learned so much from that experience. I had really never hired anyone in my life. I had never managed a large team. And so, I think what I’ve learned now is that you have to think about company culture way earlier than you think. I wrote an article about how I think you need to define it first, or it will define you.
We defined our company culture with SLAY. And it’s sweat the details, learn and share, align yourself, and yield to the team.
Denver: Yes, and it’s harder to get out of it after it’s defined you.
Michelle: And so, I think that we sort of got people quickly whose resumes looked amazing and sort of failed also in the interview process to ask some of the core questions about: How do you like to work? Are you very collaborative? Are you ready to go in a start-up environment? And also just having a mission fit… and really believing in the vision. So, at the end of all this, it was actually a really, really important exercise for us.
We defined our company culture with SLAY. And it’s sweat the details, learn and share, align yourself, and yield to the team. And so, now, SLAY is across our organization. It’s how employees get reviewed on the SLAY rubric, which is top-down and bottom down reviews, and it’s really worked well.
Denver: And I think the keyword you use there, too, was team because what you did, especially when you have to get that many people on board so quickly, you hire individuals. You’re looking for a star here, a star here, an expert there. But if they can’t mesh as a team – it actually can be worse than having people who are less qualified. So that was really one of the great learnings that you’ve passed along.
So, let me close with this, Michelle. How many schools across the country are using CommonLit–at least one teacher at each one of those schools– and tell us a story of one.
Michelle: So, right now, we have over 62,000 schools across the country that have at least one active faculty account, and that’s really pretty amazing. I’ll tell you this story, which I think is just remarkable and sort of full circle. This happened about a week ago. A teacher from Natchez, Mississippi – her name is [Yvonne Zell] – sent me, Michelle, a personal letter handwritten with a $50 enclosed check to CommonLit. And on the check, it says, “A proud grandmother” and it has all these colors. And it just reminded me that…I’ve gotten checks from Google, millions of dollars, over $12 million since I started CommonLit, and I’ve got to say that this check of $50 was the most meaningful check that I’ve ever endorsed.
Denver: You did cash it, at least. I do hear that “endorsed.”
Michelle: And so, that’s a lot of money for a teacher in Natchez, Mississippi, but I think it just speaks to what we’re doing.
Denver: Well, those are the people you really want to touch – them and the students that those teachers are teaching.
Well, Michelle Brown, the Founder and CEO of CommonLit, thanks so much for being here this evening. If somebody wants to add their names to those 20,000 registered users signing up every school day, or make a contribution of, let’s say, $50 or so, what do they need to do?
Michelle: So, first, you should go to commonlit.org. If you’d like to donate, you can go to commonlit.org/donate. We’re also hiring, and we’re going to be posting jobs here in the next couple months, so check out our careers page as well if you would like to get involved.
Denver: Thank you, Michelle. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Michelle: Thank you so much.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.