The following is a conversation between Michelle Brown, founder and CEO of CommonLit, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: CommonLit is a nonprofit education technology organization dedicated to ensuring that all students, especially those in Title I schools, graduate with the reading, writing, communication, and problem-solving skills they need to be successful in college and beyond. They have been especially busy since the lockdown and are now helping create solutions to address the learning loss that occurred as a result. And here to share that story with us is Michelle Brown, the founder and CEO of CommonLit.
Welcome back to The Business of Giving, Michelle.
Michelle: Thanks, Denver. It’s great to be here.
“So CommonLit is solving an intractable social problem, which is that today in America, 80% of children who attend a low-income school cannot read and write proficiently. This is unconscionable. It is arguably the basic function of a school today to teach a child to read and write, and yet we are not doing this equitably, and we have been tolerating poor outcomes for children with so many gifts to give society for decades.”
Denver: So give us the elevator pitch for CommonLit, Michelle, and how that speech may have evolved over the course of the last two or three years.
Michelle: So CommonLit is solving an intractable social problem, which is that today in America, 80% of children who attend a low-income school cannot read and write proficiently. This is unconscionable. It is arguably the basic function of a school today to teach a child to read and write, and yet we are not doing this equitably, and we have been tolerating poor outcomes for children with so many gifts to give society for decades.
This has become even more urgent today in the wake of COVID. So we are at a moment right now when you may have seen in the New York Times… or in all of these publications that we have lost two decades of progress in reading and math. And this is according to the NAEP scores that recently came out.
Denver: Right. That’s the National Assessment of Education Progress.
Michelle: That’s right. Yeah. And they’ve been measuring with the same test since the 1970s, how children are doing in reading and math.
“I think in our minds we’ve always thought that you have to have bells and whistles, and do a tap dance for kids just to keep them entertained, and that they don’t have attention spans that are very long. And I think this is as false today as it ever has been. The human brain is incredibly curious. It is incredibly malleable. And the things that get kids excited today are the same things that got them excited and motivated before. And technology is really just the delivery mechanism.“
Denver: That’s incredible, and that is really disturbing. With all that’s going on today with young people, there are so many distractions, there are so many temptations. What gets kids motivated to read?
Michelle: You know, Denver, I think that it’s the same thing that has always motivated children. I think in our minds we’ve always thought that you have to have bells and whistles, and do a tap dance for kids just to keep them entertained, and that they don’t have attention spans that are very long. And I think this is as false today as it ever has been.
The human brain is incredibly curious. It is incredibly malleable. And the things that get kids excited today are the same things that got them excited and motivated before. And technology is really just the delivery mechanism. And so what are those things?
They’re motivated by problems worth solving. They’re motivated by thinking about things that will help them prepare to become adults. They’re thinking by answering deep questions and becoming thoughtful children. And so I just don’t think that’s something we can cut corners on. And the way I think about technology is just, like I said, a delivery mechanism.
Denver: Mm-hmm. You make a really good point there, and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we have set low expectations for children based on their short attention span. If you tell children that they have a short attention span, and you create lessons and material to address that short attention span, you’re going to get a short attention span.
Michelle: Yeah, exactly. You reap what you sow, and kids will rise to the expectations that we set for them. Absolutely.
Denver: So what does the research show, Michelle, regarding how students build literacy and knowledge and language? What do we know about that?
Michelle: Sure. So, one of the things that is really, really important is that reading is connected to writing. It’s also connected to speaking and listening. We talked about listening at the top of this interview, how we need to do more of it. And it’s also related to collaboration and problem solving.
So when you take all of those things together, that’s what it means to be a literate person in 2022. It’s: you’re able to listen to somebody, you’re able to debate something, you’re able to write a coherent argument and share an idea or a point of view, and take new information into consideration.
So it’s not just the ability to read and decode and comprehend. So what we know from the research is that the way that children become literate, as we’ve defined it in this way in 2022, is they have to practice. It’s just like getting good at anything else. They have to be able to get sufficient practice in an environment where they can make mistakes and get feedback. It’s just like anything else.
And the problem that CommonLit has, like our theory of action– or the way we’ve identified the problem statement– is that, to be honest, kids just aren’t getting that opportunity to practice enough with all of these things. We did our own research, and we found that… well, actually I’d be curious to hear you guess. How many minutes per school day do you think the average middle school child gets to practice reading or practice writing?
Denver: Well, I’m supposed to be the one asking the questions here, but I’ll take the bait. Look, I think from an early age, you need to be spending 30 minutes writing and an hour, perhaps, in reading. That would be the objective. I would say that we’re probably nowhere close to that on either count. I would say that the writing maybe is 10, 15 minutes and maybe the reading is 25, 30.
Michelle: You’re about right. So IES recommends that kindergarteners get 30 minutes of sustained writing practice per school day. And the average middle schooler gets about half that per day. And for reading, it’s only just a little bit more than that. So they’re not even getting the recommended amount for a kindergartener.
Denver: Wow. So give us an idea, what does CommonLit do? If I had just heard about it for the first time, what is your operating model? What’s your theory of change? What do you do that is trying to move the needle on these really severe problems that you’ve just outlined?
Michelle: Yeah, so our core theory of action is: it’s to give students more practice minutes reading, writing, speaking, listening, problem solving, and collaborating with their classmates. And so we have two major programs in order to do that. One of them is our brand new program. It’s called 360, CommonLit 360.
Denver: I love that.
Michelle: Yeah. And for every single minute of the instructional day, it’s totally planned out for you if you’re a teacher. So the way it works is it’s kind of like a curriculum 2.0. It’s not what you would even think of if you were to think of the curriculum like a text list or something.
Like, Denver, if you were to walk into a classroom, the program would tell you exactly what questions to ask. It would make sure you’re calling on all students. It would make sure that the questions are very rigorous. and it would also ensure that you’re giving students sufficient time to speak, and listen, and write, and read.
Denver: Cool. You’ve always been fascinated by how technology changes the way we behave, and I have always been fascinated by that as well, but I don’t have any idea of the answer. So tell me, Michelle, how does technology change our behavior?
Michelle: Wow, you really start with big questions, Denver. I think that in education and in the classroom, teachers are just starting to… many teachers during the pandemic adopted classroom technology for the very, very, very first time. And so what they’re trying to do is to figure out: How do you just take what you were doing with normal classroom pedagogy or the status quo, and then port that into the technology that you now have to educate students?
I think that’s a missed opportunity. And so I think that the charge for us in education… and to grapple with all of this brand-new technology that’s hitting classrooms today… is to figure out: How do we use technology to nudge teachers and to nudge students toward using instructional time in better ways, and to actually use these best pedagogical practices that we know moves the needle for children?
Denver: Nudge is just the perfect word for all that. That really communicates it. That was a big question. Let me ask you an unfair question, and that is sort of akin to the chicken and egg. Do you consider, when you think about CommonLit, of yourself as a technology organization or an educational nonprofit? I know you’re both, but what first pops into your mind when you think of your organization?
Michelle: I would say at our heart, we are an education organization. But I shy away a little bit from the ‘nonprofit’ word because I think that when I think of nonprofits, I don’t know, sometimes I think of… or many people think of slow-moving organizations that can’t pivot on a dime, or that don’t have a lot of sophisticated IT, and that does not describe CommonLit at all.
Denver: No, no, no.
Michelle: At the heart of CommonLit and even all of the founders of CommonLit, we’re educators at heart and education researchers at heart. So that will always be the foundation of what we do.
Denver: Well, talking about pivoting on a dime, talk about COVID- 19 a little bit and what happened, let’s say back in March of 2020. How did you guys do that pivot?
Michelle: Well, it wasn’t easy. I was about eight months pregnant when all of this went down. And just to give you a sense of this, in the month of March, 2020, on average, we had 38,000 new registrations to our app per day on average…
Denver: Oh my goodness, yeah. How does that compare to what you either have now or you had before?
Michelle: Yeah, it was about five times what it had been in the previous month. So all of a sudden, all of our systems that we had to calibrate, this was for tech support particularly. That was kind of the first thing that broke down. We had to get a bunch of temp workers to staff our help desk. We ran daily webinars for teachers.
We had states reaching out to us, state departments of education, who were trying to stand up remote learning, pivot on a dime. In a couple states, we helped the state department of education actually ship workbooks to children who didn’t have… like emergency workbooks to children who didn’t have any access to the internet.
So that was March, 2020. And then we sustained. The tough part is just how fast we had to grow up. We didn’t get to do that kind of steady pace, adding a few staff here and there. We really had to scale up our operations quite rapidly. So we have tripled the size of our team in the past two and a half years.
Denver: And I will restate, eight months pregnant when this all happens. I mean, My! My! What did we discover about remote learning over the past three years that you think is going to maybe inform educational leaders and others moving forward?
Michelle: Yeah. I mean, I think many parents would agree with this. Remote learning, I think, for the average student, really sucked. And I think just for parents, even looking over the shoulders of their kids, logging into class, it was just really, really terrible. I think that now we’re sort of in a moment where we’re kind of grappling with just how bad the past two years have been, particularly for children who are already very, very far behind.
In terms of the group that bore the brunt of all of this, it was the children who already were struggling with kind of the foundational pieces of reading and writing and literacy and math. They lost 10 points compared to their other counterparts who lost two points.
So I think we learned a lot about how much we’re putting on the shoulders of teachers to even do… I think it broke many teachers. I think in general, I mean, I hate to be the bearer of bad news. I don’t think this would shock anybody, but I think for the folks in schools today, what I’m hearing is that things are still feeling like either a mess, or like we’re just kind of slowly rebuilding back.
Denver: Yeah, no, that’s a very, very honest appraisal, and I think you’re right on from what I’ve heard as well. Well, let’s go on to something cool. And that would be the CommonLit Annotation Tool, which you’ve done in partnership with Cisco. Tell us about that relationship and how the damn thing works.
Michelle: Yeah, so that was really awesome. So Cisco, obviously, is a tech company, and they have been a big backer of CommonLit for many, many years, even before the pandemic, when they supported the very early creation of CommonLit 360. And so as part of that full curriculum, they supported the development of our annotation tool, which is basically… Think of Google Docs or how seamless it is for you to annotate text on Google Docs.
So what we developed is this kind of cutting-edge text rendering system so that even when CommonLit has a small edit, or something on a text, that we can still have student annotations persist. So what does this mean? This means that kids can make notes; teachers and parents can read those notes. And they can read the notes in real time.
And so in sort of a Part Two grant from Cisco, we had their stellar data science team. It was like 20 people or something, just like far outpacing what we have the capacity to do, who donated their time and effort to parse through, I think it was billions of rows of data on students making notes through the platform to see what patterns could emerge, and to sort of give us an appraisal of what kind of notes students were making so that we could develop maybe like a recommendation engine or some kind of AI tool.
Denver: That is really cool. I mean, those folks are not cheap, those high-tech folks. And to be able to have a partnership, be in a relationship with that is really extraordinary, Michelle. Tell us a little bit about your business model. I know you’ve got some philanthropy… you do some sales… a bit of a hybrid. Tell us a little bit more about that model.
Michelle: Yeah. So Denver, in just a few years, we’re going to achieve the nonprofit dream of becoming almost fully earned revenue-sustaining. So we have been aggressively pushing toward this. And our business model is basically that we have all of the instructional materials… are sort of like the storefront of CommonLit, if you will, or they’re completely free for teachers and students.
So even for a teacher in a school who doesn’t have materials for the next day, there’s no barrier to access for her to just get online and just access what she needs to plan a great lesson tomorrow. And then the services that we sell are for schools and districts, and they are assessments and data, and then professional learning for teachers.
So the beauty of this model is that when a school actually purchases those, what we call wraparound supports to the instructional materials itself, it actually contributes to fidelity and success to the program. So we get the administrator buy-in, teachers get trained on it, and CommonLit becomes not just like an app that a couple of teachers use in a couple buildings, but actually like the core program that a district has adopted that has some real teeth.
Denver: Yeah. And your model is incredibly efficient. What’s the cost per student?
Michelle: Four dollars.
Denver: That’s unbelievable. That really is. Well, let me ask you a question about each of those things. How could philanthropy be more effective in supporting an organization like yours?
Michelle: Yes. My answer to that is by giving us risky capital. And what does that mean? So in just a few years, all of our operations and sort of normal day-to-day is going to help us get to a point where we can stand up on our own feet and sustain CommonLit on our own without the support of philanthropy.
But to really make a difference for students, and to really change the status quo and actually close the opportunity gap, we’re going to need philanthropy to come to the table and help us experiment with some new ideas in cutting- edge development.
What could this include? It could be tapping into our massive data set to see if we could engineer some really awesome resources, like a tutor for students who are really struggling, or to engineer something like a game that students could do on their own that could supplement what they do in class. And these are things obviously that aren’t built yet and that have a lot of risk associated with it, and so that would be my ask to philanthropy.
Denver: Well, that’s a great challenge because again, if you read the statement that says, “Oh, philanthropy is the risk capital of society.” But that ain’t true. You know what I mean?
Michelle: No, it’s not.
Denver: Well, here’s your chance: Really be the risk capital because we got the commercial aspects! We can be self-sustaining, but we need some experimental dollars over there.
Let’s talk a little bit about the commercial side of it. I know a lot of nonprofit organizations that say, “Oh, we have to get into generating some earned income and doing things of that sort,” but they really have a hard time in actually making that happen. What insights or advice would you have for them?
Michelle: Start on Day one. Don’t let it wait. It took us years, I think four years, just to get our earned revenue up to a point where we had a model, where we sell professional learning and assessments that actually helped us with our double bottom line.
And we had a couple of false starts along the way where you just have to have those hardwon lessons. And so my advice for entrepreneurs is you can’t cut corners on this. It really will give you freedom in the end to scale your impact if you can develop an earned revenue operation. And so don’t wait.
“…one thing that I’ve learned is just how important it is for the leaders in an early organization to level themselves up. So like being a CEO or a CPO or whatever, a chief in an organization with 12 people, it’s a different job description when you are at 90 people. And so when you’re scaling an organization fast, one thing I’ve learned is you’ve just got to invest in developing leaders and managers who really can grow talent on your team.”
Denver: Yeah. No, that’s good advice. Because I find with a lot of organizations, things are baked in the DNA really early on. And if you don’t early on, it’s hard to give yourself a shot five or 10 years in and begin to do it at that time. And I think in your case, when I look at scaling, you have been… People have asked me: Name an organization that has a phenomenal record, exponential growth in scaling. Often, my answer will be, “Oh, CommonLit.”
Now I think sometimes when you got that $4 million grant early on from the Education Department and you almost had… you got inoculated with scaling in the system, you just have never stopped. So what are the keys to scaling an organization like this and scaling your impact?
Michelle: I think that it happened so fast. I mean, every day I feel like our org chart breaks, and we have to go back and say, “Wait, who manages who?” And “What other kind of functions do we need to add?” And so one thing that I’ve learned is just how important it is for the leaders in an early organization to level themselves up.
So like being a CEO or a CPO or whatever, a chief in an organization with 12 people, it’s a different job description when you are at 90 people. And so when you’re scaling an organization fast, one thing I’ve learned is you’ve just got to invest in developing leaders and managers who really can grow talent on your team. So that has been like, I think, maybe the biggest learning that I’ve had about being a leader of an organization in these past three years.
Denver: Yeah. You really have to then use those leaders to scale the culture. Because I tell you, that’s the difficult thing. A lot of people look at the operations, but the challenge is really: How do you scale a culture when you go from 12 to 90 like that? So what’s that? Is it really then just taking those young people and developing their leadership skills and having them carry the baton?
Michelle: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s like culture isn’t one thing, and it’s just like the sum of its parts. It’s just… it’s so much more than that. I think it comes from the top, but it is absolutely critical. One thing that I’ve learned about how you scale culture is bringing people together more frequently.
So I think I told you this, we’re investing in a big annual staff retreat every year. And the goal of that is literally just, you know, we’re not doing a big strategy planning or anything. It’s literally just: Connect with your colleagues, get to know them, find out who they are, listen to them, feel inspired, relax.
And then I find that when we come back together as a team, and we’re actually trying to solve a really hard problem together, you have that baseline of trust and camaraderie. So I don’t think you can skip out on that.
Denver: Yeah. It’s been tough with this remote culture. And I mean, I think there are a lot of pluses to it, but there are a lot of minuses to it. I think you’ve sort of talked about one of them. Anything else that you guys have really thought about in terms like: How do we address some of the things that we’ve lost by not bumping into each other at the water cooler, or going out to lunch? I mean, it’s really difficult.
One of the things I’ve been trying to crack down on, and it’s called my Operation Prevent Siloing.
Denver: Ooh, I love that.
Michelle: Yeah. But so, you know, or like another way of phrasing it is: it felt for a moment like we had many teams that were highly functional and not one team that was functioning together. And so like we’ve noticed a couple weeks ago that there were teams that just met with each other and hadn’t met with an adjacent team in a long time.
And so you have to kind of think deliberately about structures in a remote culture so that one team can influence the strategy and be influenced by an adjacent team. If anyone has figured that out, please email me because I would love to know what the answer is.
Denver: Yeah, I don’t think anybody quite has the answer to that, to tell you the truth, because I have observed, and I’ve talked to a lot of people: remote cultures are actually really, really good for individual teams.
It serves well in hierarchal organizations and vertical. It sucks horizontally. There’s no interaction between the teams themselves, so you have to figure out: How do we get teams across working together as opposed to straight up and down.
Michelle: Yeah, that’s perfectly well said.
Denver: In starting and growing CommonLit, what do you think was the most unconventional thing you did?
Michelle: So I would say the most unconventional thing that I did was to staff a team of educators as leading a tech nonprofit or a tech company. When I would go to conferences early on for the education technology industry, I noticed a few things. One is that often, my team, we were the only educators in the room.
And second is: I was often the only female founder in the room, too. I know that is the experience of many in the tech industry, but it was quite unconventional for CommonLit that we had a team that so deeply understood sort of the day-to-day classroom challenges that teachers face, and to have so much empathy for that work stream.
“…so in our most recent study, students in the treatment group who got CommonLit 360 grew three-tenths of a standard deviation on average in reading achievement.
And so just to put that in perspective, that is more than what we can expect the students to grow in one full year. And so students got that after using the program for just 14 weeks on average, which is really, really great. So it means our intervention definitely packs a punch.”
Denver: That’s great. You got domain experts, and often people don’t do that, and you can always bring in the tech folks later on. But to have the heart of the organization be education, that gets back to your response earlier on; that really is the center, and the other things help support all of that.
So finally, what initiative has you really excited at the moment, and what’s next for CommonLit?
Michelle: Yeah, so the thing that I’m most excited about right now is the early research that’s coming out about our new program, CommonLit 360. So for those of you who aren’t super familiar with educational effect sizes… so in our most recent study, students in the treatment group who got CommonLit 360 grew three-tenths of a standard deviation on average in reading achievement.
And so just to put that in perspective, that is more than what we can expect the students to grow in one full year. And so students got that after using the program for just 14 weeks on average, which is really, really great. So it means our intervention definitely packs a punch.
So we’ve now seen those gains twice replicated, and so the thing that I’m just most excited about is the opportunity to scale up 360. So today, about 2,000 schools… we see patterns where they’re using that brand new program with high, high fidelity, we aim to grow that to 6,000 schools.
Denver: That’s great. Now, you know what? In this climate of just hearing about learning loss, you need to hear things like that to really give you energy and make one feel optimistic.
For listeners who want to learn more about CommonLit or financially help support this wonderful work you’re doing, Michelle, tell us about your website and what they can expect to find on it.
Michelle: Sure. So you can go to www.commonlit.org. You can go to /Research to read all about these latest impact reports and findings that we’ve had, or commonlit.org/donate to make a recurring gift. For $4, you can help a child learn how to read in a year.
Denver: That is the deal of the year. That beats all the Amazon Prime deal days and things of that sort by a wide margin.
Thanks, Michelle, for being here today. It was such a delight to have you back on the show.
Michelle: I so appreciate it, Denver. Always a pleasure.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Ever-Changing World, will be released later this year.Listen to more The Business of Giving episodes here. Subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify to get notified of new episodes. You can also follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and on Facebook.