The key to great students is great teachers, and a new Palo Alto-based company is trying to make it easier for administrators to give teachers feedback, and for teachers to improve. BloomBoard, previously called FormativeLearning, is tackling the issue of classroom development with their new web-based tool that provides a way for administrators to enter feedback and classroom observations, and connects teachers with a marketplace of learning materials.
The company, which was started in 2010 and was part of the ImagineK12 startup accelerator in summer 2011, recently won SXSWedu’s LAUNCHedu competition in the K-12 category. Co-founder Jason Lange has a background in education, and did consulting for charter schools in Chicago before getting a degree in business and education from Stanford. Through his work at NewSchools Venture Fund, he found that schools needed help scaling training and teacher development. “It’s really painful, and it’s all human capital-intensive, it’s all manual,” he said in an interview. “It seemed like there was a pretty interesting opportunity to build tools to help people train teachers more effectively and help individualize support to teachers.”
BloomBoard takes the existing ways administrators gather feedback and observations, namely Word documents, and brings them online. Principals have access to a dashboard with a list of all of their teachers, which shows interactions with teachers over time, from one-time meetings to classroom observations to formal reviews. Principals can also schedule meetings and observations, and send calendar invites (the tool is integrated with Gmail and Microsoft Outlook). Each teacher has a devoted profile where they can view their individualized feedback and create personal goals. “We bring existing paper-based observation processes online,” Lange said. “Then what we try to do is give teachers the ability to look at all that feedback and create personal goals.”
BloomBoard also offers third-party resources in an online marketplace that can help teachers meet those goals. The marketplace also allows educators to see what resources other educators are using, and the tools all comply with federal education regulations in the U.S. The feedback requirements and templates can also be customized by individual school districts. ”Policy tends to dictate how things roll out, and why districts do what they do,” he said. “We said ‘well what if we could just give away all the tools districts needed to use to do their federal compliance for free, and then we’ll just use the data to start to individualize support and create a marketplace around content.’”
The company has a revenue-sharing agreement with the third-party providers, who offer teaching resources like workshops, video libraries and consultants. Lange said the strategy is to give away what schools have to do anyway, namely observation and feedback, and then offer a vehicle for spending professional development dollars.
There are several school districts using the platform right now, including Oakland Unified School District and Aspire Public Schools, as well as several charter schools and teacher training centres, though the marketplace won’t be launching for a few months. Lange says there have been inquiries from schools all over the world, but for now the tool works best in the U.S. since it complies with federal regulations. The company is also working with department of education offices in states like Indiana, New Jersey and Massachusetts, who are looking at rolling it out to schools in their jurisdiction.
Lange said getting teachers to use an online tool as opposed to their traditional paper-based reporting methods isn’t difficult, since the data has to go online anyway. “The reporting requirements solve a lot of that, because they have to collect the data and they have to report it, so they have to put it online somewhere,” he said. “There are always going to be people who say ‘well that’s how we’ve always done it,’ but the fact is if you have to report observation data up to the State, then you have to bring it into an online version.”
But while school districts have to provide teacher observations and feedback anyway, getting educators to adopt a new online platform en masse will be a challenge. Though getting support from state departments will help, BloomBoard faces the problem every online platform faces in schools, which is getting educators on board. Offering a free tool will be one way to help lower the barrier to entry, but only the launch of the marketplace will prove whether the company’s model can succeed. With online tools like Remind101 and Planboard increasingly permeating the classroom, it will likely only get easier to encourage teachers, administrators and school districts to get online.