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Teacher Involvement, Deep Understanding of Common Core Make Ed-Tech Startup Stand Out

San Antonio

Tens of thousands of school districts across the country are in a full-on sprint to put tough new Common Core State Standards into practice.

A legion of new ed-tech startups think they can help.

The winner of this year's ISTE "pitchfest"—two year-old LearnZillion, based in Washington, D.C.—was the company that convinced a panel of judges they actually know what they're talking about.

"One-size fits all professional development won't work with the common core," Nick Lewis, the company's director of partnerships, told the judges. "Content knowledge is critical...[and] it needs to be personalized and job-embedded."

Here's LearnZillion's premise for making that happen:

Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have adopted the tough new academic standards, which focus on helping students develop critical thinking and problem solving skills.

For many teachers, implementing the standards will mean a big switch in how they interact with their students.

LearnZillion aims to connect those teachers to an online repository of classroom lessons, assessments, and videos, each of which was designed by "a dream team of master teachers" specifically to meet a particular common-core standard.

"Everything we do is about the common core," Lewis told Education Week after his company's award was announced. "It's in our DNA."

With LearnZillion, he said, teachers will no longer need sit through "a two-hour professional development session in the gymnasium." Instead, they'll "be able to get tutorials on-demand on the standard they're about to teach the next day."

The concept, plus the group's early success—Lewis says 160,000 teachers, all of whom found LearnZillion via word of mouth, have already signed up—was good for a prize package from ISTE worth about $15,000 in in-kind donations and opportunities.

Afterwards, one of the judges, Richard Culatta, acting director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology, said the pitchfest results demonstrated the "clear need for [ed-tech startups] to have teachers involved in the process," especially when it comes to helping with common-core implementation.

"One of the values of the common core is that it creates a shared language for teachers to collaborate across states," Culatta said "The products we saw here that are helping teachers to understand [the new standards] - that's really powerful."

Culatta said he's also interested in ed-tech startups that help teachers, parents, and students use data to make smarter decisions.

"Tools that pump out more and more data are just overwhelming," he said. "But tools that can tee data up in meaningful ways to save teachers time and help them make decisions about how to teach" hold promise.

Finding a way to get teachers or school districts to pay for "learning analytics" - new data on student learning, and/or new dashboards for organizing and displaying that information - seemed to be one of the more common strategies that the startups hoped could generate consumer revenue down the line.

The second-place winner at ISTE's pitchfest was a startup called scrible that allows users—primarily students—to organize and annotate online information.

Third place went to Citelighter, which provides a similar service.

The panel of judges also included representatives from Pearson, HP, and EdSurge, as well as Steve Hargadon, who founded Classroom 2.0.

Over 100 startups applied to take part in the pitchfest. Twenty were accepted, and six finalists competed for the contest's single prize.

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed tech policy, practices and trends.

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