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Curriculum Associates: Leveraging For-profit Power With a Nonprofit Purpose

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Co-written by Tom Vander Ark and Sarah Cargill

For-profit giants are often viewed with skepticism in education. Nonprofits generally focus on impact but move at a slower pace and struggle to raise donations to fund growth. Is there a better model?

Frank Ferguson thinks he's designed an approach that provides incentives for growth, a focus on impact, and a big social return. Rob Waldron, the CEO of Curriculum Associates, thinks Ferguson is on to something.

Curriculum Associates , a 40-year-old supplemental curriculum provider, is located in the Boston suburbs. Ferguson is a founding investor who stepped in as CEO in the sixth year of operation. Through a unique agreement between Founder and CEO, a positive company culture, and perpetual trust foundation, Ferguson set Curriculum Associates on a pathway to educational impact and social benefit.

Ferguson has worked as a venture investor, business executive, and corporate board member for more than 50 years. Prior to working at Curriculum Associates, Ferguson served as President of BOSE Corporation from 1969 to 1976. "I wasn't thinking a lot about instruction," says Ferguson about his time at BOSE. Yet, Curriculum Associates grew quickly with a spelling program, which remains in the Houghton Mifflin catalog today.

Ferguson stepped in as CEO of Curriculum Associates in 1976 to manage a growing catalog of teaching and instructional tools and added assessment to the mix with the launch of the BRIGANCE® inventories. "We thought the assessment was great and that every principal would buy one," says Ferguson. "Today, that tool has grown and blossomed, especially for special education and early childhood programs."

In the last decade, there have been several very attractive acquisition overtures but Ferguson refused to sell. "I didn't sell because money wasn't what was driving me," he adds. "I am driven - and the whole company is driven - by making classrooms better places for students and teachers." The book Authentic Happiness changed his outlook on life, shifting his perspective to one of giving rather than getting.

"The opportunity to better the lives of students and teachers through my work at Curriculum Associates is what gets me out of bed in the morning," says the 86-year-old Ferguson. "When I get to the office every morning, I'm jazzed. I'm energized."

Four years ago, Waldron cold called Ferguson at Curriculum Associates and offered to run the company. "I told him I wanted to help him change people's lives," says Waldron, a seasoned leader with extensive experience in both the for-profit and nonprofit education sectors. Luckily, Ferguson was willing to talk to him and several months later, they struck a deal. "He was a capable guy and had a nice personality," says Ferguson. "So I said, let's try it for a year."

The two hit it off immediately. Their personal missions to make a positive difference in the lives of others have made them an excellent pair in the educational space. Waldron offered to run Curriculum Associates as CEO with a 20-year incentive compensation program that encouraged long-term rather than next-quarter leadership.

The company has for-profit power -- an aggressive sales and product development timeline with profit-driven incentives for the management team -- with nonprofit purpose. Ferguson's stock will transition to a perpetual trust and any future distributions will flow to charities, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Iowa State University. "We're really mission driven. I think that is what hopefully will keep it going," adds Ferguson.

One of the ways that Ferguson and Waldron hope to change the lives of educators and students in education for the better is by helping teachers to figure out exactly why a student is struggling and what to do next. In reference to Clayton Christensen's book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns , Ferguson says there isn't any question that technology is on the verge of disrupting education.

Curriculum Associates entered the edtech space this year with the launch of i-Ready, a highly adaptive, diagnostic and instructional tool that the team believes will help dramatically improve learning and teaching for the students and teachers who use it. Early feedback from customers tells them they're right.

"Nobody pays for what I listen to and read; they pay for what I say and what I write. It's the output that counts in learning; not a lot happens until the learner goes to work," says Ferguson, quoting Dr. Donald D. Durrell, visionary former Dean of the Boston University Graduate School of Education and mentor to the founders of Curriculum Associates.

Ferguson believes there's an opportunity for Curriculum Associates to help teachers better navigate technology-supported learning. This belief drives the company to create tools and services that focus as much on making it work for the teacher as improving learning for the student - something they think sets them apart.

"Many nonprofits are lofty in their goals but are not able to maintain operational efficacy," says Waldron. "We hire mission-driven people and work with for-profit urgency, with a relentless focus on delivering the highest quality products and services at the lowest possible cost."

"We hold ourselves to very high standards," adds Ferguson. "We try to stay in tune with the current and continuously changing needs of students and teachers. If we become ridiculously successful, which I hope we will be, other educational institutions will gain."

Ferguson is a relationship guy. He appreciates how profound the shift to personal digital learning will be for students and teachers. "We can make a contribution and a business out of the shift to technology in education," he adds. "I see education as a lifelong journey and I hope educators across this country see Curriculum Associates as more than a publishing or edtech company, that they see us as people who want to help improve their ability to make positive change for students. And I hope they choose to go on the journey with us."

Disclosure: Curriculum Associates is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.

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