Straight-Up Conversation: LearnZillion CEO Eric Westendorf
Eric Westendorf is CEO and co-founder of LearnZillion, an education venture that's seeking to help teachers and parents rethink curriculum. Today, LearnZillion's website has 950,000 registered teacher users—or about 25% (!) of all U.S. teachers. Westendorf is a former teacher and principal who received his MBA from the Stanford Business School before going on to co-found LearnZillion with partner Alix Guerrier. LearnZillion recently raised $13 million to support its continued growth. It seemed like an interesting time to chat with Westendorf about his venture. [Full-disclosure: I'm an advisor to LearnZillion.]
Rick Hess: Hi Eric. So, for those unfamiliar with LearnZillion, what is it?
Eric Westendorf: Our focus is on empowering teachers to give students the education that every child deserves. We do that by combining teachers with the power of technology to make exemplary teaching easier. The way that we do that has evolved over time.
RH: What does all of that mean in practice?
EW: We're convinced that the open curriculum model is where the puck is headed. Content used to be scarce, so textbooks were sold. Aligning open assessment and professional development allows this cycle of learning to take place in a different way. It's much more powerful than just buying a textbook, hoping that students know to use it. The money you used to spend on publishers is instead spent on the process of continual improvement on LearnZillion platforms.
RH: Okay, so how do you go about doing all this?
EW: It involves a combination of software and services. We have digital content that sits on a platform, and we have services that go along with the content and platform. In terms of content, we have a complete K-8 math curriculum that covers everything you need. It's digital and video-based. Embedded in that are formative assessments at both the lesson level and the unit level. We provide teachers and school districts with data on what the students are actually learning. We have a library online to support professional development for teachers, parents and principals. We also work with districts in person, making sure that they have the support and guidance they need to be successful.
RH: How widely used is LearnZillion today?
EW: We have 950,000 teachers registered on the site. So, approximately one in four U.S. teachers is registered on the site at this point. We have two million unique visits a month from all 50 states. We're primarily based in the U.S. but there is also interest overseas. What we do is free for teachers.
RH: You used to say that you started by trying to solve the "Sunday night" problem for teachers who were scrambling to prepare a new lesson for Monday morning. Does that still apply?
EW: That's still similar to our focus, but we're much more complete now. We started with video lessons that were very modular and bite-sized. They could be used as a supplement, for homework, or by parents. That's where we started. Teachers were anxious to see what the new standards were and what they looked like, and the short videos gave them insight. We also got insight on how to work with top teachers around the country to create content. We've become more complete. Instead of just a Sunday night problem, we're solving Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday problems— everything you need. Our videos now set up whole class instruction, and they include formative assessments that give insight into what students are doing. That allows you to balance whole class instruction with student personalization. Teachers need to do both of those things.
RH: Does that mean you've changed how you design curricula and resources?
EW: Yes, it does. On the production side, we now work with our "Dream Team" of hand-picked teachers. We select top folks from across the country—it's harder to get selected than to get admitted to any college in the country. We've got 140 teachers from 38 states. We had 4,000 teachers apply for those spots. We have this process of supporting and guiding these folks into creating high-quality content that fits together like pieces of a puzzle. It's not just an assortment of lessons, it's a quilt that mixes together into a full curriculum. There are two parts to that Dream Team process. The first is an in-person, two-and-a-half day event we call TeachFest. It's a launch pad where we pull the teachers into the community and orient them. We organize them in a group of five with an expert and train them to use technology. The rest of the summer they're working online in teams to build their patch of the quilt and getting feedback until they're ready to publish.
RH: What's in it for the participants?
EW: We're learned that there are four major motivating factors for people doing this. One, teachers want to have tremendous impact. Before, they could reach thirty lives. Now, they can help thousands and thousands of lives by sharing their expertise. Two, it allows them to have a national community. Teaching can feel isolating, and to be a part of something bigger than themselves is a big deal. Three, there's real professional development. They're learning a lot in the process. Fourth, there's a $2,000 stipend. Teachers need to get paid for their time. This is necessary but insufficient, it's only one factor.
RH: What exactly are they working on?
EW: In the past, they worked on ELA (English and language arts) and math. This year, it's just math. This year we're creating a comprehensive curriculum. So, we're doubling down on K-8 math first, in order to nail it. In the past, because we were working on supplemental materials, we could be looser. Because we've moved onto bigger things now, we can't divide our attention. We need to get everyone focused and then move to ELA and then to science and social studies.
RH: How do you ensure curricular coherence if everybody is doing one patch of the quilt?
EW: The first time we brought the Dream Team together, we gave them technology and told them they were responsible for this standard and that standard. We said, "Here are some general ideas— go for it!" But there's no way that can lead anywhere close to a full curriculum. Now, we do something different. Before they arrive, we have the scope and sequence in place. We have the key concepts within that scope and sequence, borrowed from work out there by Student Achievement Partners and Dana Center. We did a lot of that work.
RH: So it's not all being created from scratch by the Dream Team teachers?
EW: Exactly. There's no way our wisdom of the crowd approach can do that. We have to do all of this prep work, and after we're selected the teachers, we say, "That this is your unit, this is the key concept, this is the conceptual fluency." Now it's your job to take that architecture and breathe life into it and get feedback. Here's what you'll need for your first draft and second draft. They have the guidance and structure they need to be successful.
RH: How have the teachers responded to that approach?
EW: If you asked me that when I first started, I would have been nervous. I'd have thought there were too many constraints, and maybe teachers would push back. It's been the opposite. They love it. Constraints are good. They unleash creativity. The teachers want to know what their canvas is— after that, they can get to work and make the most of their expertise and get deeper in their understanding. They say, "It makes so much sense, you've been listening to us!" It makes it useful to them, while still maintaining a high quality. They get excited about the "polish the stone" process of continual improvement that we're modeling.
RH: When do you expect to move onto the ELA K-8 curriculum?
EW: We are working on that right now. We have a contract with the state of Louisiana, and we were working with their state leaders in developing an ELA curriculum that will be available to Louisiana schools and schools and districts across the country for the next school year. This is the first time we've done this in partnership with the state. We're in the process of deciding if the Dream Team process will build on top of the work we've done with Louisiana. We're wrestling with whether we'll make that the focus on the dream team this summer or not.
RH: You mentioned earlier that your stuff is free to teachers. If that's the case, who are your paying clients?
EW: Our customers have been both districts and states. We're working to put together a scalable sales process around the work we've been already doing. We work with about a dozen districts, including DC Public Schools; Howard County, Maryland; Syracuse; districts in Louisiana and California; and others. And we're working with states including Delaware, Louisiana, and Connecticut. We're putting in place the process that we need to go out and work in districts of scale.
RH: If the resources are free, what are they paying for?
EW: They're paying for the solution. What we offer is to align open curriculum with assessments with professional development. This is a paradigm shift. It used to be that you paid for content but content is now freely available, so we're giving that to you for free. What you pay us for is the solution—for aligning these things so that districts can see what teachers are teaching, what students are learning, and what they're doing to improve instruction. It was hard to be a learning institution in the age of textbooks. Now, it's possible, and that's where you should spend your money—on learning, not on texts. We're moving folks to an understanding of service and the power of software as a service.
RH: So are the assessments only available to district and state customers?
EW: Nope, teachers have access to some of the assessments. They have access to those that assess on a lesson by lesson level how their students are doing. But those assessments don't connect. Districts can't connect the dots without adopting the platform.
RH: How does the state of the Common Core affect your efforts?
EW: The Common Core is a huge political hot potato. Four years ago, we would have said that all the controversy would be a terrible thing. Now we feel differently. The reason is that states and districts need to have ownership of standards and assessments. If they've been forced to adopt something that is not their own, that's a problem. But states are making it their own, at least on standards side, if not the assessment side, and the bones of the Common Core are still in place. There's enough that remains common, and that works well for us because our value proposition is customization. It allows us to say, "Of course, you need to own this," and then customize it based on how you interpret it.
RH: What's the story with the new funding you just raised, and how big are you looking to grow with those funds?
EW: We closed our series B this summer, and raised 13 million dollars. We brought on as a new lead investor Owl Ventures. Our team is 32 now, and we will be growing to 42 in the next two months.
RH: Financially, are you close to being at a break-even point? What are your projecting in terms of revenue looking forward?
EW: I would say break-even is two to three years off. Part of that is that we're swinging for the fences. The goal is not to hit a single as a supplemental provider. We want to fundamentally disrupt curriculum. The publishers are not set to be nimble and come up with a new model, so we think that there's an exciting opportunity to do a lot of good and create a new business model that will lead to a healthy and growing business.