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Jennifer Medbery, Founder, Drop the Chalk

schnidman-2-red.jpgAs Jen Medbery notes, data-driven teaching and data-driven reform have become something of a buzz word in education circles over the past several years. But despite the profusion of data points, many teachers lack the time, tools, or skills to use this data effectively. And without those tools or time data can become a burden rather than an asset for teachers.

The company that Medbery founded, Drop the Chalk, is working to change that. Drop the Chalk gives teachers the tools they need to really analyze trends in student learning and behavior in order to drive improvements in instruction and school culture. Trained as a computer scientist, Medbery found her way into teaching through Teach for America, teaching in the rural Mississippi Delta and New Orleans before deciding to apply her computer science training to build solutions to the data-related challenges that she herself grappled with in the classroom. Drop the Chalk's first product, Kickboard, is currently being used in 15 New Orleans schools, with plans to expand to additional regions in the coming year. Medbery, 27, was raised in Connecticut and graduated from Columbia University. She lives in New Orleans. [Click for more.]

What's your "elevator pitch" for Drop the Chalk?

Drop the Chalk builds software for the 21st century teacher to allow them to really collect, analyze, and act upon daily classroom information to make smarter decisions about what to teach, when to teach, who to teach.

The idea of data driven instruction is nothing new. It's become a sort of buzzword in education reform over the past 10 years.

But our motto, what we see when we look in classrooms and talk to teachers, is that teachers aren't data-driven--they're data drowning. So much of the theory around using data hasn't been put into practice because we haven't been realistic about the time commitment it requires and we haven't given teachers the right tools to use and act on data.

We give teachers the tools to use and act on data. Our first product, Kickboard, is a grade book on steroids. It allows teachers to track much more information: daily lesson mastery, behavior, trends in behavior and academic progress and how they interact. Schools pay a monthly subscription fee for their teachers to use Kick Board; this is a classroom supply that schools purchase.

Why did you decide to create Drop the Chalk?

I was a teacher myself in both urban and rural schools and I found myself wanting much more information than my grade book could provide for me. We had to turn to the "do it yourself" method: enormous posters and sticker charts, excel spreadsheets. We spent so much time creating and maintaining these things that we never got around to having the real conversations or using data in the ways we really needed to.

My background and first passion before education has always been technology. So I looked at the challenges from technologist's point of view: We need a tool that can support teachers' needs.

Right now the "sexy" topics in education technology are blended learning, online learning, etc. All of those are well and good, but where they stop and we pick up is that we see the teacher as paramount, the most important piece of puzzle. Our goal is to give teacher the tools to make smarter decisions and enhance their impact rather than replacing them with new tools.

What have been your biggest victories/successes to date?

The fact that we've grown to 15 schools without any formal marketing is a huge victory--proof that this is something that teachers want and need and that schools value. One of our major successes is we haven't had to do extensive marketing and sales, but our growth has mostly been through grassroots word of mouth, because our current customers really believe in the power of Kickboard and what we provide.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Hands down the biggest challenge is: How do you really scale to make the kind of impact I'm hoping we'll make, both within the charter community and beyond?

Our software is really relevant for any school or grade level. We have to overcome hurdles of belief that traditional teachers in traditional schools don't want tools like Kickboard. I believe that's wrong, but we need to show that this works with all teachers. Over the next couple of years we aim to be in district, as well as charter, schools.

What do you ultimately want to see Drop the Chalk become? How is this going to help transform public education and teachers' work 10, 15 years from now?

Our goal is to become a household name. We want Drop the Chalk to be associated with a shift from data-driven teaching as theory to data-driven as the baseline for good teaching practice: to be a core part of what gets taught in teacher prep and what new teachers understand they are responsible for. We want to get everyone bought into the idea that this is the most effective way to instruction: Collect data, share data across the building, and have real conversations about data, what's working, what's not, and how you react.

Currently, we work with 15 charter schools in New Orleans at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. As we grow in 2011-12 we aim to be in 4 or 5 other urban regions, still focused on charter schools.

What's most different about your life now as a social entrepreneur versus when you were a classroom teacher? What's easier? What's harder? What do you miss?

Everything has changed. A lot of things are harder: Nothing will happen unless I make it happen. I'm always moving forward, prioritizing from my never-ending list of to-do's what is most important for me to be doing right now to grow the company. As the leader of organization as opposed to a member of a school community I have to make all those decisions. But it's my personality type to find that more exciting because it means I have more control and say over the direction that we take. I like that independence.
Managing my schedule is probably the only thing that's easier. In schools everything regimented, minute-by-minute. When you're working with adults it's easier to change the routine or shift things around.

By far the thing I miss the most is working with kids and seeing evidence of learning on a daily basis. I try as best I can to stay close to classroom. I'm constantly observing teachers and being in schools to keep that experience as fresh as possible in my mind and drawing on it to inform how we design our products to have the greatest impact.

Who are some entrepreneurs and/or educators you admire and who influence your work?

Ben Marcovitz, the school leader at New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy (Sci Academy), where I taught, showed me firsthand what a high-performing school looks like and how to turn an idea into reality.

Matt Candler has also been a role model. Matt is currently the CEO of 4.0 Schools, which launches high-performing schools and transformative reform tools in the Southeastern United States--"more Sci Academies and Drop the Chalks," is how he puts it. Watching and learning from his experience as an education entrepreneur has been very valuable for me as well.

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