Daniel Jhin Yoo, Founder, Goalbook
Special education is a central component of the U.S. public education system: some 12 percent of U.S. public school students are identified with disabilities, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, designed to protect the rights and improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities, probably impacts day-to-day school operation more than any other federal policy. Yet students with disabilities are often overlooked or marginalized in contemporary education reform conversations.
Daniel Yoo's company, Goalbook, is a rare entrepreneurial education venture that puts students with disabilities, and their parents and educators, front and center. Goalbook is a web-based productivity and compliance platform for special educators and administrators, but also has potential to support more customized learning for a broader range of students. It was incubated by Kauffman Education Ventures and Imagine K-12 and has received seed funding from the NewSchools Venture Fund.
A native of California, Yoo earned a degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of California and worked for Oracle and Google before leaving the technology industry to become a special education teacher in East Palo Alto. In 2011 he left teaching to found Goalbook. He currently lives in Palo Alto, California.
What's your "elevator pitch" for Goalbook?
At Goalbook, we believe that every student should have an individual learning plan with a caring team of educators, family, and community members who help each student successfully achieve their personal goals. That's why we've created the first and only social and mobile ILP platform that help teams collaborate and document individual student progress in a secure private social network that's as easy to use as Facebook. We're starting out with a focus on the 6.5 million students with disabilities who already have a federally mandated Individual Education Plan.
Why/how did you decide to create Goalbook?
I spent three years as a special education teacher in East Palo Alto for the Ravenswood City School District. Even in my third year as a teacher, I still struggled with two things: keeping track of the 80--100 goals of my students and finding time to collaborate with all the 40--70 different educators and parents who were on my students' teams.
However, I noticed that on Facebook, I was somehow able to communicate and maintain relationships with hundreds of contacts without feeling overwhelmed. Also, I noticed that enterprise software such as Yammer and Salesforce.com were already integrating social and mobile technology into their offerings to improve employee collaboration. Why couldn't we leverage the same social and mobile technology to help manage and implement Individual Education Plans?
In February 2011 I had the opportunity to take part in the Kauffman Education Ventures program. It was a difficult decision to leave the school district, but I thought it would give me an opportunity to make an even wider impact. During my time there, the concept of Goalbook became more concrete.
What are your biggest successes to date?
The biggest victories to date are the stories we hear from educators, administrators, and parents who share with us how Goalbook has made an impact on their lives and the students they serve. One recent example is from an educator who works with a high school student with special needs. This student is exploring different jobs in the community and is learning how to do each of them on site with different job coaches. Using Goalbook on his mobile phone, the educator was able to share a photo of the student performing a skill successfully for the first time after much practice. The student's parents immediately replied and asked if the educator could share his strategy for helping the student succeed even when he refused to do the task, as they share similar challenges at home. We are so proud of stories like this because this is what individualized education is supposed to be about and yet is so rarely achieved. It is examples like this that validate to us that Goalbook is a much-needed tool and that we need to keep pushing on to make it better.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
On a product level, our biggest challenge is to take the most complex component of the U.S. public education system--special education--and make it simple, streamlined, and understandable.
On a business level, the biggest challenge we face is institutional inertia. It takes a lot of courage for any institution to take on a new set of tools to change the way they operate. We are always seeking out the most innovative school districts and educational organizations with the hope that these early adopters will embolden the more hesitant. We also anticipate that the level of training and support that will be required with a larger base of districts will be a challenge for our small team to support. We are looking at various training models, but know that the starting point is to make a very user-friendly and easily customizable product to begin with.
What are your goals for the next 10 years?
Wow, 10 years is a long time! In 10 years, I hope that we'll see Goalbook used across the entire learning lifetimes of individuals: from parents celebrating a toddler's first words to lifelong learners who are working on making a career change.
Looking at your resume, you started out in computer science and worked for some pretty high-powered organizations. Why'd you decide to leave that and become a special education teacher?
I really enjoyed my work as a software developer. Coming right out of college I got to have a job that paid well and work alongside friendly coworkers and managers. In the end, I think it still felt just like a job and more and more I wanted to find something that I could pour my whole self into.
I've always enjoyed working with children, but I knew I wasn't the most effective educator. Originally, I thought I was going to be a second or third grade classroom teacher. CSU East Bay had a dual-credential program in general education and special education and I thought it would be a great opportunity to widen my experience. I ended up becoming more interested in the special education side and felt that it would challenge me more as an educator having to address a wider range of student abilities and learning needs.
My first year as special education teacher at a middle school in East Palo Alto was the most challenging experience of my life. But because of the incredible teachers I worked alongside and the courageous leadership I worked under, it was where I fell in love with education. It was definitely something I poured my whole self into and I knew then that it was the right decision.
Who are some individuals, in education or other fields, who you admire and who influence your work?
My grandfather on my father's side has had a huge impact on me. I never knew him directly as he passed away long before I was born. My only knowledge of him comes from stories my father told me as I was growing up. My grandfather was a well-known pastor during a particularly difficult time in Korean history. His ministry was primarily focused on encouraging the youth to remain diligent in their education and faithful in their values so they could rebuild a future Korea. He continued in this work despite being tortured and imprisoned multiple times by foreign occupiers of the country who saw his work as a threat to their authority. His life has set an expectation for my family of what a true career and calling looks like. Growing up, I didn't always know what I wanted to do as a career, but I always knew that it should involve serving others. I believe this is also why I value and respect the work of educators so much.
At a more concrete level, I'm really focused on product development. Since my goal is to make Goalbook look and feel like the most user-friendly consumer applications, I am continually inspired and challenged by other software out there and the talented teams that built them. On the web side, the new Basecamp (37signals) and TurboTax have made really complex activities (i.e. project management and taxes) much more simplified and error free. On the mobile side, Evernote and Path's iPhone apps show us how to make capturing life's experiences on the go easy and intuitive.
What are some of your other non-work interests?/What do you do for fun?
Oh, this is very difficult to say, since lately there hasn't been time for much else! I've caught the soccer bug since the last World Cup and try to catch English Premier League games whenever I can. I love playing, too, and am looking for a recreational league that's very friendly for beginners. I've noticed that some are quite competitive!