Teddy Rice, President and Co-Founder, Ellevation
One in ten U.S. public school students is an English language learner. In the past two decades, the population of ELL students has both grown rapidly and expanded beyond traditional "border" states to communities in all parts of the country. Yet our education system does a poor job of serving ELL students; there are large student achievement gaps between ELL students and their peers, and only 25-30 percent of ELL students graduate within four years of entering high school. Teddy Rice is working to change that. In 2011, Rice and Jordan Meranus of New Schools Venture Fund co-founded Ellevation, a mission-driven software company that focuses on tools to improve education for English language learner (ELL) students (disclosure: Some of my Bellwether colleagues have advised Ellevation).
A graduate of The Wharton School and Dartmouth College, Rice, 34, worked in consulting, education publishing and venture capital before founding Ellevation. He currently lives in Boston with his wife and two young children.
Tell me more about what Ellevation does?
We are an education software company focused exclusively on serving needs of ELLs and the K-12 school district professionals that serve them. Our exclusive focus distinguishes us in the market and allows us to focus on the needs of professionals serving this population of students. We have incredible respect for our users.
Currently, we have one product, ESL Innovations, a data and reporting tool for ELL coordinators and teachers that was developed by an ELL professional in North Carolina. We acquired the product about 5 months ago as part of our start-up. It serves as a common software platform to manage all ELL-specific student data and allows ELL coordinators and teachers to generate tons of reports and analyses that help them streamline workflow, ensure compliance with regulation, and improve instruction by enhancing stakeholder communication around ELL students.
But our ambition is larger. Over time we want to build a platform that addresses a variety of needs, including professional development, content interventions and social networking for ELL educators. We believe ESL professionals deserve a great partner for their important work.
Why focus on students who are English language learners?
If you look at the current education landscape it's clear that: a) many school districts struggle to provide a good education to ELLs, and b) all our population growth comes from this population. So, if you're an American and you care about the future of the country, you have to be concerned about the fact that the fastest growing population of students is also one of the most poorly served. The sad part is, these are families who are very invested in the American dream and came here with high aspirations for their children. Too often, those aspirationsare not matched by the capacity of schools to serve them. It breaks your heart to see how poorly resourced our school districts are to serve ELL students, in spite of the work of committed professionals. So that's the emotional component for me.
But it's also very compelling as a business opportunity. We're looking at a market of 5-6 million ELL students, growing quickly, and very few - if any - companies explicitly focusing on the needs of this population.
The better question is: Why not ELLs? Why aren't more companies focused on this population? Traditional companies will say "oh, we are focused on them," but if you look closer you'll see they're usually a traditional publishing company that has a "solution for struggling readers" and slaps an ELL label on it. I think that reveals a lack of focus and respect for the population we're serving.
Prior to getting into this business, I worried a lot about the fact there weren't more people here: "What am I missing? Plenty of smart people must see the same opportunity I do." I think there are a couple of reasons why people have stayed away:
- There's a lot of politics around the issue.
- Relative to other areas, federal and state funding is pretty modest. Title III [of ESEA, the portion of the law funding programs for ELL students] is about $1 billion dollars, a fraction of what people spend on special education.
- We're dealing with a population of students and families that don't necessarily exert the same advocacy effort as other underserved groups. An upper middle class family that has a child with autism, as an example, will exert extraordinary advocacy to ensure their child gets services. The ELL population has important advocates, but at the district level it's not nearly as litigious or as vocal in its advocacy, in part because of a lot of fears in the community around immigration, documentation, etc.
What are your biggest victories/successes to date?
I'm very pleased that we're working with our new partners from ESL Innovations, the North Carolina company that we acquired, in a very positive way that complements our various strengths. I've been a venture capitalist for 6 years now and I've seen a lot of acquisitions like this go bad. So that's a major accomplishment and relief. I'm also very pleased that we can serve a wide range of district customers - this wasn't clear at the start. When we acquired ESL innovations, the company was in about 100 school districts,but most customers were reasonably small districts. Now we're talking to some of the biggest districts in the country, which is great.
There's a lot of value to being the only game in town. We have opportunities to have conversations with people and organizations that we really couldn't hope to have if we were just another start-up company selling a math or literacy product. We've caught the attention of leading organizations and thought leaders in the space. It's not because our products are world-beating; we're still small and growing. But there's a lot of latent desire in the community for people to do something, and here we are. The opportunity and challenge is: How do we make the most of it?
What are the biggest challenges you face?
Right now districts are under a lot of budget pressures. In many cases ELL departments that were already under-resourced are looking at flat budgets at best, often early retirements and layoffs. In that environment it can be hard to persuade people to invest in new tools. One of the big value propositions for our product is that we help coordinators and teachers save time on notifications and compliance so they can spend more time on instruction and kids. But when you're selling to a person who doesn't have time, it's hard to get their attention.
What are your goals for the next 10 years?
Our current product is strong, but we can add more sophisticated analytics to not only help coordinators keep their day straight and save time, but also add additional value to the instructional process.
We want to expand into other tools and services, as well, and two obvious ones come to mind: First is professional development. If you look around the country there are countless legal cases where states or districts have been found in violation because of weak HR policies around ELL instruction. Boston and the state of Massachusetts, where we are based, recently had a judgment by the Office of Civil Rights because 40,000 of 80,000 teachers were ill-prepared to serve ELLs. Boston and the state are scrambling for a solution. One potential solution is really good, online PD that is targeted to the needs of teachers and districts.
Second is community and outreach. I don't quite know how to monetize this, but I do know that ELL teachers are among the most isolated educators. Teaching is a lonely job as it is; you're in the classroom with kids, but you're alone without a lot of adults and peers. It's even more acute for an ELL teacher. Most teachers in the district don't know or understand what they do, and don't appreciate their particular expertise. Especially in districts with lower numbers of ELL students, anELL teacher might be assigned to multiple schools, driving from school to school with a backpack, tutoring individual kids. They don't have a teacher lounge environment to socialize and share ideas, but they are just as eager as anyone for community. I don't aspire to be Facebook or Edmodo, but we do have opportunity to help create a conversation for this field of dedicated educators.
Who are some individuals, in education or other fields, who you admire and who influence your work?
I want to be a company that carves out its own niche in ways that are forward-thinking. When I think about companies I respect in our field, there are a couple of different ones that come to mind: Archipelago Learning figured out something very interesting--if you can sell good, reliable software at a low price, you can grow quickly. Another example I admire for the brashness of the entire experiment is Connections Academy and K12 - Ron Packard in particular. Both Connections and K12 struck me 12 years ago as implausible ideas, but their success has been amazing. And of course Larry Berger and his team at Wireless Generation have been an inspiration in their actions and words.
Then there are the businesses and people in the start-up education technology space who I consider my peers and would like to compare ourselves to because I think they're awesome: Better Lesson, Presence Learning, Drop the Chalk, Engrade and Edmodo - to name a few... There are a lot of great new companies out there drawn to big challenges in our field, and I'm proud to join them in the work.