Each kid does not have equal access to education. The number and quality of schools vary from area to area, and urban families often must choose between under-performing public schools or prohibitively expensive private ones. This dynamic often ends in a polarized result in which low-income kids end up in overcrowded, under-performing classrooms with inexperienced or under-qualified teachers, while wealthy kids have the luxury of attending schools with proper class sizes and the best staff available.
DreamBox Learning is a pioneer in this field, and it just received a big vote of confidence with a $10 million Series B funding round. The Bellevue-based company makes a math-instruction platform that tailors lessons based on individual students’ strengths and weaknesses. The company’s products are used by 1.5 million students in all 50 states and in Canada. DreamBox’s total funding has topped $45 million, much of which has come from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. The Series B round was led by San Francisco-based firm Owl Ventures.
CEO Jessie Woolley-Wilson said the company’s goal is to narrow that educational attainment gap among students of different incomes and race. While DreamBox can’t remove a kid from a 45-person class taught in a dilapidated building, it can provide math lessons tailored to the needs of the child, not the group.
“In a DreamBox learning environment, the computer doesn’t know what you look like, it doesn’t know where you grew up, it doesn’t know what language you speak,” Woolley-Wilson said in an interview this spring. “It just knows how you’re solving math problems. So the individual learning experience is untouched by the perception of possibility.” DreamBox’s platform records 50,000 data points per hour on a student. That information is used to adapt lessons going forward with the goal of keeping struggling students from feeling overwhelmed while other students don’t languish with boredom.
Educational technology companies such as DreamBox are in the middle of a fraught relationship between the tech sector and public education. Tech companies struggling to hire qualified workers from diverse backgrounds place no small share of the blame on educational institutions. The companies say schools aren’t doing enough to prepare students for a technology engineering-based economy, and the companies have responded with hefty lobbying and by funding computer science programs.
Couple this dynamic with educational attainment gaps, and you have many tech luminaries, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, declaring that software can be the equalizer.
While the jury’s still out on whether technology in the classroom improves education, there’s no doubt it can help teachers juggling the needs of many students in large classes. Though studies have yet to show that smaller class sizes improve a teacher’s instruction, they do show that fewer people in the room can coax shy students into greater involvement in lessons. If smaller classes aren’t an option, individualized learning like what DreamBox facilitates can keep a student engaged while providing an overworked teacher with necessary data.
Jessie Woolley-Wilson’s name was misspelled in the fifth paragraph of this story. It has been corrected.