Good News for Literacy and Learning

Reading between the lines with Newsela Founder and CEO Matt Gross.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Matt Gross Newsela.jpgReading on a level a student can connect to, and a window to what’s happening in the world—that’s the basic gist. Matt Gross (pictured) is Founder and CEO of Newsela, what one might call a “literacy technology” company. Newsela publishes daily news from top sources at multiple reading levels, for struggling, on-track, and advanced readers. The edtech startup is “dedicated to transforming the way students access the world through words,” says Matt. “Our team combines powerful technological know-how with real-world experience earned in the classroom, the newsroom, and the boardroom,” he says.

They accomplish their mission through publication of high-interest news and nonfiction articles daily at five levels of complexity for grades 2-12 using a proprietary, rapid text-leveling process. By combining relevant and interesting nonfiction content with standards-aligned assessments, their platform gives educators a primary solution to dramatically improve students’ literacy skills.

For me, I feel like I’m coming full circle, to come back and put a hundred percent of my focus on the thing that I care about the most, which is: lighting a fire in students.

Matt has an interesting nineteen-year career in the education sector, for-profit and nonprofit entrepreneurship, and product development and distribution. He was Executive Director of the Regents Research Fund, a privately funded affiliate of the New York State Board of Regents and Education Department that helped lead the implementation of Race to the Top–driven education reforms.

Reporting to Education Commissioner John King, Jr., he oversaw the organization’s growth strategy, public–private partnerships, talent acquisition, and day-to-day operations. While at the Fund, Matt led the development of EngageNY.org, a web application providing teachers and administrators with resources for implementation of Common Core state standards and teacher and principal evaluations. Since its August 2011 launch, the site has been viewed over fourteen million times by educators in all fifty states.

Under Matt’s purview, the Fund raised over $9 million in support from many of the nation’s largest and most well-known education funders including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, and the Robin Hood Foundation.

Prior to joining the Fund, Matt was Vice President of Planning and Resource Development at Pencil, a national leader in building private-sector partnerships with public schools that improve student achievement. He led a wide array of initiatives at Pencil, including the development of the Pencil Exchange, a social media and relationship-management application for business–school partnerships now used in over 400 schools nationwide.

Earlier, Matt spent several years managing entrepreneurial ventures, including as co-founder and President of out-of-home media company Submedia, which secured over $6 million in venture investment, $2 million in annual bookings, contracts with multiple government agencies, and licensing agreements in Europe and East Asia. He co-holds two patents for Submedia’s technology. Matt began his career as a Teach for America corps member, teaching music at C.S. 50 in the South Bronx. He serves on the School Leadership Team of P.S. 101 in Queens, which his three boys attend. He holds a B.A. from Columbia University.

In this wide-ranging long-form interview, Matt responds to questions about lessons that have shaped him, what kind of patent he holds, what drives him as an edtech startup founder, thoughts about standards, his take on fake news, advice for edtech startup founders, the future of learning – and Instagramable beverages. So, pull up a good cup of coffee (or whatever your favorite beverage might be) and enjoy!

I was just listening to your talk at ASU GSV.

Matt: I stole my own thunder. What am I going to say now?

I don’t know! But it was really interesting listening to you talk about your son and school and I thought, Wow! here’s a guy who’s really passionate about education and technology. With that intro, I have about a dozen questions for you, wondering if you’re up for those, if you have time for that?

Matt: Yeah, hit me.

You worked in education for almost 20 years now. Any lessons from your days back teaching in the Bronx, teaching music, that informed your current approach?

Matt: That was a long time ago. Lessons from teaching in the Bronx. I guess the thing about the Bronx for me was that the difference between a good day and a bad day in school was whether my students were engaged. You think it’s easy in a music class, but it’s not. Especially because you have kids just for one day a week. You have them one day a week, one class a week, so somehow you just have to grab their attention.

There are some days, when I taught the students to play Let it Be on the glockenspiel, there were two parts. They played a harmony. Then they sang along to it. At the end of the song, there was just like this hush, and the kids were wide-eyed and looking at each other just like, yeah! That was a great day. That was a day I most remember at school.

Engagement. It’s funny, for me, engagement—I put a backseat on engagement for many years as part of the education reform movement, and so much of it that was about test results, accountability, and structure, school structures, and things like that.

For me, I feel like I’m coming full circle, to come back and put a hundred percent of my focus on the thing that I care about the most, which is: lighting a fire in students.

Victor: Well put. I’m going to skip around a little bit, hope you don’t mind, then we can come back to any themes you want to revisit or emphasize. You’re a patent holder, or a co-holder. What are your patents for?

Matt: I am. I am the co-holder of a couple patents for out-of-home advertising technology, or out-of-home display technology. I started up a company in the late 90’s with a college friend, an astrophysicist, that we developed a display that goes on the walls of subway tunnels, and you see a motion picture advertisement outside the window of the train. A lot of people say it’s kind of like one of those flip books. That’s what I hold a patent in.

That’s pretty neat. Well, it’s been a while for you. What’s the genesis of your entrepreneurial spirit? You’re involved in an edtech—well, I wouldn’t even call it a startup anymore—and you’ve been going for three years now. What would you say inspired you – family? Mentors? A teacher? Or just yourself and your own drive?

Matt: I’ve always had this desire to start things, and this almost sort of blind disregard of the barriers dramatic change. My earliest memory of that, it goes back to high school when interestingly I was the editor of the high school newspaper. At the time, it was all paper, publishing three issues a year.

I came in as Editor-in-Chief, and I said, “No, I want to do it every month,” to which all of the previous editors and the people in the school administration said, “That’s ridiculous. That’s impossible, but good luck to you.” Then sure enough, we went ahead and did it.

I always start with the question of, “Isn’t it ridiculous that …” and then try to fix that problem. That’s been the case of a few things in my life. I’d say Engage New York was a big one of those. That was actually John King’s idea. Are you aware of Engage New York?

Yeah, yeah. A little bit, but please keep talking, and you can totally monopolize this conversation, because I’d love to hear everything you’ve got to say.

Matt: I just wanted to see if you had some background on it. John King, we were working on rolling out the Common Core, and the state was about to spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars, more than half its Race To The Top funding, on trainings that would be given to representatives from districts, and would be some of the teachers.

We were on the brink of these trainings, three months away, and John says … And this is another lesson for my career. John says, “You know, districts are incredibly valuable, but I’m worried that when it comes to actual classroom practices, that if we don’t get the information directly into teachers’ hands in a way that’s user friendly, adjustable, easily searchable, then they’re just not going to do it. We can’t just wait for the districts to, and hope that they’ll train their teachers effectively enough.”

I said, “Yeah, I agree.” He said, “Well, what I’d like you to do is work with the curriculum team to create a website that will serve as a definitive common core implementation resource for the teaching of all 3 million students in this state. I need you to do it in 90 days.”

I said, “Okay.” That’s what we did. We pulled together this website, and the state completely rebranded the state essentially, because we thought of is this, as this bureaucracy that stood in the way of progress, that provided accountability measures, and dealt with state taxes and things like that.

All of a sudden, people were turning to the state as—the teachers were turning to the state as a resource that could actually help them. That was wonderful, and gaining the trust of teachers and the gratitude of teachers for this resource was extraordinarily gratifying to me.

Today, New York is the most widely used Common Core implementation resource in the country. California or Michigan, or wherever you go, you’re going to see New York as a resource.

You’ve played a leadership role in development of Regents Research Fellows, the team of leaders helping to implement Common Core, and other Race To The Top reforms. You also raised a substantial amount of money from many of the, should I say, ‘usual suspects’ – the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford, Hewlett, Carnegie Corporation, Robinhood. There’s been a tremendous amount of controversy over Common Core. There’s been many who just flat-out detest it. Why do you think that is?

Matt: There are definitely some loud voices of folks who detest the common core, but if you go to the typical rank-and-file teacher, it’s just simply not the case. I wasn’t the creator of the common core, but I am a supporter of the common core for the mere fact that it elevated standards, and it was a single standard that governors of various states, it wasn’t a federal initiative, but the governors of various states said, “Hey, we need to have some common standards and a common benchmark.”

What teachers really want is not for the standards to change around again, because they’re just dealing with so much whiplash. I don’t see a whole lot of signs that the Common Core’s going anywhere. There are some states that have moved away from it, but even in those states, Common Core standards generally look—or if they’re new standards, look a whole heck of a lot like Common Core standards.

What we quickly realized was that teachers wanted engaging content that was organized, well-structured, accessible, and interactive in every subject that they teach.

It doesn’t really matter what you call it, as long as they’re rigorous standards that kind of look like the standards from other states so that it’s easy for states to prepare curricula, and it’s easier for folks like us to develop things that meet those state standards. That’s the most important thing.

Let’s talk about Newsela. You addressed the needs of billions of students, adults, English-language learners around the world, anybody really struggling to understand the content that they want to read. You have a transformative literacy tool. I think it’s pretty brilliant, the concept, excellent theory brought into practice of this rapid text leveling process. Any thoughts, any word about that? There’s about a million educators, 10 million users now. What are you most excited about right now and how about in the near future?

Newsela.pngMatt: There’s actually 13 million students and well over a million teachers at this point who are on Newsela. What Newsela is … One thing I would take slight issue with is that Newsela is a ‘literacy tool’. What Newsela is, is a reading platform. What’s the distinction?

There are just pure literacy tools out there, tools that their sole job is build phonemic awareness, vocabulary, textural structure, and deal with questions like that. That is a part of what we do, but we’re designed to do something much more, which is to make the reading experience great no matter what you’re reading.

Reading is what we’re delivering. That’s why we publish content across subject areas. We started off with news content, and that’s how we made a name for ourselves. What we quickly realized was that teachers wanted engaging content that was organized, well-structured, accessible, and interactive in every subject that they teach.

Newsela image.pngWe responded by publishing biographies and resource documents, and descriptions of what is the Solar System? What is Dark Energy? So that teachers in English, science, and social studies classes really across the board, in grades 2 through 14, can have access to content that their students would really typically enjoy and could interact with, and so that teachers could keep track of what their students have read, whether they read it at all, whether they understood it, how long they spent reading on it, so time on task.

That’s the experience we want to deliver across content areas. A single place where students can read everything, that’s organized, accessible, far more engaging, and where teachers can keep track of what their students are doing.

I didn’t really necessarily want to wade into all of this, but there’s what is being called fake news, there’s Trump—and your Newsela, and you’re kind of at the intersection of where students and teachers and learning happens with news and current events, in part at least. Any thoughts about that? I know you probably been asked about fake news already, but did you have any comments or further comments you’d like to make on that?

Matt: Yeah. Fake news is bad. What we want students to do is … We say it in our mission; we want students to read closely, think critically, and be worldly. We select content from highly reputable sources. We’re not just randomly scraping the Internet for any kind of stuff that might reinforce students in the echo chamber thinking, or teachers’ thinking. We’re selecting from highly reputable sources. That’s step one. That’s probably the most important battle, the battle being fake news, be sure that your source is reputable. That’s step one.

Step two is, we spend a lot of time on news literacy programs, well before the most recent presidential election, because it’s just part of the reading engagement process. Being able to discuss whether something is truth or fiction, whether something is fact or opinion, is part of what makes the reading experience great and valuable.

It sounds like you have a lot of friends in high places, investors deeply committed to education, technology, or whatever they might be committed to. Okay. Then, the Washington Post is a reputable source—what would you say to people who wouldn’t think that that’s a reputable source?

Matt: The Washington Post is a great source. It’s a 150-year-old newspaper with the highest journalistic standards. It’s one of many, many sources that we pull from. The Christian Science Monitor, NASA, and Associated Press. We use their content, these government sources, biography.com, Encyclopedia Britannica. We use a wide, wide, wide variety of sources.

Your business model, your investors probably are most loving of a profitable idea, but how is it that it is something that they do love? You have backers, and some very talented people on your advisory board. What makes them love what Newsela is all about?

Matt: What they love the most is our mission. We’re obviously growing incredibly quickly. Lots of people can grow quickly. What our investors, what my colleagues here at Newsela, our partners, and certainly our teachers have in common is that they all love our mission to unlock the written word for everyone. This is something everyone is committed to across the board.

They realize that we actually have a shot at doing it. It doesn’t seem like a star shot. It seems like something that’s within reach.

What are your thoughts, a little bit more broadly speaking now, on the state of education these days?

Matt: State of education these days. It’s a pretty common refrain for folks to say education is broken, education is broken, education is broken. Especially rich folks, especially folks in industry, hedge fund managers, even our Education Secretary has made comments to that remarks. Quite frankly, I think that’s a false and counterproductive view.

American schools are strong. Students go to school. They learn. Many get accepted in some of the best colleges in the world, and they go on to contribute to a growing economy. I will refute the notion that American schools are broken. American schools are teaching kids.

We have millions of teachers out there who are doing what they got into teaching to do, which is to grow young minds.

The challenge that I believe that educators have right now, is that digital media has transformed students’ daily lives just in the last decade alone. Schools are largely using the same paradigm that they’ve used for the last hundred years, and the same way of delivering content as well.

Newsela couldn’t have existed a decade ago, because there wasn’t really access to computers, there wasn’t a commitment to using those computers in the classroom, and there wasn’t a broad recognition that change does have to occur to keep up with today’s students. Now it does.

Teachers are caught in a near impossible position, which is that the old way of teaching just doesn’t land the way it used to. That’s a very fixable problem, and teachers want to fix that problem. That’s why you have well over 10,000 people attending ISTE, the largest education technology deal, and you have some from EdTech Digest attending I’m sure.

We have a couple of people going, yes.

Matt: There you go. That’s why you have blog post after blog post after blog post on education technology. Teachers and administrators know that we need to change in order to keep up with the digital media and enable the student population. They’re doing it. That’s exactly why Newsela exists today. Newsela couldn’t have existed a decade ago, because there wasn’t really access to computers, there wasn’t a commitment to using those computers in the classroom, and there wasn’t a broad recognition that change does have to occur to keep up with today’s students. Now it does.

32 million computers were shipped to K-12 schools in the last three years alone. We’re expecting to see double-digit growth again. Schools are committed to making this change. We’re excited to be partnering with them on that.

Let’s talk ASU GSV: Did you have a sense of sort of what the atmosphere was there? Any thoughts about your experience at the most recent one? Did you have a good time?

Matt: Yeah, I did. I actually got to see the Golden State Warriors extinguish the hopes of the Utah Jazz with an incredibly congenial and forgiving Utah crowd. That was great.

The conference was interesting. What was particularly interesting is that the old guard media publishers are far more open than they ever have been to partnership opportunities change, because they realize that the concept that three or four major players in education are going to be able to consolidate most of the market, is not the future, and it’s actually not the present either.

They realize that something has to change, so it was great to see some of the old guard publishers more open to those sort of partnerships with next generation education companies. That gave me some hope. That was exciting.

We all have to collectively decide as an industry that change is needed. I don’t know if the traditional education publishers are ever going to be able to fully come around. Their businesses are going to look very, very different five, ten years from now than they do today. Look at Pearson. They’re selling off their K-12 publishing units. That was completely unheard of just a few years ago.

Technology itself doesn’t do anything. It has to be applied, and you have to know why you’re using it in the first place.

They’re going to be very different businesses. They may be a lot smaller than they are today in K-12 education, but there’s certainly a place for them.

Did you form some partnerships?

Matt: Is it okay if I don’t comment on that?

Yeah. Probably it might be things that are in process, and I can see why. No problem.

Matt: Thanks very much.

Anything more you’d like to say about technology’s role in education?

Matt: Yeah, absolutely. Technology itself doesn’t do anything. It has to be applied, and you have to know why you’re using it in the first place. I didn’t start Newsela because I thought, man, technology in the classroom could be so awesome. Technology’s so cool. I started Newsela because there were some specific problems that teachers and students were trying to solve.

One was that teachers were finding their students just weren’t engaged in reading. Another was that their students didn’t have access to the things that they wanted them to read, because it was at a level that was over their heads, or it was at a level that was so beneath them, that it was holding them back, it was leaving them bored. The teachers had no idea what was going on with their students’ reading, whether they read something and understood it, what about it they understood.

Teachers were scouring the Internet for content that they thought they’d let their kids try and get them to learn these—because they realized that textbooks just weren’t doing it, but their lives are a mess. They’ll look at 25 different websites and have a binder full of articles from dozens of different sources. It’s just an ungodly mess. We wanted to solve a bunch of those problems.

Technology has the power to solve those sort of problems better than offline materials can. I’m giving you real-time information, personalization, assessment, and analysis. These are things that technology can do very well.

What it can’t do as well is be that teacher walking around the room, some teacher who’s gotten some piece of information from software that gives you a little bit of more insight into students. Then the teacher can walk over to that student and use their human skills, their sense of empathy, picking up on little micro cues that the computer could never do, to understand exactly what’s going on with a student, give them some extra encouragement, to give them some extra help. That’s the role that we hope Newsela will play in the class, and not to serve as a stand-alone, we are now your new robotic teacher.

I think a lot of education technologies make that mistake. We consider ourselves a connector between teacher and student. Because if a teacher doesn’t feel like they can connect with their students, then they’ll check out or they’ll leave, and we can’t let that happen. Technology has to strengthen that relationship, not diminish it.

Excellent point. I’m going to tear in a little bit here, but then I can leave this alone: Any thoughts or ideas about Newsela being inherently political? Can you really claim to be neutral, ‘just helping kids figure out how to read’ – ‘just a literacy platform’? Or, are your sources pushing forward political propaganda, vested interests that really just want their outlook, their view of the world pushed down onto younger generations—your thoughts?

Matt: We absolutely do not work with content sources that claim that their opinion is news. We use valid sources that have the highest journalistic standards. Again, news is not the only stuff we publish. We publish stuff from across a spectrum. There will be different viewpoints espoused. We will, in fact, publish some opinion pieces because, especially our pro/con articles, pro/con is where we publish opposing points of view on a single topic, because teachers want that debate in the classroom. That’s the heart of a really great social studies discussion or English class discussion, even a science class discussion.

For example, we publish articles on like whether we should be building super carriers. There’s a pro point of view, and there’s a con point of view. We think that debate is central to democracy, but more importantly for us, it’s central to a great class.

Very cool, then. You worked in education for-profit, nonprofit, entrepreneurship, product development and distribution. What advice would you have for an edtech startup founder these days?

Matt: Solve teachers’ and students’ problems, and solve a problem that they actually have, not one that you think they should have. I think there’s a big mistake that a lot of technologists who come into the education field make, which is they assume that school should be run a certain way, and they assume that something is a problem, where their users don’t think a problem at all. Therefore, their technologies fail. That’s one bad way to go.

On the flip side is, you have educators who come into the field, and they’re often sort of hyper prescriptive about their approaches to say like, we are going to fill all of these boxes in, and every single teacher, or need that a teacher/administer says, we’re going to put onto our platform, and that just introduces an extraordinary amount of complexity into the system.

What you want to do is focus on the problems that need to be solved, and then you want to focus on the one or two or three ways to best solve those problems and go great guns on those one, two, or three ways of solving the problem. Don’t dilute your efforts too much. Do what you do well, and do that extremely well.

Just curious, do you drink Strawberry Frappuccinos or any kind of drink like that?

Matt: Do I drink Strawberry Frappuccinos?

I don’t know what that is pictured, but my middle-schooler had one of those a little while back, and I see it on your site now. You guys definitely have some timely stuff that at least middle schoolers are really looking at.

Matt: You’re talking about the article on Instagramable beverages?

Yes.

Matt: That’s great. No, I think the most Instagramable beverage I’ll drink is probably a Margarita, but that’s just as close as it gets.

CREDIT Newsela Instagramable Beverages.pngIs there anything else you want to say about education technology, edtech, this whole industry of edtech now? Or, any other thoughts about things that you’re working on?

Matt: Here’s the stuff that we’re most excited to work on. First of all, we’re adding a tsunami of new forms of content to ensure that teachers are able to use Newsela as a central reading resource for what they’re teaching, so there’ll be more an aspect on that to come. That’s one big area for us. We just want to be able to cover as many topics as we possibly can, because teachers love their students reading on Newsela, so we want to give them as much stuff to read as possible.

Second, we’re making it a lot easier for teachers to figure out which content aligns to whatever curriculum that they use. In fact, we work with school districts to custom align text sets of articles. Text sets is something that is a huge hit on Newsela, essentially playlist. Teachers have created over 50,000 of these text sets, but we create custom text sets for school districts, and we’re making it much easier for teachers to find text sets and units of studies essentially that align to whatever their curriculum is.

Teachers, they just want to save time, and they just want the answer. We don’t want to have to have them poke around too much, so we’re going to be making some big improvements on that as well.

Our sort of deep R&D efforts that we can’t talk about as much, are focused on what we would call augmented reality for reading. Imagine you put on some goggles and the words on the page transform into something different with new information, ways to interact with it, worlds above and below and alongside the text. That’s a lot of what our R&D efforts are focused on right now. We’re really excited to see where those efforts take us.

Some big announcements in the next few months or so?

Matt: I’d say so.

Excellent. Well, you’ve been a real sport answering all these questions, and I really appreciate you taking time out. I’d like to interview you down the road as a follow-up. Thanks a lot for your time—looking forward to talking again later.

Matt: My pleasure. Thanks for all the shining a light on education technology. It’s so important these days.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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One Response to Good News for Literacy and Learning

  1. Mark Gura says:

    I’m very pleased that Newsela will be one of the 4 groups highlighted and talking about how their resources impact teaching & learning at the ISTE Literacy Network’s session at the upcoming ISTE Conference (see description below). If you are coming to the conference (San Antonio) please join us at the session!

    Mark Gura, President / ISTE Literacy Network

    “Technology-Based Literacy Resources and Practices With Special Promise”
    Monday, June 26, 11:30 am–12:30 pm CDT (Central Daylight Time)
    Building/Room: 301A

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