With a 2010 IES research grant, researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University conducted basic research and created prototype software programs for children in mathematics. In 2011, three members of the research team launched a startup and submitted a successful proposal to IES’s Small Business Innovation Research programs. With awards in 2012 and 2013, the developers created a suite of math game apps that support fact fluency and promote math strategy development. The apps all connect with a teacher dashboard that provides in-depth reports in real time and supports differentiation in math instruction. In 2013, Teachley’s Addimal Adventure won an Apple Design Award as one of the 12 best apps of 2014. Since their commercial launch in 2014, Teachley Apps have been downloaded 1.5 million times, and the Teachley suite of products are currently used in all 50 states and 2,000 schools.
Interview with Kara Carpenter, co-founder of Teachley
The three co-founders of Teachley were all classroom teachers before you met at Teachers College as graduate students in 2010. What led to your decision to go to graduate school to earn PhDs as researchers?
While teaching 2nd grade, I had the opportunity to receive professional development focused on elementary math content, and I became fascinated with how children develop their mathematical thinking. Years later, when I was getting a master’s in curriculum & teaching at Teachers College, I pursued a work study opportunity with Professor Herb Ginsburg, who focuses on early childhood math thinking. At the time in 2009, my cofounder Rachael Labrecque was already working with Professor Ginsburg, and the three of us submitted an application to IES to develop math software for young learners. That fall, I went back to classroom teaching, but when the application was funded in 2010, I decided to take the leap and accept a research fellowship to pursue a PhD. My other co-founder, Dana Pagar, joined our research team that fall, and the three of us decided to start Teachley in 2012 to bring all the great research on how kids learn math into marketable products.
Tell us about the research projects that you were involved with in graduate school.
We worked on a project developing math software for grades pre-K to 3, called MathemAntics. We developed dozens of activities and conducted small learning studies along the way. In the third year, we conducted an RCT with approximately 400 students in grades PreK - 2. Each of our dissertations involved different elements of the project. Mine focused on teaching and detecting kids’ single-digit addition strategies. Dana’s focused on continuous versus discrete blocks, while Rachael studied teachers’ preparedness to integrate technology into their classrooms.
How did you come up with the idea to develop apps that would be used in schools on a wide scale basis?
Originally, we were looking for a company who might want to take these research findings and turn them into commercial products. We were meeting with various business leaders, and one of them turned to us and said, “You should do this. You should start a company to bring your ideas to market.” That’s the push we needed to think of ourselves as potential startup founders.
How did you find out about the SBIR program at the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences? How important was the first SBIR award for launching Teachley?
Once we decided to start Teachley, we knew that SBIR would be a great resource for us. The MathemAntics project had actually started out as an NIH SBIR Phase I with a different company. That first ED/IES SBIR award is the reason that Teachley became a company. Without that funding, we would not have been able to prove ourselves capable of bringing a product to market. Institutional investors aren’t taking those kinds of risks, and angel investment is too tied into social networks and who you know.
Was Teachers College supportive of its graduate students starting a small business and getting an award to develop apps? Did anyone at the university offer advice or guidance on how to operate a small business?
Leaving the university was tricky because we had research fellowships when we started the company. However, the Teachers College president at the time, Susan Fuhrman, and the provost, Tom James, were supportive of our startup. We speak and participate in various discussions and events at Teachers College, which keeps us connected to the university and the research.
How does Teachley ensure that research is integrated into your development and validation process?
Before developing any new product idea, we look to the research to see what’s already been learned about the topic, especially as it relates to struggling learners. During the early stages of development, we rely on close observations of students as they use pencil/paper mockups and early software builds. As a team, we closely review videos of students working through problems, looking to find better, more intuitive ways to support students’ thinking. Once we have a functional prototype, we use more formal evaluative techniques to determine our impact on student learning.
What models have you used to commercialize Teachley on a widespread basis?
We have tried out many different revenue models. Initially, we tried publishing the games for free and charging schools for the formative assessment data. However, we soon found that bundling the games and data together into a single subscription worked better for schools. With our latest game, Market Bay, we are trying a new model where educators create a free account, and parents subscribe to have access at home. Schools who subscribe to Teachley get home access to Market Bay and our other games for all of their families.
Have you raised funds from venture capitalists? Why or why not?
Not yet. Raising money from venture capitalists can put you on a succeed-or-fail-fast treadmill that isn’t always a great fit for the education market. Many investors are looking for a 70x return within just a few years or they abandon ship. Developing great educational software takes time for both the iterative design process and the research to prove your effectiveness. We are just now at the stage where raising venture capital may soon make sense because we have enough content to scale our school/district sales.
When COVID-19 emerged and schools closed, you made your apps freely available to teachers and students in their classes, and 15,000 teachers and students were able to access your products. What was that experience like?
Teachers are looking for digital products that will deeply engage students and support true learning. We’re a great fit. However, schools across the country are suffering budget shortfalls at the same time as they need to spend more to ensure they meet safety standards. We’re working with schools and teachers to find alternative ways to fund our program, from parent organizations to Donors Choose to corporate partnerships.
None of you had had formal business training prior to founding Teachley. Do you have advice for those who are interested in starting an entrepreneurial small business to develop education technology that can be used in schools?
My advice would be to know your users and implementation deeply. If you don’t have a background in teaching, spend time volunteering in schools. Become a close observer of children and their thinking, so you can create products that support and bring out children’s genius.
Kara Carpenter is cofounder of Teachley (@teachley), an edtech startup focused on promoting deep math thinking and learning. Kara has over 10 years of teaching experience and was a National Board Certified Teacher with a PhD in Cognition and Learning from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her dissertation went on to become an Apple Design Award winning app, Addimal Adventure.
This interview was produced by Ed Metz (Edward.Metz@ed.gov) of the Institute of Education Sciences. This post is the sixth in an ongoing series of blog posts examining moving from university research to practice at scale in education.