In today’s new environment of online, remote learning, the need for teachers and school administrators to get immediate feedback on student progress is of paramount importance. This type of feedback, called formative assessment, is often easier said than done. Schools are finding challenges in all areas, including even getting students to a computer with Internet access. The next challenge is getting students interested and engaged in the curriculum. Knowing what students are doing, and if they are progressing, has become one of the biggest obstacles in providing a quality education that compares to traditional, in-seat learning.
To explore the nuances facing providers and consumers of educational content, I interviewed Kevin McFarland, COO of Formative, to discuss the origins of his company and how they have adapted during Covid-19.
What began in 2012 as an idea while McFarland was in graduate school has culminated in a company that is now helping schools in a very difficult time. Halfway through graduate school, McFarland and Craig Jones, CEO, co-founded Formative, to help educators secure real-time data on the progress of their students. The concept was years ahead of its time, and whether he knew it or not, his company would help schools when the pandemic became a reality.
Rod Berger: Why did you decide to start a company like Formative?
Kevin McFarland: I started Formative with the goal of empowering teachers to be able to reach students on a more fundamental level across the world. Instead of focusing on the content and questions like so many attempted before us, we believed that the better focus was on the output and how to allow for high quality content to be used toward that end.
We thought that if we could build a system that provided teachers with actionable and easily digestible data on student needs, they could do more for their students than any other system or company that might try to replace them.
Our first step was to listen to multiple voices in the education ecosystem. Listening to students. Listening to teachers. Asking them what they needed and then figuring out a way to make it happen within the confines of the school day.
In K12 education, your real competition is time. There are only so many hours in a school day, and most teachers have to extend this by working evenings at the dining room table. If you are going to be successful in K12, you have to know why you should be included in a given school day.
In graduate school we learned about the “bullwhip effect”, how a small movement at the handle can create a huge impact at the tip of the whip. Similarly, we found that eliminating the wait for student responses had a huge impact on an educators ability to impact learning. Rather than utilizing old-school testing and waiting for results that were likely no longer actionable, we delivered real-time assessments that allowed teachers to make instructional decisions on the fly, producing unprecedented learning gains and decreasing the time necessary to master standards.
Berger: So how exactly does Formative save teachers time?
McFarland: It provides them with the percentage of students that correctly answer each question. This helps teachers provide targeted instruction that will meet the needs of their students, while simultaneously reducing the amount of time spent grading.
When using paper-based fact fluency assessments, teachers would have to grade approximately 50-60 timed tests. For our 3rd grade teachers, these assessments were 40 questions each, and there were six per quarter. It would take about an hour per set to grade. Now that we’re using Formative, the teachers only have to look at the total number correct and transfer the grade into their grade books. This process takes about five minutes.
We track performance at the district, team, school, teacher and student levels. It allows educators to investigate the cause of struggling scores by filtering data by type of assessment, standards or date ranges and then dive into the actual student responses. And unlike other data assessment tools, Formative lets students see their own performance against standards.
Normally, students are unaware of their own growth towards these learning standards. Sharing this information back to the students allows them to be proactive in their own progress, creating a better class of learners for the teacher.
Berger: How has the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent shift to online learning affected your business? What have you learned through this process?
McFarland: Things are very different now than when we first started. Formative has now helped over 8 million learners. It’s a far cry from an idea in graduate school seven years ago, when no one knew who they were or what they did. Personally, it’s been a grind, but we’re so happy with how many students we’ve been able to impact. All of our resources went into product and support, and we never really did any marketing. To get the word out, we focused on creating relationships and empowering our teacher evangelists.
But then, something happened in March 2020. Covid-19 forced America’s schools to close, and school districts began to search for ways to make remote learning more effective. We were very fortunate because the things that make our system successful in the classroom also make it valuable as a tool in online, remote learning environments.
Over the past seven years, we had structured our company to meet the demand for growth and be as personal with each partner school as possible. When Covid-19 hit, we couldn’t anticipate how much demand there would be for something like our tool. But we didn’t want to be the people selling a life preserver to those drowning. We are a part of the education community and we have always strived to be active participants that support the larger objectives of teaching and learning.
So, we created our Covid-19 Assistance Program which gave away our enterprise solution to schools and districts for free. It was scary at first, as it was a very manual process to turn on a district, and we had people on our team working until 3:00 am multiple nights to service all the requests. We had more than one team member break down crying when we saw the need was just going to increase.
We knew that we had to adapt, so we spent two weeks restructuring our entire onboarding process for a district so that it could be 100% automated, and when the floodgates opened we were able to take in hundreds of thousands of new virtual classrooms without shutting down or even slowing the assistance program.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.