After graduating from Columbia University in 2006 with a degree in computer science, Kickboard CEO Jen Medbery decided to forgo the expected Silicon Valley move, and instead headed south to the Mississippi Delta to teach middle and high school math. As a Teach for America corps member and later a founding teacher at a New Orleans charter school, Medbery was troubled by the challenges she and colleagues faced when trying to organize student information. Between academics and behavior, Medbery struggled to not only keep track or it all, but to actually marry the data and create truly holistic plans. With that in mind, she left the classroom five years ago to create Kickboard, an instructional management solution aimed at helping teachers seamlessly access and share students' academic and behavioral data all in one place.
We spoke with Medbery to learn a bit more about her New Orleans-based company and why she believes holistic interventions are so important.
EDUCATION DIVE: What inspired Kickboard?
JEN MEDBERY: The main challenge I faced as a teacher is pretty universal amongst all K-12 teachers: individualizing instruction in a way that meets students where they're at and takes into consideration not just their academic areas of focus, but also non-academic factors. I would keep track of my students' content mastery on the academic side.
I would also keep track of my students' social-emotional development and their behavior in class. The way I tracked those was completely separate. Academics was in a very old-fashioned grade book and my students' behavior and social-emotional growth was just in a spreadsheet. The challenge was compounded because all of my colleagues who taught on my grade level team were also doing the same thing! We never had the full picture of how a student was doing across all of their classes and how their behavior and social skills were impacting their academic performance. The notion of solving that by making that information more visible, almost breaking down classroom walls and giving teachers the superpower to see through those walls, was something that was very interesting to me.
Were you able to start creating Kickboard or implementing any of its solutions while teaching?
MEDBERY: It really happened when I left the classroom. I parted ways with my school on very good terms because they were really interested in what I wanted to build as well and we both agreed I couldn't build tools, a very simple prototype of that tool, while lesson planning and grading and building relationships with parents. If I was going to do something, I was going to do it right. At the end of the school year, I left the classroom and set about that summer building a prototype, but worked very closely with the school I had just left because they were the first alpha tester of the product. We actually rolled it out and they were using the prototype the very next year. It was admittedly rudimentary, as all early stage products should be. There's a common piece of advice that you hear in the tech startup world: "If you aren't embarrassed by your first version, you waited too long to show it to the world." So we got out something that I knew was going to meet their needs because it was something that I was intimately familiar with.
I then started to build my network of schools that I wanted to learn from. A key insight that I had stepping out of the classroom was my own personal experience, yes, but I knew that I was also no longer building for myself, as I was no longer a user. So I needed to quickly assemble as many teachers and principals and special educators and curriculum leaders to learn from so I could continue to validate a lot of the assumptions that I had about the problem we were solving and the way to go about building a tool.
Now that you are no longer in the classroom, how do you continue to meet the needs of schools and recognize what matters to them most?
MEDBERY: We are fortunately in a very different place now, having just celebrated our fifth year in business. We're a team of about 25 people and a significant portion of that team is our product development. We have an incredibly talented product development team that manages everything. We elicit teacher requests from our users, we do a considerable amount of user testing through focus groups, surveys, [and] one-on-one interviews where we watch a user interact with the new, half-baked feature to figure out what kind of tweaks we should make to it before we release it to the public. We do a considerable amount of listening and learning and testing in in our product groups, which is very structured. That informs not just what we build, but how we build it, so that we continue to make the entire user experience on Kickboard very intuitive and very user-friendly and, most importantly, continue to design and enhance our feature set in a way that continues to advocate for a whole child approach.
A lot of instructional management systems on the market today are narrowly focused on academics. Kickboard is the only system that unifies academics, behavior, and social-emotional learning and interventions, and we do that in a way that you pull up a student profile or a class report or any other number of reports and you can easily connect the dots. Just having that level of awareness at your fingertips is transformative for our customers.
Where is Kickboard implemented, and how many schools are you in?
MEDBERY: We're headquartered in New Orleans. It's really a product of where I was most recently teaching, as well as several business incentives that made it attractive to start and grow a company in New Orleans, and in Louisiana more broadly. Our first, early adopters were in New Orleans, though we've just expanded. We serve public schools — both neighborhood district schools and charter schools — across 25 states. That is including Seattle Public Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Schools (in North Carolina), rural school districts here in Louisiana, all up and down the eastern seaboard, from Rhode island down to D.C. So we're really all over the place. And I'm really pleased to share that that growth has largely been through word-of-mouth. Our customers have been our best salespeople, and that really speaks to the impact the product has when the customers talk about the product to their colleagues at other schools, while at conferences and other professional development events.
Has Teach For America helped with your growth?
JEN MEDBERY: I continue to be amazed at how many Teach for America alumni are still in education and have assumed leadership roles. For a reason I don't understand, there is an assumption that most people do Teach For America and after two years, they leave and move into other fields like banking and law. From my own experience and the data that I've seen, that just isn't true. I am just constantly surprised by how many times I'll be talking to a district and there is a Teach For America alum in that conversation. Certainly, the presence of Teach For America alumni in so many districts across the country makes for a more welcoming conversation. We don't have a formal partnership with Teach For America from a sales side, but just the power of their alumni network is impressive.
The education marketplace seems to be inundated with a sea of products. It can be difficult to wade through and discern which products are truly necessary or useful. Do you have any advice for districts and administrators currently making product choices?
MEDBERY: I would agree. It's a crowded space. There are lots of ed tech products purporting to do lots of different things, and I think my advice to schools has less to do with the sheer volume of products on the market today and more to do with remaining extremely focused about their mission in the district and school and their pedagogical or their instructional philosophy. You have to start there and figure out what you're trying to do, what opportunities you are trying to provide to kids, what kind of skills you are working to help them master and be successful in the 21st century.
The second part of that question is, "How do I want to intentionally use technology to help us get there?" A lot of our work, quite honestly, is helping schools frame the questions they want and need to be asking. We work with schools that are asking, "How do we build a school culture and instructional decision-making culture rooted in the whole child? How do we make lesson-framing and intervention decisions that take into consideration not just academic factors, but non-academic factors, as well?" If you're asking those questions first, that's going to inform the sorts of tools you look for. It's a very different philosophy from saying, "We want to give all of our students laptops so that we can be 1:1," and then asking "Now that we're 1:1, what should we do about it?" That's a backwards approach.
Kickboard describes itself as an "instructional management solution." Can you explain how that differs from a learning management system (LMS)?
MEDBERY: If you look at the key words that describe an instructional management solution, it's "data" or "evidence." And if you look at what defines a learning management system, it's "content." Learning management system is a means to teach digitized content. I think of an LMS as a replacement for the textbook — you're using content from a variety of sources, and students are interacting with that, engaging with content electronically and certainly interacting with the class in terms of communication boards and message forums online. Instructional management solutions help teachers answer questions around, "What are my students mastering, what are they still working to master, how are their non-academic factors that I am collecting data on impacting their academic performance, and how does that impact my instructional planning tomorrow and next week?" Instructional management systems' core is the performance data — both academic and non — that is going to inform that daily decision making process.
And how does an instructional management system differ from a student information system?
MEDBERY: SIS is also data, but I think the key word that defines the SIS is compliance. Everyone loves to hate them, but they're really good at what they were designed to do. And what they were designed to do is manage all the compliance reporting around attendance, special education status, demographic status, and, every so often, to send that data back to the state. But that data is in no way appropriate for a teacher who needs to plan daily and weekly lessons.
Anything else we should know about Kickboard?
MEDBERY: As a mission-driven company, we're passionate about solving the problem that education isn't focused on the whole child. That's largely in part because the tools are limiting educators' focus on academics exclusively, and that inevitably harms kids and their ability to be successful as adults and in the broader world. We wholeheartedly believe student learning is affected by non-academic learning just as much as academic factors.
Would you like to see more education news like this in your inbox on a daily basis? Subscribe to our Education Dive email newsletter! You may also want to read Education Dive's interview with USC's ed dean about how the school's 2U partnership helped its program grow.