Up Next for Silicon Valley's Top Ed Funding Group: Tools That Make Math Fun

In the past, we've described the NewSchools Venture Fund as "Silicon Valley's favorite ed reform group." The fund was developed by social entrepreneur Kim Smith and Silicon Valley venture capitalists Brook Byer and John Doerr. All three believed that visionary education entrepreneurs with sufficient access to capital could make big breathroughs, just as business entrepreneurs have done for decades. 

NewSchools Venture Fund aims to transform public education, especially in underserved communities, using practices similar to venture capital firms. It evaluates investment opportunities much as VCs might, looking at the strength of the idea, the team behind it, and its likelihood to become financially sustainable.

This philanthropic intermediary, which raises and regrants funds, has a three-pronged strategy: innovative school models, tools and services, and diverse leaders. It also has a DC Schools Fund that seeks to bridge the achievement gap in the public education system in our nation’s capital.

Since its founding in 1998, NewSchools Venture Fund has invested over $250 million to support 450 new schools and 40 education technology companies whose products reach an estimated 60 million students. We’ve written before about the prominent role NewSchools plays in charter school funding, with the help of major funders such as the Broad Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Walton Foundation, as well as wealthy individual donors (Laurene Powell Jobs is on the board). We also explored how NewSchools branched out from charter funding to other education-related projects.

Tonika Cheek Clayton, managing partner of the NewSchools Tools & Services division, told Inside Philanthropy that traditional school models have reached their growth potential, so new models are needed to produce greater gains. While one fund is investing in education entrepreneurs with innovative ideas for school models, Clayton’s Tools & Service team is paving the road for that transition by introducing technologies that will enable new ways of learning in existing classrooms.

“We want all kids to be able to attend a school where they feel inspired and challenged and engaged, and at the same time be progressing towards the path where they can graduate from college ready to achieve their most ambitious dreams,” Clayton said.

NewSchools Ignite, an initiative out of the Tools & Services division, is investing up to $15 million over the next five years with 10 challenges for EdTech entrepreneurs. The “virtual accelerator” program is creating an opportunity to fast-track development of tools designed to meet needs being voiced by teachers and students across the United States.

The inaugural challenge launched in October of last year and funded 15 companies developing tools to spark students’ interest in science and education. The second of 10 planned funding opportunities got underway in February with the Middle & High School Math Challenge. Up to $1.5 million is on the table for companies creating tools that will support math learning in new and exciting ways. From start-ups to established companies, including for-profits and nonprofits, anyone with a prototype can apply to receive $50,000 to $150,000 grants designed to push math EdTech products to market. Applications are due March 14. In late summer 2016, a third challenge will focus on English Language Learning.

Clayton admitted that math didn’t initially seem like an obvious choice for a funding focus given the high volume of existing products. But after listening to teachers and students, NewSchools realized that the available tools were woefully inadequate: Many were aimed at elementary school kids, relied simply on memorization instead of conceptual understanding, or failed to connect with students from diverse cultural backgrounds. “We need graduates that aren’t just memorizing their times tables, they need to be able to approach problems creatively and also have the conceptual math needed to be critical thinkers,” Clayton told us.

Grant recipients will participate in a six-month program that includes management assistance, product testing and evaluation, and a small-scale research study. Successful applicants will have a viable business plan with the potential to create a sustainable revenue model. NewSchools is open to the possibility of further funding for promising products.

As we see it, the two biggest challenges are getting schools to buy the tools and engaging the students who will use them. We've written before about the pitfalls of ambitious technology-based learning projects, some of which have gone spectacularly awry. The devil lies very much in the details. Still, while winning the approval of teenagers is a difficult endeavor, integrating technology and targeting diverse cultural backgrounds may just do the trick.