Silicon Valley startups like to move at a hard, faster pace. But elsewhere, quality means simmering the best solutions a little longer.
On Wednesday, Boise, ID-based Silverback Learning announced a $2.5 million round from angels investors, including ATA Ventures’ co-founder and Managing Director, Pete Thomas, and Benjamin Wood, education philanthropist and co-founder of Works of Grace Foundation.
Seed--but not exactly startup: Silverback's roots extend back over a decade. In 2002, Jim Lewis, then-superintendent of Blaine County School District, assembled 20 educators and a couple of engineers to brainstorm a solution for a data-driven, student assessment and management system to maximize student achievement. He bluntly told his engineers: “If you can’t build what these teachers and administrators need and will use, you won’t have a job for very long.”
In 2004, the first version what would become Silverback’s flagship product, Mileposts, was deployed in Blaine County District. The platform allowed teachers to set performance goals and benchmarks for individual students, deploy assessments, gather results, and pinpoint specific areas where students may be struggling.
Lewis quickly learned that his teachers wanted something that not only captured and recorded student performance data but did so in a way that teachers could understand and take action on.
“The norm has been to throw data to teachers, but they don’t know what to do with it,” he said. “Most educators do not have the time nor the inclination to become data experts or spreadsheet junkies and certainly don’t like data that is too late to do anything about.”
Over the next four years--which Lewis considers his extended “incubation” period--the team continually refined the system. In September 2009, Lewis retired from Blaine County School District to focus on Mileposts. By this time, it had been deployed in six other Idaho districts and introduced elsewhere in the state. That December, Lewis raised a small seed round (from the same investors who participated in this round) and chipped in some of his own money. He officially started Silverback Learning in spring 2011, the parent company for Mileposts, where he is now CEO.
Silverback has since partnered with others for complementary features. Last year, the company partnered with the non-profit, Ednovo, creator of education search engine, Gooru, so teachers can access free online content to address areas where students are struggling. In April 2013,Silverback partnered with LinkIt!, which offers tools to create and deploy formative and summative assessments, aligned with Common Core and state standards.
The Mileposts platform is currently used in 80 districts in 13 states from California to Connecticut (including 35 in Idaho), serving over 125,000 students. Silverback plans on charging districts $9 to $12 per student per year (depending on district size), with the price discounted for Idaho districts.
Silverback’s story speaks to an ongoing trend where educators take it upon themselves to build tools for needs that current products don’t address. (And it helps that these teacherpreneurs are perfectly situated in schools to test their prototypes.) Recent examples include Exit Ticket, which began as a project at Leadership Public Schools, and eduClipper, from teacher-turned entrepreneur Adam Bellow.