How a 5-Decade Old Education Company Reinvented Itself


How a 5-Decade Old Education Company Reinvented Itself

By Tina Nazerian     Oct 17, 2018

How a 5-Decade Old Education Company Reinvented Itself

Curriculum Associates has been around for about five decades, and has reinvented itself throughout the years. Like many other education companies that started with print instructional K-12 materials, Curriculum Associates has had to make the transition to digital.

Today, the North Billerica, Mass.-based company boasts six million active users on i-Ready, its flagship digital instructional and assessment offering. Even more: Curriculum Associates says it is making over $250 million.

Keys to making that shift, says Curriculum Associates’ CEO Rob Waldron, include listening closely to educators to continually refine its offerings, and sticking to a long-term vision that focuses more on what works for his users—and not simply hitting quarterly growth targets.

EdSurge recently spoke with Rob Waldron, the CEO of the North Billerica, Mass.-based company, to learn more about that reinvention and the lessons he’s learned in the process. Here’s an excerpt of the interview, which has been edited and condensed for grammar and clarity.

EdSurge: Curriculum Associates was founded in 1969 and you joined in 2008. How did CA transition from a traditional company focused on providing workbooks to an edtech company?

Waldron: When I came in 2008, the world was in a very difficult place. Companies like our’s were struggling mightily, some going out of business, others shedding lots of people. [In schools], if you were faced with a choice to fire a teacher or get rid of any curriculum or a new curriculum, you would get rid of the curriculum.

The first thing we did was to create materials aligned to the Common Core standards which were coming out. We thought about the fact that there were more English learners and people with diverse cultural backgrounds in this new world. Also, the new academic standards were much, much harder.

I had previously run an after-school tutoring company that became second to Sylvan in the tutoring space, and which used a lot of adaptive technology. And I wanted to bring some of those ideas to CA. So we went about building a product that at the time was inexpensive. But like all disruptive technologies, it was still emerging. And then we just kept listening to what educators needed and continued to make it better. It wasn’t clear until maybe 2012 or so that we were onto something.

Curriculum Associates CEO Rob Waldron. Photo Credit: Keith Bedford

Would you describe this change as a pivot or just the next evolution of what was going on?

Before we were in the business of trying to solve the problem of: “What am I going to do when I have students at three or four or five different grade levels in a classroom, and I need to support all those students?” And so, we use technology to address that problem in better ways. So, everyone else would say it was a pivot, but we felt we were trying to solve the same problem—but using technology to solve it better.

What were some of the things you learned as Curriculum Associates was undergoing this change?

In the old world, a large publishing company would make something, say a textbook, and every kid would write their name in pencil inside of the book. When you sold that book, you would run to the sales meeting and have a martini. But [neither schools or publishers] could see whether the textbook was actually used, or if it just sat on the shelf.

In the new [digital] world, schools get to see how materials are used. Now, all the administrators and everyone gets to see whether kids are logged in and engaged, whether parents look at the stuff, whether the teachers are using it and so forth. Everybody gets to see everything so there’s nowhere to hide.

That was one big change. And I think we recognized that change and implemented high levels of support and service, because [using new products] can be very complicated in schools. Most people think about us as an edtech company and a product company. But we’re also very much a service company—and that includes having a professional development staff that helps teachers in the classroom and account managers who are looking at usage and providing support.

The second thing is the speed of product development. We're continually using the data about how the kids are doing.

For instance, let’s say I deployed a lesson on proportional relationships to 10,000 kids but only a thousand achieve mastery. Perhaps they weren’t engaged. I would know that the lesson isn’t any good. And then I can ask: Well, why did that lesson have so many [students] quit? I can go back and look at the data, the efficacy of the lesson—these little micro-moments—to make the lesson better and better. In the old days, you would only do [product updates] once in a decade.

Can you describe the unique company structure that Curriculum Associates operates?

I took over from a man who turned 92 a couple of weeks ago. His name is Frank Ferguson. He was the president of Curriculum Associates from the 1970s through 2008. I was the company’s second president—now CEO—from 2008 till today. So we’ve only had two leaders since the ‘70s.

Frank didn’t want to make money from CA, and decided to give all of his shares away. He gave those shares away to [the foundation that supports] Iowa State University and the Boston Foundation. We did that together. I suggested the Boston Foundation, to give back to the city of Boston.

But Iowa State can’t [fund] a new building or provide scholarships simply with shares, right? They need to sell them. So, I led a process to sell those shares to Berkshire Partners and a minority investor who’s a philanthropist who believes in the importance of our work. The sale of those shares led to a $200 million dollar gift.

That donation was the eighth-largest gift given in the United States last year. But, nothing changed about Curriculum Associates. I stayed in charge. The teams stayed together.

Do you think there’s any other company in education or otherwise that has a structure similar to your old one?

If I ran a public company, my job would be to maximize short-term shareholder return. I think it was a huge competitive advantage for CA to know that the company had a very long-term view—that we were reinvesting all the time and that we didn’t have short-term pressures.

Over these 10 years, my job was to make classes better places for teachers and children. I knew I had to do that in a way that created a [profit] margin that would let us be successful and allow us to reinvest. But long-term thinking was the key.

The company continues to grow. It will have well over $250 million this year, probably $260 [million]. When I started, it was $26 million. So we’ve gone up by a factor of 10 in my 10 years.

Taking a long-term view led to this growth because we weren’t worried about [hitting goals] this quarter, or this year. I think that having a long-term view is so important in the K-12 sector to making the highest quality products. If you do this thing where you improve the product a little bit, try to sell the heck out of it, and then try to flip the company—well, I’ve seen again and again how that approach has led to bad results for both children and investors.

We’re seeing private equity firms buy a lot of education companies. What does that mean for the quality of the products, the stability of companies and the value created for educators?

I don’t worry about private-equity investors or investors. Everybody has investors. I think the thing that we do need to worry about is the debt load on companies.

I have a competitor who’s got a similarly sized company, which has a billion dollars of debt. In other words, they have a billion-dollar loan. When they sell their product, that $70 million is leaving the company, never to be deployed again. By contrast, we can use that money to improve our products.

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