John Danner has been a serial entrepreneur. The founder of NetGravity, the web’s first advertising server company, Danner took it public and sold it for $750 million. He then turned to a career in education. He co-founded Rocketship Education, a network of blended-learning charter schools, and then left a few years ago and founded his current venture, Zeal, which has the mission of crushing the cost of tutoring so that every student can have a personal math coach. I caught up with John recently to hear how the new venture was going and hear his evolving thoughts on the critical future of human capital in education.
Michael Horn: When you founded Rocketship Education, a school network, you thought a lot about the human capital challenges and opportunities in education gleaned from your own time as a teacher and in technology. Can you lay out some of those core challenges and your perspective on them?
John Danner: When we started Rocketship, the goal was to build an organization that could grow to 1,000 schools and keep up a very high growth rate. So human capital was incredibly important. As with all human capital, both culture and skills are important. We decided early to bet on new Teach for America (TFA) corps members. This was a controversial strategy. Most high-performing charters would only take TFA’ers after they had finished their two years of corps work. But we felt like the culture fit was exceptional–talented, energetic, go-getters–and we could focus hard on building the skills they needed. I think largely Rocketship has accomplished that for its first 20 schools. That approach probably won’t work as they grow 20x, but they’ve built excellent training systems and culture as a result.
One of the main reasons to use technology at Rocketship was to free up budget dollars to pay teachers more and have more support capacity. When we started, we had what I would call a Minimum Viable Product in terms of personalized learning–about two hours per day, a combination of computer-based instruction and tutoring. My own goal would be to give students even more agency and have as much as half the day student-directed. That’s an area that Rocketship has not adopted. I think the best reason for that is that personalized-learning tools still aren’t as effective as a caring teacher. I wish more organizations would try to push more responsibility for learning to students and create more demand for better tools, in the process allowing everyone to pay teachers more and hopefully help to solve some of the scale problems with human capital.
Horn: Since leaving Rocketship, you founded Zeal, which offers online tutoring. What’s Zeal doing in this space? What is its fundamental model and what problem is it solving?
Danner: With Zeal, our inspiration was the incredible results we saw in tutoring at Rocketship in our first few years, results validated by a lot of academic research showing how powerful it can be. But ultimately it was expensive and hard to operationalize, and so it was always limited to a quarter or less of students at Rocketship. The a-ha for me with tutoring was realizing that group tutoring could be as impactful as one-on-one tutoring if the groups were very homogenous–in other words if all of the students in the group needed help with the same thing. So we built a system with Zeal to place students together in groups and allow our tutors to work with six students at once, on exactly what they needed help with. We also found that when we got more accurate data on students needs, we could reduce the length of sessions down to a few minutes instead of half an hour or an hour. The combination of group size and session length allowed us to reduce tutoring cost a ton, down to $25 per student per year.
Horn: Online tutoring has long been a space that’s seemed ripe to disrupt traditional tutoring and consolidate what is a very fragmented tutoring market, but no one has really seemed to break through and achieve scale. What’s plagued past efforts and what are you doing that’s different?
Danner: So our last two years, we sold this to schools and grew to 40,000 students. But we realized in the process that the key differentiator with a school revenue model is the quality of your salesforce, And we never felt we could do as well as Pearson or any of the other established players. That caused us to re-evaluate and this year we are giving tutoring away for free! That probably sounds crazy since we have live tutors on the other end working with students, but we have a very healthy home tutoring business, and exposing more parents to tutoring through their students’ work at school could cause them to want to try tutoring at home.
We are starting with 3,000 teachers in September to see how it goes, and hopefully will be able to roll it out more widely once we understand if this works.
Horn: What are the big lessons you’ve learned so far in this venture? What has you excited and what seems more challenging?
Danner: Mostly humility! It’s really hard to figure out how to get a better product into the hands and minds of students. It’s very clear to me that distance learning is going to have a huge impact on education over the long term, but we are very early in that cycle. If Zeal can push the ball forward and get more people comfortable with remote experts, that would be a great outcome.
Horn: Last question. You no doubt continue to watch the evolution of Rocketship, which remains a lightning rod in certain education circles given its instructional model and ambitions. What’s your take on Rocketship since you left and what do you think we’ll see from it in the future?
Danner: I think my co-founder Preston is doing a great job. Rocketship is extremely strong in culture, especially getting parents involved in their children’s education. They are spending a ton of time upping the rigor of their academic approach, and getting great results. So in retrospect, it was very good that I left, because it allowed Preston to flourish, and it allowed me to get even farther out on the cutting edge where I belong!