Imagine your second-grade child or grandchild is struggling to read. He turns to educational software at school. What do you picture? A fuzzy screen and a one-dimensional character? The child clicking along, bored, unmotivated, and still confused?
Enter Istation, a piece of educational software present in every single public school in Texas and making its way into classrooms around the country. It provides a game-like format to entice kids, which, combined with regular computer assessments for teachers, produces measurable results. Transforming the way kids read and interact with computer technology in the classroom, Istation is, at its core, an example of what happens when free-market ideas grow wings.
Already an entrepreneur and investor, it wasn’t strange for Dick Collins, the company's co-founder, to focus his business savvy on education. The nephew of a congressman and grandson of a state senator, he’s been interested in education for decades. “I like vouchers but they’re a radioactive political issue," he says, recalling the company's origins in the late '90s. "One thing everyone is in favor of is effective use of technology in education.”
The program is sold at a rate of $55 per child or $7,000 for the whole school, and it is in use in 6,600 schools in 38 states and six countries. The English reading curriculum spans Pre-K through 12th grade; Spanish is offered from kindergarten through 3rd grade; a math curriculum is in the works. The program is sold to individuals or unlimited use for the whole school at a rate of $55 per child or $7,000 for the whole school.
Collins says the game-like nature of the curriculum is valuable for struggling students in too-large classrooms: “We only create top quality animation so it looks like what they see on TV, at the movies, or on their home computer," he says. "It’s fun, engaging, and exciting.” Indeed, Dan Kuenster, the man in charge of animator at Istation, is a former Disney employee who worked on kids movie classics like All Dogs Go to Heaven and American Tale. But he wasn’t exactly the high school valedictorian. “I was bored in school,” Kuenster recalls. “It’s not that I was lazy. Or wasn’t bright. I was just bored. I didn’t have the tools we have today. I was afraid to raise my hand and say I didn’t get it.”
Taking drawing classes at a young age helped keep Kuenster from getting discouraged—and getting picked up by Disney later helped fuel a successful career. Now, Kuenster hopes his artistic prowess and knack for storytelling—what he calls a “departure from everyday life” or the “world of the fantastic”—will ignite students’ potential, especially those from lower income families. “My goal is to create that unique experience for a struggling student, to reengage them and turn them on to reading," he says. "It’s a cause and effect situation. If a student can do something and they are good at it they will succeed.”
Kuenster and team work with curriculum experts to understand the skills that are being taught, how they are taught, and what the student should achieve at lesson’s end (based on state and common core standards). Then the lessons and assessments are reviewed by an advisory board of academic scholars. When the product is finally rolled out and in use, an assessment within the program determines the student’s current skill level when he finally sits down to “play." From then on, the program is able to determine if a child has mastered a skill and only bumps him up to the next level when he has done so, which helps ensure taht no one falls through the cracks.
Jane Moore, the assistant principal at Jerry Junkins Elementary in Dallas, can attest to Istation’s ability to achieve results. The school has used Istation in English for the last four years, and in Spanish for the last two. Each classroom is equipped with a handful of computers, and children go to a computer lab monthly for an assessment. She says the program's versatility is key: “Years ago, reading programs were static: Same story, same comprehension questions," she says. "With Istation it’s customized with every 4th click of the mouse. It either moves on or provides them with additional instruction.”
Collins believes education is weighed down by its uncompetitive and bureaucratic nature, and that injecting market competition would drive improvements and, ultimately, student success. “We try to make the student fit the system, but really the system should fit the student,” he says. “Sometimes you can have one person in management who may prevent you from making change. Some don’t like technology—they shy away from it. We view ourselves as angels of change. We try and push the system forward in an innovative and creative way.”