CommonLit is an award-winning education technology nonprofit dedicated to closing persistent opportunity gaps in literacy education. The nonprofit is best-known for operating a free online reading program utilized by tens of thousands of low-income schools. The real magic of the program is that it combines technology, high-interest materials, and research in a way that has not been done before. As a result, CommonLit has grown to serve over 20 million registered teachers and students in 195 countries and territories, and averages ten million unique site visitors per month on CommonLit.org. Among the 88,000 schools they serve in the United States, 69 percent are low-income. With Cisco’s support, CommonLit has created cutting-edge tools and expanded its services to reach underserved students in Latin America with localized materials in Spanish.
Around the world, there are barriers to accessing a quality education. The UN has estimated that school closures during the pandemic affected nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries and all continents. “At this important moment, Cisco is proud to invest in CommonLit, which is working to ensure additional features and needed curriculum exists to support teachers and students everywhere,” said Kyle Thornton, manager of the education investment portfolio for Cisco and the Cisco Foundation.
Michelle Brown, a former classroom teacher, is the founder and CEO of CommonLit. Under her leadership, CommonLit has become a go-to resource for educators around the globe. Michelle sat down with us to share more about what her organization is doing to help create a more inclusive future through literacy education.
What lesson stands out most from your experience as a teacher and how did it prepare you for starting CommonLit?
Michelle: My first job after graduating from college was teaching in a high-poverty school in rural Mississippi. I was a seventh grade reading teacher, and I walked into a classroom with nothing – no books, no computers – and I spent the next two years scrambling to figure out what to teach the next day. The thing that stands out from that experience is the sheer number of hours that teachers spend planning instruction and how intentional you must be about those plans for them to be successful.
CommonLit is the tool that I wish I had when I was a teacher: a free reading program that is highly effective and engaging for kids. That was the inspiration. I was motivated to build it out of a sense of urgency to solve the problem for others: I knew that it wouldn’t get built if I didn’t build it. The transition from there wasn’t easy; going from classroom teacher to being a CEO of a tech company required a lot of learning on the job. In some ways, my teaching background was the perfect training because I understand the challenges teachers face. So, at the end of the day, I’m an effective CEO because I have an extreme amount of empathy for teachers, and I can spot things quickly that will not work in the classroom. Second, teachers are great learners, and they’re great team leaders. I would encourage more educators to become entrepreneurs.
What are the factors that contribute to educational inequity?
Michelle: There are so many reasons why.
As a country, I think we’re doing an inferior job delivering on the promise of public education. Today, only about 20 percent of low-income students can read on grade level, and most kids today report that they don’t do worthwhile things in school. It’s a crisis. But it’s a crisis that we’ve tolerated for so long that it’s become a fact.
What I try to focus on is the opportunity that CommonLit has to make an impact, and that’s in the classroom: 45 minutes with your reading teacher Monday through Friday, 180 days per year. That’s a tremendous opportunity when you think about it. During that time, I know that you can change the course of a child’s life by getting them hooked on reading, curious about learning, and excited about life in general. It takes a lot of intentional planning to provide this kind of learning experience, and it’s something we must do.
What feedback have you gotten from teachers about CommonLit?
Michelle: This is the best part of my job. We get unsolicited positive feedback from teachers every single day, and it brings our whole staff lots of joy and energy. There is one story that sticks out in my mind:
A few years ago, a veteran teacher from rural Mississippi, near where I taught, sent us a letter. In it, she included a fifty-dollar check and a note about the impact our free tool had on her teaching and her students. She wrote in gratitude about how she wanted to pay it forward by donating to CommonLit to make an impact on students nationally.
Now, I’ve endorsed checks that are way more than fifty dollars including a very large check from Cisco, for which we are so grateful. But this check from this teacher in Mississippi was the most meaningful check I have ever deposited into our bank account. I know how much that fifty dollars means for a teacher in rural Mississippi, and I think it speaks volumes.
What success stories do you have when it comes to students benefiting from your services?
Michelle: We survey students all the time, and one of the things that stands out is the level of interest that students have in the stories on CommonLit.org. They are high-interest, well-written, and deeply engrossing.
Here is another story that stands out. A few years back, there was a teacher in New York City who had recently welcomed a student who had emigrated here as a 12th grader and didn’t speak English. The student spoke Spanish and needed to pass the New York State Regents exam to graduate and get a diploma. The issue was that he had to pass it in English. So, his teacher went above and beyond to help this student prepare for these exams. She used CommonLit’s Spanish resources as her primary tool. In the end, the student passed the exam. And the teacher stopped by our office in DC to share this story with our team in person. It was very moving.
Can you tell us more about the Annotation Tool you built with Cisco’s grant funding and how it enabled you to scale or improve your product?
Michelle: Cisco supported the development of a cutting-edge feature called the CommonLit Annotation Tool. It’s a feature that means that any student can make digital notes in the margins of whatever book or pamphlet they are reading on our website. They can react to the text, highlight copy, and view their saved notes in real-time. Teachers can also view the notes that students make on a real-time dashboard. It’s transformative because a teacher can click any student’s name in the class and see what they are writing at any given moment. Teachers can also respond; I could write to my student and say, “I think you need to go back and reread this part.” This tool was a game-changer during the pandemic.
Over 600,000 students have created close to six million annotations and over five million highlights within the first eight months of the Annotation Tool’s launch. We also see that teachers use this tool for instructional purposes. For example, they might say, “Highlight all of the details in the paragraph to show this character is having a change of heart.” So, students are reading with a new lens and they can notice details that help them understand how language works and how stories are built. That has been transformative in terms of the impact that CommonLit has made.
The other cool thing about being a grantee of Cisco is the non-monetary support. Right now, several Cisco data scientists have volunteered to look at our Annotation data to identify trends. So, Cisco funded the tool, and now they’re helping us understand utilization and find new opportunities to make it even more effective. It’s a level of engagement and interest in our day-to-day work that we don’t typically see with funders.
What do you think is the most important step our society can take to make education technology more inclusive for all?
Michelle: Let’s be clear: There are 32 million low-income children in the US, and most of them do not have access to adequate literacy instruction to prepare them for our digital economy. Black, Latino, and low-income students who attend the most under-resourced schools are disproportionately affected.
I think that, too often, education technology is designed in a vacuum by engineers and designers, rarely incorporating the people who have the most to gain or lose – teachers and students. If I had one wish for education technology, it would be that EdTech would be designed to optimize for the real stakeholders. We need to take a student-centered approach, because every minute matters and our students deserve our very best.
Our most recent project supported by Cisco is a great example of this. So much learning now takes place online, and yet only a fraction of educational tools and websites are accessible for individuals with disabilities. We’ve taken it on ourselves to ensure that all learners can seamlessly access CommonLit educational materials by committing to optimize our platform for students, teachers, and parents with disabilities. The best part is that these accessibility updates also improve the site’s functionality for all users, by making the UX/UI more user-friendly and the site quicker to load.
If you are interested in learning more about Cisco’s partnership with CommonLit, please visit our CommonLit partner profile page.