By Tony Wan Nov 7, 2017
Panorama Education’s first product was a survey tool that let students speak up about their learning environment. Kids could let teachers and administrators know how they really felt about things like safety and school climate.
It turns out these insights are only a sliver of the data the company wants to surface and share with educators and parents. “The key things we now want to bring together are academics, social-emotional learning (SEL) and family engagement, all together in one platform,” says Aaron Feuer, Panorama’s co-founder and CEO, in an interview.
Doing that requires capturing more data, expanding his team—and raising additional capital. The Boston-based company’s new big-data play is backed by big funding: $16 million in a Series B round led by Emerson Collective. Other participants include Spark Capital, Owl Ventures, SoftTechVC, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The company has now raised $32 million in venture funding.
Founded in 2012, Panorama pitched its survey tools as a way for parents and educators to better understand the social-emotional needs of their children. The company provides template questions to help schools gauge students’ competencies in areas such as classroom effort, growth mindset, perspective-taking and emotion regulation. It also offers resources created by organizations such as Character Lab and Teaching Tolerance to help teachers better understand and tailor their SEL strategies.
Feuer saw, at the time, that too much of student success hinged on test scores and grades. So these surveys shed light on the emotional and psychological aspects of the learning experience that was—and still is—difficult to quantify.
Yet the company doesn’t just want to be a survey tool. And like so many of his fellow technology entrepreneurs, Feuer believes that connecting the dots between data silos can surface deeper insights.
In a “new chapter” for Panorama, he says, the company is “making a leap from helping you understand one sliver of a child on the social-emotional side, to understanding the whole, complete picture.”
What that really means: grades and other traditional measures of student success still matter. The company wants to pair social-emotional data from its surveys with academic, attendance and behavior data. By doing so, educators can better get a fuller picture of what students need and how to best support them. For instance, what’s the best way to help a child who has been absent for 20 percent of the school year, has a C in math, and self-reports low confidence?
To be able to answer this question, the company needs to sync up with other systems so that information can be transferred seamlessly. “We don’t want districts to send us data files any more,” quips Feuer.
This year, his team has been working on a new tool, dubbed “Panorama Student Success,” that captures and reports data from other systems used in schools. That’s no easy feat. It takes the company 10 full-time staff, focused exclusively on this effort, to connect data from education software that don’t speak to one another.
In many ways Panorama is diving headfirst into tackling the K-12 data interoperability problem, where software systems can’t easily share data with one another. So far the company’s Student Success platform works with 20 educational data tools; over time it hopes to grow that number to 300. If a district wants to connect its platform with a product that Panorama does not currently support, Feuer claims his engineers can sync it up in about eight weeks.
Collecting more data can mean playing with fire, however. Across the country, online software used by schools have been hacked and hit with data breaches; more than 230 public incidents have been tallied since January 2016 by Doug Levin, an education consultant.
That’s a risk that Feuer says he’s aware of. “Part of our need for the funding is actually to increase our security investment,” he shares. “We’re actually setting up a team that’s focused on platform security exclusively, as opposed to [it being a part of] the features team.”
More than 400 school districts currently use Panorama. That includes 20 of the 100 largest ones such as New York City Department of Education, Los Angeles Unified School District, Dallas Independent School District and Long Beach Unified School District. Altogether the company claims to serve more than 5 million students in 7,500 schools across 45 states.
One of the biggest pushbacks the company has heard from educators are questions about whether there’s enough time and space in a given school day for SEL instruction. Those concerns are shared in a recent survey (PDF) of principals by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, which cited a lack of time, training and funding as the biggest barriers.
Feuer’s stance: “Social-emotional growth is part of everything you do. It’s not separate. There’s no SEL class; you weave SEL into math [or other] classes.” Recently the company has been growing its client success team to provide on-site training with principals and teachers.
Panorama’s team currently numbers 80 people. Expect that headcount to balloon by another 150 in 2018 as the company looks to fill additional product, engineering and research roles.
Panorama is hardly the only player aspiring to be the go-to platform that leverages data to drive student achievement. From private equity-backed juggernauts like PowerSchool, to smaller players like Schoolzilla, the industry is replete with data-hungry companies looking to turn bytes into actionable insights.