When people think of edtech companies, they typically imagine these big behemoths that churn out faddish products for teachers and students. Their products are popular for a year or two, then they fade into the background as new products come to the forefront. Schools spend millions on these products and don’t get near that value out of them when it comes to learning.
This is not the case of USATestprep: an edtech company built for and by teachers.
The company started with humble beginnings. Two high school teachers in Georgia, Jay Eckard and Joe Winterscheidt, saw a need to support students and teachers with new state testing requirements back in 1998. The new test in Georgia would have teeth to it, and Eckard and Winterscheidt wanted to make teachers’ lives easier and make it easier for students to pass the test in order to graduate. Back then, schools maybe had a laptop or two, and only the most advanced teachers were beginning to experiment with PowerPoint. The idea of “edtech” wasn’t even around at this point.
Nevertheless, Joe wrote the content, and Jay did the web development. They stayed on as full-time teachers for at least eight years while they build the company on the side. Like true, scrappy startup founders, Jay and Joe wore all types of hats for the company. sports on the side. Finally, eight years in, Jay quit and started running the business full-time. Joe soon followed. They started with science content since that was what they both knew. Then they hired friends to write content in other areas. They held writing groups to produce more content. Eventually, they hired Amy, their first employee, who is now the VP of Sales for the company.
From these humble beginnings, USATestprep currently dominates the test prep and educational content market in the southern United States. Here’s how they’re doing it:
Teacher-centric focus supports student learning
It’s a bit counterintuitive (but it works): focus on supporting teachers and students will be better off. For better or for worse, many states still use high-stakes standardized tests to measure student performance. USATestprep responds to this reality by giving teachers and students the tools they need to be successful in mastering curriculum and passing these tests.
Most of their staff consists of former teachers who “get it.” In this sense, the staff regularly asks itself: “what would have been useful to us when we were in the classroom?” To answer that question, USATestprep is focused on giving teachers the tools they need to automate and individualize the test preparation process (because it is a process) and to make it a little fun for students as well. Their bet, and so far it is working in spades, is that doing this will make it very effective for students.
Along with hiring mostly former teachers, USATestprep also takes the time to constantly reassess the market. “We do a big annual survey where we get feedback on our product [from teachers],” said Eckard. That survey provides the company with regular insights that they apply to their products each year as they grow. They place a high priority on being responsive to teachers’ needs in everything they do.
Specialize and customize
As mentioned, USATestprep has cornered the test preparation and curriculum resource market in the South. They’ve done this in part by creating high-quality tools with teachers in mind. But there’s another important ingredient that goes into it: customization. “An incredible amount of effort goes into creating each review for each state,” reports Eckard, USATestprep’s Co-Founder and CEO. “Every state has different flavors, many of them have their own version of the Common Core State Standards,” shared Eckard.
The company specializes in matching national and local standards that respond to an ever-evolving educational landscape. “I really feel for teachers,” Eckard mentioned. As the ground shifts underneath educators, USATestprep is seeing teachers turn to them to help them respond to states that are changing standards very frequently. USATestprep’s response: “we’re on top of it.” The company is constantly updating a whole slew of tests and building new ones fast. Their turnaround time for building a new practice test is about two weeks, speedy in the world of edtech product development.
Eckard has one key piece of advice for edtech entrepreneurs out there: “They [teachers] have to see the value, it cannot be forced down their throats.” While Eckard acknowledges that the average teacher today is much more tech savvy than back in 1998, there is still a need to ensure that teachers buy into edtech products as useful to their ultimate goal of supporting student learning. Building products with and for teachers helps produce this value in the product development process. Eckard also notes that the company has spent considerable time digging deep into a single market and building the necessary relationships along the way to inspire confidence in their product. If they’re anything, teachers are relational people and USATestprep responds to that reality through its approach.
The bottom line: Evolve with your market
Eckard also predicts that trends like game theory in learning and the flipped classroom model (with credit to Khan Academy) will continue to “blow up the traditional model” in education. He sees agile companies like USATestprep as benefiting from this sea of change by using tech to allow for even greater customization of curriculum. Increasingly, the company is positioning itself as a “classroom partner” for teachers, providing a wide array of classroom resources beyond just test preparation. Though test preparation drives the initial look at their products, USATestprep is working to stay ahead of the curve by continuing to offer online support tools as everyday curriculum resources for teachers awash in new products and a changing landscape.
Note: Interview in Kennesaw, GA with USATestprep founder and CEO, Jay Eckard.