Millennials showing the world they can change it

Steve Johnson

Steve works for a company that creates software to help under-resourced schools reach their full educational potential.

Q: What are the goals of your company?

A: I work for an education technology startup called PrepFactory and we make standardized test training software for free. We think it is way too expensive to get a Kaplan course or an official SAT or ACT study guide, so we’re doing it for free so that everyone has an equal opportunity to do well on these standardized tests that are so important for college admissions and scholarships.

Q: Why did you choose to pursue this job?

A: I worked in an education nonprofit called City Year that works in cities with under-resourced schools. It places AmeriCorps members, which is what I was, into these schools to serve as extra resources like assistant teachers in classrooms during the day or running after school activities and other extracurricular enrichments. We also try to act as a role models and mentors for these lower-performing students; I was at this one high school where the graduation rate was only 50 percent.

It was tough, but when I was in the classroom I realized how much of a difference education software can make. My department teacher was always flooded with complaints and problems coming from the school administration, parents and students. It was hard for him to fit in time to develop good lesson plans and also do what he’s actually supposed to do, which is teaching. There are so many tangent problems he had to deal with so it was tough for him to invest in actually educating. We used this software in the classroom called ALEXS and it’s similar to the software that my current company is creating. It made the biggest difference. It was effortless for him to make assignments, grade people and make sure that the students were actually learning. They would do assignments that it would instantly grade for them and he would have a weekly report of their progress. It freed up so much time for him to focus on things with the administration and parents that only he could do.

Q: What exactly does the software do?

A: There are lessons you take to learn all of the topics, then you take practice tests to prepare for the exam. There are also games to work on math and vocab that you play with others online. There are a bunch of strategy tips it teaches you.

Q: What do you think is the goal for this kind of software? What is the vision in terms of schooling?

A: I see it eventually taking the place of the teacher just lecturing to the class. I see the software carrying the majority of the burden of actually educating while the teachers become facilitators of learning with the software. The teachers can focus more on the human aspects of teaching that only they can do, like being a mentor, helping the student through uncertainties, or being an extra parent to some of them. I see the software being where the real learning takes place. Once technology costs get low enough, which they eventually will, each student will just have a tablet instead of a binder full of paper. This tablet will have all of the education software and they will just complete all of their assignments on that.

Q: What have you realized by going through the education system as a student versus seeing it through this new perspective?

A: I didn’t realize how much effort is required to teach someone something until I was on the teachers’ side. On the students’ side it feels like you’re moving pretty fast, but for the teachers they repeat the same few lessons, phrases and techniques over and over again, especially when they’re in middle and high school and they specialize in a specific subject. I think it makes so much sense to develop software that can do that because the software can repeat a mnemonic device hundreds of thousands of times effortlessly. The teacher could have done it but it would have taken so much more effort. The teachers shouldn’t have to repeat themselves; they should put their effort into doing more creative things.

Q: How do you think the pressure around standardized testing has changed the way the education system works?

A: I understand that standardized tests aren’t perfect. When you do things like teach to the test and teach the testing skills, it defeats the purpose of standardized tests. But I still believe that standardized tests are the best thing we have to date to measure academic standing objectively. It’s unrealistic to go into every classroom in every high school in the nation and judge these students’ math and reading skills. Some people can have an advantage over others because of the training they receive, but overall I do think it acts as a good benchmark for where students in the nation are doing the best and where they are struggling. The tests are always changing and I think the makers of these tests do a pretty good job of keeping it relevant to whatever they are testing for.

Q: It sounds like this software provides more opportunities and resources to succeed in this type of education system. What do you think young people can do to improve the current education system?

A: The biggest thing we can do, especially as students, is to voice our concerns. Let your voice be heard. There are plenty of problems with the education system, but for every problem there is a solution. People aren’t going to feel pressured to create the solutions unless they know there is a problem. Letting your voice be heard is how you let them know there is a problem.

Q: What is your role in implementing this software?

A: My title is operations associate, so I build a lot of content for the software itself. I also do design work and I’ll be doing a lot of outreach this fall. It’s a very small team so I’m kind of like a nebulous person.

Q: How did you decide to join AmeriCorps after graduation from college?

A: I studied mechanical engineering at University of Maryland and as graduation approached I wasn’t really interested in any of the job openings presented to me though career fairs for my major. I was passionate about the volunteer organizations I was involved with on campus, so I decided to try to get a job in a non-profit after graduation. I picked education as the specialty I was most passionate about because it is fundamental to so many other things that are foundational. If someone gets a good education, then they can get a good job and be economically self-sufficient. That solves many problems that could come later down the road.

Q: What advice would you give to other passionate people who may not know where to start in pursuing their interests?

A: Getting started is the hardest part. Once you get the ball rolling it’s easier to maintain. Getting started can be done in so many ways depending on what you’re interested in. Volunteer opportunities and any exposure to non-profit work on the front lines of issues you care about are really great ways to get started. You can get involved in bigger projects from there, you can network, you can hear about job openings and other related organizations. Meet ups are also good; I used to go to an educator entrepreneur meetup. Being exposed to like-minded people will connect you to more resources that will get you closer to where you want to go. Find people who share your interests and they will help you get to the next step. Once you start it can eventually lead you to where you want to go.