Entrepreneurship AND Reinventing Education
AND is the Future podcast
Season 2, Episode 1
Improving literacy, closing the education gap, and reinventing the way children learn
When Michelle Brown started her first teaching job at a low income school in Mississippi, she was confronted by the deep inequities in the system and decided to do something about it. Michelle went on to found CommonLit, a non-profit technology company with a mission to close the opportunity gap in education through literacy. Ilham sits down with Michelle to discuss her journey from teacher to tech entrepreneur, and the impact of CommonLit, which is doing so much to improve literacy for students, especially those in low income schools.
1:32 - Upbringing and inspiration to pursue education
3: 32 - First teaching job
5:53 - From teacher to tech entrepreneur
10:10 - What is CommonLit?
14:03 - Impact of CommonLit
20:00 - Growth of the program
23:33 - Diversity, equity and inclusion
25:48 - What’s next?
27:08 - Advice for young entrepreneurs
28:13 - Hobbies
Meet Michelle Brown
Michelle Brown is the founder and CEO of CommonLit, an innovative and free online educational program that reinvents the way students learn to read. Under Michelle’s leadership, CommonLit has grown to over 20 million users and it's having a profound impact on improving literacy across the United States, particularly in low income schools. She is an experienced classroom teacher who has taught in urban and rural environments, and at the university level as a professor of Spanish.
Ilham Kadri: Today, I'm so happy to be speaking with Michelle Brown, one of the most fascinating entrepreneurs. She's the founder and CEO of CommonLit, an innovative and free online educational program that reinvents the way students learn to read. CommonLit has grown to over 20 million users in just a few years and it's having a profound impact on improving literacy across the United States of America, particularly in low income schools. And we are very proud to partner with them.
She's truly achieving the power of AND (A-N-D), creating a successful organization AND doing good in the world. Michelle, thank you so much for joining me.
Michelle Brown: It's such an honor. Thank you.
Upbringing and inspiration to pursue education
Ilham Kadri: So Michelle, when I read your bio on track record, you've taken the education world by storm. I would like to call it the Tesla of automotive and even more because it touches kids. It touches education. And truly reinvented the way children learn. And we definitely want to hear more about this. But before we get there, I would love to hear about your upbringing in South, Texas. And was there a particular moment in your early life that really sparked your passion for teaching?
Michelle Brown: So I would say that all of the women in my life were educators. So I was born in a family of educators. My mother was a teacher. She was a third grade teacher, a fourth grade teacher, a seventh grade teacher. And she was a very unique teacher because when we arrived in Texas it was a small town, Texas. I was about seven years old. You know, she has a Cuban background and so she speaks fluent Spanish. And when she was taking me to school on the first day, they heard her speaking Spanish to me and they said, oh, we need you. We have so many, you know, new immigrants coming in and who don't speak English, and please, please, will you get an emergency certification? So, you know, I grew up with her as a teacher serving the community. And then my best friend's mom was also a teacher across the hall. So I grew up just, you know, admiring women who taught and who gave back to the community. You know, after school, I would help with bulletin boards and help grade papers, and so I really came to appreciate the highs and lows and ups and downs of teachers and how they are, and frankly are not appreciated.
First teaching job
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. And I remember you shared, Michelle, the picture of your very first classroom. I believe, right, at a low income school in Mississippi. And I saw it in one of your YouTube videos. It was indeed very sobering, right. Can you tell us more about that experience
Michelle Brown: Yeah, you know, that could be a whole podcast of just my time there, but a few things really stand out to me. One is that it really opened my eyes to the deep inequities that exist in schools, in the US. In a way that I think is very hidden from the average person. I was a reading teacher and, you know, Just out of college I joined a program called Teach for America at the time. It was 2009. And the school where I taught was a very high needs school in rural Mississippi. I walked into a classroom on day one with no materials, no books. Basic materials that you would expect to see in schools in a classroom just didn't exist. You know, I went to the library that was there at the school and the books were dusty tomes with arcane language that you know, this is not the kind of children's literature that, you know, will inspire students. And I remember, you know, my first year there, I was a new teacher, you know, you learn so much on the job about having to lead a classroom of adolescents and just to manage everything, behavior and papers and, you know, and then you have back to back class periods. I remember that with my first paycheck, I bought books and I also bought a printer, just so that I could, you know, have the materials that I needed just to do my basic job. It's just, it really opened my eyes to the deep inequities and also, just the amount of work that we're asking teachers to do every day. I think that's one special thing that I bring to the table is that I have a deep empathy and understanding of what it means to be a teacher today.
From teacher to tech entrepreneur
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. And, and you mentioned education, empathy giving, you know, access to reading, which was frankly for me, born and raised in Africa, the only way to access to prosperity and a better life was actually to read. So what you are saying, you know, resonates a lot. So now can you tell us more about that journey from that classroom in Mississippi, Michelle, to becoming a tech entrepreneur and founding CommonLit, right?
Michelle Brown: Yeah,
Ilham Kadri: what was the journey like?
Michelle Brown: A wild journey. Right? If I had to do it twice, I don't think I could. I don't know many teachers who are classroom teachers who then become tech entrepreneurs. You know, I had no experience in software development in engineering, I am not a quantitative person. I don't have a background. I was a literature major in college. I did classical ballet and then I was a teacher. And so it was. You know, I don't have the profile of, you know, like a typical tech entrepreneur. I think that there are two things that really made me successful. And you know, today I lead a team of 90 people. The first is that I think I have an innate curiosity for everything. So I just deeply wanna understand the way things work. And I've always sort of been the kind of person that I'm just not afraid to seem dumb or something like that or to raise my hand or ask a question or to understand something technical, or even to admit that I don't understand something technical. And I think that whatever that is, that curiosity. It's a thing that I want probably the most for my own kids. I have two small toddlers and what I want the most for classrooms is just to inspire that kind of curiosity. And so that I think, is the number one, you know, kind of thing. And then second is team building. So, you know, you know this from leading an organization, just how important it is to think about people and to understand and to inspire. And so that, you know, I think was something also special that I had in the earliest days of CommonLit, you know, when you're starting a charity, you rely on volunteers. And so it's really hard when you have to say, hey, you know, are you interested in working for free for me? I have this website, nobody uses it yet. Do you wanna spend your time? And you have to be really inspiring in order to do that. So I think for those reasons, my journey to being a tech entrepreneur, you know, I succeeded at it. But I basically went from the classroom to graduate school, and then I founded CommonLit, while I was a graduate student.
Ilham Kadri: Wow. So curiosity and inspiration and, and again resonates a lot. My grandma, you may not know is Michelle, gave me the name, Ilham. It's an Arabic name, which means inspiration. And she hoped for me that I will always be inspired in my life, you know? Uh that's that's the path for prosperity again. And you know, that for me personally, my grandmother used to tell me, I mean, there is a saying in Morocco that girls, you know, have two exits in their lives, one from the father's home to their husband's home. So they had to do a good marriage. And the second one was to the grave. And my grandma who was illiterate who raised me said, look, I think the grave is not sexy for you girls. So find your third door and ours was education. So it's, I think your, your fight, your wisdom is universal. It's really universal. And the younger version of me and Morocco would have loved to have a Michelle around me, but you are here, so yeah, keep it up!
Michelle Brown: I love that.
What is CommonLit?
Ilham Kadri: So we are obviously big fans of CommonLit at Solvay, but for our listeners who may not know CommonLit can you explain what it is and why it's so innovative.
Michelle Brown: Sure, so CommonLit is a non-profit technology company and its mission is to close the opportunity gap in education through literacy. And so when I say literacy, a lot of people just think, oh, well that means reading words on a page, or being able to get code or know your letters. That's not what it means in 2022. It means reading, writing, speaking, listening, communication, collaboration, problem solving, logical reasoning. Basically this is the foundation of every career. If you're going into technology, if you're going into science, if, you know, and even, I think as we are becoming more of a remote workforce, I think there's even more emphasis now on those types of skills to be able to communicate and collaborate remotely and also to write. We're writing more memos to each other now because we're not in the office. So these skills are essential and so CommonLit helps students develop these skills through an interactive technology program that's very immersive for students. It's very supportive for students and it includes inspiring literature and also technology features. So a student who uses CommonLit will probably use it at home, or most likely they'll probably use it in the classroom, in like their writing class or in their reading class. The teachers will assign them. And, you know, now that schools are adopting more technology and they have those laptops mostly, you know, in the classroom, it really is quite a fit for our time.
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. And, and one thing that struck me, Michelle was the quality of the materials in the program, which are all donated from wonderful sources. I think it's great, for instance, that students can learn to read with articles from science news for students, you talked about science. It's not only reading, it’s also how you can develop rational thinking. Can you tell us more about the content and how you've collected it?
Michelle Brown: Yeah, so that is something that is so unique to what we're doing is the quality of the content. So some other platforms maybe have, you know, things that people write or, and everything on our site has been hand picked by an educator on our staff. And usually we reach out to the publisher and we get a lot of donations for content from wonderful sources, just because they love the mission. And so we have, you know, news articles, poems, historical documents, speeches, literature, short stories, you name it. We have over 3000 titles today, both in English and Spanish and, you know, sort of the guiding force for us, when we select this content is that it has to be a 10 outta 10. Kids don't have time today to read something that is not worth their time. So I just wanna make sure that everything that we're putting in front of the students is engaging and relevant and current for them.
Impact of CommonLit
Ilham Kadri: And what's the feedback then Michelle, from students, but also teachers about their experience with common lit. Is there maybe a particular story that stands out to you
Michelle Brown: Yeah. You know, the story that is wild, that I just keep coming back to is, so our headquarters are based in Washington, DC. A couple years ago, we had a teacher who just came to our office and she had traveled from New York and she said, you know, and that didn't happen a lot. You know, I think it was the first time that a teacher had kind of knocked on her door. And so she came in and she said, I would love to talk to the CEO and tell her my story. And we thought, oh my gosh, she came all the way here from New York. And she told a story basically about a student who had recently immigrated to the US, to New York and was in her class and had to pass the 12th grade Regents exam in New York in English in order to get his diploma and to graduate with the high school diploma. And it was critical, he didn't speak a word of English and he had just one year to prepare for this test at the end of the year. So the teacher told a story about how she used the Spanish and English resources on our site side by side to really prepare the student for the test. That is a story about CommonLit, but it's also a story about the dedication of teachers and the lengths that they will go to in order to really make this come alive. So that student passed in one year. And it was just unbelievable.
Ilham Kadri: Yeah, and I love that this story and, and you're right, Michelle, I think in my, in my own life, and again, I grew up in very humble family in Morocco and, and went to popular schools rights and you know, non-private schools and the teachers as well had huge, you know, impact on me. You know, I mean the quality, those who are going the extra mile and, and finding the material support. And I think it's important. So what now you talked about literacy, right? And you said it's more than reading and writing is in today's world. It has to be holistic. What is the data you are seeing, Michelle on improved literacy levels across the board, particularly low income communities.
Michelle Brown: Yeah. So, you know, there are a few statistics I can share. Some of them are very, very sobering. So one is that before the pandemic started this is in the US 80% of students who attend a low income school, that's a school that gets, you know, title one benefits from the federal government, 80% of students in a low income school are unable to read proficiently at their grade level, 80%.
Ilham Kadri: 80%
Michelle Brown: So this was just, this was before the pandemic started. And also a trend that was happening before the pandemic started is that achievement gaps were widening, which meant that the students who were already successful were getting more successful. And the students who were already behind were following farther and farther behind, and the gap between them has been growing from before the pandemic since 2009. So here we are in 2022, after two years of remote learning and disruptions that affected students profoundly who were already the most vulnerable students and the data that has come out recently, there was one report that just came out from a national test they've been administering since the seventies called the NAEP the national assessment of educational progress and what those scores showed in both reading and math is that we lost two decades of progress overall in the pandemic. So, and that the achievement gaps from before are widening even more. So we are at this moment where literacy is so urgent and it was something that we had tolerated low levels of literacy, especially for students living in poverty. We've been tolerating that for decades. And I feel that it has not gotten the attention that it deserves even before. So now I feel very much like we've reached this crisis moment where we need a dramatic shift in the way that we're thinking about instruction, that we're thinking about resources. We just, it gets me so fired up. But you know, the exciting news that we have to share, this is so early data, but what we saw is that students who used the program during the pandemic at a certain level, which means they used it for about 14 weeks, which is, I don't know, maybe the third of the school year, something like that, showed two times the improvement that we would see from a student in a typical year. So we accelerated learning during the pandemic, while most students fell behind. So that was such a promising and exciting thing for us and for our staff to say, oh, we need to bring this program to scale. We need to tell more people about this.
Growth of the program
Ilham Kadri: Yeah, and we have an impact, right. So I think, I lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, right before moving here to Brussels, Michelle. And I remember we worked with many other companies because at that time, Charlotte was not well placed. If you were born and raised in a poor zip code, you most likely you would stay there for the rest of your life because of lack of literacy, right and I think at that time, I didn't know must confess CommonLit, but we start talking about the reading, the writing, you know, starting to get improved literacy levels. And you talked about COVID 19, which is interesting because it touches, you know, it's actually, you know, fragilized, the vulnerables right. It seems like CommonLit became a go-to source for many teachers when schools were closing and kids were learning from home, right Michelle?
Michelle Brown: Yeah. So I'll share a few statistics, which is that before COVID started, we had maybe about, you know, nine or 10 million teachers who had read teachers and students who had registered for CommonLit. Two years later, we had over 29 million teachers and students who've registered for common lit. So we saw a huge influx in the number of people all over the world, teachers and students who had discovered our resource during the pandemic and who came to rely on us. I remember in March, 2020 we had on average 32,000 teachers and students who were registering per day on average for our site that month. So we saw a huge influx in demand from classroom teachers, but also from parents.
Ilham Kadri: Yeah, this is just amazing. And, and CommonLit is seen incredible growth, Michelle and expanding into many other countries and languages. And you are getting more and more corporate partners and I'm very happy and we are honored to say, that's Solvay is one of them. Tell us more about your growth, how we are gonna scale up this and aren't you afraid to lose the, I don't know, the quality of this approaches right. In the smaller communities, how can companies actually help you more?
Michelle Brown: Yeah. So, you know, one of our big learnings from the past two years is how important it is to build relationships. With schools and so that is one of the things that we're trying to grow a lot. You know, CommonLit is free for teachers. Any teacher can pick it up, but when we see the big gains for students is when the school administrator, the principal, the community is sort of behind the program, aware of the program where it's not just, you know, one teacher’s tool that they use. So you know, we have deep relationships today with about 3000 schools and that is an initiative that we're trying to really grow is that kind of relationship building the teacher training that we have around the program. So, you know, you ask what is one way that companies could help…..you know, we so believe in our program and the great gains that we have and just, you know, wanna make sure that schools are aware of this free resource.
Diversity, equity and inclusion
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. And, and we will ensure that we broadcast it and we share it loudly, including through this, you know, podcast. I want now Michelle, to switch gears a little bit. To address diversity, equity and inclusion, because this is an issue that every business leader must focus on. You know, that sustainability and protecting nature are becoming mainstream for business, but our efforts to tackle inequality and leaving no one behind are not yet moving with the same drive. And this is very close to my heart. As I said I grew up in a very humble, but loving home in Morocco. And I wouldn't be here today without education, equal opportunities and inclusive environments. And I truly believe that companies that don't put equity and human dignity at the heart of their strategies, simply won't survive. I've heard you talk about the deep inequities in the education system and the state of literacy in low income schools in the United States of America. Tell us more about what you've been seeing, and I know you are making a huge difference with CommonLit and, but what can we do more together?
Michelle Brown: Yeah. I mean, I think you said it so perfectly that, you know, if I had to summarize what you said is that everybody businesses, even for profit companies, not just charities, we can't just rely on charities to put human dignity first, or we will have no human dignity. There aren't that many, and they're not, you know, don't have the capacity of corporations. So you know, for me, one thing that I've learned is you have to intentionally prioritize equity and in everything that you do in the business model and the way that you think about the world and the way that you manage people. But the key word for me, what I've learned is just focus. You have to carve out time for it. You have to be open to feedback and really think about it. So it's a journey. I think we all need to be on as leaders. And, you know, I'm very inspired by the work that you all are doing.
Ilham Kadri: Yeah you're right, Michelle, it's a business imperative and frankly, we're not doing it for charity. You are right. You cannot just leave half of humanity behind if it's about women and minorities. You know, so I think it's, you know, we need the same sense of urgency as the climate and other things. You've already achieved so much, right, but I'm sure you are not done yet. what's next for you and CommonLit.
Michelle Brown: You know, we. Are only just scratching the surface. Like I said before, I think that we are at an urgent crisis moment with literacy and, you know, we have a program that has early data and early momentum. You know, I, we have so much to learn about solving an intractable social problem, but I can tell you that I am fired up and I will not stop until we start to see you know, like, you know, I think about myself as a teacher in Mississippi and how I didn't have access to the resources. I am not going to rest until all teachers in our country and around the world have what they need, to really inspire that curiosity for students. So that is something that I want and I am not done.
Advice for young entrepreneurs
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. And please don't stop. We like you to be unstoppable. So I know so many people see you as a role model and are inspired by what you've accomplished. So what would you say to other young and or not so young entrepreneurs who want to create a business that will be successful AND do good in the world.
Michelle Brown: Yeah, I would say. Just do it. I'm a, you know, advocate. I hear so many early stage entrepreneurs and I coach them a lot. It's something that I love to do in my free time. And sometimes in those early stages, there's so much doubt. Should I do this? Can I start? Can I just pick up the phone? Can I just start that website? And my answer, if you're at that place is. You are a lot smarter than anybody in charge. Don't be intimidated. Just go for it and go forth with, you know, curiosity and humility and a willingness to learn. And that is the recipe for success.
Ilham Kadri: Now to finish, before we finish, tell me more about your hobbies outside teaching and CommonLit.
Michelle Brown: So my hobbies are mostly managing my chaotic life with two toddlers. So I have two small kids. You know, I love reading. I've always been a voracious reader and that is the thing that just gives me so much joy is curling up with a great book.
Ilham Kadri: Yeah, and this is great. Well, thank you so much, Michelle, for joining me, what you've done is just amazing. You are so inspiring, a wonderful role model for millions of student teachers, young woman entrepreneurs, and not as young woman like me, and to leaders and I'm sure, you know, the Solvay associates, we want 21,000 around the world and other listeners, they would just be inspired and amazed, like I am with, with your storyline and narrative, you are really a true leader. I keep out of this conversation that curiosity. Believe in your dreams, you challenge the status quo. You reimagined an existing model, and as you said, you are unstoppable. So I know you will continue to do great things. Thank you.
Michelle Brown: I so appreciate this, Ilham. It's been a pleasure.