Using tech to solve the broken education system

We're putting our money where our mouth is and pledging money to startups who promise to develop projects aimed at parents. 

Internet Culture

Published Nov 3, 2014   Updated May 30, 2021, 7:08 am CDT

4.0 Schools (4pt0) is a non-profit incubator based in New Orleans and New York City. For four years, we’ve been equipping entrepreneurs to build the future of school, one startup and new school at a time. Over the years, we’ve seen a dearth of startups addressing parent needs. I want to change that. So, 4pt0 is going to invest $40K (each) in startups that solve real problems for families.

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Here’s why.

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Below is a snapshot of our 35 startups, schoolscoding labs + maker spaces:

A visual representation of organizational resources

Photo and scribbles by Matt Candler

As you can see, there’s a big hole on the left. We’ve started far fewer startups that serve parents than those that serve teachers, students or communities. We need more entrepreneurs working on the problems that parents face, to help parents do more than entertain. I’m not talking about helping parents entertain their kids. Pull up the app store on the closest mobile phone to reveal a cornucopia of tools to help parents keep their kids quiet at a restaurant.

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What I want to see is ideas that equip and train parents to do the important work of developing and supporting their children. We need more entrepreneurs looking for creative ways to help parents be more involved in the messy, glorious process of helping their children learn and grow. It’s time to serve parents directly.

One thing that unites 4.0 entrepreneurs is an obsession with solving problems faced by the most important people in education — parents, teachers, and students. And a discipline to ignore problems that come from structural complexity. That’s harder than you think. Here’s what education looks like in a democracy like ours:

An organizational graphic of the US education industry.

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Education is a big hairball of mostly good-hearted people trying to do right by kids. But when most people start cutting through all of these thick layers of control and oversight to get to the actual users of schooling, they get distracted by structural issues. Let’s change this law! This policy! Let’s create this incentive!

We think many of the most interesting, desperately-needed solutions will come from entrepreneurs who can appeal directly to the people those solutions benefit without having to go through someone else.

If you propose a solution to a problem facing parents, we’ll invest $5K to test it. If parents want it badly enough, we’ll put in another $35K.

You can pitch anything you think makes parents better at helping their children learn and grow into healthy adults. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Help parents teach key skills like reading and math

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This summer, Monique Wilson launched something called Parents as Partners, our first Direct-to-Parent startup in more than a year. It is amazing. She hacked early reading books with stickers that include tips for parents to follow when they’re reading along with their kids. The tips help parents dig for understanding and stop to double down on vocab and words that trip kids up when they’re learning to read.

I bought one of the first demo collections and still use them with my kids. Parents as Partners made me a better parent by making me a better reading teacher.

Help parents understand and care for their children

In their New York Times piece “The Way to Beat Poverty,” Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn highlight another great Straight-to-Parent outfit — Nurse Family Partnership. An excerpt: “A RAND Corporation study found that each dollar invested in nurse visits to low-income unmarried mothers produced $5.70 in benefits.” There are many powerful ways to bring great resources to parents if we design for the specific occasion of parents spending time with their kids in their own homes.

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Another 4.0 startup, Branching Minds, is helping teachers and parents access the latest brain research to better diagnose their children’s behavior. It’s a great example of a company giving parents access to amazing recent science about how kids develop.

We believe in rapid iteration towards better solutions, not silver bullets that magically solve tough problems. So don’t feel like you have to have the perfect solution right out of the gate.

If you aren’t ready to build a startup, pitch an experiment you want to run to explore what parents really need. We’ll give you $5K worth of support to build that prototype or field test your solution. If that test or experiment shows potential, we’ll invite you to our 3-month Launch program and invest another $35K. We run our Launch program twice a year. Up to ten teams go through the program at a time.

After Launch, you’ll be running a young startup company. If it starts to get traction, we’ll put you in front of our new syndicate of investors who can help you grow it.

It doesn’t matter if it is a for-profit or a non-profit; 4.0’s growth syndicate includes a diverse community willing to help grow all kinds of organizations that help kids learn.

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We’ll take zero percent of your company in return. 4.0 Schools is a non-profit that invests in for-profit and non-profit companies and schools. We don’t take a cut of startups that come through our incubator. There’s an exciting future ahead for entrepreneurs who take the time to understand and solve the problems parents face every day.

FWIW, if the closest parent happens to be the one you see in the mirror, all the better. In our experience, parents make some of the most effective entrepreneurs.

This piece originally appeared on Medium, and has been reprinted with permission.

Photo via Christopher Sessums/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Nov 3, 2014, 10:00 am CST