Aaron Feuer is co-founder and CEO of Panorama Education, a Boston-based education and technology company whose college- and career-readiness tools, school climate surveys, and social-emotional learning assessments are currently used each year to support the success of more than 10 million students in 11,500 schools. Joining a passion for education and computer programming, Aaron launched Panorama while working on his undergraduate degree at Yale University. I recently spoke with Aaron about Panorama and how they are using student data to improve outcomes beyond just high school graduation.
Rick: Just how did this all get started? What gave you the idea for Panorama?
Aaron: Education was a big part of my childhood. I grew up in a family of teachers and principals. As a high school student in Los Angeles, I got involved as a student organizer to fight for better schools. We actually got a bill passed in California that encouraged schools to give students a voice through student surveys. It was exciting, but the bill didn’t end up making the impact that we’d hoped for. So in 2012, during my junior year of college, my co-founder and I started a side project trying to find school districts whose priorities aligned with the ideas of our student-organizer group. Our first step was helping school districts run student-feedback surveys. By our senior spring, we had 25 school districts on board—and that’s when Panorama got started.
Rick: OK, so what exactly is Panorama Education’s Student Success platform today?
The bar for student success used to be graduation, but today we’re seeing that students are not actually graduating high school prepared for what comes next.
Aaron: The bar for student success used to be graduation, but today we’re seeing that students are not actually graduating high school prepared for what comes next. Panorama Student Success and our new college- and career-readiness platform help schools make sure that students are actually on the path for college, career, and life. We make it possible to see how students are doing across math, literacy, core academics, attendance, behavior, and college- and career-readiness on-track indicators like credit attainment and college-readiness assessments, so educators can coordinate action to support every child. We also help schools measure the nonacademic factors that are critically important to student outcomes but that they don’t have data on—things like social-emotional learning, safety, belonging, and family engagement. Today, we’re proud to partner with over 900 school districts serving 10 million students. Our team of 150 is made up of people who have spent their careers as district leaders, educators, researchers, engineers, and nonprofit professionals.
Rick: How does this all work in practice?
Aaron: We plug into a district’s data systems, pull together their most important data on students, and if desired, we layer in social-emotional learning data from Panorama surveys. So now teachers can have a 360-degree view of each student to understand what they need and how to help them thrive, and school and district leaders can interact with the data at a macro level to understand performance trends. Educators can also go from identifying a struggling student, to building an intervention plan right in Panorama and monitoring progress over the course of the intervention cycle. I like to point to Utah’s Ogden School District as a great example of this work. In Ogden, they’ve formed student-support teams at every school site that meet regularly to review Panorama data and collaborate on intervention plans.
Rick: OK, so how do you measure the impact of all of this? And how do you gauge success?
Aaron: Districts using Panorama look at impact in different ways. For some, impact might mean significantly reducing achievement gaps or improving 3rd grade literacy. For others, it might mean ensuring that all students are socially and emotionally competent and ready for life after high school. We work closely with our clients to define what success means in their context—but no matter their goals, the main idea is we’re giving schools the tools and information to actively deliver the right support to students at the right time.
Rick: Harvard’s Heather Hill has pointed out that there’s little evidence that data is actually being used to improve learning, and that the evidence suggests that “data analysis” is more about figuring out which students are struggling than about helping students learn. In what ways might Panorama help on that count, or does that really depend on the behavior of school-level staff?
Aaron: One central part of Panorama’s impact is exactly that—helping educators identify which students are struggling. We help educators look across academics, attendance, behavior, and social-emotional learning to identify those students who aren’t on-track for success and make sure they get the support they need. For example, if a student is at risk of failing a core class they need for graduation, we’ll flag that for a counselor. Then, looking across students, we identify trends that might suggest a school needs to tackle a particular issue—for example, there’s a school safety issue, or we aren’t providing students of all backgrounds equal access to AP courses.
To your point, the data doesn’t necessarily identify what to do next to help a struggling student, or address a schoolwide issue. We like to say that data is only as valuable as it is actionable. Time and again, we’ve seen that becoming “data driven” goes way beyond having the right technology. It’s really about the human side of this work—it’s about shifting mindsets around data and building capacity to take action on what students are telling us and what the data shows. So in recent years, we’ve been pairing Panorama’s data with a strong library of resources we call Playbook—we’ve been collecting successful practices from educators across the country, and we are working to spread those ideas. We also have a fantastic Teaching and Learning team that travels across the country to provide professional development around what actions educators can take to help students succeed—for example, if Panorama identifies a student struggling in Growth Mindset, what should a teacher do next?
Rick: Are there schools or systems that stand out in your mind as particularly successful illustrations of how Panorama can make a difference?
Aaron: San Bernardino City Unified School District in California is one that’s near and dear to my heart. My grandfather, Mel Feuer, worked at the district for 30 years, eventually becoming a principal and leading school integration efforts there. Today in San Bernardino, they’re doing incredibly meaningful work to build a positive culture and climate for every student at every school through student- and family-feedback surveys—they see this as key to each child’s growth and development, and key to academic achievement. We’re honored to partner with them and to support this work.
Rick: Can you talk a bit about the costs and the financial model of all of this? How much do districts pay on average, and what are the costs of the Panorama system?
Aaron: Districts pay a license fee to adopt Panorama’s product: Districts can purchase the full Panorama platform or districts can pick and choose the modules that will matter most for their students. In addition, Panorama offers a great set of professional learning opportunities, ranging from in-person workshops for teachers, to individual virtual-coaching sessions for school teams. The cost varies depending on which modules and professional learning a district chooses; on average, the cost is $500-$3,000 per school.
Rick: The survey and analytics space is an increasingly crowded one, of course. What makes Panorama distinctive from other intervention platforms and data systems in ed tech and to what do you attribute your success?
Aaron: One of our core values is to focus on impact. The biggest reason why Panorama has been rapidly adopted in schools is that we are organized around having the greatest impact on outcomes for students. Perhaps that is corny to say, but quality matters, and we obsess over it. For example, it is one thing to run a survey of your students to “check the box”—it is quite another to run a valid and reliable school climate survey in eight languages, and then provide principals with clear analysis that guides action, and then host a workshop about using school climate data to improve equity. The other key for us has been building deep relationships with our clients. Another one of our values is to be the best part of each client’s day, and we obsess over getting that right. We hear from our districts that Panorama sets the bar for service, and I am very proud of that.
Rick: OK, last question. What’s the one big lesson you’ve learned doing this work?
Aaron: From the start, we’ve had a broad vision to radically change education. But we’ve learned to focus on a small number of things that matter and do them really well. For example, people thought it was crazy that we spent our first three years helping schools run school climate feedback surveys—some people thought it was too narrow, but we saw a huge opportunity for impact. It was a good lesson to tackle one problem at a time. Since then, we’ve been able to significantly expand the ways in which we support schools and students.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next. This post originally appeared in Rick Hess Straight Up.