Dept. of Ed. taps online learning startup Knewton for at-risk youth program

Over the past few years, education technology startup Knewton has helped mostly college students improve their skills across a range of subjects with its digital learning program that adapts in real-time to students’ performance and activity on the system.  Now, the Department of Education is looking to Knewton to help replicate its success among the country’s at-risk youth.

On Monday, at the Summit on Education in Correctional Facilities, convened by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, education leaders are set to announce that New York-based Knewton and publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will partner for a program to bring personalized math, language arts and other instruction to 3.5 million youth in the juvenile justice system.

“The goal is to help transition them to traditional schools and prepare them for the workforce,” said David Liu, Knewton’s COO.

Currently, less than 15 percent of students in juvenile secure settings ultimately finish high school or earn a high school equivalency degree.  The hope is that by combining Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s SkillsTutor program with Knewton’s adaptive learning platform, the new initiative can give incarcerated youth, as well as those who attend correctional centers a few times a week, a better shot at success. Given their unique experiences and range of learning strengths and weaknesses, the youth in the program could be especially well served by targeted, differentiated instruction, education officials said.

To date, most of the nearly half a million students to use Knewton’s program have been at the college level. But Liu said this partnership will help it begin to scale its K-12 instruction. One of the interesting challenges for Knewton and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will be to deliver the content in a voice that’s appropriate for the students.

“It’s not just enough to provide third grade- or fourth grade-level content, you have to speak to a 15- or 16-year-old,” Liu said.

As evidence of its success, Knewton said that in a program of 2,000 remedial math students at Arizona State University, withdrawal rates dropped by 56 percent and pass rates climbed 11 percent.

The company has raised about $54 million from investors including Accel Partners, Bessemer Venture Partners, First Round Capital and Founders Fund.