It’s showtime for edtech startup Foundations in Learning

Foundations in Learning CEO Mark Mitrovich and co-founder and co-owner Carolyn Brown, shown in the startup’s office on a recent afternoon. 


By Dave DeWitte

It took 10 years and thousands of hours of R&D for University of Iowa spinout Foundations in Learning to bring its assessment and intervention system for struggling readers in grades 2-12 to market.

With the launch of its Foundations Learning System and a new CEO, the company is offering a powerful tool that educators can use to close the reading deficiency gap that is holding back students.

“The plans we have are to move far and fast,” CEO Mark Mitrovich says.

The cloud-based system assesses gaps in a student’s reading comprehension and fluency due to poor word recognition skills. It diagnoses the deficiencies and provides an online multimedia reading intervention to overcome their barriers to word recognition.

The system’s effectiveness has been proven in pilot programs in Iowa and other states, and it has unique features like the Foundations Diagnostic, which is the only scaled measure of automatic word recognition currently available, and an online dashboard that lets teachers see where individual students are making progress.

Mr. Mitrovich came to his new leadership role in September. He has 35 years of experience as an educator and district leader, including superintendent positions in Gig Harbor, Washington, and Naperville, Illinois. He also has been chief academic officer for the School Services Division of Pearson North America.

The experience that provided Mr. Mitrovich with the most insight into the reading problem was his role as co-founder of a nonprofit that worked with urban school districts to improve STEM education. A lack of reading proficiency was a key obstacle to students in gaining STEM skills that are increasingly important to career success.

The student reading proficiency crisis is deeper than most Americans realize. About 51 million students in the United States are not reading at the proficient level for their grade, and 16.5 million students have foundational reading deficits, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“What we’re really trying to do is make these children become visible again,” said Carolyn Brown, president and co-founder of Foundations in Learning. “By the time they’ve reached middle school and high school, they’re not visible because they don’t have the skills to participate [in class]. We’re trying to put them back in full color.”

Convincing schools and states to adopt the system is an undertaking. With about 15,000 school districts, the market is huge and fragmented. And Mr. Mitrovich is aware that many educators are jaded by disappointments with prior technologies that promised game-changing breakthroughs and didn’t pan out.

To accelerate the process, Mr. Mitrovich said Foundations in Learning will be building strategic alliances with other companies and attending and presenting at conferences where it can reach influencers in the educational community.

The performance dashboard in the Foundations Learning System is expected to be a plus in garnering financial support for its implementation, Mr. Mitrovich says, because it can be used to assess reading progress on an individual, classroom, school and district level. Many large corporations want to address the reading crisis because of the limiting effect it has on student achievement, particularly in STEM fields. While they’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the problems, he said the difficulty of charting tangible progress has made it difficult to sustain large funding commitments. With the Foundations Learning System’s dashboard, statistical evidence of progress will be immediate.

One of the unexpected benefits of the system is that students aren’t exposed to the judgement they may feel when a live teacher is helping them past a hurdle, which can include feelings that the teacher doesn’t think they are listening or trying hard enough.

Teachers have an important role in addressing reading comprehension and fluency issues with the Foundations Learning System, Ms. Johnson said, however their role changes to monitoring student progress through the dashboard and providing emotional support and reinforcement.

The system also can be deployed outside the classroom. Administering the system does not require a teaching background, so there is potential for the system to be deployed in home-based learning and correctional environments.

“The three pillars of education – time, location and control – have fallen,” Mr. Mitrovich said. “Now for the learner, it’s ‘just in time, just for me.’”

The Foundations Learning System was developed by husband-and-wife founders Jerry Zimmermann and Ms. Brown at the University of Iowa, in collaboration with Bob McMurray and Eliot Hazeltine, professors and cognitive scientists in the UI’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, and Dr. Deborah Reed, a professor in the College of Education and director of the Iowa Reading Research Center.

The company’s curriculum is being used in California, Nevada, Missouri, Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois, including longer-term pilot programs in Texas and Iowa.

Foundations in Learning is launching its flagship product just as Iowa’s edtech sector gets attention from state leaders. On Oct. 10, Gov. Kim Reynolds unveiled results of a state-sponsored study indicating fostering edtech could generate 1,000 high-paying jobs over the next five years.

“We have a great foundation to build from,” Gov. Reynolds said. “I think this study really lays out a roadmap on how we can move forward and get that done, and [the Iowa Economic Development Authority] is already on the road to making this happen.”

Foundations in Learning is planning a venture capital funding round in 2020 to support the company’s growth. Details have not been finalized. CBJ