After the second presidential debate aired October 9, reading a recap from just about any news outlet meant getting a refresher on the vulgar recording released two days earlier.
"'What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women,'" the Washington Post quoted Hillary Clinton as saying, also referencing Trump's claims of "kissing women without their consent, and groping women's genitals."
The website Newsela offered a different, cleaner version of the events. The language was simpler; the article mentioned the discussion over Trump's taped remarks without getting into their content.
"Clinton attacked Trump for his rude comments about women," it read. "She said his words make him unqualified to be president."
That's Newsela's specialty. The education startup takes news stories and, using a team of freelancers, quickly rewrites them at various reading levels, like the fifth-grade version above. Students of different ages and abilities can read slightly different versions of the same story, and teachers can give the provided quizzes at the end. The company aims to make reading lessons customizable and relevant to today's news, and give teachers a way to provide instant feedback.
In the age of distraction, that's big news for parents and educators. And it's part of the reason why, less than four years after the startup's launch, more than 10 million students are using it, and 850,000 teachers have accounts, representing nearly three-quarters of America's schools.
"Teachers are ready for a change," says 44-year-old Newsela founder Matthew Gross in his company's roomy but plain midtown Manhattan office. "Textbooks are being scrapped by districts nationwide because folks are realizing this medium is static, it weighs down backpacks, it's inefficient, and it's expensive."
Last year alone, more than 10.5 million devices made their way into America's K-12 schools. In some cases, those devices are shared among a grade or department. In others, thanks in large part to the nearly indestructible and relatively affordable $200 Chromebook laptop, students get their own devices that they carry with them from class to class.
Gross, originally from Washington, D.C., graduated from Columbia with a degree in music in 1994. He applied and was selected for Teach for America, then taught music to middle schoolers at PS 50 in the Bronx. After a few years dabbling in his grandfather's whiskey business and a marketing startup, he took a job with the New York State Education Department, where he helped implement the Common Core standards that first went into effect in 2010.
In 2012, Gross received news that surprised him: His son, then a second grader, was reading at a level significantly lower than most of his peers. "All his friends were reading chapter books," Gross says, "and he was being given Dr. Seuss."
After a conversation with his son's teacher and principal, Gross realized something had to change. "Here was this incredibly committed teacher--pulling out all the stops, doing everything she could do," Gross says. "She was truly dedicated to his success, but she had no precision. She didn't have the right materials."
Suddenly, the solution became obvious to him. Part of the Core standards had called for an uptick in the amount of nonfiction being read by students--in some classes, the increase was sevenfold. Gross figured what teachers needed was a platform that made nonfiction accessible to a wide range of students. "There was an incredible source of highly engaging nonfiction available that also happened to be reasonably inexpensive to license," Gross says. "And that was the news."
Gross brought on Dan Cogan-Drew, an old ultimate Frisbee teammate and fellow educator, to be chief product officer. In late 2012, Newsela went from idea to incorporated company, and within months, it secured $1.2 million in seed funding. To date, the company has raised $21 million from venture capitalists, including investments from Kleiner Perkins, Kapor Capital, and Mark and Priscilla Zuckerberg.
Get on their level
Newsela doesn't cover news stories that exist only to grab eyeballs and garner clicks. Instead, Gross says, its team curates those that add to students' world knowledge and get them excited to read.
"The variety of interests is something that consistently amazes me," Gross says. "Kids are especially into reading about science, animals, and anything gross, plus phones, consumer tech, video games," he says. They'll also dig through the archives to read about topics like gun control or homelessness among fellow children.
And, of course, there's the election. "Kids love reading about Trump," he says, with only a hint of exasperation.
Which raises an interesting question, and one that parents and teachers across the country have struggled with in recent months: How do you introduce your child to a historic event they need to learn about that contains details they might be too young to hear?
For Newsela, the answer is all in the execution: choosing the most informative versions of stories and then rewriting them carefully. The company starts with an original article from the Associated Press, the Washington Post, the Guardian, Scientific American, or one of the other organizations it has deals with. It then selects an author from its roster, which includes several in-house writers and more than 100 freelancers, mostly current and former journalists who are used to fast deadlines. That writer rewrites, or "re-levels," the text with help from proprietary software, which uses algorithms and machine learning to suggest passages of the text that need to change.
Each original story gets re-leveled at around a second-, fourth-, seventh-, and ninth-grade reading level. It's an art: Sometimes the task entails taking details out that aren't necessary for a young student; other times, adding them in, such as explanations of how taxes work or what a presidential debate is. Turnaround times can be quick, with major stories hitting the Newsela wires in about three hours.
On a day in early October, the sampling of headlines on Newsela's site didn't read like a Dr. Seuss book at all: "Implicit Racial Bias Often Begins as Early as Preschool, Study Finds," one read. "Government Paves the Way for Self-Driving Cars," said another. Teachers have the option to block their students from seeing specific articles if they so choose, though Gross says very few put that into practice. "The theory is that in this media-saturated world, students are going to hear this anyway," Gross says. "Why not give it to them in language they can understand?"
In some cases, the varied reading levels let students in the same classroom read different versions of the same story. Sarah Jane Crow, a middle school special education teacher in Lynbrook, New York, uses the company's articles in her co-taught social studies classes. So while most of her seventh graders read a news story at their respective level, the students reading at a fifth-grade level can break into a separate group, and then everyone will discuss at the end--a process known as differentiated instruction. "Every student reaches the same goal," Crow says. "They just take different routes to get there."
A new medium
Part of Newsela's pitch is the belief that having kids read from a computer or tablet instead of a textbook isn't just a luxury--it's becoming a necessity. As classroom curricula become more individually customized, teachers need materials that can be easily altered to fit each student's needs. And then there's the attention factor: Kids in 2016 have tools like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, among countless others. With so much information instantly available, Newsela is able to offer a constant stream of current reading material, as opposed to a textbook with static lessons that may grow stale over time.
More than 50 percent of U.S. students now use school-issued mobile devices in the classroom, a number that's up from 32 percent in 2014. Tory Patterson, formerly a partner at Catamount Ventures, saw the writing on the wall: He branched off to co-found Owl Ventures, a VC firm that invests solely in ed tech startups. It launched in 2014 and led Newsela's $6 million Series A round later that year.
"Software is getting deployed at significant scale within schools," Patterson says. "The rate of change there is violent."
In all, investors put nearly $2 billion into U.S. ed tech companies in 2015. Newsela's model of using the news to boost literacy isn't unique. LightSail, which offers both fiction and nonfiction content, has raised more than $23 million from investors such as Scott Cook and Jeff Bezos, and the company claims its technology reaches 500 school districts in the country.
Meanwhile, the $9 billion U.S. textbook industry is evolving beyond paper and ink. Publisher McGraw-Hill Education, for one, now sees one-third of its revenue come from e-books and other digital products.
Of course, the shift is not without controversy: Some educators blame devices in classrooms for declines in students' math abilities and handwriting; others claim they decrease attention spans. A 2015 study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a global think tank that includes members from 35 countries including the U.S., found that classrooms that used technology for teaching experienced "no noticeable improvement" in test scores.
The divide between schools in high- and low-income school districts also can't be ignored. Won't it only worsen as some schools provide devices for students and others are left further behind? Patterson acknowledges this risk but has a decidedly optimistic view on the matter.
"It's a rational fear," he says. "If you're a severely impoverished school district, technology is probably not going to be priority No. 1 for you. But in a lot of cases, school districts that are motivated to are finding the budget, whether it's through federal aid or internal resource allocation. There's a lot of money available through the Every Student Succeeds Act for technology procurement," he says, referring to the law signed by Obama in December 2015, which replaced the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.
For its part, Newsela doesn't necessarily require a device, and the cost isn't likely to break the bank for any school. A wide selection of the stories are free and can be printed and distributed to students. The company's Pro offering, which provides more articles and a set of analytics tools to track students' quiz results, runs $4,000 to $6,000 per year depending on the size of the school.
Newsela won't reveal revenue numbers, but the company says its user base is growing rapidly: Registered users more than doubled from a year ago to 10 million in 2016. The startup now has over 100 full-time employees, with most based in New York and some in Palo Alto. It's beginning to reach out to schools--until now, Newsela has grown mostly by word of mouth within the tight-knit teaching community, where educators are quick to introduce one another to new tools they've found.
Gross is already thinking about how the company can expand. The startup is building a massive library of historical pages so a student can read the Constitution, or a short biography of Jackie Robinson, at four different reading levels. Newsela Español offers a selection of the site's articles translated into Spanish. And the company is gaining traction overseas, so while other languages aren't in the immediate future, they're a logical next step.
In Newsela's headquarters, Gross speaks over the hushed din of his employees.
"It's hard to dispute the power of education," he says. "But we've been doing it the same way for 200 years. So when you think about it, introducing technology to the classroom is the most significant change education has ever had."
Newsela, he thinks, can be a big part of that change.