Drew Madson: Tackling the Literacy Rate with AI and Innovation
Ladderworks is a publishing startup of diverse picture books with the mission to empower over a million kids to become social entrepreneurs. Our current series features interviews, by a character named Spiffy, with founders working on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Our focus for March is on SDG 4: Quality Education. There is so much at stake, so let’s see what’s being done!
Hi folks! I’m Spiffy, your interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth, back with a new guest! Drew Madson, co-founder, and CEO of Readlee, is an educator and entrepreneur committed to making a difference in the literacy rate and confidence of readers in the world. Let’s see how he’s doing it!
Spiffy: Welcome Drew! I’m really curious about your start-up! Tell me, what challenges are you addressing with Readlee?
Drew: It’s great to be here, Spiffy! Did you know that the United States is facing a literacy crisis? Only 34% of American high school students graduate with proficiency in reading. Along racial lines, that number drops to 18% of students-of-color. Our system is catastrophically failing our students. A lifetime of opportunity is lost when a person can't read. At Readlee we're tackling the literacy gap by harnessing the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and speech recognition. Our platform listens to students read aloud and provides immediate feedback, individualized support, and measurable success. Readlee is grounded in the latest research which demonstrates that reading aloud improves memory, vocabulary, and confidence.
Spiffy: I didn’t realize the literacy crisis was so severe, Drew! What motivated you to do address this crisis?
Drew: Well, Spiffy, I taught high school English and history and thought I would never leave the classroom. I was part of a team that founded a successful public charter school where 100% of students were accepted to four-year colleges and roughly 70% of students were at or below the poverty line. Despite this success, students still struggled. There was no way to efficiently or effectively provide support for oral reading to the 120 kids I taught. One day, out of frustration, I asked a student to send me a voice memo of him reading aloud. What he sent blew my mind. I realized that a platform that listened to students read could be a very powerful tool to improve outcomes and provide support—especially for multiple language learners.
Spiffy: That’s amazing! I can see this being relevant all over the world! Can you tell me how you’re working to make the world more equitable?
Drew: Literacy is the foundation of transformational education. Frederick Douglass may have expressed it best when he said, "Once you learn to read, you'll be forever free." At Readlee we believe literacy is not only a tool that can be used towards personal liberation but also the liberation of society. Democracies require literate, engaged people. We can only do that if we have a country that can read. We also believe that elevating student voices is critical for transformative education. There is something profound about speaking great literature into the world. There is something profound about hearing your own voice bring those words to life.
Spiffy: Have you reached any milestones you could tell me about? What kind of impact is Readlee having?
Drew: Readlee is taking off! In the last month, we've doubled our users and the feedback from students and teachers has been humbling. One teacher recently said, "This is the easiest and most effective thing I've done for reading accountability and out-loud practice. GAME-CHANGER." Kids have told me: "I'm more confident and do better in class." and "It's actually really fun and I can see myself get better every day." As we grow our users, we are deeply committed to academic outcomes. We just published our first white paper on the efficacy of reading aloud and launched our first study of student outcomes in the classroom.
Spiffy: I’m always curious about experiences with failure. Can you share your experience with failure and what you’ve learned?
Drew: I like to imagine rejections as cobblestones. You collect them to pave a road in front of you which you'll then drive your success on. We've lost far more competitions and been passed over by more investors than we would have liked. But those rejections taught us how to hone our message and find who was excited about collaborating to solve the literacy crisis. When you do get a “yes”, it not only feels that much more exhilarating, but you know precisely what you want to do together, and moving forward is that much more exciting.
Spiffy: What is something unexpected you’ve discovered through your work?
Drew: Have you ever heard yourself read aloud? Very few people have. We were surprised by how many students loved listening to themselves—or were simply shocked by what they sounded like and would re-record and be delighted by how much better they sounded. It's fun, it's powerful, try it! Maybe even read this aloud. You'll remember at least 20% more than if you read it silently in your head.
Spiffy: Before we sign off, is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
Drew: We'd love for teachers to engage and try Readlee! You can do so by going to app.readlee.com and signing up, or reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Spiffy: I’m super excited to see where this goes and have no doubt it’s going to take off and be a huge success! Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about Readlee, Drew, it’s been an honor!
Drew Madson is the co-founder and CEO of Readlee, and an award-winning entrepreneur and Master Teacher committed to social justice. He founded Readlee to elevate the power of voice to improve the quality of reading.
© 2020 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s stories of founders building a more equitable world at www.ladderworks.co/blogs/spiffys-blog
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.