Bill Jackson

Ashoka Fellow
fellow-26663-Bill_Jackson.jpg
United States
Fellow Since 2013
This description of Bill Jackson's work was prepared when Bill Jackson was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013 .

Introduction

Bill Jackson is building the nation’s leading online guide to information about schools and learning, in order to engage millions of parents in their children’s education – at home and at school – and to create a more competitive dynamic among today’s schools.

The New Idea

Bill is working to help parents understand, support and advocate for their children's education in more powerful ways: first, by enabling them to make informed decisions about their children’s schools and to press for changes on their behalf, and second, by helping parents set high expectations and encourage their children's educational success.

A former teacher turned tech entrepreneur, Bill saw that pervasive parental disengagement in children’s education could be traced back to a lack of consumer transparency. Without the ability to see behind closed doors or to evaluate school performance, parents had little way to choose the right school for their children, or to advocate for improvements on their children’s behalf. He thus launched GreatSchools to serve as a translator, turning school-based data buried deep within cumbersome reports, spreadsheets, and hard-to-read charts into actionable information for parents.


Bill created a ratings system to establish a common baseline across all schools, using standardized test performance. Powered by a combination of data and user reviews, GreatSchools also relies on parents, teachers, and students to share their personal experiences on the site, providing a more nuanced perspective beyond the school's standardized test performance. Its success is self-reinforcing: as the site becomes better and better known, more parents and teachers add their own reviews, thereby increasing the ratings' value. The result has dramatically increased parents’ ability to exercise choice when it comes to which schools they send their children to, and established a competitive dynamic among schools to improve accountability and performance.

Having initially launched GreatSchools as a guide to Silicon Valley schools, Bill has grown the platform to become the nation's leading supplier of school performance data and information. GreatSchools.net has profiled more than 200,000 preK-12 schools – public, public charter, and private – and amassed more than a million parent, teacher and student ratings, serving more than 52 million unique visitors each year – or half of all parent households in the US. Now Bill is launching GreatKids to leverage the community he’s built with GreatSchools and to help parents understand, inspire and support their kids’ learning and development. The new platform will provide them with the knowledge they need to best support their children’s education at home. Just as GreatSchools acts as a guide for choosing a school, GreatKids will serve as a trusted guide for parents to help their children achieve educational success.

The Problem

Arguments in the US education system – charters vs. public district schools, teachers’ unions vs. ed-reformers, whether to fix schools by addressing poverty or to address poverty by fixing schools – largely ignore the other key educators in a child's life: his or her parents. Parents play an inordinate role in setting expectations for kids, inspiring their children’s commitment to learning, and providing the sort of momentum and support that translates directly into improved performance at the classroom-level.

At the time of GreatSchools’ founding in the late 1990s, it was assumed that a child would go to his or her neighborhood school, and that parent engagement would be kept to the PTA. Lacking the tools to effectively evaluate their child’s school, parents had little way to exercise their “consumer voice”. For all of the talk of the achievement gap, there existed an equally profound “parenting gap” – the gap in knowledge, attitudes and behaviors between more effective and less effective parents – which, while often most pronounced among families with little educational background of their own, was not confined to one income level or another.

Meanwhile, the notion of performance transparency and accountability in education was just beginning to take off. School performance information, where it existed, was largely inaccessible: confined to complicated spreadsheets available on administrative websites, designed primarily for internal use. While charter schools had begun to emerge as an alternative to public district schools, parents continued to have little access to objective comparisons. They were left to rely on reputation alone, and had little way to objectively compare one school to another, or to share personal experiences with others considering the same decisions for their own children. Without the threat of reduced enrollment or a negative reputation, schools had little incentive to improve their performance.

While the last decade has seen a tectonic shift in the school choice movement, the information gap among parents regarding how to best support their children’s education persists. Giving parents a voice over which school to send their children to is only one component of helping them better support their children’s educational development; they must also understand their own role, and what it takes to help their children best meet key developmental outcomes. This is especially true and particularly challenging when it comes to measures of deeper learning: what does it look like when a 3rd grader is reading “on grade level”, or a 5th grader is demonstrating critical thinking? And what, then, can a parent do to help accelerate their child’s path toward college? There exist innumerable efforts to help teachers become better teachers, but far fewer designed to help parents encourage and inspire the learning of their own children.

The Strategy

Bill launched GreatSchools first to create a parent guide to Silicon Valley schools, but upon realizing the extent of demand, quickly scaled to the state of CA and beyond. In the early days of GreatSchools, he and his team went state to state, and in some cases, district to district, to gather data on school performance, and to package it in such a way that parents could readily understand. The state of Montana printed and shipped every one of their school’s test scores in a box, which Bill and his team then transcribed.

A few years after the launch, Congress passed No Child Left Behind, mandating that schools meet a strict set of performance standards, measured by test scores, or face cuts in funding. While many districts and states had already agreed to share their data, the legislation made it federally mandated, which vastly improved local tracking systems.

Bill wanted a measure that was clear and easy to understand, and could reflect the quality of a school regardless of its geography, demographics, or institutional type. By nature a bridge-builder, he sought a way to satisfy two contentious camps within the US education system: those who believe that standardized tests are inadequate measures of school quality, and those who champion assessment and the idea of a baseline measure of academic performance. Over the course of several design rounds, Bill and the team consciously chose to use a 1-10 ratings system, as opposed to an A-F scorecard.

Yet Bill also wanted to convey nuance, and to share qualitative assessments as well as quantitative. He understood that user reviews – submitted by parents, students, and teachers – would be as valuable as the test score rating. Today, schools on the site have, on average, seven reviews each: a number which Bill wants to continue to grow, with the goal of reaching ten reviews per school in 80-90% of the schools profiled. He and the team have found that ten reviews are enough to establish a degree of credibility, surfacing trends and counteracting any extreme or unusual review. In addition to showcasing a diverse range of voices and perspectives, the reviews highlight information that is less quantifiable than test scores, but equally important to school quality: the school culture and climate, how well the building is maintained, the strength of sports and arts programs, and the like.

Simply packaging and making data actionable for parents, however, would only take him so far: to effect behavior change, schools and parents alike had to value the ratings system, and so Bill needed a way to maximize distribution. Key to his success has thus been a partnership with the real estate industry. Recognizing that school quality was among the biggest factors of prospective homebuyers, Bill found a way to get GreatSchools' ratings system into would-be consumers' hands, without their having to go directly to the website. In 2008, he forged a partnership with Onboard Informatics, which supplies regional data to real estate brokers, online listing services, and real estate agencies. The partnership enabled Onboard to market, sell, and distribute GS Ratings to its various partners, such as realtor.com, Century 21 – the nation’s largest real estate agency – and other major brokerage firms. In addition to helping GreatSchools reach more users, the alliance put further pressure on local school districts to more deeply invest in their member schools, in order to drive up real estate prices.

More recently, GreatSchools has begun to turn its focus to increasing accessibility among low-income households. In 2007, Bill launched a concerted effort to grow GreatSchools at the local level, building on-the-ground partnerships in various cities and states, including Milwaukee, Washington, DC, Indianapolis and Detroit, with plans to launch in Delaware this year. By building partnerships with individuals and established education networks with high levels of both knowledge and trust from the community, Bill has been able to focus on what GreatSchools does best: supply more useful information regarding school quality to parents who need it. Having begun with print guides, he is now supplying new mobile tools and information for the small screen, as more low-income families are turning directly to smartphones. Today, 48% of GreatSchools users have an annual household income of $50,000 or less.

The decade-and-a-half since GreatSchools launched has seen a sea-change regarding school choice: previously, popular wisdom held that the school in a child's neighborhood was the one he or she went to. In urban areas today, school choice is standard practice: a change made possible, in large part, by GreatSchools and the dramatic increase in parents' access to useful information. Meanwhile, schools have responded with a combination of improved communications with parents and the community, and actual performance changes. Bill created a way for teachers and administrators to respond directly to criticisms, sharing, for example, that the once-broken water fountain has been fixed, or that more textbooks have been ordered. Administrators wishing to demonstrate their success will frequently cite their profile on GreatSchools' site, and use their official school profile to communicate with parents.

With an audience comprised of half of all parent households in the US, Bill realized he had a profound opportunity not only to improve informed school choice, but also to help parents support their children’s development in many other ways. He and the team are launching GreatKids to help parents determine whether their child is on track in key skills, and to learn key strategies and practices to help them meet critical developmental milestones. The platform will include short, 30-second ‘milestone’ videos of children who have mastered a necessary skill, to help parents easily gauge whether their children are on track, combined with accessible and actionable activities they can try at home. He thus hopes to inspire parents and provide them with an action-oriented roadmap for successful child development.

Aware that philanthropy can be fickle, Bill has worked diligently to grow GreatSchools’ earned revenue streams. Currently, $6 million of GreatSchools’ $11 million budget comes from earned revenue, ranging from advertisements to contractual agreements, which feeds its operational costs. With more than 200,000 schools on the site and 52 million unique visitors, Bill has already achieved unparalleled reach within the education and parenting spheres. He thus hopes to use the next few years to continue investing in engaging low-income households and to ensure that the school guide and ratings system signals real quality for parents.

The Person

Bill grew up in Western Pennsylvania, amidst a culture of self-reliance. If something broke, you fixed it. The son of a successful businessman – who, together with Bill’s grandfather and great grandfather, had founded and built a successful steel-fabricating firm – Bill was keenly aware of the opportunities and privileges he had at his fingertips. He went off to boarding school at Philips Exeter, and soon became profoundly aware of the power that teachers could play in their students' development, when they set high expectations and afforded students deep intellectual respect. Following college, he went to China and taught for two years, eager to immerse himself in a culture and world that would force him to question his fundamental assumptions.

Though his students hailed from poor families, they were taught to believe that education was a powerful ladder to help them and their families rise out of poverty. Their parents were deeply engaged in their children's education, and he felt they were, in his words, “a wind in [his] sails”. Moreover, he found that his students’ hunger for learning translated directly into results in the classroom.

Upon returning to the US, he began teaching in Washington, DC, serving largely middle-class kids. While they had many more advantages than his students in China, they were not as hungry for learning, and sometimes it seemed that his students saw school not as a path toward opportunity, but as an obligation. It was the combination of these two experiences that led him to begin thinking about the role of parenting and cultural norms on children's educational success.

Bill was awarded a prestigious Coro Fellowship, a nine-month graduate-level program designed to prepare leaders in public affairs. There he began working with Ray Cortines, then Superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District. His job was to examine nine schools engaged in a particular school reform program, and to find out whether the good news emerging out of official channels was true. Upon discovering that it was not, Bill saw firsthand the need for more and better information about school quality, not only for school administrators, but for parents and the public at large.

Though he knew he wanted to eventually go into education, he first wanted training in what it takes to be an entrepreneur. He spoke with a number of advisors who felt the education system – characterized at the time by large, unwieldy bureaucracies – would not provide the learning laboratory he sought. And so, upon completing the Fellowship, Bill spent five years helping friends launch two computer networking companies.

The Internet was just beginning to take off as a tool for consumers, and Bill began looking at opportunities to immerse himself once more in the intersection between parenting, education, and culture. By the late 1990s, school choice was just beginning to emerge as a major topic in education, as magnet schools began to take off. This dovetailed with a growing interest in school performance standards, and the idea that "what gets measured gets done". While states were beginning to publish data on school performance, much of that was used primarily in policy circles. Bill saw an opportunity to invest heavily in translating that content for parents and consumers, and so, in 1998, he founded GreatSchools.