Curriculum Associates: Accelerating student learning
How a mature print publisher reinvented itself and became an industry leader
Founded in 1969, Curriculum Associates (CA) is an education publishing company that designs, manufactures, and sells reading, math, and special education materials. After nearly 40 years of producing print-based products, the small, privately owned company leapt to prominence with a dramatic shift in its core business. In 2008, CA brought Rob Waldron (HBS ’92) on as CEO and pursued a “blended learning” strategy, offering school districts a combination of technology and print products that work together to accelerate student learning and help maximize teacher efficiency. Although converting a mature print-based publishing company into a competitive player in the software space represented a daunting challenge, the company’s tightly linked business and operating models have yielded remarkable results.
Dedicated to “making classrooms better places for teachers and students,” Curriculum Associates creates value by designing and producing high quality, research backed educational tools. Its customers are public, private, and charter school districts serving K-12 students in the United States (the company’s founder and Chairman is also pursuing international opportunities for CA’s products).
Central to the company’s winning strategy is its combination of print and technology-based learning solutions. One example of this approach is its integration of the following two product lines:
- i-Ready Diagnostic and Instruction: Students begin their i-Ready work by completing an adaptive diagnostic assessment. By continually adjusting to students’ responses, the system is able to accurately pinpoint what skills each student has – and more importantly, has not – mastered. Upon completion of the diagnostic, teachers and school administrators gain access to a wealth of information about student, class, school, and district performance. At the same time, i-Ready also generates a personalized curriculum of automated online lessons that target each student’s unique set of strengths and weaknesses.
- Ready Common Core: Built from the ground up to address the new, more rigorous Common Core educational standards, Ready offers teachers high quality instructional tools in a familiar print-based format. Additionally, student reports within i-Ready point to specific pages in the Ready series that teachers can use to teach students the skills they need to learn.
Expanding from print to software materials was far from being a recipe for guaranteed success. Curriculum Associates succeeded in large part because its operating model supports its business model. Key features of the company’s operating model include:
- Long term vision & independent ownership: Since its inception, Curriculum Associates has been independently owned and operated. Additionally, the company’s CEO signed a 20-year employment contract upon joining, ensuring his focus on CA’s long-term success. According to Waldron, “At the helm of a company charged with putting students and teachers first, this contract, and the long-term view it requires me to take, guides decisions that deliver on our mission and removes pressures to focus on short-sighted financial gains.”  Remaining competitive in today’s constantly shifting educational landscape is challenging; freedom from short-term pressures has been vital to the company’s success.
- Hiring and retaining top talent: Building a business that offers leading blended learning solutions requires a diverse set of talented employees, from psychometricians and educators, to software developers and data scientists. The company made a strategic operational decision to focus significant resources to acquire stellar employees and “treat them all with grace to ensure they stay.” As a result, CA has won numerous “best place to work” awards and 97% of its employees report that they would recommend the company to their best friend (a key metric the company uses to measure its success).  As a part of this strategy, the CEO noted in 2011 that he had personally met with 800 candidates in the prior two years. 
- Doubling down on growth: CA chooses to reinvest nearly all of its earnings back into the business.  This investment fuels the company’s continued growth, supporting, among other initiatives, a strong focus on innovative R&D. CA’s sustained commitment to enhancing its product offerings is principally important for two reasons: first, it supports the company’s mission of helping students and teachers succeed (a cause that, as a former employee, I can say with certainty is a real passion for CA’s employees and management team). Second, since the advent of products like i-Ready that provide deep data on academic performance and program usage, it has become increasingly easy for educators to determine which educational products are most likely to help their students succeed. In this highly transparent environment, having the most effective products is vital to competitive success.
Curriculum Associates’ revenues have quintupled since it began its transition, jumping from $26 million in 2008 to an estimated $130 million in 2015.  With the company’s winning strategy of investing in innovative R&D, attracting and retaining top talent, and maintaining its focus on long term viability, CA is poised for continued success.
Additional resources consulted:
- 4 years of work experience at Curriculum Associates
Student comments on Curriculum Associates: Accelerating student learning
Fascinating, gorem! Thanks for the insightful breakdown of Curriculum Associates’ business and operating models.
I had read recently that NYSED (New York State Education Department) approved CA’s i-Ready Diagnostic as a program that school districts can use as part of teachers’ annual performance reviews:
Given you highlighted i-Ready—a single online product that hopefully will improve student outcomes in NY and other states—as a cornerstone of CA’s business model, a few thoughts come to mind:
1) Will CA have to rely on government grants (or approvals like those mentioned in the article above) to sustain its growth? If so, is CA able to accurately and reliably predict which new product lines will be incorporated into formal statewide curricula or approved by respective State Education Departments?
2) You mention that “freedom from short-term pressures has been vital to the company’s success.” Is that freedom potentially threatened by the need for CA’s technology to remain annually compliant with State education regulation? Relatedly, do you foresee any new “short-term pressures” emerging in our increasingly digital US education landscape?