Teacher, Tutor, High-tech Tycoon

By David Hill — January 01, 1995 20 min read

On the wall of Jan Davidson’s surprisingly unassuming office is a photograph taken by her husband, Bob, on Christmas morning 1979. In it, Jan Davidson watches as her three children gaze in wonder at the newfangled present they have just received from their parents: an Apple II computer. Downright primitive by today’s standards, the machine—which came with a Sony black-and-white monitor—was considered cutting edge at the time. But what could three children possibly do with a personal computer?

They never got the chance to find out. That’s because Jan Davidson had other ideas for this strange new object. Earlier that year, when California voters approved an anti-tax measure known as Proposition 13, school administrators in Palos Verdes, Calif.—where the Davidsons had lived since 1976—were forced to shorten the school day. Davidson, who had long tutored students in her home, decided to help fill in the gap created by the new tax law by opening a nonprofit tutoring business, which she called Upward Bound. Housed in a leased classroom at a local elementary school, the center offered courses in a variety of subjects, including speed reading, math, and English.

Enter—or rather, exit—the Apple II. The Davidson children barely had time to figure out how to turn the thing on before it was whisked away by their mother. “It went right over to the tutoring center,” Davidson says, somewhat sheepishly. Pointing at the photograph on her office wall, she laughs at the absurdity—and the fortuitousness—of what happened on that Christmas morning long ago. “Look at my face!” she says. “Doesn’t it look like I’m thinking, ‘What can I do with this machine?’”

Quite a lot, as it turned out. “The first thing I did was buy every piece of educational software I could find,” Davidson says. “About a dozen pieces.” Her assessment? “Oh, they were horrible. Just horrible.” She remembers one program that was designed to teach spelling skills. Unfortunately, some of the words were—you guessed it—misspelled. “So I called them up,” she recalls, “and a fellow said, ‘If you make a list of all the misspelled words, I’ll change the program for you.’ And I said, ‘Well, now, wait. I just paid 50 bucks for this. Why am I doing this for you? If I have to do that for you, I’ll just write my own spelling program.’ ‘‘

Then there was that annoying “beep” that the computer would make whenever the user typed in a wrong answer. Talk about negative feedback! “Everyone in the room would know that Johnny was having trouble with such and such,” Davidson says. “So I found a programmer and said, ‘Can you take that beep out?’ “Once that little problem was solved, she had other requests. “Finally, the programmer said, ‘Why don’t you just tell me what you want, and I’ll build it for you. I’ll code it for you.’ So I started designing software.”

Davidson’s first title, for high school students who were studying for the SAT, was called Speed Reader. Then came Word Attack, a vocabulary program, followed by Math Blaster, an arcade-style game that allowed children to shoot down space aliens whenever they solved an equation. Kids loved the way the programs combined learning with fun. Some parents and teachers were skeptical about this new thing called “computer learning,” but others were intrigued.

“People would come into the center and see what we were doing,” Davidson says. “When they saw the software, they would ask if they could buy it.” Davidson was more than happy to oblige. Still, the primary users were Davidson’s Upward Bound students. Then Apple called.

In those days, the computer company published a mail-order software catalog, and it wanted to include Davidson’s three titles. She agreed, and soon her products were reaching a growing national market of home computer users. Then, a year after the company first approached Davidson, Apple decided to get out of the mail-order business. Davidson, who never intended to give up teaching, thought it might be a good time to sell her products to a publisher, collect the royalties, and get back to full-time tutoring. When a San Diego company expressed interest in buying the programs, Davidson set up a meeting at a restaurant in San Clemente.

At the appointed time, Jan and Bob Davidson sat waiting for the software publisher to arrive. Two hours later, they were still waiting. Bob, then a top executive at Parsons Corp., a Pasadena engineering firm, had already tried to convince his wife not to sell out, but to no avail. Taking advantage of the situation, he decided to try one more time. As Jan recalls, “He said, ‘You know, you’re not going to be happy giving these products to anybody else. They’re like your children. Nobody understands them like you do. No one will give them the care and the love and the attention that you do. So you should start your own company.’ ‘‘ Reluctantly, Jan agreed. Having given up on the publisher, the Davidsons paid the check and drove back to Palos Verdes.

“I had a real big headache after that,” she recalls, laughing. “I still remember riding home in the car, thinking to myself, I can’t believe I said I would do this!” (They later found out that the San Diego publisher had gone to the wrong restaurant.)

Thus, in December 1982, Jan Davidson borrowed $6,000 that had been set aside for her children’s college education (“That was a little scary,” she admits) and founded Davidson & Associates. And the rest, as they say, is history. Math Blaster, which has been updated and expanded many times, has sold more than 1.6 million copies, making it the second most successful educational software title. (The top spot belongs to Broderbund’s Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? series.) The newest version, called Math Blaster: Secret of the Lost City, features three-dimensional color graphics, sound effects, a cute little superhero named Blasternaut, and four Nintendo-like adventure games. Math Blaster may not be cutting edge (critics have called it “a drill-and-practice program in video-game drag”), but it remains popular. Some recent Davidson products, however, allow more creativity on the part of the user, but the idea behind them remains the same: Learning should be fun.

That once-novel idea has brought tremendous financial success to Davidson & Associates. In 1993, the company enjoyed net revenues of nearly $60 million—not a bad return on that $6,000 initial investment. (Only Broderbund can claim a larger share of the educational software market.) From an appropriately modern-looking building in a Torrance, Calif., office park, Jan and Bob (he joined the company as chief executive officer in 1989) oversee a staff of 500, many of whom are themselves former teachers. And while most of the company’s software titles are sold to the home market, the Davidsons are placing their bets on the growing school market. “Right now,” Jan Davidson says, “the textbook is still the primary way the curriculum is delivered. I think that’s going to change, and I think we’re seeing the evolution beginning.” And make no mistake: Davidson & Associates intends to be a major provider of multimedia educational products to the schools.

For the president of a multimillion dollar company, Jan Davidson, now 50, still comes across as a schoolteacher. The sensible haircut, the stylish but not too flashy clothes, the boundless enthusiasm—all give the impression of someone who would rather be standing in front of a classroom than a boardroom. Born and raised in Frankfort, Ind., Davidson knew early on that she wanted to teach. She started tutoring at age 13, and from then on there was no turning back. “My very first student was named Pam Palmoroy,” she recalls. “I helped her with math, and she went from an F to a C. It did so much for her because she was the lowest in the class. I was hooked from then on. I started reading books on education. I even read John Dewey.”

Later, as an undergraduate at Purdue University, Davidson was dispatched to her first student-teaching assignment, in a junior high school in a nearby farm community. “I had all these big farm boys who weren’t particularly interested in learning,” she says. “I was trying to teach them The Red Badge of Courage. It was the hardest thing I ever did. But I got them interested in the book,” she adds, still savoring the long-ago victory. “They read it, and they talked about the symbolism.”

Study hall was a different matter. Davidson’s job was to keep a classroom full of rambunctious students from getting totally out of control. “The way I did it,” she recalls, “was to look directly at the person who was getting ready to act up, look him right in the eyes. It worked beautifully until one day, some guy stared right back at me. I just broke out in laughter! It destroyed my whole technique. I had to come up with a new one.”

Eventually, Davidson got a doctorate in American literature from the University of Maryland, which led to a series of college teaching positions as she and her husband moved three times in 10 years. When they landed in Palos Verdes in 1976, Jan got a job teaching freshman English at nearby El Camino Community College, and she laid down the law to her husband: No more moves. They had three children by then, and Palos Verdes seemed like a good place to settle down and raise a family. And if it hadn’t been for Proposition 13, that might be the end of the story: a typical upper-middle-class family living out the American dream in sunny Southern California.

Fast forward to 1989. Davidson & Associates was growing beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, and Jan Davidson needed help. She had gotten in over her head. “I had no background in or understanding of retail,” she says. So she began casting about for someone to run the business side of the company. She interviewed candidate after candidate, but the person she really wanted for the job was a man by the name of Bob Davidson. He wasn’t so sure about the idea. After all, he was scheduled to become chairman and CEO of Parsons Corp., so joining his wife’s company seemed like a risky proposition.

Then Jan came across something that had been stored away in their bedroom closet. When Bob was in graduate school, one of his classes was on the psychology of business, and during the course he had taken a test to determine what kind of business style he had. Jan was fascinated by the results, which concluded that her husband was a born entrepreneur who should start or run a small business. Certain that this was the clincher she needed to convince Bob to join the company, Jan used a little psychology of her own: She placed the test on the coffee table in the family room and then casually told her husband, “You might want to look at that.” Thinking back on her ploy, she pauses, then smiles. “It was shortly after that that he made up his mind.” His decision: leave Parsons and join Davidson & Associates as chairman and CEO.

Since then, with Bob in charge of the business operations and Jan overseeing product development, Davidson & Associates has become one of the hottest educational software companies around. In 1993, after 10 consecutive years of profits, the company went public, raising $25.6 million in the process and turning the Davidsons, who retain 56 percent of the outstanding shares, into multimillionaires. That same year, Forbes magazine named Davidson & Associates one of the best small companies in the world.

Bob Davidson—a mild-mannered man who wears a wristwatch with the red Davidson logo on its face—gives his wife all the credit. “She was always underestimated in the early years,” he says. “Always. It was typical. And I suspect there’s still some of that going on today. ‘Oh, she’s just a little quiet schoolteacher. What could she possibly do?’ Well, it turned out that she outworked almost all of them because she’s a workaholic, and she outsmarted the rest of them. And she’s built a company that has a

market value that’s first or second in the educational software area. So she’s accomplished a great deal. And it doesn’t surprise me because she’s very goal-oriented and a very hardworking person. She always has been. I never doubted that she could succeed at almost anything she tried.”

“Our approach,” Jan Davidson has said of her company, “is to start with specific educational objectives; then we try to think about what is the most engaging way those objectives can be achieved.” The key word, of course, is engaging; more than ever, kids demand a certain amount of sophistication in the software programs they use at home and at school. So Davidson products are loaded with high-tech sound and graphics, bright colors, and imaginative story lines. “I always want people to get more than they expect,” she says. “You want to surprise them. So we try to put lots of value in the products.”

The award-winning Kid CAD, for example, allows students in grades 2-8 to choose from a variety of pre-made objects to create three-dimensional images of houses, buildings, and even entire cityscapes. (CAD stands for “computer-aided design,” a standard component of Hollywood moviemaking these days.) Reviewer Don Crabb of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the program a 10 (out of 10) and wrote: “Davidson created Kid CAD to help stimulate your children’s creativity, while also teaching them practical skills like visualization, measurement, and basic volumetric mathematics. With each of these educational goals, Davidson has succeeded brilliantly. In addition, Kid CAD helps kids learn problem solving and to manipulate objects in a complex environment.”

Then there’s The Cruncher, which teaches kids how to use spreadsheets; Kid Works 2, which allows children to create and illustrate their own stories and then have the computer read the stories out loud; Reading Blaster, which, like Math Blaster, features an arcade-style learning game; Flying Colors, a new paint program that is going head-to-head in the marketplace with Broderbund’s popular Kid Pix 2; and The Multimedia Workshop, which allows users to combine words, videos, photographs, and illustrations to publish their own multimedia presentations.

In its advertising, Davidson & Associates uses the phrase “Teaching Tools From Teachers.” And while not every employee at the company has teaching experience, many do. “We hire a lot of teachers,” Jan Davidson says. “I like to hire the best person for the job, but when you’re developing educational software, an education background is really important.”

One such employee is Cathy Siegel, who was a teacher for nine years before coming to work for Davidson as a product designer in 1989. A warm and engaging person, Siegel had run a computer lab in the Houston public schools, where she discovered that her students loved using Math Blaster to learn arithmetic. She became such a big fan of the software program that she wrote her master’s thesis on it.

“I was pretty fresh out of the classroom when I joined Davidson,” she says, “so I had a lot of experience to draw from as far as what I knew kids liked. That helped me in designing products.” Most recently, Siegel led the design team that created The Multimedia Workshop. “It’s very satisfying working here,” says Siegel, sitting in one of the building’s many design “pods,” “especially since at the heart of my being I’m still an educator. And I’m affecting more kids now than I ever did in the classroom. That’s real satisfying to me.”

Reviewers have long praised Davidson’s software programs for their educational value. In 1993, Holly Brady, then editor of Technology & Learning magazine, told The New York Times, “You can see a teacher’s mind in those products,” adding that among the leaders in educational software, “Davidson is the most rooted in the classroom.”

Warren Buckleitner, editor of the bimonthly Children’s Software Revue, is more critical. “I don’t really see Davidson breaking new ground, like Broder-bund or Edmark,” he says. “They’re a very market-oriented company. That seems to be their first priority, as opposed to innovation. We’d like to see some of their products developed further.” Because of some technical glitches, he says, “I’ve seen some teachers get real frustrated by their products.” Still, he adds, “I think they’re a valuable company. They fill a lot of needs for people, and I have a lot of admiration for Jan Davidson.”

In recent years, Jan Davidson has spent a lot of time giving speeches to educators, preaching the gospel of technology in the classroom. “As I visit schools throughout the country and talk with educators,” she tells audiences, “I sense that our schools are preparing kids for a workplace that no longer exists. While there are many notable exceptions...the majority of our schools are set up to teach kids how to work in an Industrial Age. But the world these kids are going to face is an Information Age—a fast-paced global marketplace where American success cannot be automatically assumed. It’s like teaching mileage when all the road signs are in kilometers or using a map from the ‘50s to explain what’s going on in Bosnia.”

Davidson proposes an Information Age classroom, where students move through the school day in a manner similar to the way adults move through the workday. Students in such a classroom, she says, “will manage their time. They will have teammates. And they will have technology tools. They will use computers to access information and then use software tools—desktop publishers, spreadsheets, CAD systems, and many others—that their counterparts in Information Age workplaces use to do their work.”

Meanwhile, Davidson laments, schools are stuck in the Dark Ages, relying on the textbook to deliver the curriculum. “But that is changing,” she says. “From the early part of the century until the 1980s, the textbook was the principal form of instructional materials. In the 1980s, computer software began appearing in schools, but most of the time it was supplemental to the ‘real work’ going on in the classroom. In the 1990s, textbooks often include software correlated to them. In fact, in the recent California math adoptions, all materials adopted had technology components.

“Moving forward,” she continues, “core curriculum materials that are technology driven rather than textbook driven will become the standard. I believe that once we overcome our reliance on the printed page, virtually all curriculum materials will be delivered by technology.”

Not surprisingly, Davidson has no intention of sitting around waiting for this change to occur; she’s doing everything she can to make it happen. Davidson & Associates already markets several curricular materials, including Story Club, a multimedia language-development program for elementary grades, and English Express, a multimedia English-as-a-Second-Language program for grades 5 through adult.

But perhaps the company’s most ambitious product is Vital Links, which Davidson is developing along with Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. and the states of California, Florida, and Texas. Set for release later this year, the multimedia American history program will be targeted at limited-English-proficient middle school students.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that this is how we’re going to be providing information to kids in the future,” notes Donavan Merck, manager of the Educational Technology Office in the California Department of Education. Merck, along with his counterparts in Florida and Texas, came up with the idea for the project about three years ago, when the three educators were speaking together on a panel. After soliciting proposals from various software companies, they chose Davidson & Associates to design the program.

“We’ve been real pleased with the work Davidson has done,” adds David Brittain, chief of the Bureau of Educational Technology for the Florida Department of Education. “We’re not taking text out of learning,” he adds, “but the form in which it is presented is going to change. The textbook is going to decline in use.” The Vital Links program, he says, will be available on CD-ROM and will contain video clips, charts, graphs, pictures, and text. “It just puts the textbook to shame.”

But will teachers embrace such high-tech materials? Not if their schools don’t have the money to buy the computer equipment and software. “We really frustrate teachers with these products,” admits Merck. Yet he hopes that parents and educators will be so enthralled by Vital Links that they will do everything they can to get it in their schools.

Cathy Siegel points out another problem. “Teachers,” she says, “are still scared of technology. I think there’s still a perception that the machines might replace them, which is not true.”

“I think there’s much less resistance from teachers than there was five years ago,” notes Jan Davidson. “Every year, I see the resistance decreasing. As more people try technology, they get into it more, they do more interesting things, and they learn more. It’s a learning process for teachers, too. There’s no doubt in my mind that the momentum [toward technology] is increasing.”

To Bob Davidson, it’s all a simple matter of inevitability. “Even the print folks see it that way,” he ventures. “So we don’t see roadblocks so much as things that can either accelerate or decelerate the pace of change. But we’re on the right side of that change. I mean, it’s coming to us.”

To strengthen their company’s position in the marketplace, the Davidsons have been busy buying up other concerns, most notably Educational Resources, which is the largest distributor of packaged software to schools. In addition, they have formed strategic alliances with several textbook publishers, including Simon & Schuster, Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, and McDougal, Littell. It’s all part of the Davidsons’ plan to create a company modeled after the old Hollywood movie studios rather than after the traditional book publishing firms. According to the company’s annual report, “This studio strategy means that Davidson leverages many resources—our own as well as those outside the company, in areas such as software development, publishing, and distribution—enabling us to increase the number and quality of products, while strengthening our distribution.”

One look inside Davidson & Associates’ headquarters, and it’s clear that this is a company that intends to grow—and then grow some more. Last spring, the company’s warehouse operations were moved to another building, about five miles away, freeing up space for research and development. Now, small teams of designers work in windowless pods—common meeting rooms surrounded by offices—to create individual products, a process that can take up to a year. Virtually every aspect of the software is completed in-house. There’s a brand-new sound-recording studio, where a young man in a ponytail and baseball cap composes all the music for Davidson products. Next door is a state-of-the-art video-editing studio. And just down the hall is the “usability lab,” with a bank of one-way windows. Here, students from nearby schools are brought in to test the latest Davidson products, while observers scribble notes. And yet, despite the recent expansion, there’s still a room the size of a basketball court that sits empty, awaiting future plans. Chances are, it won’t be empty for long.

Meanwhile, Jan Davidson has found a way to get back to where it all began: the classroom. One night a week, she co-teaches a class called “Information Technologies and Staff Development Strategies” at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education. “Once a teacher, always a teacher,” says her partner, professor Terry Cannings.

And while Davidson rejects being called a workaholic, the schoolteacher-turned-entrepreneur recently decided she was spreading herself too thin, so she hired a vice president for product management to take over some of her responsibilities. Is the woman who claims “I’ve never been very good at moderation” showing signs of slowing down? Don’t bet on it. “I’m going back to working a 50-hour week,’” she jokes. “That’s my goal.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Teacher, Tutor, High-tech Tycoon