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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Reading & Literacy Opinion

Can This ‘Shark Tank'-Winning Platform Get Kids to Read?

Post-pandemic reading abilities may get a boost from certain tools.
By Rick Hess — August 17, 2023 6 min read
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Reading achievement is flat-lining (or worse), and I’ve broader concerns that reading is getting crowded out of children’s lives by social media, gaming, and other digital distractions. This all has me especially interested in programs, strategies, and tools that might help change that state of affairs. Well, one such venture is Beanstack by Zoobean Inc., which began as a book-of-the-month club in 2013 and has today evolved into a “Shark Tank"-funded platform used by more than 180 school districts and around 9 million readers. I recently got the chance to chat with Beanstack co-founder and chief executive officer Felix Lloyd, who was named District of Columbia teacher of the year in 2001. Here’s what he had to say.

—Rick

Rick: What is Beanstack?

Felix: Beanstack is a reading platform that uses competition, recognition, and proven gamification principles to motivate students to read and grow a school district’s reading culture. We pair our unique community-reading-challenge approach with the same gamification principles of motivational apps like Fitbit and learning apps like Duolingo: rewarding students with digital badges, encouraging daily reading with streaks, and promoting positive competition with classmates. This inspires a true love of reading in students.

Rick: What does this “community reading challenge” approach look like in practice?

Felix: Community-reading challenges are time bound and have specific and achievable milestones, like logging a certain amount of reading. The goals are shared among a whole community of readers, whether that be a classroom, school, district, city, county, or state. This knits the community together around a common experience and purpose. Schools with a shared community goal see 84 percent more active participation than a school without a goal.

Rick: What was the inspiration for starting Beanstack?

Felix: After gaining an investment from Mark Cuban on the television show “Shark Tank,” my wife—co-founder of Zoobean Inc., Jordan Lloyd Bookey—and I attended the American Library Association conference in Las Vegas in 2014. It was there that we learned how important summer reading programs are for public libraries, and we started working with our first few library clients. On the first day of summer reading in 2015, we saw more engagement than we had in over a year of selling the original consumer-facing service we pitched on “Shark Tank.” From that point forward, we began to focus primarily on summer reading, reading challenges, and generally motivating kids to read more.

Rick: So, just to be clear, it was this “Shark Tank” experience that prompted the shift from Zoobean to Beanstack, when you morphed from a book-a-month mailing service to a software platform? Do I have that right? And how has that change worked out?

Felix: Zoobean Inc. is our company name, but Beanstack is now our sole product. Beanstack has become the top choice of public libraries using software for summer reading challenges. Post-pandemic, we’ve seen significant growth in the number of schools and school districts coming to Beanstack to motivate student reading and support reading recovery. The suite of tools within Beanstack now includes a mobile app, custom reading-challenge types like bingo and reading-lists challenges, fundraising features to facilitate readathons, and a forthcoming classroom-library management system. It’s really grown with our users, and we have evolved the software based on direct feedback from them.

Rick: Can you talk a bit about how a reading-motivator software program works?

Felix: Increasing how many minutes per day each student reads independently is something we’re very passionate about, especially in schools. The gamification we’ve built into Beanstack through features like digital badges, achievements, leaderboards and friends, and reading streaks are just a few ways kids are motivated to read more. Plus, school librarians, teachers, and administrators gain actionable insights and data on their students’ reading habits. This helps educators both address areas for improvement and celebrate successes.

Rick: Who is the typical Beanstack user?

Felix: The typical student user for us is an elementary or middle school student. For elementary kids, they’re learning to read and building stamina. For middle schoolers, they might be reading less frequently and need an extra incentive to pick up a book. We’re starting to see a lot more teachers in the administration side of our platform, too, which is great.

Rick: When you think about other providers in this space, what makes Beanstack distinctive?

Felix: In the school market, we’re competing against platforms like Accelerated Reader, Destiny Discover Engage, and Reading Counts. The key difference between us and our competitors is that we encourage students of diverse backgrounds and reading abilities to read more. Unlike other platforms, we have no levels or quizzing. Research shows that kids who read for fun score higher on standardized tests and develop lifelong reading habits. We’re really leaning into that and starting to see the positive outcomes.

Rick: Can you talk about some of these positive outcomes?

Felix: Mitchell County Middle School in Georgia is a great example of a school seeing real reading improvement using Beanstack. The school’s total Lexile value—the numerical measure of overall reading ability—increased nearly 10 percent, from 195,650L to 214,445L, from the fall to winter in the 2021-22 school year. And when they looked at individual Lexile scores, nearly one-third of their students improved by more than 150L, compared with average middle school growth of 70L. They tripled the rate they had hoped for—and in half the time. Additionally, Joy James Elementary School in the Castleberry Independent school district, Texas, challenged each student to log 2,000 minutes of reading in Beanstack during the 2021-22 school year. The end-of-year results exceeded even the highest expectations: Student reading scores increased by an average of 62 percent and math scores by 47 percent. Reading impacts so much more than just reading, and improvements in literacy can lead to improvements in other subjects as well.

Rick: Those results certainly sound impressive. But have there been any more systematic attempts to assess Beanstack’s effectiveness? If not, do you have anything like that in the offing?

Felix: We are currently designing a system to chart Lexile growth for individual students, classes, and schools based on the titles students log and other reading data available in Beanstack. This information will be exposed and alert educators without making it a focus for the student independent-reading experience, so that teachers, librarians, and administrators can track and support student progress. This type of student assessment based on data without formally assessing students can lead to targeted interventions and help further motivate students to read.

Rick: Can you talk a bit about who pays and how you’ve made the model sustainable?

Felix: Beanstack is an annual subscription software with three tiers of product features to choose from in addition to customized client-success services. Individual school buildings can license the service, while licenses for multiple buildings or school districts are discounted. Historically, our customers have been funded by the district librarian or instructional technology budget. Increasingly, curriculum coordinators, principals, Title I coordinators, and superintendents are part of the decision-making process.

Rick: What’s on the horizon for Beanstack?

Felix: This summer, we’re launching a new set of features to increase student engagement with classroom libraries and help foster collaboration between teachers and media specialists. Teachers will be able to quickly scan and digitally catalog their classroom libraries to increase their use and visibility, as well as easily facilitate classroom reading-list challenges. These features further streamline how schools and districts track reading, providing much-needed data for teachers, district media specialists, and curriculum coordinators to get kids reading and improve literacy outcomes in their districts.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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