Looking Back on 20 Years: One Education Company’s Story

A software engineer and veteran edtech leader talks about what it takes to thrive.

GUEST COLUMN | by Cheryl Vedoe

Think back to the many new education companies you heard about 20 years ago.

It may (or may not) surprise you to realize few still exist today as independent businesses.

Apex Learning is one such company.

It’s interesting to reflect on what it has taken for us to thrive in a market as challenging as K–12 education.

Solve a Problem that’s a Priority for Educators

There are countless ways technology can have a positive impact on teaching and learning, and there is a steady stream of startups with interesting new ideas.

But a new idea to improve teaching and learning often isn’t enough to build a successful education business.

“To us, sustaining a growing, profitable business means maintaining our focus on solving problems that are priorities for educators and for which there is budget. It means always listening to and learning from our users; it’s from them we understand where it makes sense to focus next.”

In our experience, the key is to provide a solution to a problem that is a priority for educators to solve—and for which there is funding.

In its earliest years, Apex Learning provided high schools across the country the ability to offer online Advanced Placement courses to their students. Online AP courses offer equity of access to students attending the nearly 40 percent of high schools that don’t have an onsite AP program for very practical reasons.

Students who previously didn’t have access to AP courses can now compete for college admission on a level playing field.

Equity of access was and is an important need schools seek to address through non-traditional means.

Solve a Problem with Budget

Largely as a result of federal funding to expand Advanced Placement options and state funded virtual learning initiatives, Apex Learning experienced early success and rapid growth. But as the funding for the federal and state initiatives shifted, Apex Learning had to reinvent itself in order to continue to grow. It is often the case that education start-ups benefit from special funding as Apex Learning did.

The challenge is sustaining the company when the targeted funding no longer exists. And while equity of access is important to school districts, there are competing priorities when it comes to allocating budgets.

It was at this point that through our partnerships with school districts we identified a critical need well suited to digital learning and to our newly expanded course catalog: keeping more students on track to graduate high school.

The graduation rate is a key metric for school districts and a high priority for administrators—and the allocation of school budgets reflects that.

While online AP courses continue to be a key component of our business, supporting school districts to implement digital learning programs to meet the diverse needs of high school students who are not on track to graduate has been the major driver of our growth for the last 10 years.

Listen, Learn, and Deliver Results

It was through listening to and working with the educators using our digital curriculum that we developed deep knowledge and expertise in what works for the students we serve in these programs.

Whether it’s the generally self-motivated, high-achieving students taking our AP courses or the English language learners, below proficient readers, and struggling students typical of the alternative programs using our digital curriculum, we have focused on developing curriculum that works for students.

We also recognize the critical role that teachers play in a successful program, and supporting teachers with professional development and tools that provide them with insight into how students are doing is as important to us as providing what works for students.

At the end of the day it’s about results.

In this era of subscription business models, renewals are critical to sustaining a business, and if students aren’t demonstrating learning and a district isn’t achieving the outcomes they expect, a renewal isn’t likely.

We partner with our clients every step of the way to ensure their implementations are successful and they achieve their goals.

Looking Ahead

If you ask an Apex Learning employee why they choose to work here rather than another company, the answer will generally be something along the lines of:

“Because we make a real difference in the lives of students.”

We are a team united by our passion to make a difference in education. We also understand that to have the opportunity to continue to do so we have to sustain a growing, profitable business.

To us, sustaining a growing, profitable business means maintaining our focus on solving problems that are priorities for educators and for which there is budget. It means always listening to and learning from our users; it’s from them we understand where it makes sense to focus next.

We’ve learned a great deal over the last 10 years about the challenges high schools face meeting the diverse needs of students not ready for the rigor of high school courses.

There’s still much to be done in that area.

At that same time, it has led us to our newest area of focus: helping more middle school students master grade-level content so they are prepared for high school.

In everything we do, we are committed to innovation that delivers what works for students, insights for teachers, and results for our district partners.

Cheryl Vedoe, CEO of Apex Learning, has spent her entire career in the technology industry and more than 25 years partnering with schools to improve educational outcomes. She is a trustee of Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.


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