Why this startup wants teachers to outsource their grading

by Andreas Rekdal
May 16, 2017

Applicable to practically any academic field or professional focus, learning how to write well can be one of the most valuable takeaways from a K-12 education. But becoming a good writer requires lots of practice and in-depth feedback, which can be hard for time-strapped teachers to provide.

The Graide Network wants to help teachers provide that additional follow-up for their students.

“We recruit and train pre-service teachers — folks who are studying and preparing to become educators — and we teach them how to be experts at providing feedback on student writing,” said co-founder and CEO Blair Pircon. “That involves grading, scoring essays and commenting on them so that students know what they need to do to improve their writing.”

Teachers who use the platform are paired up with virtual teaching assistants, or “graiders,” who assess student work based on learning objectives, grading rubrics and the instructional materials the teacher provided to students. The TAs also provide two to three comments about areas of strength, and two to three actionable comments about how the assignment could have been improved.

Pircon said the advantages of her company’s platform are manifold. The current grading model, in which teachers often assess student work on evenings and weekends, makes it difficult to assign enough writing for students to really hone their craft. By taking some of the assessment off the teacher’s plate, The Graide Network can allow them to give more writing assignments.

The Graide Network also seeks to reduce turnaround times and provide more in-depth feedback than many teachers are currently able to give because of time constraints.

The company’s virtual assistants are selected for their skills at providing feedback and trained through an online program covering subjects like the characteristics of effective feedback, grading rubrics, grade calibration, pattern analysis and data-driven instruction.

“We are producing quite a bit of data, both in the form of quantitative scores and qualitative feedback,” said Pircon. “Using that, we can help teachers identify patterns and do ability grouping for students, and see really rich data at the component level of how students are performing.”

The biggest challenge in running The Graide Network, said Pircon, has been to ensure quality of feedback while at the same time accommodating the variety of teaching styles and assignment types they encounter.

“This is not standardized testing or standardized assessments at all,” she said. “It represents the full range of the creativity of classroom teachers… The lack of standardization can be an operational challenge, but it also provides an opportunity because that’s where you need a pair of human eyes.”

The Graide Network started as a research project in 2015, while Pircon was an MBA candidate at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. After completing a pilot program and bringing on co-founder Liz Nell, Pircon officially launched the company in September 2016. The feedback so far, said the founder, has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I think it’s a nice balance of something that’s familiar — the teacher’s assistant — combined with something innovative, which is that they can get it on demand,” she said. “We’ve been growing a ton, and we have great clients who value the services.”

The Graide Network has five full-time employees and “a couple hundred” part-time graders, said Pircon. Its investors include Pipeline Angels, friends and family and a number of individual angel investors.

“We definitely appreciate that we were able to find backers who align with who we are as a team, our mission and what we are trying to accomplish,” said Pircon. “The Chicago community has been wonderfully supportive, and we’ve been able to benefit from many programs like WiSTEM, the Kellogg School of Management and some really cool things that have happened with the thriving startup community here.”


Images via The Graide Network.

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