Pittsburgh’s Think Through Learning adding up for students

A focus on math education and interest in improving test scores are adding up to a growing business for Think Through Learning Inc.

The Pittsburgh technology company is filling a need for public schools across the country that are under pressure to boost achievement, especially in math, with an online math-learning program called Think Through Math.

The company expects the interactive lessons to be used by 3 million students in 17,000 schools this year. Four years ago, 90,000 students used it.

“Teachers and parents and leaders know that they really need to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) understanding,” CEO Kevin McAliley said. “Seventy percent of students are not proficient in math.”

More students means more sales of licenses for the online program. For the last three years, Think Through Learning has posted average annual revenue growth of 36 percent, said McAliley, who declined to provide specific revenue figures for the privately held company.

And sales growth is leading to more employment of engineers, online math tutors and others by the North Shore-based company. Think Through Learning employs 170, up from 40 workers three years ago, McAliley said.

School administrators say they pay for the program in an era of tight budgets because it provides extra individual attention to students who need help with math concepts. The service costs $16 per student per year, including on-demand online tutoring.

“One of the real gains is adding minutes to the school day,” Lou Piconi, the company’s founder, said of Think Through Math’s benefit to schools. “It’s very much like putting more teachers in the classroom.”

About 800 elementary and middle school students in North Hills School District are using the program, said Jeff Taylor, assistant superintendent for curriculum, assessment and special programs. It’s also used by a handful of high school students who need to catch up, Taylor said. The district has more than 4,000 students.

Taylor said he didn’t have data on Think Through Math’s impact on the district’s scores on standardized tests, but educators there are studying the program’s effect on student achievement this year for the first time. Teachers generally find that students who struggle with math do better on class assignments and tests after completing Think Through Math’s courses, he said.

“We have seen the students do really well with the program. It’s having a positive impact on our students’ performance,” he said.

Woodland Hills School District, which covers communities east of Pittsburgh, has steadily expanded the number of its schools and grades that use the program in the past four years, said Licia Lentz, the district’s curriculum coordinator.

Initially, the district used it for math remediation at the high school level. For this school year, the district is using the program with students in grades three through 12, Lentz said. Pressure to show improvements in test scores is driving the district to expand use of the program, she said.

Teachers like the program, she said, because students work at their own pace, and if they get stuck on a problem or concept, an online tutor is instantly available to provide one-on-one instruction. They believe it helps students improve their math performance, though the district hasn’t studied the program’s impact, she said.

“The programs we’ve seen in the past, they just moved kids along” whether students learned the material or not, she said. “There really wasn’t learning. With Think Through Math, it’s really individualized. And if they don’t get it right, they don’t just move them along.”

The program is used in public schools outside of Western Pennsylvania as well, including in Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, West Virginia and Illinois. The company said it is exploring selling the service to consumers.

Think Through Math is used in about 9 percent of the nation’s schools, McAliley said, leaving a huge runway for growth. There are about 115,000 schools in the country.

The overall market for PreK-12 educational software was valued at $7.9 billion last year, according to the Software & Information Industry Association, a trade association in Washington.

Software used for testing and assessment, the largest category within the industry, showed growth of 35 percent from 2012 to 2013, the association said. An estimated $700 million to $800 million is spent each year on math-learning software and online services.

“The rapid growth of the testing and assessment market will slow but remain an important area of investment in school districts and states,” John Richards, author of the association’s report, said in a statement.

While there is plenty of growth to be realized in math, Think Through Learning is exploring other subjects, including English language arts and science, Piconi said.

“We think science looks like the next opportunity,” he said.

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