MINDsprinting Interview

I talked by phone Tuesday morning with Doug Golden, who co-founded MINDsprinting.com with his brother Steve.

Luke: "How did you get involved in this?"

Doug: "I was an attorney for 25 years. My brother [Steve] founded an internet company that we took public in 2000.  In 2002 we were both retired and on the sidelines. We were talking one day about doing something, a give-something-back project if you will.

"I had started my daughter in Kumon, which is the largest tutoring franchise in the world, when she was three or four.  We were talking about how its system worked. I paid about $200 a month to take her to a center where there were no teachers, no instruction. Basically she took an assessment test and they sent her home with seven lessons per subject. My wife and I would correct her lessons each week and drive her to the center to turn them in. They would look at the results manually, give us seven more to take home, and that was it.  Nonetheless, I was impressed with her progress.

"So that got us thinking. As the internet was the greatest information tool ever invented surely someone must be offering affordable tutoring or free tutoring. And that, in a nutshell, was the beginning.  We began researching online and to our great surprise found that no one was offering affordable, comprehensive, easy to use tutoring.  Then, and even now, you can find free libraries of worksheets, but most parents don’t have the time, knowledge or will after a day at work to prepare a lesson plan and tutor their child.

"We spent the next two years developing our business plan, securing proven quality curricula, and building a user-friendly system that could assess a student’s knowledge, create a program designed for that student, and assign lessons as the student advanced.   

"When we first launched, advertising was not an option; after the crash of Internet companies in 2000, Internet advertising was difficult to secure and deliver. So we had to charge users for our tutoring; but the Internet enabled us to offer our programs for $15 a month versus the $80-$100 charged by Kumon.  Then in 2006 when technological advances and market changes advertising easy to secure and deliver, we jumped on the opportunity to convert our systems.  It provided us the ultimate end to our quest: to provide quality tutoring for free.  Now we could pass the costs on to the advertisers.

"Around the same time, from feedback we had received from our many users (home-schoolers, teachers, etc.) we also realized we could provide direct assistance to teachers and schools.  Our curriculum had been approved and used successfully for NCLB tutoring – but it’s a tutoring program; it wasn’t designed to follow a state’s curriculum.  It was developed from 20 plus years of experience in successfully tutoring students in necessary skills.  But with students struggling on the state exam, there was a need for a program that addressed just the skills they needed to know for the exam.  And so that’s what we decided to create.   

"Unfortunately, there are no national standards. The way math is taught varies from state to state.  So we had to create 51 different programs (one for each state and D.C.) and the result is a very unique tool.  To our knowledge nobody offers this type of free assistance to teachers and schools. 

"We did a soft launch of the free site in mid-May this year. We’re only now starting to roll it our fully.  But in this short period of time we’ve had phenomenal growth – and with little or no advertising; it’s all been from word of mouth.

"It’s amazing where visitors are coming from: boards of education, after-school and community assistance programs, associations, charities, churches, colleges and universities, and corporate America too.  The most surprising segment to us, which continues to grow significantly each day, is healthcare providers – hospitals, healthcare companies, etc.  We hadn’t thought about it beforehand, but it makes perfect sense; hospitalized kids miss a lot of class time, clearly don’t receive any tutoring while undergoing treatment or recuperating, and they can definitely benefit from mental stimulation instead of watching TV.  This is just one example of the many areas where we’ve discovered a craving for free tutoring.

"I believe the wonderful reception we’ve received is based upon the quality of our curriculum.  It’s been proven over the course of 20-plus years.  It’s been vetted by educators.  It’s been approved for NCLB tutoring.  So now that it’s available for free, students of all ages – children and adults – are taking advantage of the opportunity to improve their skills.  And remember, our programs are not just for remedial purposes; they’re ideal for enrichment students too.  Imagine a classroom of 25 students.  Clearly all of them are not at the same level: some lack skills they didn’t master in prior grades; some are at grade level; and others are being held back because the work is too easy.  But teachers don’t have the time to create separate programs for each student.  But MINDsprinting can do it for them. 

Luke: "One of the great things about the internet is that I bet you get a lot of feedback."

Doug: "All the feedback we’ve received about our programs has been extremely positive and encouraging.  And we’ve improved our systems based upon user suggestions.  We encourage it.   We post many of the emails we receive on the site for other parents and teachers to read.  It’s a wonderful feeling to receive an email saying, ‘Thank you for making these wonderful programs available for free. My son or daughter has really improved.’ And I must add that with the thousands of kids enrolled, and thousands of visitors we get daily, we get very few questions about how to use the system. So it appears we’ve succeeded (at least so far) with making it very user friendly."

Luke: "Being a parent yourself, that was the impetus for all this?"

Doug: "We started our daughter in a tutoring program at an early age to give her a head start before entering school. I was fortunate enough to be able to afford it and frankly, because of that head start, she’s excelled ever since.   MINDsprinting provides that same opportunity to all families – but for free; it enables all kids to get that head start, or improve their skills at their own pace, or excel as far as they can – if they want to.  We’ve taken cost out of the equation.  That’s why many of our students often find themselves ahead of their classmates; they’ve already learned what the curriculum requires them to study in school. "

"And in creating our system, being parents, we set the bar high.  We wanted a website and programs that our children could and would use.  And that’s what we built.  Right now both my 12-year old and my 4-year old are using MINDsprinting."

Luke: "Were you a good student?"

Doug: "Yes."

Luke: "So you didn’t really need this when you were a kid?"

Doug: "No, I didn’t.  But times were different then.  Schools and the demands on teachers were different then.  And U.S. students performed better against their peers in the world back then.  There is no question that we have an education problem in this country today and tutoring alone is not the solution.  But it is a way to help parents and teachers deal with the realities that exist today.  A way to make sure more opportunities are available for their kids until the country can devise a solution to this problem.

"For example, there are respected studies that show kids lose 2.6 months of knowledge in math during the summer so that teachers have to spend four to six weeks reviewing last year’s material when the kids come back in the fall. That’s four to six weeks of time they really don’t have – especially when you consider the declining high school graduation rates, the poor results on the annual state exams, and the mediocre rankings the U.S. now has versus other countries in math, reading and science as evidenced by the international PISA tests and others.  But if kids spent as little as 30 minutes a few days a week doing lessons during the summer things could be different when they went back to school – both for them and their teachers.

Luke: "It’s going to be the motivated students and parents who are going to be using this, but the kids who most need it probably won’t get off their butt and do this."

Doug: "I’ll tell you an interesting thing. I’m glad you mentioned that. A couple of years ago, we started working with the BGCA – Boys and Girls Clubs of America. We did a test in New Hampshire with six clubs (30 students each). We monitored the progress. Not only did the level of academic achievement amaze the club directors (it was higher for more kids in a shorter period of time than was expected), but the other kids were clamoring for the opportunity to do lessons too. And the kids truly enjoyed doing their lessons; they started competing amongst themselves to see who could do more.  And the clubs easily added the programs to their existing incentive systems too. One club even had an award night where parents attended and certificates were handed out in front of everyone.  That meant a lot to those kids.  It was incredible.  

 

"The Today show recently did a bit about “Summer Amnesia”, which I alluded to earlier – when students lose knowledge over the course of summer vacation. In an article published by one of the guest doctors on the show, it stated, and I’m paraphrasing here, that 56% of kids actually want some sort of structured learning program during the summer.  They wish they had assignments to do.  Well, they’re ready and waiting for them at MINDsprinting. 

"Many parents don’t have the time to sit for an hour with their kids every night to help them with their homework, even though studies show that the more the parental involvement there is, the better the kids perform in school. Teachers and schools have been trying to get parents involved for years.

"So we created MINDsprinting with that idea in mind: to make it easy for parents to get involved without a lot of effort or time so their kids could still reap those benefits. For example, kids can print the lessons and do them after school. Mom or dad comes home, logs on, pulls up the answer sheet we provide, corrects the lesson, and reports the results to us by filling in 2 boxes. That’s all they have to do. It takes all of five minutes. And now they’re involved. They’re part of their child’s education. They’re monitoring their child’s progress. They’re able to say, ‘Great job! I’m proud of you!’ This has been shown time and time again to increase kids’ self-esteem and they perform better because of it. And you don’t need a computer at home to use MINDsprinting because everything can be done, such as printing lessons or reporting results, anywhere there is access to the Internet and a printer – like at work, the library, etc."

Luke: "I’m 42. When I was going to school, it never occurred to my parents to get involved in my education beyond checking my grades. Were your parents involved in yours?"

Doug: "Yes and no.  Not in the sense of a formal tutoring program.  But my father helped me with math lessons at times and I had him read every report I ever wrote until college.  He was involved. Most importantly I remember how great I felt when he reviewed something and said ‘Great job!’ That meant a lot to me.    

Luke: "Remember how they would always tell you in Geometry and Algebra, ‘You’re going to need this when you grow up.’ I never did. How about you?"

Doug: "It’s funny. I think we probably use algebra more times than we know. You’re grouping things and applying general formulas in many facets of life.  When you get into more advanced subjects I really can’t say.  I guess it depends on what type of career you end up in.  It’s different for everyone.  

“I’ll leave it to the experts as to what math the kids need to learn in school to be properly prepared for the future.  Who knows, maybe at a minimum the exposure to upper level math is what starts a child down the path to becoming an architect or an engineer.  But reading is different; the skill levels must improve.  What future is there for someone reading at an eighth grade level after graduating from high school?

"I’ve read many articles where universities complain about the number of remedial programs they must provide for incoming students because they lack the skills to study college-level material. That’s not what a college education is supposed to be.

Luke: "I bet that’s why some of hospitals and corporations are using your stuff because probably half of their workers are illiterate."

Doug: "I can’t really say.  I just know there are many children and adults who need to – and more importantly, who want to, improve their math and reading skills.  And there’s no doubt that doing so will improve their opportunities in the future.

Luke: "There are always these new trends in education. Do you have to keep up with trends or do you just stick to the reading, writing, arithmetic stuff?"

Doug: "Our goal is to have MINDsprinting become the portal for free tutoring – the place everyone goes to for free help. Our system was designed to add subjects. Right now we just offer the basics – math and reading, but our goal is to continue adding content.  For example, science, study skills, and English Second Language to name a few.  The ultimate goal is to offer assistance in every subject you can imagine.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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