The Lesson for Today

Education, data, and a Silicon Valley solution to help teachers better understand students in East San Jose and beyond. A conversation with John Matthew Sobrato ’10.

The Lesson for Today
Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

Dorian Llywelyn: You’ve been teaching history for six years at Latino College Prep in East San Jose. So why the foray into software?

John M. Sobrato: As a teacher, being able to discern the identities of your students and really know who they are is essential to being an effective educator. That was drilled into us through Santa Clara’s credentialing program. But nothing is given to you to enable you to do that—unless you’re very proficient in Excel and have an infinite number of spare hours, which anybody in the education profession is going to tell you is ludicrous.

Now, as a history teacher, I want to know: Do students struggle with questions that involve contextualization? Do they struggle with argumentation and their ability to articulate what they’re advocating? Or do my students struggle with quantitative analysis, when they have to interpret a map, or analyze a chart or a bar graph? I might give a pre-assessment to begin the year. I notice, “They’re pretty good at argumentation, but wow—the whole class is struggling with quantitative reasoning.” So I can start designing targeted mini-lessons that improve outcomes for them.

Llywelyn: How does that lead to founding a company?

Sobrato: The software we created, Alloy Learning, is a fully customizable online assessment tool. A teacher is able to use this online platform, which is web-based, to give any sort of assessment across any subject area. It allows teachers to input whatever information they want to assess the students on—which means the assessments are more closely aligned to the curriculum. Teachers get excited because they don’t have to do as much grading and can go paperless, and not waste as much time in class administering. I and the other team members realized the real power of the software is the ability to understand your students better through data. The tough thing for a teacher in the modern world is, you really have a heterogeneous classroom. There are so many different identities at play: gender, race, socioeconomic status, parent education level, special needs, what students’ language acquisition level is. You have to be able to drill down and know how to help them best. The software automatically pulls that information from the school and makes it accessible to any teacher within the school site. They can view all those facets of each student and support them and really help them achieve.

We’re trying to empower educators: making teachers not only more efficient but more intentional. Too often in education, without evidence and data, teachers don’t have to be intentional. That can lead to some bad outcomes for students. We read stories all the time about how the educational institutions in the United States are crumbling and students are not being prepared properly. We want to be doing our part to work on correcting that and make teachers stronger.

Llywelyn: It sounds like you’re bringing together interest in the technical stuff and concern for students. But who are the people you brought together?

Sobrato: Greg Lambrecht ’10, our CEO, also went to Santa Clara and we got our credentials together. He teaches English at Fremont High School. Matt Pham, our chief technical officer and programmer, went to Bellarmine College Prep with us, then UCLA. Our chief financial officer, Ross Irmer, completed a certificate of accounting proficiency at Santa Clara. Along with Jesuit philosophy and caring about social justice and the impact that education can have, we also share an interest, in the educational sphere, to helping people do their work with evidence. Teachers can make better decisions on behalf of their students. And it can be done collaboratively; everything can be shared.


Llywelyn: Santa Clara has put this software to use as part of our Thriving Neighbors Initiative at Washington Elementary in San Jose. What has that experience been from your side?

Sobrato: Being on the advisory board of the Ignatian Center, I was struck during the first meetings that I went to—when they would talk about Thriving Neighbors and its successes, and the data behind these successes. I remember looking through the data and thinking, “Sure, this would give you an indication that things might be working. But it’s kind of superficial.” One statistic noted how many hours the students were in the program. “Great, but how do you know they learned anything in those five thousand hours?” You need hard data around the skills a student was supposed to take away. I was excited that Alloy could fill in that gap and allow Thriving Neighbors to take a really interesting after-school program around science, technology, engineering, and math and prove to stakeholders that it’s working. Because if it’s working, we want to expand it, and we want more people interested in investing in it. Plus, by partnering with the University, that brings a valuable perspective for us—bringing college professors into the mix.

DORIAN LLYWELYN, S.J., is the executive director of the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, which runs the Thriving Neighbors Initiative. Find out more about this cool program here.

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