A panoramic view

(Liu Fumerton-Liu/YH Staff)

After countless hours of sitting in the depths of Bass library brainstorming, they had finally had decided on a name. They had run it through the trademark database; it had been approved by the trademark lawyer; it even sounded good. They would name their company Panorama Education: the platform gave schools a 360-degree evaluation based on surveys of students, teachers, parents, and staff members.

Panorama Education was incorporated in April 2012 by co-founders David Carel, PC ’13, Aaron Feuer, ES ’13, and Xan Tanner, PC ’13. Less than eight months after deciding on the name, Panorama has brought their surveys to over 750 schools in six states across the country and to the District of Columbia. On Nov. 13, it was announced that Panaroma will be introduced to a school system closer to home: the New Haven Board of Education approved Panorama’s bid to start running the survey system in New Haven schools this spring.

The idea behind Panorama was born when Feuer was a senior in high school in Los Angeles. President of the California Association of Student Councils (CASC) his senior year, he traveled around the state looking for ways to improve the California education system. A CASC adviser suggested the group look into creating student surveys that would allow students to give feedback on their teachers and general classroom experience. The idea was popular among students and school officials, but the cost of buying enough multiple-choice answer sheets, analyzing the data, then returning the reports to the teachers made the endeavor unrealistic. “Such a common sense idea became really hard,” Feuer said. “We just couldn’t actually make it work.” After graduating from high school, Feuer took a break from the idea, but returned to it the summer after his freshman year at Yale. He received a Yale grant that paid him to work nights and weekends to create a program that would minimize the cost of these surveys. Feuer, an avid coder since he was a kid, built a program that would create the surveys, print them out, analyze the data, and give the reports to teachers. The program he created made computers do all of the busywork a person would have had to do, minimizing the cost. “There was finally no more obstacle,” Feuer said. “It was really easy to do, really cheap. It was great.” He then reached out to three or four friends from CASC to implement his new survey system at their schools in the fall of 2009.

Feuer didn’t return to the project until November 2011, when he noticed new attention nationwide to the importance of student feedback in the school systems. The pilot programs that Feuer had worked on in California two years earlier were small and weren’t making a noticeable impact.“ They weren’t embedded in the schools,” Feuer said. “It wasn’t really sticking.” After consulting with advisers Wes Bray at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and Sam Chanucey, YC ’57, a former secretary of Yale University, Feuer ultimately decided to build a team to help him further develop the surveys he had made during his freshman summer, which he had called Classroom Compass. He recruited Carel, Tanner, and John Gerlach, TC ’14, as co-founders of Panorama Education. Carel would run sales and marketing, and Tanner would be in charge of data analytics. Gerlach left Panorama at the end of the summer because of the time commitment.

Panorama’s first paying client was La Cañada School District just outside of Los Angeles. In spring 2012, Panorama developed teacher, parent, and student surveys both online and on paper for La Cañada. The student surveys allowed teachers to better understand how to improve teaching techniques for the upcoming school year, and the questions on parental surveys prompted important conversations between children and their parents. “One of the questions on the parent surveys was about whether the child had been bullied at school,” Carel said. “A mother wrote back to us and said something like, ‘For the first time, I asked my daughter about bullying, and found out she had bullied for the past two years.’”

Meanwhile, the La Cañada superintendent was completely unaware that the three technologically savvy education specialists she was working with were college students.

According to Carel, this didn’t stop the program from delivering positive results for the school. “Anecdotally, we’ve heard from them that it was hugely helpful,” he said. Although Feuer says he didn’t think their youth had made a difference in their work with La Cañada, the trio did worry that they may not be taken seriously in future endeavors.

Following the La Cañada surveys, Panorama spent the beginning of the summer completely rebuilding, making surveys more aesthetically pleasing and interactive by bringing in Max Pommier, PC ’13, a graphic designer.

After winning the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute’s Summer Fellowship, the group spent the 2012 summer in their Whitney Avenue office coding, meeting with potential clients, and building models that fit the needs of those clients. Feuer emphasized that Panorama is not a rigid model, but rather works to create adaptable surveys that matches the particular needs of each school. “A lot of companies build a product and sell it; we built a product around what our clients wanted,” Feuer said. With this approach, Panorama grew exponentially, and by the end of the summer, the founders had even come to view their youth as an advantage. “We threw a lot of energy at our clients,” Feuer said. “People enjoyed the fact that we’re young, fresh and passionate. At this point, our age is not a disadvantage.”

Indeed, age seemed no disadvantage when just two weeks ago the New Haven Board of Education enlisted Panorama to take over the surveying system used in the Elm City’s public schools. Conducting school climate surveys in New Haven public schools is nothing new; surveys have been implemented for the past three years, though through a different survey vendor. These surveys allow students, teachers, parents, and staff to evaluate the school as a learning environment. The data from the surveys then guides reforms specific to each public school. This spring, it will be up to Panorama to help facilitate more effective school reform.

The entrepreneurial trio’s recently-announced collaboration with the New Haven school system reflects a new sort of relationship between Yale students and residents and reformers in the Elm City. Even during their hectic summer in New Haven, the three students’ perspectives began to change, according to Feuer. “When you spend the summer here, it changes how you see New Haven,” he said. “You get out of the Yale bubble a little bit. I’ve done a lot of service at Yale where it’s Yale students suggesting involvement to the community, but, right now, the district has asked for our help. There’s a very real relationship there.”

The relationship is not one sided. Because New Haven has run surveys in past years, Panorama has a unique chance to learn from past reform efforts and improve upon them. “New Haven has run a really good school climate survey for the past few years,” Tanner explained: “They need help on the [data] reporting end and that’s why we were brought in. But we can learn a lot from them having done this for the past three years.”

Carolyn Ross-Lee, a staff member of the New Haven Board of Education, said that Panorama impressed the board with the new perspective they brought to school evaluations. “They’re young, on top of current technology, very energetic about the way they approach this,” she said. “They were polished. Their presentation had everything that we needed and wanted.”

For Ross-Lee, these surveys have been instrumental in school reform for the past three years, helping to build a community rooted in trust, engagement, and collaboration. She hopes that Panorama will further education reform by returning data that asks teachers tough questions that can yield real change. “The product allows us to dig down and generate more discussion and solutions,” she said.

But not all education reform advocates have the same faith in survey systems like Panorama. As Panorama works to better its own survey systems, other organizations are focusing more closely on the general effectiveness of surveys in evaluating teachers. The New Teacher Project, a non-profit organization that works to give low-income and minority students equal access to excellent teachers, emphasizes the importance of good teachers in the classroom, but questions whether surveys are an effective way to evaluate them. The organization’s website quotes Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education: “Everyone agrees that teacher evaluation is broken. Ninety-nine percent of teachers are rated satisfactory and most evaluations ignore the most important measure of a teacher’s success—which is how much their students have learned.”

But the actual effectiveness of school climate surveys is still relatively unknown. Professor John Bryan Starr, who teaches a Yale seminar on the interaction among public schools, politics, and public policy, said it is too soon to have any concrete data advocating for these surveys, as schools have only recently been required to administer them. He did say, however, that Panorama edges out its competitors with its low cost and thorough analysis and reporting of the data.

Although the actual effects of educational surveys in general are still unclear, the three seniors are working tirelessly to produce their best product. Less than a year after coining Panorama in a Bass study room, Carel, Feuer, and Tanner have become both full-time employees and students. The three co-founders continue their essentially nine-to-five commitment to Panorama, even with a full class schedule. The trio, who were the only employees up until two months ago, has recently recruited a team of around seven to work as paid employees, helping to create and analyze surveys and recruit new clients. Jacqueline Sahlberg, SM ’13, who joined the company this past month, said she had been looking for opportunities to get involved with start-ups until she found Panorama. “It’s been sort of, ‘Throw yourself in, and figure it out,’” she said. “Any time I have a question, they’re always there.” When Sahlberg graduates in December, she will begin working full-time for Panorama. She points to the company’s enthusiastic ethos as a crucial part of their success. “What I’ve been most impressed by is their strength in working together, in supporting each other, in constantly questioning the assumptions they have,” she said.

When they graduate in May, Feuer and Tanner will also work full-time for Panorama. Carel, who was recently awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford, will continue to be involved in Panorama from across the pond.

Panorama has grown from the brainchild of a teenager operating in a single California school district to a full-blown company changing the course of education reform in over 750 schools across the nation. Another seven months stand between the three seniors and graduation. Nobody knows where this “small, scrappy start-up,” as Feuer describes it, will be in a few months. But it is just continuing to expand and adapt in the meantime, with rapid success, maybe reaching another 700-plus schools by May.

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