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Tennis Pro Andre Agassi and Square Panda CEO Andy Butler: “Here Are 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System”

An Interview With Penny Bauder

As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Andy Butler, CEO and co-founder of Square Panda. Andy Butler is CEO and co-founder of Square Panda, a creator of an award-winning multisensory edtech literacy platform aimed at kids in pre-kindergarten to grade 3. Butler’s interest in education was first stimulated by the discovery that his daughter was dyslexic. He dove into research on not only dyslexia, but also literature on the neurology of reading, early learning and language skill acquisition. Square Panda represents the perfect alignment of his business and technical acumen with his personal passion. He believes that the tools of technology (cloud-based data, wireless connectivity, high resolution audio and visual displays, and deep learning) can be systematically purposed to impact early learners by providing customized learning curriculum that addresses their individual needs and learning styles. Before Square Panda, Butler was a CEO of innovative technology companies for nearly 30 years. Butler is also an avid solo-sailor having built his own boat in high school and sailed it to French Polynesia where he lived and worked for six years. Butler graduated from Stanford in 1983 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. He speaks both French and Tahitian, and makes a mean Tahitian-style poisson cru.

Andre Agassi is a retired professional tennis player and former world №1 whose career spanned from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. In singles, Agassi is an eight-time Grand Slam champion and a 1996 Olympic gold medalist. He is the founder of the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation, which has raised over $60 million for at-risk children in Southern Nevada. In 2001, the Foundation opened the Andre Agassi Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas, a K-12 public charter school for at-risk children. He is an investor and board member in Square Panda.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

[Andy Butler] When my daughter was in first grade, we noticed that she went from being a gregarious, happy child to a moody and frustrated one. At the same time, my wife and I noticed she was struggling with reading so we got her tested and learned to our surprise, that she is dyslexic. That started us on a journey of consultants, special schooling, and fortunately, due to my wife’s contacts at Stanford University, to some of the top researchers in the field. At some point in this journey, I wondered about parents that don’t have the resources that my wife and I do to help their children. It was at this point that I decided that I had to find a way to democratize these tools and give all parents and children access to them. Today, the work we do at Square Panda is a personal mission of mine to impact both literacy and language skill acquisition among young children, whether they are dyslexic or not. We started working with Andre Agassi and he became an investor in our company.

[Andre Agassi] I call myself an eighth grade dropout because I was so focused on tennis growing up. My lack of education was my lack of choice in life. I saw a direct correlation between a lack of education and a lack of choice, and that was the impetus for me focusing on education. My greatest moment in life might have happened when I was at my lowest moment in my tennis career, sitting in a hotel room. I decided to recommit myself to tennis so that I could provide education to others because I didn’t have a choice. I created the Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund to create charter schools and seek out investment opportunities with a social impact. It’s become my life’s work. I became an investor in Square Panda because I believe that we have the greatest chance to change this world by educating our youth.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

[Andy Butler]

I never struggled with reading and frankly, when my daughter started to fail at reading, I immediately thought it might be apathy or lack of effort. I projected my life experience onto her, and just thought if I pushed her harder, she would get better at reading. It wasn’t until later on in my journey of understanding that I learned that the majority of children will struggle at some point with reading. We actually have a reading crisis in the USA, because 66% of children are not reading fluently by 4th grade. But reading is like playing a piano. It’s a skill that we can all acquire to some level of competency. Some of us are naturals and will go on to be Glen Goulds, but nobody considers piano skills to be the determinant of intelligence. However, and unfortunately, in our school system in the preliminary grades, reading ability is the factor that causes kids to be assigned to the talented or not-so talented categories.

[Andre Agassi] When I had my epiphany in that hotel room and recommitted myself to tennis, overnight I took out a 40 million dollar mortgage, I got my charter school license in the fifth largest school district of America, and I took a shovel into the Las Vegas desert. My goal was to prove that we’re failing kids, they’re not failing us — and all of a sudden, tennis became the reason for what for what my real mission was.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

[Andy Butler] Right now, Square Panda is working on bringing early literacy and reading tools to China and India as well as the United States. There are more people trying to learn English in China than kids learning to read in the U.S., and English language skills is one of the most powerful change elements in those countries as well as elsewhere. This may come as a surprise to someone on these shores, but an economically challenged child from those countries will find English speaking and writing skills to be one of their most powerful and marketable tools to change their life’s trajectory because it so dramatically broadens their employment possibilities.

[Andre Agassi] I’m interested in early childhood learning, teaching literacy and how to read. More importantly, how to do it sustainably so it can be scaled all across this country and all across school districts. I did case studies in my own school with the Square Panda early literacy tool and I saw the difference of how fast kids can learn with early reading tools versus without. The impact of this is huge, especially for dyslexia, and flagging that at an early age.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?

[Andy Butler] I wouldn’t call myself an authority in the education field but I work to provide tools to help teachers. My role is to create diverse and talented teams that then create innovative products that help empower the actual education authorities, meaning the classroom teachers and other education professionals responsible for teaching kids how to read.

[Andre Agassi] What I am is a facilitator. I don’t consider myself an educational authority. I definitely learn way more than I teach. I was able to take this dream of educating the future, raise a lot of awareness and a lot of resources, and make this dream a reality. I’m definitely one that wants to look at education outside the box and I’ve figured out a small way to do it.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

[Andy Butler] It depends on where you look and which kids you’re talking about. The education system as it’s structured today works great for the kids who succeed within the way it’s structured. I don’t mean to be flippant with that answer. I mean that the education system works great for many middle-ground kids, but it isn’t set up to generate great results for kids with learning challenges, or those who process information differently, or for kids who are way ahead of their peers in their skills and abilities.

[Andre Agassi] It’s a broken educational system and it’s why we need to innovate. Our education system has failed kids. How can you say otherwise when we have lived with 66% of kids failing to read fluently by 4th grade and knowing that the 34% who are fluent will quickly outpace and leave their peers behind?

Nevada hasn’t spent on education what I’d like it to, and I’ve backed up my commitment to education in Nevada with money. The real challenge is that the scalability and sustainability of something is not just throwing resources at it. They need to be the right resources with real accountability.

So, that’s why I started my charter school at the third grade level, because I had heard reaching a kid in third grade is like a two-minute drill in football. You can march down the field and you can score, but reaching them in fourth grade is like a Hail Mary pass in the end zone. You’re barely going to reach any of them. So my school started in third grade and within two years, I realized that the remediation process here is overwhelming and we need to go back and start at kindergarten. We’ve got to start earlier. If it were up to me, I’d be waiting outside the delivery room!

As I looked at what the problem was with scaling best-in-class charter schools, there’s a problem in school operators not being able to access public dollars for their facility. Charter schools face an infrastructure issue. I discovered that if we could come to the table with the capital to actually build the facility, actually give the infrastructure and relieve the overcrowded school districts where, when kids leave they’re going to an environment where they’re going to learn, it helps the kids, schools, and by the way, it’s not costing taxpayers anything.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

[Andy Butler]

#1: Clearly the USA academic research efforts are world class and continue to attract talent from around the world. (In full disclosure, my wife is a professor and medical researcher at Stanford.)

#2: Community Colleges provide a cost-affordable alternative to four-year universities.

#3: Creativity. The US leads the world in innovation as defined by need identification and innovations to provide a solution. There is something about the way we don’t force rote learning, and allow a certain amount of play, that makes our kids more creative. It’s not an absolute as in other countries don’t have it at all, it’s just more common here.

#4: Diversity. I know our diversity is not perfect or even up to our goals, but compared to the rest of the world, our schools are way more diverse. This is probably one of the contributing factors to our creativity as mentioned in #3.

#5: Dedicated teachers in our public schools. I am actively involved in the field deployment of Square Panda in classrooms around the country, and especially in the grades PreK to 3rd grade. I encounter teachers who care and want to do right by their students.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

[Andy Butler]

#1: Personalize the educational experience in real time. On a given subject matter or skill set every child learns at a different rate and encounters unique challenges. What is taught to a child needs to be customized in real time to that child for optimal results, meaning the child learns faster and is frustrated less. Highly experienced tutors can do this in a 1:1 setting, but the only way we can approach this ideal economically is with technology that both assesses and instructs at the same time.

#2: Provide teachers with ongoing training. Research is showing us new ways to instruct. Research and insights are being discovered daily through neuroscience on how the brain actually acquires new skills. These all can be translated into classroom practices. Technology can help deliver relevant and real-time content to teachers in a practice-friendly format.

#3: Teach teachers to be coaches, not lecturers. Teachers play a super important role especially for early learners. Technology that delivers personalized learning to children in this age group frees up teachers’ time to focus on coaching rather than lecturing. Teacher-coaches are critical to early learners to help them grow their self-esteem, problem-solve issues that cause distraction and promote children’s greatest asset — their curiosity.

#4: Shift funds to early learners. We know that every $1 spent on early-learner education saves $8 later on.

#5: Identify learning challenges as early as possible. Dyslexia is a fantastic example of this. If we identify a dyslexic child when they are in kindergarten, the interventions are many times more effective. Today dyslexia is mostly identified when a child starts failing dramatically in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades, if at all. And, 17% of children are dyslexic, and this country literally spends billions ineffectively trying to remediate in the later grades and all through high school.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

[Andy Butler] We believe in making a high-quality STEM education accessible to all, boys and girls included. STEM.org has said that the STEM pipeline narrows significantly when students are behind in reading. Learning to read at an early age allows children to explore and excel in STEM subjects early in life. Our Square Panda playset helps build reading skills at an early age, which is important to a child’s future success in school and in life.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

[Andy Butler] While STEM is of course important, I feel strongly that the primary emphasis should be on STEAM — which really is what we used to call a solid liberal arts education. Too strict a focus on STEM, to the exclusion of the arts and other areas of learning, can also have negative effects on society. Even if a child miraculously knows that they want to be an engineer when they are still in grammar school, the arts are still important. For example, at Stanford University where I graduated from, they have a whole curriculum around “visual thinking” and the instructors struggle with all these hyper-bright students, the majority of whom have excelled at literal and systematic thinking, to help them shift gears and think visually and conceptually.

[Andre Agassi] Look, I’m an eighth grade dropout who found my way to education through my career as a world-class athlete. I absolutely believe that it’s important for kids to be educated and gain proficiency in all aspects of life. Meet kids where they are, wherever they are, and build from there. The key to all learning is reading, and if a child struggles with reading, most other subjects in school, including STEM, will be greatly compromised.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

[Andy Butler] Education over the next five to 10 years is going to be revolutionized. The factory model of education we have, this chronological conveyor belt where everyone gets on at the same point in time and advances through every subject at the same rate, regardless of their skill and aptitudes and whether they are left brain or right brain, that’s going to be eliminated. Anything we can do to support these efforts will definitely improve the education system by making it work better for more students.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

[Andy Butler] “Youth is wasted on the young” — Oscar Wilde. I read that when I was in 8th grade and I told myself “no way.” Hence I didn’t go straight from high school to college but took six years sailing my home-built sailboat around the South Pacific. That experience changed me forever. When you are young, you have nothing to lose except your youth. Take time to explore life. Expose yourself to different cultures. Keep an open mind. You don’t have to sail across an ocean to take advantage of your youth. There are mind-expanding experiences all around us every day if we are curious.

[Andre Agassi] “I didn’t transform, I formed.” Tennis teaches you that you’re always in process because you have to learn from your failures and your successes. I got into education because I was hit with this harsh reality that I didn’t have choice in my life. As a boy who despised and feared school, I became a man inspired and re-energized by the sight of his own school being built. Education became my passion.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

[Andy Butler] Diane Greene of Google. She is a consummate entrepreneur, a sailor and cares about education.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

[Andy Butler] Follow Square Panda: @squarepanda on Twitter, @playsquarepanda on Facebook, squarepanda on Instagram

Find Andy Butler on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/Andre Agassiw-butler-7332203/

[Andre Agassi] @AndreAgassi on Twitter, @AgassiAndre on Facebook, agassi on Instagram

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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Penny Bauder

Environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur, Founder of Green Kid Crafts