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Jessica Ellis '09 and Peter Poer '07 describe their work as representative of their passion to see everyone succeed in higher education.

Effecting Transformational Change Through Test Prep

These two Teach For America alums are helping level the playing field so that all students have a shot at earning a test score necessary to gain admission to their dream school.
Wednesday, November 9, 2016

For a student growing up in a low-income neighborhood, the road to a prestigious university can be much more arduous than for someone with an affluent upbringing.

With the college admissions landscape more competitive than ever, an outstanding grade point average and glittering extracurricular résumé can either be supplemented or diminished by a poor performance on the SAT or ACT. The sad truth is that some families have the means to pay for help outside the classroom, while others cannot and face an immediate obstacle by default.

Enter Peter Poer '07 and Jessica Ellis '09, a pair of Teach For America–D.C. Region alumni who now work for Magoosh, an innovative test-prep company whose mission is to make education more accessible, effective, and enjoyable. “Being affordable is part of being accessible,” according to Poer, the company’s director of content.

A private tutor can run a student around $200 per hour, with a full SAT class tuition carrying a $1,500 price tag in some parts. In contrast, all of Magoosh’s products are on sale for less than $100, which includes full test-prep for the SAT, ACT, and even graduate school admission exams like the GRE, the MCAT, or the Praxis Series for aspiring teachers.

“We’re trying to reduce the pressure of standardized tests to help more people get through, and our product is really flexible,” says Ellis, who works as a product manager. “We work very hard to keep our interface simple for anyone to pick up and run through their computer or on mobile.”

Magoosh, recently named to Inc. 500’s list of the fastest growing private companies in America, has expanded its objective on a larger scale. For instance, the Berkeley, California-based startup has partnered with several schools and nonprofits to offer heavy discounts to disadvantaged students. They also boast a partnership with the McNair Scholars Program, which helps students from underrepresented populations at 151 institutions in their quest to attend graduate school.

This socially conscious approach to business perfectly suits Poer and Ellis, who got a firsthand look of educational inequity as TFA corps members in our nation’s capital.

“I was an Early Childhood Educator teaching third, and then first grade, and I think just being in a public school classroom in D.C. shocked me,” says Ellis, who grew up in Cleveland and had attended private school all the way through her undergrad days at Georgetown. “What stood out over time was how so many challenges stem from poverty and a student’s socioeconomic situation, in addition to the quality of the education a kid receives.”

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Ellis playing soccer with a student during a Field Day in 2010.

Eventually, Ellis took her intrigue with how environment influences learning to Harvard, where she earned a master’s degree in neuroscience education. It didn’t take long for her to see how her time with TFA prepared her for graduate school.

“I realized how much TFA had set me up for leadership roles in ed-tech,” she says. “As a teacher, you’re making a lot of day-to-day decisions like implementing your curriculum. When I arrived in an environment where I had more freedom to take more initiative, I thrived.”

Now Ellis combines those two experiences at Magoosh, where she’s constantly testing products and collaborating with teams in other departments. “I love how I’m able to bring what I learned from TFA to the job, like the need to empathize with the people around you with humility,” she says. “It’s been relevant in my current role because I talk to users all the time. I get their feedback and understand how they experience our product.”

Poer, on the other hand, taught high school math as a corps member. He concurs with Ellis in terms of how complex and non-binary educational issues can be. “I saw how there are so many things that transpire to make things difficult for children, especially those coming from refugee populations,” the University of Arizona graduate says. “Everything matters, from inadequate health care to something like not having test prep—but it definitely helps for a student to have outstanding teachers along the way.”

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Poer has found his time as a high school teacher quite applicable to the ed-tech space.

After five years in the classroom, Poer attended UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, where he sought a way to continue working in education via a different route. Ultimately, he took a part-time job with Magoosh, and upon graduation, became a full-time employee. His present role involves managing the teachers who teach the video lessons in the products—a skill set sharpened by his days in D.C.

“In Teach For America, I learned about what sound pedagogy was,” he says. “As an instructional coach, I learned what makes a good teacher and what makes professional development effective. I also learned how to prioritize projects to make the biggest impact possible.”

Together, Ellis and Poer have carried over the signature relentless work ethic that marks Teach For America alumni into the ed-tech field. “We don’t believe in the saying, ‘That’s not my job,’ ” Poer says. “Just like in the classroom, there are several problems you’re going to have to solve that will require you to be resourceful in order to figure them out, and that’s something we do daily.”

As impactful as their experiences as corps members (and now alumni) have been, they never forget what motivates them. “It all goes back to Teach For America and what we learned about transformational change,” Ellis adds. “Whenever we hear from students about how excited they are about their scores increasing, or how we’ve helped change someone’s life because now they’re going to their dream school, that fuels the enthusiasm for our mission every day.”

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