Terrance Paul, an entrepreneur who, with his wife, created computerized teaching programs like Accelerated Reader that were widely adopted in American schools over the last 25 years as educators turned to spreadsheet-ready data for evaluating student achievement, died on Sept. 5 at his home in Boulder, Colo. He was 67.
His wife, Judi, said the cause was melanoma.
Mr. Paul, a lawyer and businessman, and Mrs. Paul, a homemaker with a degree in elementary education, though she never taught school, began their software business, Advantage Learning Systems, in 1986 from the basement of their home in Port Edwards, Wis. They sold it 25 years later for a reported $455 million.
By then the software produced by their company, renamedRenaissance Learning Inc., was part of the classroom routine of children in about 70,000 schools, including roughly one-third of the United States’ public, private, charter and parochial schools.
Studies of the program’s effectiveness have been inconclusive, showing positive results among some categories of students and little or none among others. Wall Street’s assessment has been less murky. The private equity firm that bought Renaissance in 2011 sold it this year to another private equity firm for a reported $1.1 billion.
The company’s success made it a lightning rod in the national debate over standardization — a debate that since the 1980s has skewed in favor of uniform statewide evaluations of student achievement and teacher effectiveness.
The Pauls’ most popular program, Accelerated Reader, like their other programs for math and vocabulary-building, was lauded in company advertising for its ability to raise scores on such tests. It became the focus of battles waged throughout the 1990s and 2000s in professional periodicals like The Reading Teacher and Journal of Reading. Opinions for and againstappeared in newspapers, including The New York Times.
Accelerated Reader is designed to enable teachers to evaluate the results of a student reading assessment test in 10 minutes or less, then provides a list of books within the student’s ability range, as determined by the test. After the student has read a book from the list, the program administers a multiple-choice quiz on its contents.
Students can receive points — redeemable in gift certificates, classroom privileges or whatever a teacher chooses — based on the length, difficulty and quantity of books read with a passing quiz score. Teachers receive feedback in the form of a digital record of each student’s reading.
Critics said the system trivialized books and undermined reading by reducing it to a competitive game. They also complained that the list of Accelerated Reader-rated books — about 160,000 titles so far — gave higher point values to popular ones like the Harry Potter series and lower ones to classics. (An eighth grader gets 14 points for reading Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia,” for example, and 32 for “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”)
Supporters said Accelerated Reader established reading habits in students otherwise unlikely to acquire them.
Mr. Paul never joined the debate directly, but he gave his views in advertisements and lobbying efforts that helped school districts throughout the country win state and federal grants for purchasing his company’s programs. He argued that any program that carved time from the school day for books — Accelerated Reader recommends that students read an hour a day in class — is beneficial in promoting discipline and critical thinking, and improving students’ test scores.
Students in most schools simply were not reading enough, he said in a 1996 release by PR Newswire.
Terrance David Paul was born in Streator, Ill., on Sept. 23, 1946, one of four children of Willard and Marguerite Voelker Paul. The family moved soon afterward to Rock Island, Ill., where Mr. Paul grew up. He received his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Illinois, a master’s of business administration from Bradley University in Peoria, and a law degree from the University of Illinois College of Law.
He held positions at the Caterpillar Tractor Company in Peoria before joining Best Power Technology, a developer of computer backup systems for businesses, where he was chief executive until the company was sold in 1994.
By then, the company that he and Judi Paul had founded was in full swing. (Its inspiration was a game she had invented to encourage their children to read more; he translated it into software on a Commodore 64 desktop computer.) Mr. Paul became chief executive and chairman when it went public in 1997 and remained involved in operations until he and his wife sold the company and moved to Boulder. Today it employs about 1,000 people at its offices in Wisconsin Rapids.
Besides his wife, Mr. Paul is survived by a son, Alexander, and three daughters, Bliss Cohen, Alyssa Maria and Mia Moe, as well as 13 grandchildren.
In recent years, Mr. Paul was involved in developing a software-based system for monitoring and improving language ability in very young children. The Language Environment Analysis, or LENA, program, which the Pauls established through a nonprofit enterprise, is being used in about 200 universities and research hospitals to help deaf, autistic and neglected children develop and improve their speaking and other cognitive abilities.
The software is carried in a device placed in a pocket of the child’s clothing to capture 16 hours at a time of the child’s aural environment, including every word spoken by, to or around him or her. Mr. Paul described the device as “the world’s only talk pedometer.”
Besides aiding children with disabilities, he said, he hoped LENA would help close the early-learning gap between children of parents who lavish attention on them and those whose parents, for whatever reason, do not.