Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Silicon Valley's Miracle School

Before I even start to talk about AltSchool's educational program, let me express my admiration for their PR machine. In just 24 hours the Silicon Valley Wunderschool has been covered by Kevin Carey in the Pacific Standard, Natasha Singer in the New York Times, and Issie Lapowski at WIRED.com. And USAToday and techcrunch and Forbes.

The occasion seems to be a $100 million payday courtesy of Mark Zuckerberg, news that might be tempered by noting that the last time Zuckerberg decided to change the face of education, he was snookered into throwing money at reformster efforts in Newark, an effort that has gone from "it's complicated" to "I'm going to pretend that I never even met you."

The NYT piece is brief. The WIRED piece is by a business beat reporter. Kevin Carey works for the New American Foundation, members of the US Public Schools Suck club. Most other coverage is along the lines of "OMGZ!! Zuckerberg haz give the moneys!!"

But the central thread is that AltSchool is revolutionary and Fixes Everything! So, is it all that and a bag of baked organic sliced potatoes?

I have to say that some of this idea is actually pretty cool. School founder Max Ventilla, former Google guy (he worked as head of personalization and is somehow connect to Google Now), calls the school Montessori 2.0 (so you know we're working with the usual level of Silicon Valley humility).

If you remember the sixties, you remember open schools, which were little resource-rich environments in which children were supposed to pursue learning and knowledge as the mood struck them. My Aunt Evie actually opened one in Connecticut, and eventually closed it because, as many fans learned, small children can be content not learning much of anything for a really long time-- a much longer time than even their most laid-back parents can withstand.

The problem with public schools, these folks conclude, is the need to standardize students. We decide to shove 25 kids in a room and now, just to get things done, stay sane, and keep order in the school, we have to start imposing order and regimentation, changing classes at the bell, doing the same tasks so the clerically-challenged teacher can complete her tasks.

AltSchool, however, hopes to harness the power of technology and personalization. To their credit, they don't mean personalization in the same way that most tech-based programs (you can personally move along the exact same path as everyone else at a personally determined speed). Their teachers create individualized programs composed of "cards," little mini-lesson-modules that can be deployed in any sort of order and configuration. A playlist (that's what they call it) of pedagogy for each child, to work on with teacher guidance on a schedule that fits to address the strengths and weaknesses of that particular student.

Meanwhile, the tech and software is being developed to track all of this learning, all of these diverse students, and all the strengths and weaknesses at play. Again, I like some of how they do this-- not just dropping the tech on teachers and saying "Make it work" or "Hope it works" or "This will totally be useful if you just change your whole purpose and direction to fit the software." Instead, as journalists describe it, the tech team is in the next room, watching the school, watching how their software works, watching how students react, and taking feedback and tech tickets from the teachers. One compelling example was the tech team watching how much time teachers were wasting waiting for software to boot up and deciding they needed to do better.

Imagine-- a school with an IT department that thought of themselves as support for the teachers, and the support is so good that you literally don't do anything all day but teach, because other folks are taking care of all the clerical work. Sit back so you don't drool on your keyboard.

So there are plenty of things to love about AltSchool. But is it scaleable? Can the rest of us learn anything from it? From the WIRED article, quoting Ventilla (who is quoted in all of these pieces-- he must have been a very busy press-accessible guy):

“If you told us that we’re only ever going to impact wealthy private school students, I don’t think any of us would be doing what we’re doing,” he explains. “But we do believe this is the right place to start.”

Well, maybe. It certainly seems that the lesson to be learned here is, "Be rich. Very, very rich."

This is what school looks like when people with a lot of money relocate that money to their place where their mouth is located. One picture shows a beaming teacher and indicates in the caption that he teaches twelve kids. Twelve kids.

So we've got a dreamworld teacher-student ratio, with a full tech team in the next room with nothing to do all day except make sure the school is running well. Plus teachers with the time and resources to make all those cards (very time intensive at first, but once they're in the library and making schools work well and --hey, wait-- this is a for-profit school! are those teachers creating entire curricula for free so someone else can make money from them?) No gym; that and other extras are pulled in from the community (note: build school close to safe, clean, rich person's park). Nobody here has read the research that "proves" that money doesn't make any difference. Nor does anybody here think that a standardized test is the best measure of learning.

There is a creepy massive-data-gathering aspect to the school which has that software tracking pretty much every detail of the child's existence. Ventilla envisions assessing language acquisition through video monitoring student behavior. On the one hand, it's a sensible idea-- tell how the student uses language by watching the student use language. On the other hand, it is A) big brothery and B) is someone going to watch all this video footage, or is it going to be assessed by software, in which case, see A.

Mostly the articles make me want to go visit the place. Because absolutely none of the writers who covered the story really know anything about education, we find them trying to put this in the context of individualized education (quoting, for instance, Larry Miller of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, reformstery thinky advocates, or, God help us, Joel Klein). This model has nothing to do with the single-track personalized pace model that reformsters have been pushing.

But mostly what the school is is expensive as hell. It is never going to be scaleable-- or rather it would be scaleable if we ever as a country decided that educating every single child was just as important as blowing up every square inch of Afghanistan. If we had the national will to invest this kind of money on every child's education, we would already be there.

Nor is it clear what happens to this model when you try to fold in students who aren't as highly motivated as AltSchool's current clientele. And how the heck to you coordinate a million micro-schools on a large urban scale?

It's possible that some of the software developed will be useful in the larger world, and that's not a bad thing, given the kind of crap that is routinely pushed at us. But it would appear that this brand of artisanal micro-schoolery will mostly be a great new private option for the well-to-do.


  1. This WIRED article is anything but uplifting to me. Thanks for commenting on it and drawing it to our attention. It actually breaks my heart. Is it really no longer possible to teach children in the younger grades without some tablet and app? I know for sure that it is possible, but it is a new era and people think differently. This is a sign that I am definitely an old-timer. The human element can and must be first and foremost. This is especially true for under-achievers, rich or poor. They will not thrive with personalized cards( or whatever jargon) on a computer. They will thrive with a caring human being who is personally invested. Computers are smart and slick, but they don't love us. Sigh.

  2. The founder of Altschool, Max Ventilla, started it because in San Francisco they try to make education equitable by having a lottery system for everyone, so you can't guarantee your kids will go to the "right" school by paying the big bucks for the zip code/school you want. I think the student-centered curriculum is great, and although they say goals are based on Common Core, the actual curriculum they use sounds good. But that teacher that has 12 students? Actually, he AND a co-teacher are in charge of those 12 students. The average teacher/student ratio is 1:7, though when they get better at it they want it to be 1:10. They have at least as many tech people as teachers at the moment, and about as many people in operations: finance and legal, and all sorts of coordinators of satisfaction who are mostly TFA people. The tech people all come from Google, etc. so they must get really good salaries. The tech seems to be mainly for record-keeping, tracking the personalized learning plans, and for students to use in projects. If the software engineers could be used to develop actual lessons instead of attendence aps I would be more impressed. Ventilla's long-term goal is actually to sell the software developed by the techies, and probably the lesson plans developed by the teachers.

    The student-centered, individualized learning concept does seem to be Montessori. In NW Ohio we have a lot of private Montessori pre-schools, and one big private Montessori K-8 school. Thirteen years ago my oldest daughter and I took a tour of the big Montessori school just because we were interested. We came away convinced that all schools should be Montessori. I don't know how much it costs now, but at the time it was almost $6000 a year, which was a lot in NW Ohio. In spite of the cost, they are successful - without Ventilla's software - and popular among the affluent because they just built an additional building that gives them twice the space.

    When my other daughter was in second grade, about 11 years ago, I observed her class because I heard her teacher was innovative. She would alternate whole class, small group, and individual learning at learning centers, like Altschool. Each student generated a list each week of a certain number of "have-to" activities and "want-to" activities, much like Altschool's "playlist." The teacher coordinated all this without software - for 22 students. With fewer students she would have been able to do an even better job; with more she probably wouldn't have been able to do it. I read a commentator to an education article on HuffPost, a father who said he wished the teachers of his kids could all do personalized IEPs like the teacher of his special ed kid. I have always wished I had the time to do personalized learning plans for each student. And if I only had 7-10 students I certainly wouldn't need data-gathering software to know that a particular student "is an auditory learner, likes castles, and has trouble with estimates." Even with 120 students I always knew things like that about at least half of them.

    So what I'm saying is that I don't see much truly new about Altschool and the key is the small student/teacher ratio, not the tech, though of course it would be nice to have more supportive tech. Altschool costs $20,000 a year and they want to get it down to $13,000, the same average amount public schools get per student. They can't get venture capital forever. I don't know if the plan is to supplement with money from licensing the software - but keep in mind this is a for-profit enterprise, which public schools are not - so why can't we do this for public schools, with a slightly higher student/teacher ratio and some but fewer researchers and tech support?