Making Sense of AltSchool's Demise

Bloomberg Technology recently reported that, "AltSchool, backed by Mark Zuckerberg and other high-profile tech investors, is scaling back and shutting a school as losses pile up." While AltSchool's for-profit model is problematic, the company's setbacks say more about the state of education in the United States than the strength of the company's ideas, the quality of their educators, or the utility of their technology.

AltSchool is a for-profit startup that runs small, progressive, technology rich schools in New York and California. The company also builds a software suite, called AltSchool Open, "designed to allow teachers and students to interact more closely via technology." According to reporter Adam Satariano, at issue is AltSchool's failure to "solve a basic business equation." Namely, it is tough to run great schools, build great software and make great margins on both in the process.

There is something attractive about founder Max Ventialla's model. It is hard to argue against the notion that increased personalization in the classroom will improve student outcomes. New York City, for example, has posted the highest high school graduation rate in its history, in part due to the emergence of smaller, more personalized high schools. Personalization can be done well. The challenge is the price of improving teacher to student ratios, which is a key driver of personalization.

Education technologists respond to cost-prohibitive reality that most schools face when contemplating a personalized learning program by arguing that good tools can cost-effectively augment the teacher to student ratio. Unfortunately, the education world is woefully under-tooled. Take ARIS, a $95 million whoopsie forced upon New York City educators under the leadership of former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. The student information system posted chronically abysmal usage rates due to poor design and a featureset that left many parents and teachers scratching their heads. ARIS is one of many instances of technology failing to live up to its promise in our nation's schools.

AltSchool is attempting to tackle the tough problems of running personalized schools and building solid education technologies while also turning a profit. It is troubling that even a well funded San Francisco based startup cannot succeed in this space.

I suspect that if the United States wanted to seriously tackle issues of education equity, in some ways the solutions would look a lot like the AltSchool.

We would abandon the tired trope of the educator superhero who, in the spirit of Jaime Escalante, wills their students to college. Instead we would learn from the fact that AltSchool began with a one to one teacher to engineer ratio. We would see engineers and educators coming together to build tools that multiplied teacher effectiveness. Instead of catering to a small, mostly affluent segment of the population, education technologies would be created by a diverse engineering cadre with all students in mind. 

In addition to dramatically improving the toolset available to students, families, teachers and administrators we need to also build additional technical capacity in the field of education - or make that a prerequisite for entering into the work. I think about all the educators I've known who keep lesson plan binders, use a calculator to compute grades, or handwrite progress reports. The world of education is so starved for technical skill that this is not even widely recognized as lever for improvement amongst education policymakers.

Whereas AltSchool costs $30k per student per year and raised $40 million earlier this year, the state of Colorado spends less than $10k per student per year. If we want to get serious about fixing education, appropriately resourcing innovative school models that prioritize personalization will be a part of the puzzle.

Many schools today take for granted that learning happens in the context of one teacher speaking to thirty students. All thirty students are expected to work on the same material and learn at the same rate. The AltSchool seems to understand that better teaching ratios, project based learning, and individualized pacings are necessary to move our students as far as possible. The thirty to one model is fine at training a workforce ready to tackle the assembly lines of the mid twentieth century, but it is completely maladapted for preparing students to succeed in the twenty first century global economy. 

While AltSchool may be slowing its growth and scaling back some of its operations, the ideas regarding personalization and the role of technology in school is valid, and worthy of widespread emulation.

That time I was an Assistant Principal...

That time I was an Assistant Principal...