Can a school rich in custom tech and built by Silicon Valley’s finest be the answer to America’s educational problem? That’s the question former Google executive Max Ventilla’s attempted to answer for the past 4 years.
Ventilla is the founder of the AltSchool, a privately funded series of learning institutions that utilizes constantly evolving proprietary software to personalize education for each student and to license that software to district and charter schools across the country. His latest brick-and-mortar operation opened in Brooklyn last year, and there are 7 of these “lab schools” in total. Because demand continues to exceed capacity in every location, there are several others are on the way.
“For us it’s about 3 things,” says Ventilla. “It’s about the education being competency-based; it’s about the student having agency and responsibility in their own education, and it’s about the learning ultimately being able to transcend what happens within the 4 walls of the classroom to connect to the broader world.”
So far, this has also meant no administrators, principals, or ringing bells. Two teachers handle each class and children are grouped by age range (pre-K to 1st graders, 2nd to 5th graders, and 6th to 8th graders) rather than in traditional grades, allowing them to learn from each other as well as their teachers. Students begin their day by selecting a daily “playlist” of customized lessons and the proceedings are recorded by unobtrusive cameras mounted around the room. Teachers review the recordings to perfect their craft but so does a swarm of developers — there’s one for every teacher — who uses the feedback to routinely tweak the software.
Given that sort of iterative approach, and because Ventilla has attracted millions in backing — $133 million from investors that include Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg — he has become something of a media darling in the educational space.
Here, the entrepreneur and innovator shares his thoughts about the current state of education, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and why his digitally forward education system might be the future of schools.
How and why do you think traditional educational models are failing students?
I don’t believe that schools are getting worse; I think they’re getting better. I just think that the purpose of school is to prepare kids for the future, and that task has gotten much harder for this generation than it’s been in the past. One of the things that’s making it much harder is just the rate of change in the world.
So how does AltSchool improve on standard educational models?
We run 7 lab schools in the Bay Area and in the New York area and these schools have a kind of dual purpose. They obviously have to provide the highest quality education possible for those students and the best experience for those families, and that’s a pretty self-serving need because I and many of my colleagues at AltSchool have our own kids in AltSchool.
But the second thing these schools need to do is to help us develop a platform of technology and services that we’re kind of uniquely capable to build given the very significant engineering resources we have and the central pedagogue resources we have. We don’t just run schools, we are a venture-backed technology circuit. And the experience that happens in our schools is one that’s much more learner-centric than what I would say the average school operating without support in the U.S. today is able to provide.
It’s almost odd that a school would imagine that the best learning doesn’t require kids to actively engage and be attentive in a way that’s motivated by actually caring about what they’re doing and why.
What do you mean by “support?”
The main thing that I mean is a set of tools that’s able to manage the flexibility required to meet each student where they are and to give each student a growing sense of ownership of their own education; while still ensuring that kids learn all the things they need to learn in this day and age. If you kind of take a step back, we believe that digital technology has almost a magic ability to allow complexity and flexibility to coexist, and schools are unavoidably complex. Absent technology that can support the student, teacher, parent and administrators, it’s kind of unimaginable for us.
Okay, so what’s familiar and what’s new at AltSchool?
This is a physical school where kids spend 8 hours a day from morning until the afternoon for 180 school days a year. They’re with their classmates, with a professional educator or multiple professional educators to help general learning in the real world with their peers and with a mix of a kind of individual practice, group instruction, and project-based learning.
Now the things that are different is that you would see more things going on in the classroom at one time. There are different stations where children with different goals are able to be part of various activities. Generally, they work with other students and have support from educators and the right content that makes sense. Lastly, these students are able to be assessed according to their own individualized trajectory.
How is academic progress measured? And, given the emphasis on student self-direction, how do you make sure your students are mastering the basics?
We measure academic progress through a mix of subjective assessments from educators using a rubric as to what it means for a student to meet kindergarten math standards, for example. As well as more standard-based examination, whether that’s the MAP test which is the standard based adaptive test that we do 3 times a year or questions of work product a child is completing from an existing content provider. So, for example, if a child does a Khan Academy exercise you’re going to get data back about what they entered right or wrong and how long it took them to complete.
People took Common Core in a direction that was more prescriptive than it should have been. Instead of allowing collaboration through standards, you saw the detailed school experience being prescribed in a way that was at odds with what the students needed.
Can students aged 5 to 14 be trusted to self-direct their own learning approach?
First of all, that’s how learning actually starts — a 0-year-old, a 1-year-old, and a 3- year-old very much drive their own learning. Their interests and their attention take them in the directions that allow them to learn very hard things like walking and talking and basic counting. It’s almost odd that a school would imagine that the best learning doesn’t require kids to actively engage and be attentive in a way that’s motivated by actually caring about what they’re doing and why.
The experience that happens in our schools is one that’s much more learner-centric than what I would say the average school operating without support in the U.S. today is able to provide.
What are your feelings about Betsy DeVos and the fears many have voiced about her selection?
With DeVos my feelings kind of lay somewhere in the middle between the kind of extreme reactions to her on one side or the other. We’re very hopeful that she and the administration are able to see a kind of force for change and an improvement in the lives of the 55 million K-12 U.S. students.
But that push for change needs to come with an understanding of why the things in our school system — especially our district school systems — are there, as well as all the good they serve. Any kind of solution in terms of how we provide education in this country needs to work across diverse school models and especially in the large district public schools, which, for the foreseeable future, will serve the vast majority of students in the U.S.
Given your big push to create a new educational platform, how do you make sure that developing tech is not placed before developing your students?
I think that it’s all about what you mean by “tech.” We’re building a platform, a utility that can be used in very different ways in very different school settings to serve the very different needs of students across a plurality of education models and activities, which we hope are primarily non-digital. The less screen time the better.
This isn’t about e-learning, and it’s not about handing a kid a tablet and moving away. In fact, part of our motivation and what we see as an opportunity as “technologists engaged in education” is not to just create some app or incremental functionality that superficially changes the experience. Rather, we’re creating a kind of backbone by which content and services and other technologies can make their way into the average classrooms over time and be used for students and educators to interact with each other in a more directed way.
Finally, what do you make of the few studies that show previous tech-centered approaches to education have yielded only modest gains?
We haven’t seen anything yet along these lines. We have not seen ed-tech that’s comprehensive and flexible to enable the whole school experience, as opposed to just one slice of that experience. And it will take a very long time, frankly, for this technology to be meaningfully relevant and meaningfully improving that average student experience. That’s ultimately the target. We figure it’ll take about 10 years from when we started to really hit our stride.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.