Inside the School Silicon Valley Thinks Will Save Education

SO YOU’RE A parent, thinking about sending your 7-year-old to this rogue startup of a school you heard about from your friend’s neighbor’s sister. It’s prospective parent information day, and you make the trek to San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood. You walk up to the second floor of the school, file into a glass-walled conference room overlooking a classroom, and take a seat alongside dozens of other parents who, like you, feel that public schools—with their endless bubble-filled tests, 38-kid classrooms, and antiquated approach to learning—just aren’t cutting it.

At the same time, you’re thinking: this school is kind of weird.

On one side of the glass is a cheery little scene, with two teachers leading two different middle school lessons on opposite ends of the room. But on the other side is something altogether unusual: an airy and open office with vaulted ceilings, sunlight streaming onto low-slung couches, and rows of hoodie-wearing employees typing away on their computers while munching on free snacks from the kitchen. And while you can’t quite be sure, you think that might be a robot on wheels roaming about.

Then there’s the guy who’s standing at the front of the conference room, the school’s founder. Dressed in the San Francisco standard issue t-shirt and jeans, he’s unlike any school administrator you’ve ever met. But the more he talks about how this school uses technology to enhance and individualize education, the more you start to like what he has to say.

And so, if you are truly fed up with the school status quo and have $20,875 to spare (it’s pricey, sure, but cheaper than the other private schools you’ve seen), you might decide to take a chance and sign your 7-year-old up for this little experiment in education called AltSchool. Except it’s not really so little anymore. And it’s about to get a lot bigger.

AltSchool founder Max Ventilla.

Founded in 2013 by former Google head of personalization Max Ventilla, AltSchool has poached high level executives from Google and Uber. It’s got users—in this case, parents—applying by the thousands. It’s actually making money. And as of today, Mark Zuckerberg just became one of its largest investors.

The young Facebook founder is emerging as one of the country’s most generous philanthropists and a leading activist for school reform, and AltSchool appears to fit into his vision. Through his education-focused non-profit, Zuckerberg has contributed a large portion of a new $100 million round of venture funding to AltSchool. The round, which AltSchool announced today, also includes existing investors such as Andreessen Horowitz and Peter Thiel’s Founder’s Fund, as well as eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of the late Steve Jobs. The investment brings AltSchool’s total funding to $133 million. But more importantly, it means AltSchool has been anointed by the top minds in Silicon Valley as the best hope for the future of education.

But what are they betting on? AltSchool is a decidedly Bay Area experiment with an educational philosophy known as student-centered learning. The approach, which many schools have adopted, holds that kids should pursue their own interests, at their own pace. To that, however, AltSchool mixes in loads of technology to manage the chaos, and tops it all off with a staff of forward-thinking teachers set free to custom-teach to each student. The result, they fervently say, is a superior educational experience.

Its schools, which serve students from pre-K to 8th grade, have no administrators, no gymnasiums, no cafeterias, no hallways. There are no report cards and no bells signaling it’s time for the next class.

The AltSchool in Fort Mason.

Instead, AltSchools are single-room schoolhouses that sit in storefronts on city streets. Today, there are four. By next year, it’ll be eight, including an outpost in Brooklyn, the first outside the Bay Area bubble. Students get their own iPad or Chromebook, depending on their age, and their own weekly “playlists,” queues of individual and group activities tailored to the specific strengths and weaknesses of each kid. Meanwhile, AltSchool’s technology tracks each student’s progress—and setbacks—every step of the way.

This puts AltSchool at the intersection of two rapidly growing movements in education. Along one axis are the dozens of edtech startups building apps for schools; along the other are the dozens of progressive schools rallying around the increasingly popular concept of personalized education. The difference is: AltSchool is not just building apps or building schools. It’s doing both. In that way, AltSchools are more than just schools. They’re mini-research and development labs, where both teachers and engineers are diligently developing the formula for a 21st century education, all in hopes of applying that formula not only to other AltSchools, but to private, public, and charter schools across the country.

Of course, they’re also money-making operations. This is a venture-backed startup, after all, and in the future, Ventilla and his investors envision hundreds of these schools dotting the country, all of them shaping young minds, while also turning a profit.

By Silicon Valley standards, AltSchool is already a runaway success. But the world of education doesn’t operate by Silicon Valley standards. To be a true success, Ventilla and his team still have to prove that AltSchool is more than just another private school for the tech elite, and that it can actually make a difference in some of the country’s neediest schools. Otherwise, it runs the risk being yet another well-funded, well-meaning startup that set out to solve the problems of the many, but settled on the problems of the few.

Ventilla vows that won’t be the case. “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.”

A Google-Sized Challenge

AltSchool’s skunk works of a school in SOMA looks weird for a reason. In order to make a true dent in education, Ventilla believes the gap between the students (and teachers) using technology and the people building it needs to be as narrow as possible. It’s an obsession with constant feedback that Ventilla developed over the years working as an engineer. Before launching AltSchool he had spent the majority of his career working on ways to make the increasingly vast Internet feel more personal, first, at a search startup he co-founded called Aardvark and later as Google’s head of personalization, where he helped build the technological underpinnings for products like Google Now.

Around 2012, Ventilla says he was looking for another “Google-sized challenge” to sink his teeth into and found it when he started searching for a preschool for his daughter. “It was a miserable experience,” says Ventilla, who then began immersing himself in educational literature.

Schools today, Ventilla says, cater to the lowest common denominator, teaching to the middle instead of to each individual child. He refers to this problem as “the tyranny of majority” and says it’s a pervasive issue in schools that’s as worrisome as it is understandable. “If I asked you to go teach twenty 9-year olds, some who don’t want to be in that classroom, and all of whom have very different interests and needs, fluctuating throughout the day, you’d probably also reinvent this factory model we use in education,” he says. “You’d break the day up into 45-minute segments. You’d move the kids along, and if anyone is disruptive, you’d admonish them, or if they’re zoned out and bored, you’d move on and wait until the buzzer goes off each period.”

A student in the younger class listens as his teacher leads a class on butterflies.

You don’t need to be steeped in education reform to see that’s not the best way to ensure children, particularly those on either end of the academic spectrum, stay engaged in their education. And yet trying to bring a more individualized model of education to existing school districts can be as fraught with perils as doing nothing at all. “Schools aren’t good at making changes or measuring the effects of those changes,” Ventilla says. “They’re not good at correcting when those changes are not positive, and they’re not good at propagating those changes that are good so you get the maximum benefit.”

Silicon Valley startups, on the other hand, tend to elevate those practices to an art form. Which is why Ventilla believed it was possible to fix these systemic problems if he and his team started from scratch, not only building the technology that runs the school, but building the school itself. And the school would have to be built in a fundamentally different way. Instead of getting bigger and likely more bureaucratic over time, he would build a huge network of tiny schools that all plug into a central hub. They would operate independently but also benefit from shared resources along the way. In 2013, he left Google to launch the first AltSchool.

Montessori 2.0

Ventilla likes to call AltSchool’s approach to teaching “Montessori 2.0.” The Montessori method emphasizes letting kids learn primarily through independent projects rather than direct instruction. It was developed about a century ago, but if its founder, Maria Montessori were alive today, she too, might have proposed using tech tools to manage the mayhem of a personalized classroom.

AltSchool has built a digital platform, called My.Altschool, to do just that. It tracks students’ playlists as well as the many activities that populate those lists. In AltSchool jargon, these activities are called “cards.” Students log onto the My.AltSchool website, open their playlists, and see an array of 20 to 25 activity cards that teachers have hand-selected for them and loaded onto their playlists. These cards might instruct students to, say, write a response to a prompt, watch an online video, or complete a math exercise on a third-party app. Some of that work happens online, some of it doesn’t, but all of it gets stored and tracked on the app to inform teachers’ decisions down the line. Teachers can make these cards on their own, or search the My.Altschool library to find cards that other teachers have made.

“I had a moment this year where I was like, ‘How did I not have this before?’” says Paul France, one of AltSchool’s teachers, who is walking me through the platform while his students head off to gym class at a local park. He is young, enthusiastic, and enterprising—the kind of teacher every parent would want for their child. Before joining AltSchool, France was a teacher in a Chicago-area public school, where he says he would often break students into groups to make his lessons more personalized. But the complexity of a large classroom and a lack of tools made truly individualized learning impossible. My.Altschool, he says, eliminates much of that complexity.

Fort Mason AltSchool teacher Paul France with two students.  

“It changes the landscape of the classroom because there are just things you can do now that you couldn’t do before,” he says. “What they’re trying to do is alleviate our time strain. If I’m not going through all these steps that a computer could fill in, then maybe I can spend more time in the classroom.”

That said, even France acknowledges that building these cards from scratch is extraordinarily time-consuming, and it’s not hard to see why. Not only does France have to curate dozens of cards per student every week, many of which he creates himself, but he must also make sure that those cards fit that student’s so-called “personalized learning plan”—a set of learning priorities for each student. One student’s learning plan might prioritize math over reading or emphasize time management skills or other similarly squishy concepts that a student needs to master.

“It’s a lot of work on the back end right now because I’m creating it all for the first time,” he says. But France looks at it as an investment. “A year from now, having four grades worth of curriculum? That’s like…” he stops, and here, he pantomimes the universal symbol for “mindblowing.”

France and AltSchool’s other teachers work regularly with the engineering team, ironing out kinks in existing products and helping coders who spend most of the day in front of a computer understand life inside a classroom. Those blind spots are often wider than teachers initially expect. When Katie Gibbons joined AltSchool last year as head of its Fort Mason school, she says, there were major holes in the system such as, for instance, a way to grade how students were progressing in a given subject.

Slowly, however, she says both the teachers and the engineers have been working to fill those gaps, which is precisely the magic of what AltSchool has built. Unlike at the average public school, when something’s not working well enough or fast enough for teachers at AltSchool, a 39-person product team is waiting in the wings to not just fix it but to build a product around it to ensure it never happens again. That’s perhaps why one AltSchool teacher, Mara Pauker, describes the company as an inverted pyramid with Ventilla as the single point from whom support for the teachers at the top radiates. “Everyone at the company is there to support teachers,” she says. “It’s a level of support most teachers will never experience in their careers.”

Student artwork is displayed on the classroom walls of the Fort Mason AltSchool.

Optimizing Education

Providing support to teachers is precisely how Raj Bhatia, AltSchool’s vice president of product, views his job description. He and his team study AltSchool teachers like lab rabbits, exploring how the most minute technological details can either enhance or inhibit their performance. In one particularly interesting study on teacher time, Bhatia tells me, the team learned that some of its tools were running so slowly that 15 percent of teachers’ time was spent waiting for the system to load.

“That’s where we say, ‘Let’s work on performance optimization’ or if teachers have to go to four pages in the tool, how can we make it one?’” Bhatia says. “It’s not sexy to think about, but you know you can work on something there.”

According to Bhatia, this job is only getting easier as AltSchool grows. Before joining the company in 2014, he was a product manager at Zynga, where the slightest update to a game would yield millions of metrics from millions of users, making it easy to detect problematic patterns and major opportunities. Then he got to AltSchool, where there was just one classroom, with one measly set of data, and suddenly, finding those patterns got a lot harder.

Classmates work together on a project for Black History Month at the Fort Mason AltSchool.

To date, AltSchool’s teacher satisfaction team has fielded more than 4,400 reports from its teachers. While some of those reports have to do with fixing loose doorknobs or leaky faucets, hundreds of them are product feedback. For Bhatia, that’s progress.

But AltSchool teachers do more than point out the squeaky wheels. They also work with the engineering team on entirely new products, such as an attendance app that students use to check in and out of school and wearable devices that help keep track of students off campus. Teachers added their ideas to an app for parents and have even helped develop a camera system called AltVideo, which sits at the back of the classroom recording audio and video throughout the day. Ventilla believes that some day, the activity captured on these videos, combined with the data My.Altschool collects on student progress, could eliminate the need for incessant testing, not only at AltSchools, but at all schools.

“It’s not hard to model language acquisition if you can listen to every word a person is saying,” he says. “We think assessment can be much less invasive and much more accurate when you’re collecting data from many sources.”

The team is also working on a recommendation engine for teachers, not unlike those used by companies like Amazon and Netflix. This tool would take into account everything that My.Altschool knows about a student—from her playlist history to how she learns best to what her strengths and weaknesses are—to recommend activities. “It’d be great if the system could figure out that Johnny’s an auditory learner, who loves castles, and that he’s struggling with estimating,” Bhatia says, adding that an early version of that tool will likely be available this year.

“I don’t think schools will adopt whole-hog the AltSchool classroom. There will be pieces of it that will make the most sense, and over time, if it saves teachers hours, improves quality and gives them flexibility where it didn’t exist before, I think they’ll be more open to trying additional things out,” Ventilla says.

“We have no illusions about how hard that is, but we’re in this for the very long haul. If it takes us two decades to really move the needle on big district public schools in the US, that’s a good outcome. That’s success. It doesn’t have to happen quickly, but it does have to happen at scale.”

At morning snack time at the AltSchool in Fort Mason, teacher Sarah Rothenberg plays a video that the students made.

Ed-Tech for Everyone

It’s a good thing that Ventilla is armed with that mindset. He’s going to need it. Fashionable as personalized education is today, there’s a long and sordid history of education reform movements that haven’t panned out, including Mark Zuckerberg’s own $100 million investment in Newark schools, now considered a failure by many. Along the way, no shortage of tech companies have offered up technology as the cure for what ails America’s schools. Whenever these efforts fail, these schools become even more risk averse than ever.

“The biggest failure of technology in schools is people thought there was some inherent value to technology, rather than saying the only value in technology is that it enhances teaching or engages kids,” says Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City’s public school system and current head of the NewsCorp-owned edtech company Amplify. “A lot of people looked at this through the technological lens rather than the teaching lens, and that’s a huge mistake.”

But there are other societal factors that could make it harder for AltSchool to bridge the gap between private and public schools. Like the fact that today, AltSchool is testing its educational theories and technologies on a fundamentally different demographic from the typical public school kid. About 40 percent of AltSchool students receive some form of financial aid, but any school where 60 percent of families can afford to pay $21,000 per year in tuition still qualifies AltSchool as a haven for the affluent in a country where more than half of public school students qualify for free or reduced price lunches. Meanwhile, rich and poor school students are more segregated todaynationwide than the rest of the U.S. population as a whole. As this gulf grows, so does the difference between the challenges that schools face at either end of the spectrum.

“There’s the potential for kids, if it’s used well, to learn a lot more than they used to.”

Indeed, one recent research project commissioned by the Gates Foundation studied the effects of personalized learning practices at 23 public charter schools that consisted of predominantly low-income students. After two years, the study found that students at these schools made greater strides in their standardized scores than students from comparable schools that lacked a personalized learning program. What’s more, the study showed that students whose scores grew the most were the ones who had previously scored in the bottom quartile.

For Klein, this type of result is not entirely surprising. “Technology can be enormously efficient. But it has to be both good and efficient,” he says. “Max is a visionary guy,” he says of AltSchool’s founder, “but he has to prove a combination of customer satisfaction, teacher satisfaction, and results. And if he can do that, the road to scalability isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible.”

‘Anyone Who Feels Like An Outlier’

AltSchool may have to wait awhile before it can truly claim a victory in its mission to reinvent education. Ventilla knows that all too well. “We want to build a large amount of value for a large amount of people, but that might take a very long time,” he says. “It will take a very long time.” But while Ventilla and his team work toward change at a grand scale, is already making a very real difference in the lives of very real students, which is more than so many of Silicon Valley’s app developers can say. These are students for whom the traditional public school system just did not work. Students like David.

David (not his real name) is 13 years old. He’s got big brown eyes, dimples, and freckles. He’s impossibly adorable and impossibly eloquent—the kind of kid who uses the word “regimented,” when he could say “strict.” And he’s self-aware enough to describe AltSchool as a good fit for “anyone who feels like an outlier.” So it’s no surprise when his teacher, Christie Seyfert wanders by, tousles his hair, and tells me, “He’s a good one.”

AltSchool teacher Christie Seyfert works with two Fort Mason students.

At his last school, a public school, David tells me, he got his teeth knocked out by a bunch of bullies. He laughs about it now, and even has a joke at the ready for the telling of this story. “It’s was a good thing, actually,” he says, “because I needed to lose my baby teeth.”

But bullies weren’t the only problem there. David describes teachers who ran their classrooms like prisons, recalling one day when he left his notebook in a locker. Instead of being let out of class to go fetch it, he was given a zero. “I didn’t feel like I could have a relationship with those people,” he says. Now, David thinks of his teachers “like family.”

“I feel like I can share my feelings with them, and that should be something you can have,” he says.

At AltSchool, David says he has “jumped on the speedboat” academically. Instead of studying pre-algebra this year, like he would have at his old school, his AltSchool teachers got him started on geometry because they knew it would help him with his high school admissions tests. “We studied for a few weeks, and I learned at my own pace and my own level, and they catered to my specific needs,” he says, sounding like the poster boy for AltSchool, which, of course, he is. “At my old school, my teachers would be like, ‘Great. You have a test? Good luck.’”

David is about to achieve a big milestone both for himself, and for AltSchool: In a little over a month, he’ll become the first student to officially graduate. There will be a small ceremony in his honor at the Fort Mason school, facilitated by David’s teachers. Then, he’ll walk out the door and onto the campus of whatever high school is lucky enough to have him. He thinks he’s going to miss it here.

Inside the School Silicon Valley Thinks Will Save Education