AltSchool: bespoke education innovation just for the 1%?

AltSchool logoAltSchool is a new educational project, with several instances in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and New York City.  Kevin Carey wrote about it for Pacific Standard, and in that account I find aspects that are interesting, even exciting, along details that speak volumes to the problem of increasing social inequality.

The good: AltSchool selects some fine pedagogical ideas.  They keep classes small, which allows teachers the time to commit to intense personalization.  On the latter, AltSchool builds Learner Portraits, which then feed into Personalized Learning Plans.  They support interdisciplinary learning through their T-shaped student model.  They combine lots of technology with offline, real-world learning.  Each school is small, a “micro-school”, which appeals to my Vermont K-12 experience: “[a]ll AltSchool campuses are small, with only six to eight classrooms and 60 to 100 students, who range in age from five to 13.”  Parental involvement is high.

None of this is new, except for one thing (see below).  Personalization is something many schools are striving for; that’s a goal for my very rural, non-creative-class-dominated state’s K-12 system.  The student-centered notion goes back a ways; as Anya Kamenetz observes, “It really does look like a Montessori classroom. They say Montessori 2.0.”

What’s not to like?  AltSchool is a school for the elite, generated by the needs of Bay Area rich people.

Consider, for starters, the tuition, which “runs from $20,000 to $28,000, depending on the location”, per year, according to Carey.  That explains how they can afford small classes and a lot of technology.  Well, that and more than $100 million in venture capital funding.

Wired gets into the headspace of AltSchool’s kind of wealthy parents trying to decide where to school their children: “it’s pricey, sure, but cheaper than the other private schools you’ve seen”.  Whew.  AltSchool is clearly aimed at the economic elite, a fact made especially resonant from our reading of Robert Putnam’s Our Kids.

Or reflect on the school’s origins.  Altschool didn’t appear because of, say, parents frustrated by local school curricula, or as the brainchild of innovative teachers.  No, what summoned AltSchool into being was the frustration of wealthy Bay Area parents who couldn’t buy the public school education they wanted, so decided to set up their own private academy.

Here’s Carey on that origin, from the article’s opening paragraph:

Last year, Jamie Herre and Kate Blumberg were confronted by a dilemma. Their young son, Benno, had reached kindergarten age, and it was time to pick a school for him. Yet like many other members of San Francisco’s affluent class of technologists and entrepreneurs, Jamie and Kate could not purchase for Benno the one thing they wanted more than anything else: a good public education.

Did you catch that language about “purchas[ing]” a public good?  That’s a pretty bald admission that American public schools are more than half-way to being private, based on sharp differences of funding.

Those parents and several others face the prospect of their children going into public schools of random quality:

While Ventilla was working at Google, he was also busy raising a young family. He and his wife knew they would soon be confronted with the same dilemma as Jamie Herre: They wanted to stay in the city but, despite their prosperity, couldn’t guarantee their kids a good education in its public schools.

So they back a startup private school, rather than, say, agitating for improving public schools, or lobbying for more K-12 funding (Audrey Watters: “”), or committing themselves to energetic parenting (as AltSchool does) to make up for deficiencies, or volunteering, or donating, or running for the school board (full disclosure: I serve on mine).   AltSchool is, in this account, about privatization, about withdrawing from the public system and the commonweal, in order to create private gardens for the rich.

As Carey observes, “Parents with money overwhelmingly choose to buy personalized, supportive learning experiences for their children.”  American K-12 is deeply warped by ever-increasing class privilege, and AltSchool is the logical result.

What’s surprising about AltSchool, what flies in the face of this class-driven structure, and what is newish when it comes to established pedagogy, is its use of extensive surveillance.  Listen to this:

Bolted onto the interior walls of every AltSchool classroom, halfway between the ceiling and floor, are a series of transparent boxes, each housing a mass of black, blue, and red wires that connect a wireless router to a small HD video camera and a professional-grade microphone. These capture the sights and sounds of the classroom in a way that can be accessed by a team of software engineers at AltSchool’s headquarters. Next year, similar spaces will open up in Brooklyn, Palo Alto, and elsewhere in San Francisco, all collecting terabytes of audio and video footage.

That’s the kind of monitoring we usually direct at dangerous and marginal populations, not the 1%.  This dataveillance and media capture flips the class narrative on its head.

I wonder how much control students have over this (their) data.  How much control their parents do.  And their teachers.

There are other surprises in Carey’s article, and perhaps I am being too harsh.  AltSchool intends “greater expansion, all across the country—not just to other cities but also to rural areas”, suggesting they might move down the socio-economic scale, although I’m not sure how. They plan on doubling the number of schools each year, which is very ambitious (check the fable of the grain of rice).  If each of those schools holds 80 students, then let’s estimate around 18 years for them to gets into the 50-million student range.  That would be… quite a development.  Is that the long-term goal, to erect a parallel education system, AltSchool Nation?

Carey is optimistic: “innovation often develops first in a market for wealthy people and then spreads outward, as processes are refined and economies of scale are realized.”  On Twitter he added: “I also think new ideas and practices can migrate from schools with the resources and freedom to explore them.”  Also, Anya Kamenetz sees the software development as ultimately being publicly accessible.

AltSchool’s “head of PR” Maggie Quale tweeted some related thoughts to me, after I wondered: “But how can schools in non-1% populations deploy those lessons?  I don’t see the open source software model working here.”

Maggie Quale tweet: "Short answer: we have to start somewhere. In a controlled highly R&D space to show traction to impact that 99%"

Maggie Quale tweet, "This is phase 1. AltSchool's goal is to bring the model/tech to the broader pop once it's tested measured and shows traction"

Short answer: we have to start somewhere. In a controlled highly R&D space to show traction to impact that 99%

This is phase 1. AltSchool’s goal is to bring the model/tech to the broader pop once it’s tested measured and shows traction

And yet.   AltSchool’s founder, Max Ventilla, can’t help but sneer at public schools’ turn towards personalization, describing what he offers instead as not just better but, I kid you not, bespoke education.

Will AltSchool open source its code?  Forbes thinks not, seeing the enterprise as “licensing its software to the bulk of schools it won’t be controlling itself.”  Will all schools be able to afford it?

So let’s put this out for AltSchool as a challenge. I’ll set aside the privacy issues for a moment.  AltSchool administrators, open source your code as soon as possible.  And open up some campuses in Watts, or Patterson, New Jersey, or New Orleans, or Detroit, without charging families a dime.  Do it now, not in 15-20 years. Hit up that pile of VC funding, or put out the hat for charitable donations.  See if you can – and decide to – do this.  Or will you keep your schools for the 1%?

Alternatively, work with some public schools. See about getting this system into a public school. Talk openly about your negotiations.  Let’s see if public K-12 really resists what you’re doing, or if they’re ready to try it out.  Maybe you’ll have to develop a different licensing model.

Which way will AltSchool go?

Credit where credit’s due: Kevin Carey generously discussed his article and AltSchool on Twitter, even as I flung jet-lagged tweets at bizarre hours.  Thanks to Maggie Quale for her engagement as well.

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5 Responses to AltSchool: bespoke education innovation just for the 1%?

  1. Brian, Carey also reports, in the PSMAG story, that “Ventilla is also competing in a market in which the government subsidizes public schools for about the same amount of money per student, roughly $13,000, that he’s eventually hoping to charge,” so he seems to be shooting for price comparability with public edu. Of course, if the idea is that parents might use vouchers to transfer their kids from public school to a bespoke private alternative, that still leaves families with out the time, initiative or access in the public system, which may or may not be benefiting from the research that went into AltSchool.

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