Trusting Entrepreneurs to Improve Education: A Cautionary Tale

"Beware of all educational enterprises that require billionaire entrepreneurs." Henry David Thoreau wrote that, or almost wrote that. His actual words were, "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes." I just updated it a bit.

Bill Gates has put many hundreds of millions of dollars into education improvement schemes, with minimal success. Now he's joining his billions with Mark Zuckerberg's billions to push personalized learning, which means more computers, more educational software and less interference from those unpredictable, unreliable humans known as teachers. Sounds like a sure-fire road to success, doesn't it?

Case in point. Max Ventilla is a serious-but-not-too-serious Yale grad in his thirties who favors jeans and t-shirts—the very picture of the modern major tech guru. He founded AltSchool in 2013, with the help of about $175 million in venture capital. Mark Zuckerberg was one of the venturers. Ventilla opened seven schools where he could try out the educational technology he's creating. His plan is to use "big data" to help schools tailor education to each student's individual needs. That means cameras monitoring every student down to facial expressions, infrared cameras keeping track of everything students touch, and, of course, microphones recording every word they say. It also means lots of screen time, monitored down to the keystroke, of course. Amass all the data, Ventilla believes, and the result will be vast reservoirs of information which can be sliced and diced to help us understand how students act and learn at the most intimate level. The Big Brother-like surveillance also means an immense treasure trove of data which can be used to tailor commercial pitches to students and their parents in the short and the long term, but that's not the purpose of the data collection—not the stated purpose anyway.

To send a student to one of the schools costs parents over $25,000 a year, which isn't much problem for a select group of folks in Palo Alto, San Francisco and New York where the schools are located. These students are on everyone's "most likely to succeed" list, so it's hard to understand what Ventilla thinks he'll learn about educating the other 99.9 percent of the population from this rarified collection of children.

Four years after opening, Ventilla is closing one school and consolidating others. Why? Not because the schools aren't working, according to AltSchool, or because it's running short of cash. It's a business decision. Ventilla says he wants to devote more of the company's energy to tapping into the growing demand for software promoting personalized learning.
"We're being realistic," Ventilla said. "In a few years time, when we raise our next round [of venture capital], we will have to show not only great success in the schools we run, but real progress in extending our platform to other schools."
Parents are upset about the sudden closures and the effects the dislocation will have on their children, but business is the business of business, not the negative impact of business decisions on former customers.

Education Week has put together a special report, Personalized Learning: Vision Vs. Reality. It concludes the evidence supporting the value of personalized learning is weak. Results have been lackluster. The few successes show minor upticks in student achievement, at best.

But money is pouring in from entrepreneurs who believe in the power of software to change the educational world and to increase their share of the billions of education dollars spent every year across the U.S. They have the clout to buy their way into schools and educational conferences, to create a successful buzz for products which haven't proven successful, hoping for massive sales and profits down the road.

Our entrepreneurial tech wizards have demonstrated that their narrow focus is on eyeballs and ad sales, and they doesn't consider the possibility of dramatic unintended consequences. "Who knew our products could be weaponized into mass market propaganda machines?" the people behind Facebook, Twitter and Google ask. "We had no idea." Yet they want parents and educators to allow them to fill data storage centers with detailed, intimate information which would make them the envy of every autocrat in history, all on the off chance it might make the children slightly better students, with little concern about how that data can be used to manipulate or harm today's children in the future.