Can a Silicon Valley start-up transform education?

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HARI SREENIVASAN: A group of private schools started only three years ago by technology industry entrepreneurs has designs on reinventing the way children learn in the United States by using data to personalize education.

The school system, called “AltSchool,” now operates eight small private schools — six in the San Francisco Bay Area and two in New York — with ambitious plans to eventually license its program and proprietary software to other private — and public — schools across the country. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Joanne Jennings has our story, which is part of American Graduate Day, a public media initiative to address the high school dropout crisis.

EMILY GREENBERG: What’s that I hear?

STUDENT: It’s Mission Impossible.

EMILY GREENBERG: Oh my gosh, we must be in for a real treat.

JOANNE JENNINGS: Emily Greenberg is introducing her students to “Passion Projects” at AltSchool’s newest location in downtown San Francisco.

EMILY GREENBERG: We’re thinking of passion projects about something I’ve always wanted to know about, but I kind of never got the time to figure that thing out and here’s your time.

JOANNE JENNINGS: In Greenberg’s class, student proposals range from learning Spanish to building a go-kart.

EMILY GREENBERG: You’ll need to learn about go-karting. You are going to need materials.

JOANNE JENNINGS: The mission of this network of private, for profit schools is to personalize the educational experience, in part, by letting these kindergarten through 8th grade students decide 20 percent of their schedule.

EMILY GREENBERG: So it’s the idea that 20 percent of their week, or their time, will be spent doing something that’s really personally meaningful to them. It may not fit into, necessarily, our core academic growth, but it’s something that’s truly meaningful to them as a person. It really fits into that personalized whole-child thinking.

JOANNE JENNINGS: The concept of 20 percent time originated at Google, where AltSchool’s founders once worked. In its early days, google gave employees one day a week to pursue whatever they wanted, passion projects that resulted in products like Gmail.

EMILY GREENBERG: We’ve done a lot of research into how that might fit into our classroom, and what it might look like at AltSchool.

JOANNE JENNINGS: The philosophy of AltSchool is to avoid a one size fits all approach to education. Let students choose more of what they do in school, program a “playlist” of lessons responsive to student interests, collect data on how students learn by monitoring their computer use and performance in class, and track progress to give teachers quantitative feedback. The concept came into focus for 35-year-old AltSchool Founder Max Ventilla when he and his wife started to look at pre-schools for their daughter.

At the time, he was in charge of “personalization” at Google, developing those user profiles based on how you use the internet, which websites you visit, and what terms you search for.

MAX VENTILLA: As a parent, with my wife, thinking about when my daughter was two, kinda what would she do during the elementary school years, and not necessarily finding those schools that we thought would prepare our daughter, who’s very different than us, for the very different kinda life she will lead. The kind of school that I wanted is actually something that the teams that I’ve always been part of might be able to support. Not just for one school, but for many, many schools in the long run.

JOANNE JENNINGS: Ventilla, whose daughter started AltSchool this year, believes applying Google’s user profile techniques to create learner profiles can improve student performance. So, AltSchool draws inferences about its students the same way Google does, by collecting their data.

MAX VENTILLA: It’s the same in an education context. The idea that, as you start to have this deep understanding of who a child is, and what a child does, you’re able to start to make inferences and suggestions and say, ‘similar students pursuing objectives like that were really well served by this kind of experience.’ Maybe that’s something that, as a student, or as a teacher for that student, you might want to consider.

INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY EMPLOYEE: Something that you need to know is that I can definitely see, and so can your teachers, I can see everything you do on your Chromebooks.

JOANNE JENNINGS: Even elementary school students are told every keystroke on their laptops used in class is monitored. Teachers analyze how students answer questions and interact to better understand how each child is learning and then they use that information to customize what they give students to read. Even current event articles on the website “Newsela.”

EMILY GREENBERG: And this will be how you find an article that I just assigned to you based on your reading level.

JOANNE JENNINGS: By using the information collected, teachers create so-called “Playlist Cards” — a customized lesson plan for each individual student. Emily Dahm heads two AltSchools.

EMILY DAHM: Behind the scenes, teachers are creating units made up of these cards. A lot of what the kids end up doing is off the screen. A playlist card might ask a student to play a game or build something, and then they’re going back to that playlist card to document their work.

JOANNE JENNINGS: Last spring, PBS’s “Nova” captured middle school student Juan Martin using his playlist to apply a math lesson about ratios to designing a model home.

JUAN MARTIN: Well, right now, I have this playlist about being mindful of my scale.

JOANNE JENNINGS: Through a combination of online and in-person interactions with his teacher, Martin realized that one inch in his model could represent five feet at full scale. The lesson, which is preserved digitally, can be useful to other students in the future.

EMILY DAHM: Our technology enables educators to create curriculum and also capture data about students that can be shared with other educators. An educator might create a unit which can be used by another educator, and that educator might improve upon it and then use it again with their kids. That’s just not something that can be done easily without this technology.

JOANNE JENNINGS: AltSchool teachers also get feedback from these cameras and microphones hanging in every classroom, recording every lesson.

EMILY GREENBERG: And it’s great to be able to review and think, “How could I have done that in a better way, or in a more effective way,” or “Next time, when I deliver this mini-lesson, maybe I’ll use a different tool next time,” or “That student looked super off-task, how can I help that student.”

JOANNE JENNINGS: Alt school eighth grader Janice Demings says she was wary of the cameras at first.

JANICE DEMINGS: Everyone was like so freaked about the cameras, like, “Oh, my god! They’re spying on us and they have like a whole spy team.” We started a petition to get rid of the cameras just for fun, and now I feel that the cameras are a very beneficial thing because the cameras are here to track how we’re growing as a class, how we’re growing in our interactions.

JOANNE JENNINGS: Only teachers have access to the video, and AltSchool says it follows strict guidelines that forbid sharing it. AltSchool also says it encrypts all the data, which is retained on secure servers. Mark Eisner is the father of 8th-grader Emma.

JOANNE JENNINGS: One of the ways personalization is possible is by collecting a lot of information about your daughter and the other kids here. How do you feel about that?

MARK EISNER: I feel fine about it. They do need to collect information and data to make good decisions and I think that’s fine. I mean it’s all oriented toward teaching and you know refining the overall educational model they are trying to do.

JOANNE JENNINGS: Since opening in 2013, AltSchool says its students have scored above national averages in standardized tests but declined to share any scores. A report last year from the Gates Foundation and the Rand Corporation looked at 11-thousand students in 62 schools with the personalized learning approach. It found those students “made gains in mathematics and reading that were significantly greater” than their peers in regular schools.

JOANNE JENNINGS: For example, during the past two school years, they gained 11 percentile points in math tests. Larry Cuban is a former teacher, public school administrator, and Stanford School of Education Professor. He warns that past efforts to individualize instruction have fallen short of expectations.

LARRY CUBAN: I’m allergic to over-promising. I’m allergic to exaggeration, because I’ve been in schools for a large part of my life, and I still go to schools. What I want is realistic, evidence-based kinds of things that know the history of these efforts and why they flop before, so you can have a much smarter approach to reforming schools, to improve what goes on in classrooms.

JOANNE JENNINGS: Next year AltSchool plans to open its first school in Chicago and another in New York. And expand further by partnering with other private schools. Eventually, the goal is to license its software to public schools, a potential money maker that’s helped attract 133 million dollars in funding from investors.

JOANNE JENNINGS: Why should they invest in Alt school? What kind of return are they going to get on their investment?

MAX VENTILA: They are looking over the very long term. So they are saying, “If this is successful in 15 years, then it can achieve a kind of critical mass. The beauty of that is, it costs a lot to build the first one, but then it’s very, very cheap to build the 2nd one, and the thousandth one, and 10 thousandth one.

JOANNE JENNINGS: With an annual tuition starting at 26-thousand dollars, relatively small class sizes, and only 450 students enrolled in its eight AltSchools. Larry Cuban is skeptical the methods honed here can be easily applied to large public schools with the greatest needs.

LARRY CUBAN: That does not make it an easy model for altering or transforming public schools which have a different demography, both in students and teachers. When you have a public school system, in this case of 50 million kids, 3 million teachers, you have a great deal of variation.

MAX VENTILLA: I think you need to start with an idealized environment if you’re trying to do something really transformatively different. How do you end up in an education future where the people with resources are actually getting the same experience that people with far less resources have? I just have this naïve belief that technology is an essential ingredient in that.

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