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I am thinking of starting a specialized consultancy for those who think they can reinvent school through technology. I’m going to call it That Won’t Work, Bro Inc.

After hearing a reinvention proposal I will hit a button, streamers will fly, trumpets will blare and a banner saying, “That Won’t Work, Bro” will descend from the ceiling. I will charge 1/100 of what they were planning on spending on their fantasy, thus saving tens or hundreds of millions of dollars which they can instead funnel into school meal programs, thus doing considerably more good than whatever they were planning.

We’re never going to reinvent school through technology because we’re never going to reinvent human beings, but this doesn’t seem to stop tech entrepreneurs from trying, and in the process flushing millions of dollars down the drain.[1]

The latest casualty of the “reinvention” battle is AltSchool, a Zuckerberg backed initiative that aimed to create “technology-infused schools that would revolutionize education.” Zuck and others ponied up $175 million in seed money. Nine schools were opened, boasting all manner of technological gewgaws.

As is typical of those who believe they can reinvent school, AltSchool CEO Max Ventilla previously possessed zero experience in school other than as a student, and even those experiences were in the rarefied air of Philips Academy and Yale. Prior to AltSchool he rose to Head of Personalization at Google.

Whelp, as reported by Bloomberg, “five years after opening, the for-profit venture has yet to solve a basic business equation. Despite charging about $30,000 for tuition, AltSchool’s losses are piling up as it spends at a pace of about $40 million per year. The San Francisco company is now scaling back its ambitions for opening elementary schools around the U.S. and will instead close at least one location. In an interview, Ventilla said it’s all part of the plan. The startup is shifting its focus to selling technology to other schools, a business which has struggled to date but that he said has a more promising future.” 

I believe this is called a “pivot” in Silicon Valley speak. Max Ventilla is selling this as a good thing because of unanticipated high demand for AltSchool technology in other schools which pay between $150 and $500 annually per student for the privilege of using AltSchool software.

AltSchool may survive as a purveyor of ed tech, but their dreams of a nationwide network of schools utilizing an “operating system for a 21st century school system” seems dead. My hypothetical consultancy could have helped them because if someone came to me pledging to create the “operating system for a 21st  century school system” I would’ve told them: (STREAMERS, TRUMPETS) That won’t work, bro.

Those who believe school can be reinvented seem to have a very limited understanding of school and even less consideration of students. Inevitably, they view learning as a problem of content delivery, failing to understand that learning is a social process, happening among and inside of people. To the extent AltSchool had any success, parents noted the small class sizes and multiple teachers per class as most meaningful. The software appears to be not much of a difference-maker.

As Audrey Watters has shown, you can’t send a teaching machine to do a human’s job.

This is not to say that school shouldn’t undergo a process of change, because the opposite is true. We just have to remember that change is a long and messy process during which unforeseeable things will happen.

In truth, though, I think all of the “reinventing” schools crowd and maybe some others as well fail to notice that we’ve been in the process of school “reinvention” for thirty-plus years already. Those who argue schools haven’t changed since the Industrial Age aren’t paying attention. In reality, we’ve been undergoing a long process of substituting training for education and sublimating human needs to those of industry, including the industry of education.[2]

“College and career ready” sounds nice, but this goal has unfortunately resulted in a steady narrowing of school-related activities to those that support performance on high stakes standardized assessments. This is most evident in “no excuses” charter schools, which require near total behavioral compliance among their “scholars” in order to maximize scoring on these tests, but we see signs of this reinvention in any school where Kindergarten now has an academic focus, music and art are a thing of the past and recess is at least occasionally sacrificed in the name of test prep.

Perversely, the push to make students college and career ready makes them less likely to be college and career ready because potential success in those realms cannot be captured in performance on a standardized test. The focus on those tests also has the highly undesirable side effect of leaving students demoralized by school and stressed out about their futures.

AltSchool and their ilk aren’t actually reinventing anything, but are merely trying to find a more efficient route to driving improved performance on these very narrow metrics which are, in the words of Harvard professor and former grade school teacher Daniel Koretz, a “charade.” 

When it comes to school, we don’t need a reinvention so much as a reconsideration, an unwinding of the policies and approaches that seem to be doing so much damage, a reclaiming that prioritizes students and learning rather than “standards” and “achievement.” In some cases this means recognizing things that have been hidden in plain sight.

In the K-12 arena, I recommend Jack Schneider’s Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality for an approach that gets us past the testing charade and reintroduces some of the values we used to associate with “good” schools. 

For higher ed, look no further than the burgeoning appreciation for community colleges, which thanks to “revised data” have suddenly gone from dropout factories to engines of advancement. 

It’s worth noting the schools themselves did exactly nothing new to change these perceptions. The “new” conclusions are based on reinterpretation of old data.

Turns out, one of the solutions we’ve been looking for when it comes to access to post-secondary education has been chugging right along without notice, no reinvention necessary.

Does it matter that the teachers and administrators at community colleges themselves have been shouting about this for years?

Nah. What do they know? They probably never worked at Google.






[1] Let me stipulate, technology obviously has a role in schools. I am not anti-technology. I am anti techno-solutionism which casually posits that technology will solve very difficult problems because…it’s got electrolytes, or something like that. 

[2] This is true for teachers and higher ed faculty as well. When academics purposefully and knowingly publish in “worthless” journals we are inside a production model divorced from meaningful work or outcomes. 

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