Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

AltSchool: Silicon Valley's Answer to Education Reform

By Girisha AroraPublished January 1, 2017

Former Google employee Max Ventilla has founded a school which he believes can revolutionize the public sphere by offering tailored education - many aren't happy with his thinking.

The state of the public education system in the United States has led to many raising their voice in favor of reform. After working in the Silicon Valley, Max Ventilla decided to use technology to revolutionize the American education system. In 2013, he opened a small school in Palo Alto that became the first of four ‘AltSchools' that have opened to date. He believes that offering an education to each child where their progress is monitored at every step by teachers as well as parents will allow students to be taught in accordance to their specific needs. His brand of schools commands a yearly tuition of nearly $30,000 for elementary school — hence it is an extremely pricey alternative to the present system.

Rebecca Mead, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, visited the "micro-school" that opened in Brooklyn in a year ago, and saw how the exorbitant tuition is being put to use. There are embedded fisheye lenses in the walls of the classrooms, and each student is issued a tablet in pre-Kindergarten which is later switched to a laptop. Any assignment that a child does, whether it's acting out a restaurant scene or describing what a castle is — will be automatically videotaped and photographed. This is then added to the continuous record that exists of the child and compared later when progress has been made. The classrooms resemble a "tech employee's studio apartment"  since they come equipped with couches, bookcases, a flat screen TV and a kitchen area. To get rid of the "one size fits all" policy that is followed in nearly all schools, each child has a "student playlist" that has their daily tasks listed specific to their skills.

AltSchool's approach to cater to each child's needs is commendable, however many are criticizing the 35-year-old founder for creating a system that is elitist. When Ventilla attended institutions such as Buckley, Andover and Yale, his parents were unable to pay for his education, which is why he ensures that there is an ample amount of financial aid available for the students hoping to enroll. However, the size of these schools ensures the elitist tag still sticks. The AltSchool which opened in Brooklyn has 30 students in total who study from pre-K to third grade. These 30 spots received 1,200 applications. Hence, because these are "micro-schools", it is extremely difficult to laud them as the potential revolutionaries of the education system.

Critics also frown upon the school's extensive dependency on technology. Such an approach is expected from a person whose roots lie in the Silicon Valley, but this leads to teachers and traditional educators to believe that since Ventilla did not earlier have experience in the education sector, he does not know what he is doing. When technology is introduced at such an early age, it is known to make children more reclusive, and in a day and age when every effort is being made to increase human interaction — creating a school that emphasizes the opposite seems counter-effective. These teachers also seem to find a continuously monitored environment to cater more to an over-achieving parents' wants than a child's needs.

As of now Ventilla's plan is to perfect his model through these micro-schools, and then sell the software to public schools across the country. However, an overwhelmingly positive response to this innovative system is yet to be seen and the future this holds for the American education system is yet to be explored.