WASHINGTON — He’s starting out with six non-traditional “micro-schools,” but entrepreneur Max Ventilla wants to bring education up to date with personalized instruction and data-based performance analytics.
Ventilla, founder of AltSchool, talked Monday about his “grand ambition” to move the entire education system from a top-down model to a more adaptable way of teaching. Speaking at the startup incubator, 1776, Ventilla said the way schools operate — stagnant in his view — needs to change to keep up with the pace of innovation.
“The purpose of school is to prepare kids for the future,” said the one-time Google employee. “This traditional model is just a black hole in terms of how much it drags you back into the same way of doing things.”
Ventilla, who holds an MBA from Yale University and worked briefly for the World Bank, wants to change the traditional model with AltSchool. Founded in 2013, the company has opened six “micro-schools” in San Francisco, Palo Alto and New York.
The schools teach 80 to 150 students at each location, from preschool through 8th grade, mixing kids of different ages in the classroom. They focus on collaborative work and in-depth learning; many of them offer Spanish immersion programs starting in kindergarten.
AltSchool has an application process much like a private school and charges monthly tuition. The company plans to open six new locations in the near future, including one in Chicago.
AltSchool’s vision goes beyond opening its own schools, though. The company collects data to monitor students’ learning at a more detailed level than what’s achievable through standardized testing, an approach that Harvard University’s Education Innovation Laboratory has found to be highly effective. Ventilla hopes to share the platform with other schools.
“The hope is that you get this charter school promise. You lower the bar so that teachers can start schools,” he said. “It’s so damn hard to start a bad school today, let alone a good one.”
However, some experts do not support personalized instruction.
In many cases, this kind of teaching brings more technology into the classroom. But a 2014 report from the National Education Policy Center said higher tech classrooms have had little effect on student performance.
Tim Walker, writing for the National Education Association, cited the report in an article questioning the value of technology initiatives in education.
“Maybe it’s time to step back and actually assess the actual evidence about the limits – and successes – of technology in the classroom,” Walker wrote in NEA Today.
AltSchool has raised over $100 million from 23 different investors, including Mark Zuckerberg and the investment firm, Andreessen Horowitz, according to CrunchBase. However, the company is not yet profitable.
“The truth is that AltSchool is massively money-losing,” Ventilla said.
And while his model will not pay off in the near future, Ventilla said he’s designing a system that will turn a large profit in five to 10 years.
“If you force yourself to operate profitably from the get-go, you’re very limited in the leaps you can make,” he said.
Even if losing money is acceptable as part of a larger company plan, AltSchool is still showing signs of slowing down. Hiring has nearly flatlined over the past few months, and the company’s growth score, a measure of factors like funding and social media metrics, has been falling since August, according to startup analytics firm Mattermark.
Ventilla sees his work as an investment in education r&d, something that he says the traditional system neglects. AltSchool’s approach, at minimum, will prove change is possible, even if it doesn’t achieve its ultimate goal of overhauling an outdated system, he said.
“Humans are way too likely to think that something that hasn’t been done is bad,” he said. “We’re trying to do something different.”