The exceedingly well-funded San Francisco education startup AltSchool announced a seemingly inevitable “pivot” last week. It is turning over its few remaining schools to an organization with experience educating children. At the same time it will rename itself Altitude Learning and become the thing it avoided from the git-go, a technology company. That company also will be run by career educators, which AltSchool’s founders are not. (Fast Company has a good overview of the changes.)
I wrote more than three years ago that I was intrigued by AltSchool because of its innovative approach to educating kids. At the same time, I noted the arrogance of the ex-Google employees who started AltSchool for thinking they could experiment on children. Then-CEO Max Ventilla compared AltSchool to “flying the plane while we’re building it.” My observation at the time: “No one in their right mind would tinker with an airborne plane. Yet AltSchool asks parents to pay for the privilege ofsupplying their children as guinea pigs.”
The experiment didn’t work. There’s no shame in that in Silicon Valley, whose well-documented ethos celebrates failure. Then again, the era seems to be passing when reasonable people will believe that just because someone made a bunch of money helping commercialize a revolutionary information-searching algorithm that they have a chance in hell of reforming education—or some other unrelated field.
I also can’t help but wonder what might have happened if the founders of AltSchool had figured out a way to spend the nearly $200 million in venture capital they raised to improve education in the public schools in the cities where their company operated rather than trying to change the world with technology.