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AltSchool Promises To Reimagine Education For the 2030s

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. What exactly do you get when you combine a software company and a school - maybe the AltSchool. It was created by a former Google engineer named Max Ventilla. The AltSchool blends a traditional Montessori education with high-tech tools. This week, Ventilla announced he's raised $100 million to build more across the country. The ultimate goal here appears to be to re-define the American classroom and also make a profit. Anya Kamenetz from NPR's Ed team recently visited an AltSchool classroom in San Francisco.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: On the one hand, they're running four schools in and around San Francisco. They're opening four more. And then on the other hand, they have a few dozen engineers who are working really closely with the teachers and building and testing a software platform for education.

GREENE: So it creates something that we're calling micro-schools. I'm assuming we're not talking about things that are 2 inches high.

KAMENETZ: (Laughter). Right. So they call them that because they have about 20, 25 students each with two teachers, and it's a true one-room schoolhouse model. They have mixed ages in the classroom. It really does look like a Montessori classroom. They say Montessori 2.0. It's got an art corner. It's got lounging, bean bag chairs, the whole thing.

GREENE: Sounds comfortable (laughter), but it - I mean, it doesn't sound that futuristic, though.

KAMENETZ: Right. Well, the other side of it, of course - every student has a laptop or a tablet, and they spend about 30 percent of their day on their devices, completing what are called playlists. And that is really an individualized sequence of tasks for each student. And that might be, you know, spend 20 minutes doing math exercises on the computer, or go with your classmate and build a model of a cell. So it's a personalized sequence, but it kind of combines individual work and group work.

And then what's really odd about it is, in the classroom, they're videotaping the students all the time. They're audio taping them all the time, and they're prototyping wearable devices that can track the student's movements all the time.

GREENE: It's almost sounding like they're turning students into robots. What's going on? Why are they doing that?

KAMENETZ: Well, it's hard to say right now. You know, it's mostly for research. But you know, one of the teachers I talked to said that videotaping and audio taping all of this is to review key classroom moments with their colleagues. And the idea, in general, is not that they're using technology to take over for teachers but that the technology will be there to help and support the teachers' work.

GREENE: Well, let's set aside, for the moment, the debate over whether this is a valuable form of education. Whatever it is, it's really expensive. These schools are charging, you know, almost $28,000 a year. Is this actually going to be able to expand, or is this just going to be, you know, these elite institutions?

KAMENETZ: Well, you don't raise a hundred-million dollars to start a chain of tiny private schools, no matter how special they are. The big bat that AltSchool and its investors are making is really about the software that they're building. And the idea here is that it's one software product that combines an instructional platform, student record-keeping, enrollment, administration, a social network for teachers and one for parents. And in theory, a charter school or even a public school could adopt this software and use it, really, to run the whole back end of this school.

GREENE: You write about education all the time, and you're a parent as well, right?

KAMENETZ: I have a three-year-old daughter.

GREENE: Three-year-old daughter - would you want her in a school like this?

KAMENETZ: You know, I was really torn. I think the part that really drew me in was the idea that these teachers are so excited to be working there, that they have so many resources. But then the part that really gives me pause is the idea that this is a for-profit. You know, I think that the legacy of for-profits in education is not a great one if you look at the for-profit colleges. And, you know, ultimately, if it's between my kid's future and some investor somewhere, I'm going to want to send them to a school that really puts my kid first.

GREENE: Anya, thanks very much for talking about this.

KAMENETZ: Thank you, David.

GREENE: Anya Kamenetz is with NPR's Ed team. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.