On Venture Capital and Education

By Jim Gordon [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
If you care about education, it’s worth paying close attention to what’s going down in Silicon Valley. The hyperdrive capitalism of venture investment, with its raw focus on the rapid scale of the highest performing and rapid failure of all the rest, parallels and in some ways informs edtech and charter models.

There’s certainly a healthy and necessary space in education for a private marketplace of rapid iteration, scale, and fail. But there’s also a necessity for the less efficient but robust, slow-growth, long-term models of public schools.

In The New Yorker there is an interesting piece on Y-Combinator’s Sam Altman relevant to this. It’s interesting purely as a biopic, but scattered throughout are insights into the driving mindsets and ethics of Silicon Valley. Let’s take a closer look at some quotes from the article with the frame of education in mind.

Altman, as he nursed a negroni after dinner, had his own warning for the timid: “Democracy only works in a growing economy. Without a return to economic growth, the democratic experiment will fail. And I have to think that YC is hugely important to that growth.”

Democracy needs a heck of a lot more than just a viable economy. It needs strong civic institutions and an active citizenry that has a shared understanding of how to engage with those institutions and of their purpose. Public education should serve the public in cultivating shared civic knowledge and values.

. . . In his book “Hackers & Painters,” Graham calculated that smart hackers at a startup could get 36x more work done than the average office drone—and that they would, therefore, eventually blow up employment as we know it. He made this sound patriotic and fun; how could an oligarchic technocracy go wrong?

Indeed? How could a focus solely on only the most productive and efficient members of society go wrong? In education, imagine if we only invested in the most gifted and talented. The rest would be herded into service professions or unskilled labor. A meritocracy! Wait. Isn’t that more or less how things used to be before the advent of a public education . . .

. . . And he told me, “It’s bad for the companies and bad for Silicon Valley if companies can stay alive just because they’re [associated with Y-Combinator]. It’s better for everyone if bad companies die quickly.”

This is a driving philosophy of venture capital and rapid scale that Silicon Valley pursues. Scale the few most successful ventures rapidly, and fail the remainder. With schools, we could only invest in and scale the ones that demonstrated strong academic performance — all the rest we would close. Sounds good, right? Kids should only be in schools that have demonstrated their worth.

But there’s a problem with rapid scale in terms of sustainability:

. . .The truth is that rapid growth over a long period is rare, that the repeated innovation required to sustain it is nearly impossible, and that certain kinds of uncontrollable growth turn out to be cancers. . . Every great startup—Facebook, Airbnb—has no idea why it’s growing at first, and has to figure that out before the growth stalls. Growth masks all problems.”

A school could be high performing, but not such a great place to be.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for markets in the education system. A market doesn’t have to mean Silicon Valley style scale and fail.

A more sustainable model can be seen in an article in the NY Times about MailChimp.

…it’s possible to create a huge tech company without taking venture capital, and without spending far beyond your means. It’s possible, in other words, to start a tech company that runs more like a normal business than a debt-fueled rocket ship careening out of control. Believe it or not, start-ups don’t even have to be headquartered in San Francisco or Silicon Valley.

. . . You can simply start a business, run it to serve your customers, and forget about outside investors and growth at any cost.

Schools that do this work are the ones that get better: they put their focus on service to their students and families and adapt accordingly.

But there’s other ways that those who abide by the scale and fail model are investing in, recognizing the limitations of a brick and mortar approach.  Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (you may have heard of AltSchools?) lays out the long-game for software and tech in the education industry in this Vox interview:

Primary education in the US is a monopoly. It’s a public sector monopoly with very little competition. Even the charter schools end up under sustained attack for violating the monopoly. You see this most recently in New York with De Blasio trying to shut them down. A government-sponsored monopoly is not easy to move.

. . . New technologies tend to vaporize on impact with those institutions. The last thing a unionized public school wants to do is to fundamentally change how they operate. Of course they don’t want to adopt new technology. It’s antithetical to the philosophy.

So the solution? Software!

Look, there’s great potential for technology in the education sphere, and I think experiments like AltSchools and Udacity are well worth making. But Andreessen’s premise here is false. Having worked in NYC public schools for even the short length of time that I have, I’ve seen so many tech fads get readily embraced by educators and districts that it’s become ridiculous. Rather than “vaporizing on impact,” new tech fads rather seem to become desperately embraced and then just as hurriedly discarded. Harried educators and administrators would love it if a SMART Board or data system or robot would magically and rapidly improve the outcomes for their kids!

But I do think Andreessen makes a more balanced analysis and point here:

We can’t revamp the entire system. Nobody can. But I think more and more, there are gaps in what the current system can accommodate compared to what people actually want. There are opportunities to build on the edges, around the sides, parallel systems. And at the very least introduce choice. In the best-case scenario, it becomes a real challenger to the status quo.

I fully agree that there are massive gaps and many opportunities to better serve our nation’s students, and I for one welcome the evolution of edtech and tools and software, as well as the vibrant niches of effective charter models and networks. But we’re on a quixotic mission if we’re shooting for supplanting public education systems, rather than supplementing them.

The argument for why this is so can be viewed in statements that Barack Obama and Vox’s Ezra Klein have made about the function of public institutions vs. private ones (I’ve posted this before):

President Barack Obama at the White House Frontiers Conference:

The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.

. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.

Ezra Klein in an interview with Tyler Cowen:

I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.

. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.

A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.

And particularly true in education. The work of education is a slow, complicated, incremental process that will benefit from new technologies, software, and schools, but that will not rapidly scale, and provides a public service that makes rapid failure of massive amounts of schools or students a nonviable option.


Just Imagine

“Demarcus Taylor, a seventeen-year-old junior at King, had had enough. He was tall and slender, with broad shoulders, and as he spoke, he shook his hands in exasperation:
I’m not here to put the blame on anybody. I’m here just to reflect. Just imagine being at a school where you sit down, get your education, you get back up, go home, next thing you know you brought bedbugs from school to your home. Now you have an infestation at your house. Just imagine being at a school where your teachers are all sick and tired, and they’re acting like they’re not able to teach because they’re not getting paid for what they do. Just imagine when your teachers say, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me next year, I don’t know if I can afford my car loan. How can I afford to pay rent, how can I afford to even live with the wage I’m getting?””
—Alexandria Neason, “Held Back” in Harper’s Magazine

EdBuild Report: Can the US overcome the ‘fault lines’ of segregation?

EdBuild has released a damning indictment of economic segregation in the United States. The report and interactive sheds much-needed light upon an illogical system that ensures poor kids are kept segregated by arbitrary district lines and confined to poorly resourced schools.

I urge you to read EdBuild’s full report. There’s a scathing resonance to the sentences that helps to convey how cruelly unjust and unnecessary school district lines are. Here’s one example:

“The fact, too seldom acknowledged, is that district boundaries themselves compound the inequalities that our public schools were intended to conquer. In present day America, we allow invisible lines to determine the fate of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.”


“Our wealthy are consigning lower-income students to a lesser caste by cordoning off their wealth and hiding behind the notion of ‘local control’.”

Reading this report, I couldn’t help but think of parallels to the current political battle on NYC’s Upper West Side over potential rezoning of a school district. The rezoning would place a well-off segregated school in the same zone as a segregated school that serves the projects just down the street.

Some well-off Upper West Side parents have made statements such as:

“It’ll take thousands, maybe a hundred thousand dollars off the value of my apartment.”


“We moved here basically for that school, and that school is kind of like our right.”

Is this what a public school has become? A status symbol of the property value of a neighborhood?

Even “progressive” NYC Mayor De Blasio has defended the rights of private property owners to their own segregated public schools:

“. . . families who have made a decision to live in a certain area . . . made massive life decisions and investments because of which school their kid would go to.”

Our public schools have become de facto private schools for those with money and means. Such parents can “invest” in the property that allows them to live within the district boundaries of their chosen school. They then can rely upon hale and hardy school district boundaries to keep less fortunate kids out. In this dismal reality of the US education system, instead of a Game of Thrones, it’s the Game of School Zones. This cut throat game determines the fate of our nation, and we play it with our children.

What does a public school really stand for in this country?

Must providing a quality education for some students mean denying a quality education to others?

Does ownership of property entitle you to be relieved of any commitment to the common good?

Success can’t be measured by one or two numbers

“Whenever you make huge decisions about complex situations based on one or two numbers, you’re headed for disaster — especially when those numbers can be gamed.”

—Mark Palko and Andrew Gelman, “How schools that obsess about standardized tests ruin them as measures of success” on Vox

We’ve questioned Success Academy’s “success” on this blog before. These statisticians bring a new lens to that question.

I don’t want to denigrate the good work that Success Academy teachers and students are doing. There are practices and systems well worth replicating and investigating in these schools. But Eva Moskowitz’s political framing and marketing of her schools as the solution to poverty is problematic.

People in the United States Don’t Fund What They Value

pyramid 003

In a study released this month and conducted independently of the National Park Service, we sought to develop the first-ever comprehensive assessment of what the parks are worth to the public. We calculated that Americans put a total value of $92 billion per year on our national parks, monuments, seashores, and recreation areas. However, what we also concluded is that we are not funding the park system at a level that reflects its value.

—Linda Bilmes and John Loomis, “Americans Value National Parks, But Don’t Fund Them

College and Career Ready? Maybe neither

Last week, I wrote about how NY was moving to lower high school diploma expectations for students with disabilities. Since writing that post, the NY Board of Regents has voted in the law, effective immediately, which has created some confusion for principals.

I’ll admit I know little of the landscape of NY high school exit requirements, since I’ve spent my career at the elementary and middle school levels. What remains unclear to me is what a “local diploma” really means, and how it connects to a viable career, as some advocates for students with disabilities are saying (as reported in this Chalkbeat piece). I’m open to being further educated on this, if anyone out there wants to school me. But right now it seems to be a mechanism for diminished expectations for some students, while enabling adults to claim higher grad rates.

Chalkbeat reporters Alex Zimmerman and Annie Ma further report that “Todd Kaminsky, a state senator who pushed for the new graduation requirements, said the change isn’t about watering down standards, but paving the way for more appropriate, “project-based” measures for students who struggle to meet graduation requirements.”

It’s also unclear to me how reducing requirements for students with disabilities connects to “project-based” measures, as this is not an explicit component of the law itself, which you can view in an overview of on this document provided by NYSED. I’m all for performance-based assessment (which is maybe what Kaminsky meant to refer to—to my knowledge, project-based learning is a pedagogical strategy, not a form of assessment), but utilizing PBA does not require lowering expectations. If these supplanted the traditional Regents exams, I’d be all for it. But I still wouldn’t stand by reducing expectations for students with disabilities.

On Twitter, The74’s Matt Barnum challenged my thinking on high school diploma requirements:

His post provides an overview of research which suggests that stringent high school diploma requirements may have little of the expected benefits (increased academic achievement), while it can have many unintended downsides, such as an increase in drop-out and incarceration rates.

I find this research compelling and a fit rebuttal to the imposition of high standards without compensatory attention paid to providing alternative options.

But I still don’t think lowering expectations for an academic diploma for some, or any, students is the answer. A high school diploma should signify that a student is prepared to enter college.

Not all students are prepared to enter college, whether due to ability or interest. However, all students could be better equipped to begin a career.

The greatest underreported story of last year, in my opinion, is that dramatically greater numbers of students are now failing the GED. This is far more problematic than students failing to obtain a HS diploma.

Couple this with the general dearth of well designed and funded vocational programs and opportunities in the US.

Over in Kentucky, however, there is a more sane and equitable approach that does not require diminishing expectations, as Emmanuel Felton reports. In KY, they are building two tracks between what it might mean to be “college” and/or “career” ready, and this makes a lot of sense to me. Instead of devaluing a high school diploma just to allow states to claim higher graduation rates, we should be investing in alternative pathways to a career that are both viable and rigorous.


Incremental Change

“Silvia Abbato, the district’s superintendent, said she could not pinpoint any one action that had led to the better scores. . . . 

“It’s not something you can do overnight,” Ms. Abbato said. “We have been taking incremental steps everywhere.”

—Motoko Rich, Amanda Cox, and Matthew Bloch, “Money, Race, and Success: How Your District Compares” in The NY Times

The Shameful State of American School Buildings

One of this blog’s key arguments is that the influence of environment and infrastructure has a large, and all too often ignored, impact on student learning.

In the conversations we have on public education, we often talk as if teachers and students operate in some kind of a vacuum. Many fail to acknowledge what it feels like for a child to walk into a building each day in which high pitched sounds reverberate sharply off walls and floors, mold grows in the ceiling, harsh florescent lighting beams off bright surfaces, and the infrastructure is decaying.

So it is heartening to see this report from The US Green Building Council drawing attention to the shameful state of public school infrastructure.

Here’s a quote from the press release:

The analysis found that the federal government provides almost no capital construction funding for school facilities, and state support for school facilities varies widely. Local school districts bear the heaviest burden in making the investments needed to build and improve school facilities. When school districts cannot afford to make these significant investments, they are often forced to make more frequent building repairs from their operating funds—the same budget that pays for teacher salaries, instructional materials and general programming.

Infographic from thr USGBC website

Please help to build awareness of the need for investing in our school infrastructure and promote the report using#StateofOurSchools.


We have decided to let our cities (and schools) decay

By UpstateNYer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“We have learned to tolerate decay, and ugliness. . . . Demolition by neglect is now our maintenance policy, and not just when it comes to things we have made in bricks and mortar; it erodes our civic landscape, too.”

–Philip Kennicot, “We caused the Metro shutdown when we decided to let our cities decay” on Washington Post

America’s Decaying Infrastructure

By Laitr Keiows (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Technological advances and cultural change can do only so much to fight rust. . . . We can greatly slow corrosion, but we cannot stop it outright. Exposed iron and steel naturally revert to their lowest energy states by giving up their electrons to oxygen and water. The process is formally known as oxidation. Informally, it’s called rusting. By any name, it’s inevitable. “We’re fighting the second law of thermodynamics,” Dunmire likes to say.

At some point, higher concerns must come to bear in a war we can’t win but can’t afford not to wage. Changing America’s report card from a D+ to a B, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, would take $3.6 trillion of investment by 2020. The current shortfall, by the organization’s estimate, is $201 billion annually. The odds of closing that gap, and the costs of failing to, are similar to the odds and costs of the next bridge you drive across collapsing while you’re on it: respectively, minuscule and catastrophic.”

—Tim Heffernan, “Rust Never Sleeps” on The Atlantic