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.


Smorgasbord: Acclaim for Michaela, Cognitive Science, and a Movement for School Integration


I’ve been moving apartments this week, so I haven’t been as closely attuned to all things ED, but here’s a few links worth reviewing when you take a break from admiring the swiftly changing color of the leaves on this lovely autumnal weekend.

Acclaiming Michaela

There’s a school entitled Michaela that has apparently been getting some guff in the UK reminiscent of the strong debate that Success Academy engenders here in NYC.

Tom Bennett, the founder of ResearchED (coming to a D.C. near you in a couple of weekends), writes a defense of the school, noting that while it’s intense structure and discipline are not for everyone, critics need to get off their high horses.

Doug Lemov has also taken a gander, and he challenges educators to learn from innovations that are worth emulating, rather than merely criticize from afar. In that spirit, he is exploring some of the practices he finds worthy of stealing in a series of blogs, beginning with this one on Michaela’s “maximum impact, minimum effort” grading policy. Schools renowned for sucking the pith out of young teachers (like, ahem, Success Academy) would do well to consider it. Teaching is a demanding profession, and the more we can reduce paperwork that bears little impact, the better.

I haven’t been much aware of any controversy around Michaela, but I have been very aware of it’s innovative and research-based approach to instruction and curriculum design, thanks to the consistently trenchant writing of Joe Kirby. This summer I switched to an out-of-classroom role designing professional development, and I’ve found myself continually revisiting some of his posts, as well as blogs of other UK educators such as Daisy Christodoulou, Alex Quigley, David Didau, David Fawcett, and many others. I don’t know what’s in the water over there, but UK educators seem to spend a lot more time blogging about practice and research, rather than politics, and it’s refreshing.

Speaking of Research

Deans for Impact founder Benjamin Riley penned a piece for Kappan presenting the case for educator practice to be informed by principles from cognitive science research. And if you haven’t read Deans for Impact’s The Science of Learning, you should probably make that priority number one. Another resource I’ve found myself continually revisiting when designing professional learning.

The Movement for Increasing School Diversity is Growing

I’ve written about the need for increasing school and neighborhood diversity before, and you’ll be hearing much more from me on this; it’s the focus I’ve selected for my NY policy fellowship with America Achieves this year. I’ve been really excited to see an increasing amount of media coverage, advocacy, and ground work taking place on this issue.

This week, NYC Councilmember Helen Rosenthal pushed back against the privileged Upper West Side parents who have been vocal opponents of school rezoning efforts.

The Hechinger Report took a deep dive in an analysis of the desegregation and resegregation of Greenville, Mississippi. Many insights and lessons to heed here.

The Century Foundation released a report on the increasing efforts at school integration, while highlighting the dinosaur progress occurring in NYC.

And Nautil.us magazine highlights research from MIT that “has shown that in both the U.S. and European Union, wealth is predicted by the diversity of face-to-face communication and that both poverty and crime levels are predicted by the isolation of a community.” This confirms my premise for increasing school and neighborhood diversity: we can only really fight discrimination and bias, and improve long-term outcomes, when we interact daily, face-to-face, with others who are different than us.

Three Steps to Transform Our Classrooms and Schools

In my last post on the conference I attended on What Works in Urban Education, I discussed the insights on positive psychology and teaching well-being that I gained from Martin Seligman and how a focus on character strengths and positive thinking is fundamental to nurturing a sustainable community in schools. But in KIPP’s Dave Levin’s words, the question remains, how do we “operationalize” these things?

The steps I’ve outlined below are not direct lessons I obtained from the conference, but grew out of pieces of insights I began to put together on further reflection. In more posts to follow, I’ll continue to bring forth some of the direct lessons and insights I gained from that conference.

1) Knowledge of self through self-reflection

This probably sounds circuitous, but the fact remains that unless a teacher is able to authentically model and communicate what she is to teach, her teaching will remain ineffective. One of the great crimes of the teaching profession in the United States is that space and time for professional planning, collaboration, and reflection is nearly completely neglected, and a general afterthought when it is implemented.

Through reflection, one gains an awareness of one’s strengths and values. The most direct way to get started is to take a survey that will spit out your character strengths, like the one I mentioned in my last post on authentichappiness.com. Surveys like this are also used in the business world. When I was a manager at Trader Joe’s, part of our leadership training was to take a survey that identified our particular styles of leadership. It’s no doubt superficial to gain knowledge of self in such a manner, but even these measures have value in promoting reflection and building self-awareness. Other methods are journaling, blogging, supping on a good whiskey, or just good ol’ conversatin’ and meditatin’. Whatever floats your boat–suffice it to say, however, that it needs be done. And it needs to be done continuously.

2) Knowledge of others through active listening

It is the primary role of a leader and a teacher to listen, and to listen well. As a special education teacher who deals with children in crisis frequently, I can tell you that how you listen and speak to a child can often be far more important than what you actually say. Teachers have some notion that they have to tell a kid what to do at every step of the way. Most of the time, kids just need someone to hear them out and nudge them towards their own insight.

But it’s not only kids who need this. After moving to NYC from California and without a job, I volunteered at the GMHC downtown and underwent training as a crisis hotline counselor. I was just about to enter the stage of taking live calls with support from an experienced counselor, when I suddenly got the job at TJ’s. This took away every last scrap of free time I had, so I was unable to continue. But the leadership training I received at Trader Joe’s eerily–and wonderfully–paralleled the crisis counseling training I had just been undergoing. Adults, whether customers or employees, need leaders who can listen and empathize.

And the training I subsequently underwent as a NYC Teaching Fellow in a self-contained classroom in the South Bronx eerily–and terribly–and wonderfully–paralleled all the training I had had up to that point.

Ever worked in a high needs public school? Everyone–adults and children, leaders and staff–desperately requires a warm listening ear.

Being an effective teacher, leader, and counselor are all rooted in the same fundamental necessity for active listening. Body language, reflective statements (repeating back what the speaker said), summarizing what the speaker has said, and guiding the speaker through their own problem-solving process are all critically important components in achieving positive communication, building productive relationships, and establishing motivation.

3) Finally, the transformative leap is to render content and contexts personally meaningful to all involved

In order for the content and contexts of schools to be personally meaningful, they must build upon the personal strengths and interests of those who inhabit them. Finding out about these strengths and interests, of course, must first be achieved through the steps outlined above.

When the community and ecosystem of a school is personally meaningful, and the content is personally meaningful, then there is nothing left to hold back the achievement of the students nor the adults.

Operationalizing positive and meaningful thinking, communication, and relationships is the real work of education.