Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley VCs Back AltSchool's Mission

by NDFAuthors

  • May 28, 2015

Read more about Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley VCs decision to back AltSchool’s mission to save 21st century education.

Series B funding for the for-profit, Silicon Valley quest to “save education”just netted $100M, thanks to philanthropic contributions from VCs and the biggest names in technology. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and his wife Priscilla Chan, are the newest members of the Valley’s elite to backup America’s newest educational model – AltSchool by investing $15 million. Zuckerberg has been extremely generous in funding new educational initiatives, and it seems AltSchool has exceeded his expectations. But will Montessori 2.0 effectively tackle the major challenges in the U.S. education system or will the tech-based startup only exacerbate the many difficulties in EdTech?  Only time will tell.


Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

When ex-Googler Max Ventilla embarked on the “miserable,” process of applying to highly competitive, private preschools for his daughter, he became skeptical of whether or not the traditional educational experience would best prepare his daughter to be a happy and successful adult in the 2030s, 2040s and 2050s. Many American parents share a similar sentiment to Ventilla as public schools continue to overemphasize standardized testing, large classroom learning, and antiquated methods of teaching that waste a considerable amount of class time.

Ventilla’s solution was to, “redefine the classroom,” with AltSchool, a startup which blends Montessori education and high tech tools in order to scale-down on many costly resources that public schools depend on. The overarching goal of the company is to use technology to offer every student a personalized learning experience that factors in the interests of students and the pace they feel comfortable learning the material. Currently, AltSchool has opened four micro-schools around San Francisco and will be expanding to Palo Alto and New York by opening four more. In this school system, there are 20-25 students in a class of mixed ages and two teachers. Each student has either a laptop or a tablet and 30% of a student’s day is spent on these devices to complete playlists or a personalized sequence of tasks. The playlists cater to both individual and group work but are heavily monitored.


Students are always videotaped and audiotaped and the company is even prototyping wearable devices with a radio frequency ID tag that tracks the movements of students. The records from surveillance are kept for the purposes of improving teaching techniques, assessing student mastery and address safety concerns. AltSchool classrooms do provide opportunities for leisure to their students throughout the school day and take them on project-based field-trips to the city once a week.


Although the software product of AltSchool – which incorporates an instructional platform, student recordkeeping, enrollment, administration and a social network between teachers and parents – seems to be a positive step in constructive educational reform, the model also gives rise to many concerns.

  1. Enrollment into the school is very expensive and highly selective at $28,000 per year and a 6.67% acceptance rate. Bryan Alexander, educational technology expert and author, has expressed that this level of tuition and selectivity does not bode well for an America that is becoming increasingly divided by income inequality.
  2. Even though studies have shown the usefulness of technology in learning, many regard that the amount of time students spend in front of a digital screen should be decreased during ages that are crucial to the development of social skills for children.
  3. Critics believe that a slight improvement in learning efficiency is a small price to pay if the alternative is to treat students like robots. AltSchool tracks every motion of a student from how he or she performs in an electronic assessment to his or her precise location in the classroom.
  4. The AltSchool model is for-profit, making parents dubious if the model’s true intentions are to help kids have a brighter future or benefit a future investor.


So where is the $100M collected from Series B funding actually going?

Ventilla has acknowledged that the majority of these funds would be used for internal R&D – more specifically engineering, payroll, product and design. Next, AltSchool wishes to, “grow the footprint of their original schools,” by allowing charter and public schools to outsource the many basic functions of AltSchool’s software platform. To Ventilla’s comments, the Twittersphere expressed disbelief on how components of AltSchool could be a part of the modern-day public school system stating that AltSchool is tailored to a very specific type of community. Nevertheless, Ventilla is confident that the evolution of public schools into AltSchool-like micro-schools is possible but will take at least five years. And it is evident that the Silicon Valley believes in him. Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla have expressed their commitment to supporting education and personalized learning, both at home and abroad as they firmly believe that:

Education — like access to the internet — is fundamental to helping our community make progress and ensuring that everyone has equal access to opportunities.