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.


Even stable relationships are steeped in conflict

By Charlesjsharp (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“We like our black-and-white narratives, with clear heroes and villains. The very term symbiosis has been twisted so that its original, neutral meaning – ‘living together’ – has been infused with positive spin, and almost flaky connotations of cooperation and blissful harmony. But evolution doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t necessarily favour cooperation, even if that’s in everyone’s interests. And it saddles even the most harmonious relationships with conflict.”

—Ed Yong, “Microbes have no morals” on Aeon

Now think about education politics. Or school relationships between staff and admin, or adults and students.

The More We Compete, The Less We Gain

“More than anything else, competition is an ideology—the ideology—that pervades our society and distorts our thinking. We preach competition, internalize its necessity, and enact its commandments; and as a result, we trap ourselves within it—even though the more we compete, the less we gain.

This is a simple truth, but we’ve all been trained to ignore it. Our educational system both drives and reflects our obsession with competition.”

—Peter Thiel, Zero to One

The Roots of Educational Warfare

By Kate Mereand (originally posted to Flickr as Lifeforce) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I just finished reading Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars. It has been interesting to learn how cyclical educational mores and politics have been. The romantic ideal of the missionary teacher, for example, has its roots in Catherine Beecher and Horace Mann’s advocacy for troops of underpaid female teachers spurred to teach morality and character. Goldstein also traces the tension in educational philosophy of serving African American students to debates between W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker Washington. Washington was a strong proponent of vocational education, while Du Bois advocated for a classical education for the “talented tenth.” “Over the next half century,” Goldstein writes, “vocationalism remained the ascendant education reform ideology among philanthropists and politicians. . . ”

Goldstein’s presentation of the rise of teacher’s unions is balanced–she demonstrates how unions provided much needed advocacy for the rights of women and of labor, while at the same time noting the tension between maintaining worker’s interests and the educational interests of children. Goldstein writes, for example, that “amid increasing political and business pressure on schools during the interwar years, teachers unions in Chicago and beyond often found themselves making unsavory alliances, and engaging in rough-and-tumble politics far afield from education itself.”

I especially appreciated Goldstein’s presentation of efforts at desegregation, as this has been a topic of study here at Schools & Ecosystems. She notes the promising results of districts which did make substantive efforts to integrate, while also noting the challenges and complications, such as “Where integration led to staff redundancies and school closings, black schools were disproportionately closed and black teachers disproportionately dismissed or demoted, regardless of their seniority, qualifications, or success in the classroom.” She also spends time digging into the Black Power and community control movement in NYC and the warfare that erupted against a Shanker-led UFT. “This seemingly local event triggered not only the most infamous and largest teachers’ strike in American history, but also a political and racial crisis of national proportions, which continues to reverberate in almost every debate about contemporary school reform.”

One insight that really struck me here was how teacher’s unions are in reality more closely allied to a strong, central administration, rather than community control. Goldstein attributes this insight to historian Marjorie Murphy’s Blackboard Unions, and she states, “Under collective bargaining, it was easier for unions to negotiate with one strong administrative body, such as a city superintendent, board of education, or mayor, than with a plethora of neighborhood school boards or principals, each with their own set of demands.”

I was also interested by Goldstein’s tracing of the the lineage of the community control movement to present-day “no excuses” schools, a correlation which I’ve sensed when exploring the issue of segregation with my students. Goldstein writes that “Though the rhetoric of black separatist politics has all but disappeared, in many ways today’s “no-excuses” school reform movement has inherited the mantle of community control by aligning low-income parents with elite school reformers and philanthropists from outside their neighborhoods.” She points out that such schools, however, tend to be “deeply segregated,” and not necessarily high performing. What she also brings to the fore is how the critique of teacher’s unions which arose from the Black Power movement has been co-opted by reformers since the “Reagan Revolution”: “These new centrist critics rejected Black Power, but, more powerfully than ever before, they promoted a view of career public school teachers as professionally incompetent and insufficiently committed to closing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.”

Goldstein presents support for the success of school integration efforts, and suggests that perceptions that “desegregation did not work” are unfair “because the United States did not, in fact, commit to integration.”

The Teacher Wars explores various reform efforts, such as merit pay and value added. On the latter, she points to the detrimental effect of tying individual scores to evaluation systems, and notes that the repercussions of this can be to increase competition, and reduce collaboration. Her presentation of the fall-out from past evaluation schemes is especially salient right now, given NY Governor Cuomo’s push for heavier weight on value-added measures in an individual teacher’s evaluation. “If the key to systemwide improvement is not through mass firings or union busting, than what remains is to turn the existing average teacher into an expert practitioner . . . [which] will require a shared vision of what excellent teaching looks like, and the mentorship and training to get teachers there.”

Goldstein advocates for a bottom-up efforts that seek to “replicate the practices of the best.” “These practices conceive of veteran teachers as assets, not liabilities. As history has taught us,” Goldstein writes, “that is a pragmatic stance crucial to sustaining any reform program, which teachers must carry out on the ground.” She points to programs that provide in-classroom professional development and coaching, such as The Children’s Literacy Initiative, as actions that hold much greater promise than typical reform efforts like merit pay, charter schools, and evaluation. She also points to the promise of urban teacher residency programs beyond TFA, which can boost longer term teacher retention, such as the Memphis Teacher Residency and Boston Teacher Residency.

Unlike many out there who try to tell us that teachers shouldn’t be developing curriculum, Goldstein advocates for increased professionalization of teachers: “reform programs that combine high-stakes standardized tests with scripted lesson plans and a limited arsenal of pedagogical strategies may make teaching a less attractive job for exactly the sort of ambitious, creative, high-achieving people we most want to attract.” She provides an example of a former TFA teacher, Alex Caputo-Pearl, and his efforts with teachers at Crenshaw High School to create an “Extended Learning Cultural Model,” in which “teachers worked together to create interdisciplinary units built around neighborhood problem solving.” This model reminded me of an Australian model of a Global Learning Village we once discussed on this blog.

In the Epilogue of her book, Goldstein presents some conclusions from her research which are all tenets that I can get behind:

  • Teacher pay matters
  • Create communities of practice (she gives NYC’s Relay School and San Diego’s High Tech High shout outs here)
  • Keep teaching interesting (please!)
  • Focus on the principal as much as the teacher (yes, yes, yes!)
  • Return tests to their rightful role as diagnostic tools
  • Recruit more men and people of color

And many other lessons worth considering. Her final suggestion is to “be real about the limitations of our system.” She points out that the US system of education is decentralized in nature, and that as a result, we put unrealistic expectations upon the federal government and upon individual teachers, leading to the volatile political battles at the heart of “the teacher wars.” She hopes that “sustainable and transformative education reforms” can be “seeded from the group up. . . built upon the expertise of the best teachers.”

This is certainly a recommendation that a recognition of schools and school systems as ecosystems also supports.

I recommend reading The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled ProfessionHistory has much to teach those of us who work in the educational minefield. It’s remarkable how many of the debates that are ongoing in our field can be traced consistently over the course of these last two hundred years, like motifs in a novel.

What Is Success?


In an interesting coincidence, Will and I have been writing about Eva Moskowitz and poverty, and here the NY state test results come along. Success Academy made up 7 out 15 of the top scorers in NY state, according to the NY Post. And while of course poverty level correlated with reading performance, there were the outliers of high poverty schools that outperformed state averages.

But Success Academy was more than just a freak outlier—it blew other schools out of the water, and it did so consistently across multiple schools.

In the NY Daily News, Robert Pondiscio writes in “How Does She Do It?“:

What is imperative now is for serious, unbiased experts and observers to descend on Harlem and figure out how these extraordinary results are being achieved and, if all that glitters is gold, how to replicate them.

It’s worth repeating a challenge I threw out earlier to Eva Moskowitz in a recent post: share the practices, content, and protocols your schools are using so others can benefit. That’s what being a “public” school is all about, right? Collaboration, sharing, learning. That’s what our public system of education should be doing if we’re truly dedicated to improving outcomes for all of our children, and not just some.

As John King also said: “The question becomes, what’s happening in these schools that’s leading to those better outcomes?”

I agree with Pondiscio and King. I genuinely want to know what’s happening at Success Academy. And I want to know from the perspective of a school as an ecosystem. From this perspective, some questions I would ask would be oriented around the main pillars of a strong school community: 1) leadership, 2) content, and 3) environment.


  • What do the formal and informal leaders say and do? How and what do they communicate consistently? (This includes student leaders).
  • Is the leadership distributed?
  • What mechanisms are in place for students, parents, teachers, and leaders to collaborate and receive continuous feedback? How do leaders respond to feedback?
  • How is diversity in student ability, knowledge, and skills strategically recognized and cultivated?


  • What are the values and vision behind assessment and unit design?
  • What texts are taught in ELA? Why?
  • How well do topics and themes build knowledge and understanding of academic domains and the world sequentially across classrooms and grades?
  • How are students engaged in their community through units?
  • What scaffolds and interventions for students who are struggling are applied consistently both in and out of classrooms?
  • What opportunities beyond academics are provided for all students?


  • What does it feel like when you walk into a Success Academy school? What does it sound like? What does it look like?
  • How relevant is posted work and displays to students and their community?
  • What is the ratio of positive to negative language used by students and staff in the building?
  • How (psychologically) safe do students with special needs feel in the hallways, lunch rooms, and classrooms?
  • How are supportive social relationships and networks developed and sustained by the school?

These are just some of the questions I would start with.

State test results are just one indicator. Remember, we’re playing the long game here. And there is evidence to suggest that test results are a shallow indicator.

I don’t say this to put down what Success Academy has accomplished. Their students deserve our recognition. They’ve worked hard for this.

But what I want to know is whether what Success Academy is doing is truly preparing students for the future, for the long-term.

What is success? And what does it look like? And is what Success Academy doing truly an exemplar?

And more importantly—what does success look like over the long haul?