Ten years ago Ken Robinson stepped onto the stage at the TED Conference in Monterey, California, and delivered the inspired talk How School Kills Creativity. It remains the #1 most watched and most shared TED Talk in the history of TED, with 39,058,000 views (as of May 17, 2016) and counting.
Six years later, Seth Godin published the manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams that took on the daunting question: What is school for? He challenged fellow parents all over the world to share it with the teachers of their children. Millions have done so.
It’s amazing how many parents [I talk to] complain about the school system our kids are in. And yet, real progress continues to exist only on the periphery. Why? If so many parents believe that school in its current form is broken, why won’t the school system change?
As a Dad of three beautiful kids—as well as a passionate entrepreneur who embraces the need to adapt quickly to changing realities lest my company risk an ignoble death on the unforgiving altar of competitive free markets—I got curious and started digging.
Is the root problem that school systems and bureaucracy are simply so large and cumbersome that attempting meaningful redirection is like trying to quickly turn the Titanic? Or is something else, something deeper going on?
Can We Really Throw Away the Ball?
I met Max Ventilla for the first time on a private Google Hangout two years ago. Why does an EVP at Google—a company that rolls out the red carpet and gives you the keys to the kingdom in a place like the Bay Area—leave it all behind to build a startup on education? I was so inspired and blown away with what Max is doing at Alt School that I’ve shared the video of our conversation with over a hundred people directly.
Attempting to iterate on the education system’s current status quo is like pretending you’re changing a ball of elastics by winding a few new ones around it. Alt School throws away the ball and challenges everything we believe about school, from the ground up.
Since I couldn’t shut up about the work they’re doing—and trusting my entrepreneurial instincts to “go where attention flows”—I started looking for ways to jump on board. Why should looking after two growing businesses, thirteen JV partners, three young kids, one amazing wife, charitable commitments, and a few health concerns prevent me from jumping in, right?
After learning about about their Founding Families program, I asked for more details. After spending some time with their Head of Special Projects and COO, I started looking into what it would take to set up an Alt School in Montreal.
Along the way I discovered a dirty little secret that [in my opinion] explains in large measure why school remains broken. I’d like to let you in on it.
The Education System’s Dirty Little Secret
In every state and province in North America, governments fund private (charter) and public schools with a per-student subsidy. Here in Quebec (Canada), the government subsidy per student is the largest of any province or state on the continent: private schools receive grants that allow them to discount tuition by 70% per year. This explains in large part why private schools are so popular [and affordable] in Quebec. Did you know that 30% of all high school students in Montreal attend a private school?
On the surface it sounds like a great moral victory, increasing access to high quality education for students. However, dig just a little deeper, and you’ll discover a bit of a hidden agenda and some massive strings to that money.
For starters, curriculum is fixed. Testing is standardized. Adherence to [downright shameful] French language admission standards is enforced. In short, total control is exercised over the fundamentals of curriculum, syllabus, and pedagogy.
Now to be fair, there is more to school than the curriculum.
A school administrator with decades of first-hand experience once told me there are three important elements to a school education:
#1) Pedagogical approach, including curriculum,
#2) Culture, including what is celebrated and encouraged outside of the curriculum,
#3) Everything else a student needs to be well-rounded and prepared for life in the real world.
Schools have little to no control over #1 if they want the government funding. In Quebec there are so many tightly-controlled rules that one school administrator joked with me that ‘she wouldn’t be surprised to see font type and font size enforced for report cards in 2016.’ The heavy hand of regulation on curriculum and pedagogy is that pervasive.
So what is a school to do?
It’s forced to differentiate on #2 and #3.
This explains why the over 100 private schools in Montreal talk with great pride about their sports training, their indoor hockey rink, their amazing music program, their leadership program, and their amazing teachers who are paid well in excess of the industry average. When my wife and I were exploring these schools to choose the right one for our three young kids, none of them said “this is how we teach and test differently from everyone else.” Knowing that millions of parents seem to think school is broken, this glaring omission caught me off guard.
Of course, now I know the backstory, and so do you.
The True Cost of Innovation
If a school wanted to create a completely new syllabus and a new way of teaching—one that celebrates innovation, creativity, taking chances, failing, and research skills over rote and memorization—they must refuse government funding.
The average cost of tuition for a private school in Montreal currently stands at $10,000 per student, per year. If a [new] school believed that it was so important to change pedagogy that it would be willing to turn down the hefty gov’t subsidies, the cost of tuition would instantly go through the roof. Granted, there is waste in maintaining the bureaucratic overhead that complying with gov’t standards demands, so if you assume a school could survive with only a fraction of the administrative staff, maybe the tuition would come down to [only] $25-30K per year.
Still, how is that competing?
You’d need to find a base of well-heeled parents who are so passionate about the need for a complete re-think on school—and who believe that you can deliver on this brave new world—that they’d gladly cough up tens of thousands of extra dollars for education every single year. And then you’d need to find enough of them to fill up a school with enough children to attain the needed economies of scale.
At present, this alternative too expensive, by design.
To be clear, I believe that most people who work in the public school system anywhere in North America mean well. But they’re trapped in a slow-moving bureaucracy with little accountability and a fuzzy mandate. At the same time, looking to private schools to lead the charge on finding a better way is also looking in the wrong place; even if private schools wanted to change, their hands are tied.
This is why innovation in the education space will come from where it’s always come: the brilliant founders, inventors and innovators who are so passionate about their mission in life that they take enormous risks and make the leap to do great work.
Like Elon Musk at Tesla. Do you think people buy his electric cars because there’s a gov’t subsidy attached, or because Tesla makes cool cars with an amazing story behind them?
Education is supposed to equip kids with the mental, emotional and physical toolbox needed to thrive in adulthood. I have 120 employees between my two businesses, and every day my management team has to de-program beliefs and habits these people learned in school and then re-teach how to approach problems in a way that’s relevant to how the world actually works.
Many never make the cut, and that’s sad. It’s not always their fault, either, but I don’t have the luxury of determining what the market demands. I just know what I need in order to respond to those demands and I’m having a harder and harder time finding it.
I’m convinced that with time, institutions like Alt School will slowly work their way through the diffusion of innovations and into the mass market. I’m [deeply] frustrated at how long that’s going to take, however, and how negative incentives continue to artificially delay the process.
If the playing field were more level you’d see more alternative schools. We’d be trying, failing, iterating and working our way to a better formula quickly. Being stuck in the current paradigm is a wasted opportunity.
Of course, this puts even more pressure on parents to close the gap and train their kids to be responsible, fair, upright, productive members of society. Attentive parenting can and does make a huge difference. Many of the entrepreneurs I know talk about how sending their kids to school is something they have to do, but as parents, they assume responsibility to give their kids their “real education” from 3:30-7:30 PM every day.
Guys like Jim Sheils inspire me with their supplemental home schooling programs and family board meetings. Dozens of entrepreneurs in my network take on this kind of load, and move mountains so they can be home when their kids return from school. I’m so inspired by them!
But how many parents can or will do that?
The need for excellent parenting skills aside, if most of us are sending our kids to school anyway, why can’t they learn what they need while they’re sitting in class? At the very least it’s a waste of their time and energy. And our money. Don’t forget the money. At worst, it’s instilling beliefs and habits in our children that are designed for a world that no longer exists.
It makes me sad to know that the next generation [or two] will be ill-equipped to find their way in life, save the handful who’ve always existed in every time period who are fortunate or passionate enough to figure it out on their own.
At least a fortunate handful of folks in New York and California have Alt School. It’s a start.