Do Wealthy Communities Breed the Best Education Innovations?

column | Diversity and Equity

Do Wealthy Communities Breed the Best Education Innovations?

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Oct 27, 2015

Do Wealthy Communities Breed the Best Education Innovations?
Alejandro Gac-Artigas, CEO of Springboard Collaborative (left) and Max Ventilla, CEO of AltSchool (right)

In the education world, there is a great deal of debate about what conditions support the most effective change for students. Some say that top-down, district-based change yields the best results, while others argue that grassroots, bottom-up efforts, involving external stakeholders like parents and the community, are the only way to ensure that everyone buys in.

But perhaps it’s less of a question of top-down vs. bottom-up, and more of a question of which type of environment best supports educational innovation. Do high-income communities, which enjoy the resources and flexibility to experiment with bold ideas, offer the most ideal test-beds for innovation? Or do the most viable—and practical—ideas come from low-income neighborhoods where the challenges and needs are visible everyday?

EdSurge welcome two entrepreneurs to the debate: Alejandro Gac-Artigas, the founder of Philadelphia-based Springboard Collaborative, which seeks to close the achievement gap and end summer reading loss by engaging parents and training teachers, and Max Ventilla, the mastermind and founder of AltSchool, a Bay Area-based network of “microschools” that currently charges more than $20,000 a year in tuition.

EdSurge brought Gac-Artigas and Ventilla together for the EdSurge podcast (included at the bottom of this page), but if you’re more of a reader than a listener, here’s where our debaters agreed and disagreed on what constitutes the best environment for innovation.

High-Income Communities Provide More Resources, Less Constraints

Back in May 2015, when AltSchool raised a $100 million Series B round, Ventilla shared with EdSurge that opening up his system as a group of private schools allowed him and his team to iterate with technology and personalization quickly and effectively. Ventilla reiterated this point on the podcast:

“The truth is, it’s the easiest in one of two settings—where you have the most resources, or you have the least constraints,” Ventilla says. And according to him, the place where it’s easiest to innovate is in “well-funded, private schools.”

Founded in 2013, AltSchool currently operates six “micro-schools” in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Brooklyn that focus on delivering a project-based curriculum supported by custom-built technologies for admissions, procurement and personalized learning plans for students. Classes, which are not divided into grade or age groups, are limited to 25 students and teachers can make over $100,000 per year.

All this, of course, comes with a cost. Tuition for each student runs more than $20,000 per year. While AltSchool provides some financial aid to about 40% of its families, the majority of parents are ponying up the full price. But that high cost of tuition hasn’t stopped Ventilla from raising money, and he reports that when he went to funders like Mark Zuckerberg and Emerson Collective for Series B round, funders believed that his model could be a true testbed for innovation:

“What [funders] saw was, there’s an opportunity to really innovate here with fewer constraints… and if you can make it work in that ideal setting, than over time, you can make it work in less and less ideal settings.”

Low-Income Communities Provide Untapped Potential

If AltSchool students lead successful lives, says Gac-Artigas, it can only be partially attributed to the funders, designers and technology.

“The reason [those students] will be successful is because of their families, because of their wealth, because of their access to power,” he shares, using the metaphor of an orange to describe how the average child spends their time. “You can create the best school that will squeeze as much productivity as possible from the 25% of time that kids spend in that building… but I’m interested in how we squeeze any juice at all from the rest of that orange.”

When it comes to improving education for students, then, where should proactive change come from most strongly—the parents and community, or the school? Low-income parents must be brought into the conversation, Gac-Artigas feels, in order to narrow the achievement gap. In fact, he believes that every school already has the resources to close the gap, but that a lot of “latent potential” in the home isn’t being utilized.

In high-income communities, Gac-Artigas says, most parents understand that a child’s educational experience extends outside the school walls. “I find it problematic that when we think about low-income children, we talk about education and schooling as if they were synonymous,” he adds. “Children spend 75% of their waking hours outside of the classroom, so of course, that’s going to be the largest influence in a child’s life.”

And in order to harness more of that 75% of time to educate the child, Gac-Artigas believes that families should be equipped with the same tools and resources as teachers have in their classroom.

A Common Ground?

Ventilla doesn’t necessarily disagree with Gac-Artigas, but believes that one has to pick their battles—and for him and his team, he’s “not trying to close the existing achievement gap.” He’s trying to create new ground with a new school model for personalized learning, and provide autonomy and license to his faculty and students. Plus, AltSchool’s homegrown tools like “Learning Progressions” are available for parents to use, he adds. Nothing, he says, in what he’s described is going to work regardless of whether “a family lives in a nice, three-bedroom apartment vs. a dingy, one-bedroom apartment.”

And for those critics who might express concern that Springboard’s grassroots may result in parental influence that is overbearing or counterproductive to administrators’ efforts, Gac-Artigas confesses that he actually thinks his approach is more top-down than it is grassroots, as he and his team do contract with administrators and superintendents and show them how they can better work with and engage families.

Both gentlemen are dedicated to their respective causes for the long haul, which became particularly apparent when they were both asked, “Would you go work for the other’s organization, and if so, what would you change about it?”

Ventilla is happy where he is. “I’m a technophile,” he admits. “At the end of the day, technology is a Trojan Horse to change behavior. It’s not generally something worthwhile in and of itself, but I always look there for easy wins.”

“I don’t expect I’ll be looking for a new job anytime soon, although I’m sure that AltSchool has competitive salaries and lovely benefits,” Gac-Artigas responds.

To listen to the full interview, check out the EdSurge podcast below.

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