The AltSchool opened with high hopes. It was going to revolutionize education (you have heard that one before, haven’t you?). The school was designed by a former Google executive. Every student would have his or her own laptop. It was entrepreneurial and innovative, and investors poured millions into the idea. The schools would be “learner-centric,” with each student moving at his or her own pace. Mark Zuckerberg was one of the investors. What could possibly go wrong? Almost everything.

This is a story of a teacher, Paul France, who wanted to be part of the dream. He left his teaching position to join the AltSchool team and was featured in many of the articles about the chain.

AltSchool was flooded with applicants willing and able to pay tuition of $30,000 or more for their children to attend, and became one of the hottest start-ups in educational technology; to date, it has raised more than $170 million in investment. It was part of a broad investor rush to ed tech. Last year, venture-capital investors put $2.7 billion into ed-tech companies, up from $1.6 billion in 2016, according to CB Insights, a software company that examines technology trends. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Netflix founder Reed Hastings, and the Gates Foundation have given millions of dollars to schools implementing technology-based personalized learning—many of them urban charter schools serving low-income children.

But in the midst of all the excitement, there’s little strong evidence that classroom technology, including personalized learning, is improving educational outcomes. A 2015 report from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development found that countries that invested heavily in computer technology for schools showed “no appreciable improvements” in reading, math or science, and that technology “is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students.”

AltSchool was not the only venture that relied heavily on screens.

Another school network that has been using technology and personalized learning for years in an effort to eliminate the achievement gap, with mixed results, is the RocketShip chain of charter schools, which serves low-income Latino and African-American students, mostly in and around San Jose. It has won credit for pushing up test scores but has also been criticized for its heavy reliance on computer-based instruction.

At Rocketship Los Sueños in San Jose, students spend 30 to 60 minutes a day on laptops in their classroom and another 90 minutes in the Learning Lab—a large room where kids sit at long tables, wearing headphones and working on laptops, supervised by classroom aides. On a visit last June, I found that few things broke the silence: when kindergartners filed in from recess; when a staff member pulled kids out for testing. Students scarcely talked and when they did, or their attention drifted too far, they were admonished. “Stephanie, focus,” Nicki Muñoz, a supervisor, said. “Yuridia, sit up.” She counted down—“8, 7, 6, 5, 4”—when it was time to switch from one software program to another. The kids looked zoned out, with blank expressions on their faces. Ninety straight minutes on computers is “way too long,” Munoz told me. “Kindergartners will focus for 15 minutes.” Some kids get dizzy or have problems with their vision, she added.

Presently, the article says, more than a dozen charter and private schools, along with four school districts in California, are using AltSchool’s technology. But Paul France became disillusioned and left the venture to return to teaching in a traditional school.

Only in the “reform” world would an app with such limited adoption be considered a noteworthy achievement.

Read how Paul France became disillusioned by the heavy emphasis on screen time.

He spent the past year teaching at a traditional private school that’s been around for a century and, in his view, sees the “value in using a plain old notebook and pencil to engage in the writing process.” He still uses technology when it’s appropriate. His class last year did a project on Chicago neighborhoods and visited many. Since they couldn’t get to all of them, they used Google Earth to virtually walk through several. “I’m not anti-technology but I’m definitely for minimizing it,” France says. “You use technology to remove a barrier. And the question always should be: Is the tech in my classroom going to preserve or enhance human connection?”

The article actually gives a brighter portrayal of AltSchool than is deserved.

My friend, the diligent researcher and parent advocate Leonie Haimson, sent the following corrections to this article:

The company closed its Palo Alto school and shelved plans to open more of its own schools in favor of providing its platform to more partners.

Yet AltSchool closed 3 schools not one, one in Palo Alto , one in SF and one in the E. Village in NYC, as reported Nov. 3, 2011 in WSJ.

“…Leaders of AltSchool said Friday they were closing three of their seven private schools, including an elementary site in Manhattan’s East Village, so they can concentrate on developing their software platform for districts to purchase.. .We have finite resources,” said Max Ventilla, the company’s founder and chief executive. “Closing a school is an incredibly hard and painful decision for everyone involved.”… The company is closing one school in San Francisco and one in Palo Alto as well. Remaining next fall will be two in California and two in New York City.

The Atlantic writer also repeats uncritically this claim – that “AltSchool was flooded with applicants willing and able to pay tuition of $30,000 or more for their children to attend” which I doubt very much.

See many previous articles about problems w/ Alt School, many of which they quote the same teacher Paul France:

Edsurge announcing closings on Nov. 6, 2011:

Parent discontent and pulling out in Business Insider: Nov. 21, 2017, 6:00 AM

At a September birthday party attended by numerous parents, one mother told us she’d pulled two children out of the program and placed them in a neighborhood public school; the rest of the parents in attendance said they were actively working to place their children elsewhere next fall. The biggest reason they cited was that their kids are falling behind academically. One mother, who asked not to be named, told us that in addition to paying yearly tuition of roughly $30,000, “We’re all spending a fortune on tutoring to supplement what our kids aren’t learning.”

Next day in Tech Crunch

Compounding their anger these days is AltSchool’s more recent revelation that its existing network of schools, which had grown to seven locations, is now being pared back to just four — two in California and two in New York.

And again in January in ed surge says they are trying to sell their faulty software to other schools – why would they buy considering the failure of Alt School?

Today the startup announced its first two public school partnerships, Arcadia Unified School District located in Los Angeles County and Menlo Park City School District in the San Francisco Bay Area….But being an AltSchool partner is not free, districts do pay a price. Arcadia, which has a three-year contract with the platform, will be paying approximately $5,000 per teacher in exchange for the use of AltSchool’s personalized learning platform, class coaching, IT support and professional development opportunities. According to AltSchool representatives, most partner districts will be paying the $5,000 per teacher per year for the first year of training and onboarding support from AltSchool. After the first year, the price is around $2,500 for the use of the platform and ongoing support from the company.

Now supposedly many public school districts have bought into this crap, at least according to the school PR:

Education startup AltSchool, one of the leaders in the movement to individualize instruction using technology, said today that it will expand to serve 19 new partner schools in 2018-19. In addition, AltSchool will continue to serve its six existing partner schools, including two public schools that began piloting its technology in 2017-18….

Partners range from private schools serving affluent communities similar to AltSchool’s own lab schools, to public schools serving low-income communities. Vodicka, a former superintendent, hopes to positive results in each new school environment. “The first groups of teachers are finding that they’re saving time and able to better develop better relationships with their learners as a result,” he says. “That’s leading to higher levels of learner engagement overall.”

In addition, there is this article in Education Week, saying that AltSchool is closing and consolidating schools so it can focus on its investors’ priorities, which is software development.

Personalized-learning pioneer AltSchool is closing one of its private schools and consolidating several others, moves the company describes as “tough choices” necessary to pursue unexpected new business opportunities and demonstrate to investors the viability of its long-term plan to sell software to K-12 public schools across the country.

“Closing any school is painful,” AltSchool founder and CEO Max Ventilla said in an interview. “But ultimately the path for the company to be sustainable and impactful is to provide the platform we’re developing to schools we don’t directly operate.”

AltSchool was founded in 2013. The company has been backed with more than $175 million in venture capital from such Silicon Valley luminaries as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Laurene Powell Jobs of the Emerson Collective. It currently runs seven of its own schools, which typically charge more than $25,000 per year in annual tuition. Those schools also serve as laboratories where AltSchool can pilot, test, and improve its technology, which seeks to merge the insights of top-flight engineers and progressive educators into a platform that can be used to better understand how every child is developing and tailor students’ learning experiences accordingly.

AltSchool’s closure of its Palo Alto campus, first reported by Bloomberg Technology, will affect about 65 families. The company’s six remaining schools will be consolidated into four sites—two each in New York City and in San Francisco, where the company is headquartered.

Several dozen parents at AltSchool’s Palo Alto campus signed an online petition saying they were “shocked and saddened to hear of the plans to close our school,” in just its third year of operation.

Critics described the move as a sad, but not surprising, example of a deeper challenge faced by the ed-tech sector at large, and the personalized-learning movement in particular.

Many such ventures “involve grand experimentation on students in order to develop and sell products to other schools,” said Audrey Watters, an independent researcher who maintains the popular Hack Education blog.

“So much of what these companies do is really for their investors, and that really dictates the kinds of decisions that get made,” Watters said.

Ventilla expressed frustration that AltSchool, which previously received criticism for focusing its attention on private schools serving mostly wealthy families, is now taking flak for choosing to prioritize efforts to serve a broader universe of more diverse students in the public-school sector.