Today, Rebecca Mead published a new article, "Learning to Think Different," in the New Yorker. The article asks whether AltSchool is going to disrupt the education industry.

Mead reviews AltSchool's funding backdrop and attempts at bridging the gap between (a) insights from big data in schools and (b) on-the-ground teaching of children. The level of detail is compelling, as with all New Yorker articles. But the article adds little to the education transformation discussion. We know schools haven't changed much since the 1950s, and we know Silicon Valley is planning to change that. The article raises a few points worthy of a response. 

Mead is clearly not an educator. She correctly assesses that there remains an enormous gap between the aspirations of the ed tech community and on-the-ground schools. We already knew this. Content is lacking in many areas moving online, not just education, and education is bigger than most. The goal right now is taking on the low hanging fruit of existing data. Picking low hanging fruit is reasonable.  The fact that it hasn't been picked yet shows how little schools use already-existing data now. For example, it would be wonderful if software could identify the moment when a student first gets confused on the timeline in Toni Morrison's Beloved. If that seems a little pie-in-the-sky, it is. No one is writing code to do this. The fact that AltSchool's coders are looking for insights in relatively easily obtainable data is going to lead to meaningful discussions. But discussions about data use in schools isn't even close to the level providing core curricular intervention and support. 

Let me put this in perspective: Not only is data not being used to guide students reading The Great Gatsby toward a more profound reading of the novel, few schools today analyze their own attendance data. Attendance data is readily available at every school in the country, yet schools do only the most haphazard, half-hearted analyses of it.  The strongest recommendation coming out of many schools is that attendance should be better. 

The distance between "ed tech" and "ed" is still massive, and that's not news. More interesting is finding out what we really want to know. What can we do to help students learn more? AltSchool is giving attention to school data in an unprecedented way. Ed tech, ed and everyone agree that knowing more is better than not knowing.

John Heintz