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Audrey Watters: The Iron Rule of Silicon Valley: Thou Shalt Not Criticize a Start-Up

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Audrey Watters writes a brilliant blog about Ed-tech and its misadventures. It is called HEWN, or Hack Education Weekly Newsletter.

She wrote a post recently about what happened when a tech investor tweeted that he refused to invest in AltSchool because it was a truly bad idea. AltSchool raised $174 million to demonstrate that the solutions to the problems of education were embedded in technology. Investors included Mark Zuckerberg, Laurene Powell  Jobs, Peter Thiel, Pierre Omidyar, and other big players in the “reinvent school” sector.

Watters commented on an article in The New York Times written by Nellie Bowles, one of the most insightful journalists at the Times. Bowles wrote about the shunning of Jason Palmer, a venture capitalist., because of a tweet criticizing AltSchool. 

Palmer tweeted:

$174M lessons here. We passed on @Altschool multiple times, mainly because disrupting school was a terrible strategy, but also b/c founders didn’t understand #edtech is all about partnering w/existing districts, schools and educators (not just “product”) 

I would say that Jason Palmer is one smart guy. He understands that disrupting an institution you know nothing about is inherently a dumb idea.

AltSchool was created by Max Ventilla, a Google techie, and it was a failure, despite a plethora of positive articles in the national media predicting that it would “reinvent” school as we know it.

As Bowles wrote, Silicon Valley was outraged by Palmer’s tweet. How dare he criticize a failed start-up! She says that he eventually made amends for daring to speak truth.

Audrey Watters thinks the problem in the Ed-tech world runs deeper than enforced conformity and silence cling of dissent.

She writes:

To a certain extent, I think Bowles misses the point of the whole dust-up. The danger isn’t only that many people are afraid to challenge the orthodoxy. The danger is that many do not really think all that differently. Many in Silicon Valley (and more broadly those working in science and tech and in elite university labs) believe they’re all The Very Smartest Men, and if nothing else, they’ve convinced themselves to that end. Sugar Daddy Science.

There’s a whole other set of truths that Bowles never touches upon in her quest to talk about the demand for good Silicon Valley manners in order to get to be in good Silicon Valley company. See, Sugar Daddy Science is bad science. And Jason Palmer was absolutely right. AltSchool was a terrible idea. It was obviously a bad investment. Its founder had no idea how to design or run a school. He had no experience in education — just connections to a powerful network of investors who similarly had no damn clue and wouldn’t have known the right questions to ask if someone printed them out in cheery, bubble-balloon lettering. It’s offensive that AltSchool raised almost $175 million. It’s offensive that so many ed-tech journalists carried the company’s water, touting its innovative and disruptive potential. I care much less that we were all supposed to be nice about the startup. I care that this was a startup — like far too many in ed-tech — that, with its normalizing of surveillance, was poised to hurt kids…Without a grounding in theory or knowledge or ethics or care, the Silicon Valley machine rewards stupid and dangerous ideas, propping up and propped up by ridiculous, self-serving men. There won’t ever be a reckoning if we’re nice.

You do have to wonder why Silicon Valley is so quick to shout from the rooftops about any perceived failures in education yet resist any honest accounting of their own failures. Remember the infamous TIME magazine cover called “Rotten Apples,”  which declared that Silicon Valley had found the answer to “fixing” schools? Firing teachers whose students don’t get high test scores. That was about the Vergara lawsuit in California, funded by a tech billionaire to eliminate teacher tenure on the absurd theory that poor kids have low test scores because their teachers have tenure. “Absurd” because teachers in high-performing districts are more likely to have tenure than those in low-performing districts,where teacher turnover is higher. Fortunately, the Vergara case was thrown out, along with copycat suits in other states.


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