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California's Top Superintendent Leaves for Ed-Tech Startup AltSchool

After being named California's top superintendent for two years running, it's not all that surprising that the head of the 25,000-student Vista Unified school system in San Diego County is moving on.

But Devin Vodička isn't leaving for a bigger district.Devin Vodicka.jpg

Instead, he's going to work for AltSchool, a four-year old ed-tech startup that has attracted lavish funding, but currently works with just a dozen schools.

It's all about the potential for big impact down the line, Vodička told Education Week in an interview.

"Everything I learned about the company made me feel like this was the best chance I'll have to achieve the moonshot of transforming the student learning experience at scale," he said.

Founded by a former top executive and top engineer at Google, the San Francisco-based company takes an unusual approach, managing a small network of independent private schools, which it also uses as labs for developing personalized-learning software. 

The company announced a total of five new executive hires Thursday, including Sam Franklin (who previously worked as the executive director of the Office of Teacher Effectiveness in the Pittsburgh Public Schools) and Laura Hughes Modi (who spent the past six years heading operations- and customer-service support at the online rental marketplace AirBnB.)

But the headlining new hire is Vodička, a decorated district leader whose efforts around personalized learning earned Vista Unified recognition as a member of the "League of Innovative Schools" and millions of dollars as an "XQ Super School Project" prize recipient. A former teacher and principal, Vodička will serve as AltSchool's "chief impact officer," responsible for guiding the design and strategy of the company's emerging software platform in advance of efforts to market it to traditional public schools beginning around 2019.

Unlike some other personalized-learning efforts, AltSchool isn't pushing a specific curricular model.

"We are trying to build software that enables a number of different pedagogical approaches and personalization models to take place," Coddy Johnson, AltSchool's chief operating officer, said in an interview. 

"I don't think there's a more credible voice out there on what that transformation requires" than Vodička, Johnson said.

While it's unusual for a high-profile district superintendent to leave to become an ed-tech executive, Vodička's move is not unprecedented. Last June, for example, 2013 national superintendent of the year Mark Edwards left his Mooresville, N.C. district for a position at Discovery Education.

But AltSchool is far smaller, far newer, and far more ensconsed in Silicon Valley's current personalized-learning obsession. The company has also attracted serious money from some of the biggest names in tech philanthropy, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Laurene Powell Jobs, the founder and president of the Emerson Collective and the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs.

Vodička talked with Education Week about why he decided to take the leap, and what he hopes to achieve. Following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.


Why leave public education for a tech startup?

I love Vista and I'm very inspired by what is happening in this community, particularly as we shift to more of a personalized learning approach for our students. In the back of my mind, I've been wondering how to take some of these lessons learned and find a way to expand opportunities for all learners, not just those in our district. I had a lot of options, and I'm sure I could have gone to a larger district. But I pretty quickly realized that it takes five years in every district to get to a level of deep change in the learner experience.  I would run out of time pretty quickly.

How have you approached personalized learning at Vista Unified?

We wanted to be a model of educational excellence and innovation. Initially, we didn't know how we were going to do the innovation part. Then we heard from students that they didn't want to be passive recipients in the learning experience. They wanted to be more active, have more choice, and explore things they perceived to be of higher interest. Based on that feedback, we developed a robust strategy to move in the direction of personalized learning. It took a year just defining what that meant for us. As we've gone about that, partnerships with groups like Digital Promise and XQ have accelerated our progress.  But really, it was listening to the voices of our students that compelled us to make significant changes.

What appealed to you about AltSchool?

I wasn't that familiar with AltSchool until they reached out to me. Everything I learned about the company made me feel like this was the best chance I'll have to achieve the moonshot of transforming the student learning experience at scale. It was a tough decision to consider leaving this wonderful community. But I feel like this is potentially a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

How big a role did money play in your decision?

I wouldn't say it was the main driver. It's certainly not a deterrent in any way. But for me, it's about making the best use of time I have to do what I feel I'm called to do.  

What will you be doing at AltSchool?

My perception is there are incredibly talented teams of engineers, educators in schools, and leadership. I feel a lot of my role is to connect some of those dots.

How do you feel about trying to bring educators and engineers together?

I love it. My experience as a superintendent has often been that [technology] solutions are developed separate and apart from the real work of teaching and learning. That often leads to profound problems with implementation. You get well-intentioned ideas that are not validated in reality. I love the idea of engineers, educators, students, and parents working in teams in this iterative fashion. I think the potential is fantastic.  

Are K-12 schools ready for what AltSchool is building?

The willingness is there. It's not easy work. There are a lot of institutional and bureaucratic barriers and obstacles. But when you have a committed group of educators who are focused on doing what's right for kids, anything is possible.

How do you see AltSchool helping traditional public schools?

In Vista, we have done it through a lot of human and social capital development. But in some ways, our progress has been impeded by lack of connective tissue between learners, the content, the educators, and parents.  We have a patchwork of digital tools that were never designed to work in a coordinated fashion. We run into interoperability and data-sharing challenges. A platform that would stitch a lot of that together and create a more cohesive experience for learners could really help with those practical challenges.

Can AltSchool's platform achieve all that?

Potentially.

At Vista, we looked at lots of different systems and options. I have yet to see something that is truly learner-centered.

AltSchool has been criticized for the volume of data it collects, and related surveillance and privacy concerns. How will you address those issues?

This is an area of concern to many families. It's right to ask the questions. From what I've been able to learn, it appears AltSchool has a thoughtful strategy, and no intent to sell or share student data. I'm not overly concerned.

Photo of Devin Vodička courtesy of AltSchool.


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