Straight Up Conversation: AltSchool Chief Impact Officer Devin Vodicka
Devin Vodicka is the chief impact officer for AltSchool, which partners with 25 districts and schools to implement technology-enabled personalized learning. AltSchool also operates four tuition-funded lab schools in San Francisco and New York City. Devin joined AltSchool in 2017 after being named a three-time California superintendent of the year. Recently I talked with Devin about AltSchool and its unique approach to personalized learning. Here's what he had to say.
RH: So Devin, what exactly is AltSchool?
DV: AltSchool is an education startup where educators, researchers, and technologists all work together to design an operating system, a technology platform, for education. The platform serves as the foundation to help schools offer a learner-centric education. AltSchool's platform is a suite of technology and services designed to be flexible enough to help any type of school offer students a learner-centric education using any curriculum, and inspire students to drive their own learning journey. The platform supports a research-backed learning cycle intended to create optimal learning conditions for children. Teachers are able to build and customize the curriculum, personalize learning activities, provide timely feedback, and assess students' academic and social-emotional progress in real time.
RH: What's the big idea behind AltSchool?
DV: AltSchool was created five years ago at a pivotal moment for education leaders, like myself. School leaders are trying to reconcile and improve upon some pretty massive gaps in our education system—graduation rates hovering around 80 percent for decades, 56 percent student disengagement by high school, students' global rank dropping, and so on. In many other industries like health care or transportation, technology has produced powerful innovation resulting in new approaches and new standards of quality. But the same hasn't happened in education. At the same time, AltSchool's founder, Max Ventilla, fundamentally believed a solution could be found if we created a place for experts in education and experts in tech to come together. So Max initially created AltSchool as an R&D space, like a think tank, where teachers and technologists could explore many possibilities at once. We knew the final product would be some type of technology solution to help schools offer a more personalized, whole child education, but we spent this period determining exactly what that solution would be.
RH: As you know, phrases like "personalization" and "technology-enabled" learning can pretty quickly morph into meaningless buzzwords. Given that, can you talk more precisely about what AltSchool's doing that is compelling?
DV: For AltSchool personalization does not mean screen learning. AltSchool defines personalization as meeting students where they are in both academics and social-emotional learning. You asked what's compelling, and I'd say what we're hearing from our first partners is two things: power and flexibility. The AltSchool suite of tools are meaningfully impacting teachers' everyday workflow and really inspiring students to take far greater ownership in their own learning. At the same time the tools are flexible enough that any type of school can use them, a small Montessori or a large urban public district. The fact that AltSchool's approach focuses on people that are supported by co-developed technology is what generates the power.
RH: Obviously, plenty of heralded tech-infused educational efforts have disappointed over time. Why do you think that is, and how do you see AltSchool avoiding that fate?
DV: There have been many well-intentioned efforts that have failed, primarily due to the complexity of the school environment. That plays out in a couple of different ways. First, you often have technology developed off to the side, without the input and insight of education experts. Second, technology is often "thrown over the wall" without a clear implementation and support plan to improve adoption and impact. Last, needs change constantly, and it can be hard for a piece of technology or software to adapt to the changing demands. That's what appealed to me about AltSchool. The proximity in our lab schools and partner schools enables us to co-develop the tools alongside researchers, designers, and engineers. That means we provide a very high level of hands-on support, which goes way beyond the traditional professional development or product training. Our team of designers and educators are often on-site with partner school teachers, working with them to do everything from creating an implementation strategy to customizing the tools based on their curriculum.
RH: Let's talk about the four "lab" schools you run. What are those, and how do they work?
DV: Today we operate four schools, two in the San Francisco Bay Area and two in New York City. They are lab environments where our researchers and product team pilot new approaches and features in collaboration with the school communities. They allow us to explore what's possible; ideas and feedback have created the platform that schools around the country are now using. But I would also note that the lab schools have become centers of excellence in their own right.
RH: In October 2017, The Wall Street Journal reported that one of your Manhattan schools has only 24 students. What are the advantages and disadvantages of running a school so small?
DV: Running small schools gives us the ability to be nimble and try new things quickly. Union Square is our newest location, and we hope to add to it. The optimal size for lab school environments seems to be around 50-100 students. This is something else we learned early on—the equilibrium between small and too-small. Initially we were opening schools quickly due to high parent demand, some as small as 20-25 students, like our Dogpatch and East Village campuses. Having a slightly larger facility and community opens up more opportunities for students academically and socially. This is precisely why we worked to open larger campuses throughout 2016-2017, and consolidated these tiny campuses into them.
RH: Now, I believe that there was a big shift in the model a couple years ago—can you talk about that shift, what prompted it, and what's different now?
DV: Yes, 2016-2017 was a difficult, transitional time for us as we stopped expanding our own lab schools and accelerated support for existing schools. Over about six months, starting in March 2016, we met with a couple hundred schools leaders. It quickly became clear that schools in every part of the country were transitioning to a learner-centric model. Every school we spoke to was interested in very specific pieces of the technology we'd built, what has now become the AltSchool platform. What was more surprising was that schools wanted access immediately; they didn't want to wait a few years for studies—in fact they wanted to help us build the technology. So based on their feedback all other product lines were shut down, and AltSchool began ramping up the team with education leaders to prepare to support needs of diverse schools. As of this fall we're now supporting thousands of students in 25 public, charter, and private schools nationwide.
RH: What kind of results have you seen so far, both at the lab schools and more generally?
DV: Results just keep getting better and better. We do pretty comprehensive polling a few times a year, and this fall, we're seeing the highest parent satisfaction to-date: 92 percent. Our teacher retention was high last year, at 86 percent, even though we had a very challenging year for our lab school communities. AltSchool students are progressing at rates well above the national average. We do MAP testing, and scores grew 134 percent since last fall. We've started promoting our first classes into high schools, and all students are getting into top choice schools. We're seeing just as exciting results with partner schools. Our pilot year last year was more successful than expected, with 100 percent retention of all partners and major expansions with our first two public districts. We started with small cohorts of teachers within the district, and due to high teacher satisfaction and word of mouth, both districts expanded the number of teachers using the platform by a factor of ten in the first few months. This year we're supporting 25-plus partners and schools, including six public districts, representing thousands of students. That's a pretty dramatic increase from the start of last year when we were only supporting a couple hundred.
RH: Over the past five years, AltSchool has raised over $170 million from donors including Mark Zuckerberg. How are those funds being spent?
DV: As I mentioned, we're wrapping up our R&D period and now getting ready to scale the technology. But in the early days, we thought of ourselves as the R&D arm for education—and R&D is very expensive. You have to hire many highly experienced engineers, researchers, and designers and carve out the space and time for them to explore a variety of possibilities at once. That's why AltSchool was founded as a B-Corp and Private Benefit Corporation, instead of a non-profit. We are able to use VC funds for the R&D portion of the organization, and also have tuition coming in for our lab schools to one day enable them to be self-sustaining.
RH: On that note, how do you make this model financially sustainable in the long term?
DV: Our model has always been to charge some type of fee for use of the technology, and to enable the schools to ultimately become self-sustaining entities. We've talked about AltSchool's journey being in three phases. Phase 1 is that R&D period. Phase 2 is piloting the technology that originated from that early period with key partners, meaning both our lab school environments and public and private schools, to learn. By Phase 3 we will have built something that has been vetted by a variety of school environments and demonstrates viability to improve the student experience, so that we can start to offer the platform to schools of all types.
RH: Before coming to AltSchool, you had a successful career as a traditional superintendent in California, during which you were thrice named state superintendent of the year. What prompted you to move to AltSchool?
DV: I was fortunate to have been surrounded by dedicated, talented people to have had the opportunity to be part of a team that implemented a new learning approach to Vista Unified School District. These experiences provided insights into how impactful such a transformation can be. So when I learned about AltSchool, I realized this could be a chance to bring the same type of change to many more students.
RH: Where do you expect AltSchool to be five years from now?
DV: AltSchool has always described our work as a 10 year journey. Today we're at our halfway point. Five years from now, we hope to be in hundreds of schools supporting hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of kids. But that will only happen if there is continued momentum in this shift to learner-centric models of education, and that is no small task. There are signs that we are beginning to see convergence around the key elements of a post-industrial educational system that include more learner agency, competency-based experiences, a strong emphasis on social-emotional learning, and an increasing understanding that we will have to do this work together. It is a privilege to be a part of the movement that is leaning into opportunities to better serve all learners, to better prepare them to thrive and contribute in a context of accelerating change, and to improve communities and society as a result of our combined efforts.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.