Silicon Valley is innovating babysitting, not education

In Silicon Valley, land of money and innovators, people throw around the word disrupt. Like, eBay disrupted how we sell second-hand goods by completely changing the market we can sell to and the tools we can use to make a deal. Facebook disrupted how we keep in touch with friends because it used to be one-to-one, but now it’s one-to-many.

Silicon Valley is always looking for a big win, so they are always looking for a company that will change the way we do things. Yet in education the startups are the equivalent of decorating a locker to celebrate a birthday: it’s a sad attempt to spice up the sorry status quo.

Yet in education, there is no effort to change that we send kids to school. Obviously the premise that kids need to be in school is up for debate. Education is ripe for disruption yet no one in Silicon Valley is doing that. Instead, Silicon Valley is funding school.

Desire2Learn is software that helps teachers more effectively measure student knowledge and progress. But the only way to do that is to see all learning as something measurable. But it’s not.

The real measurement of education is, of course, whether the child is gaining the skill of learning what interests him. But what about kinesthetic learners, for example? How does the software encourage them to do their best learning? The most insipid thing about this category of education software is that the company is supporting the idea that testing and measuring is a great idea, which means we can only teach kids things that have right answers. (Which is, by the way, completely anathema to what Silcion Valley leaders believe, which makes me certain that no A-lister in the Bay Area is sending their kid to a school that uses software like this. No—this software is for the middle-class — those families who are stuck in sub-par school and can’t afford to go to a school for self-directed learning.

Thinkful is one of about three million startups that help kids code. Because, presumably, no one else is getting jobs? The problem is that not everyone was born to code, or even wants to code. If that surprises you, then familiarize yourself with the sixteen personality types, because every Fortune 500 company uses this system in some way to peg who should be doing which job. And believe me, at least eight of these types (the most common ones, actually) are completely wrong to train as programmers. Because they care about feelings and people rather than solving logic problems systematically. (Wondering if you should code? Here’s a free test to find your personality type.)

It’s particularly UNrevolutionary to create a new curriculum that we cram down kids’ throats. It’s already clear that forced learning does not work. Kids learn best when they choose what to learn. Additionally, kids don’t need to code. It’s like teaching kids to fix their cars. For most of us this would be a totally a waste of time, because we can just take them in for repair. just raised $28 million. They are bringing back the one-room classroom, and along with that, the same type of analytics-based measurements 0f No Child Left Behind. But this time the standards are customized to a mixed-age classroom. You know what strikes me as revolutionary here? Repackaging a program that was a huge failure, branding it as a Silicon Valley idea, and seeing if anyone will believe it is new and brilliant.

These startups are not disrupting how kids are sent away from their parents for eight hours a day. Education start-ups are ignoring the research that says self-directed learning is best for kids. And they are creating (supposedly) new situations where kids once again have no space for self-directed learning.

And here’s why: most people with money in Silicon Valley also have kids. And they don’t want to fund a company whose premise is that kids don’t need school. Because then why are their own kids in school?

It’s hard to fund a startup by selling to homeschool families. Traditionally, the way you sell education stuff to parents is by telling them their kid will score higher. Achieve more. But homeschoolers are done with the school scoring system. The tests are a waste of time, and studying for the tests makes kids hate learning (or, worse, makes them monkeys who do whatever someone tells them to do.)

Here’s some advice to all the venture capital firms funding education startups: disrupting education will come from Unschooling. It’s growing fast and it’s not the right-wing Christians. It’s the liberal New Yorkers.

And here’s some advice to people who want to do a startup. Think about how the world of education spending will change when most of the middle class has taken their kids out of school. Create a startup to take advantage of that trend, and you’ll be the first to cash in on it.


18 replies
  1. Sarah M
    Sarah M says:

    Ha! Loved this part: “You know what strikes me as revolutionary here? Repackaging a program that was a huge failure, branding it as a Silicon Valley idea, and seeing if anyone will believe it is new and brilliant.”

  2. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    Software is good at modeling things that are measurable and predictable. That’s kind of its sweet spot.

    And entrepreneurs seem to come in a few of flavors, including these two: revolutionaries who want to change the world, and people who want to make a crap ton of money serving an underserved market.

    Clearly the companies going after education are run by the latter.

  3. JS
    JS says:

    I live in the Bay Area and let me tell you – most people ARE homeschooling their kids – they just don’t realize it. By that I mean, this is a wealthy section of the country. People are educated and, for the most part, aware and open-minded. If their kid *needs* anything, chances are they are going to get it – tutors, OT, mentors, you name it. Family life is rich at home, kids are read to before bed, parents oversee homework, fundraise like crazy and develop things like language and robotic programs which they fight to get into their school. My husband just coached my son’s baseball and he literally had four more eager dads out at every practice and game, supporting the boys needs. All around us summer schedules include travel abroad, camps that allow kids to specialize in their personal interests, etc.

    My friends say “I could never homeschool like you, I don’t have the patience.” Then they post pics on FB of some family sushi making night, or their kid doing quadratic equations just for shits and giggles, and I have to laugh. We have other problems here, but testing average is not one of them. And the schools get all the credit. But it my eyes, it’s the family culture and parent involvement. Moms and dads are doing their jobs well – it’s easy when you have money and live in an area like this. I can only wish the same for every child, but it doesn’t work that way.

    Parents here recognize that our high-ranking schools are a waste of time. But it’s just what you do and so they knowingly send them off to day care, five days a week.

    • Gretchen
      Gretchen says:

      This is kind of the boat I am in. I don’t know that I’d call our high-ranking schools (northern Virginia) a TOTAL “waste of time” but I would agree that much time is wasted and I could probably do better. But our choice is for both parents to work…and so almost all of my time not working is spent on my relationship with my child, which is filled with her truest educational moments.

      As asides, I think the “everyone should learn to code” thing is crap, too…

      And I think a lot of bullshit in general comes out of “Silicon Valley” … what kind of things happen when your constant goal is just “coming up with the new hot thing”? The whole feel is gimmicky. Not my ethos.

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      That’s very insightful. As a product of Silicon Valley schools (I grew up in Menlo Park), I totally agree with you. I mean, is there any greater emblem of the involvement of parents than the notorious model California Mission project of Fourth Grade?

  4. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Good one again, I love the links. I hope the SV guys will catch on. We are friends with an SV exec and I think in their mindset the fact that their kids are not going to boarding school makes traditional school ok, because they see their kids after school and on weekends. That’s the only reasoning I can think of… because they are so normally outside the box thinkers, you’d think unschooling would be their go-to choice. But I’m not going sit there and interrogate them about it, I can just let them see how great it’s working for us and hope it catches on that way.

  5. karelys
    karelys says:

    Maybe the answer for the problem is to stop poking at the education system or style of education (unschooling/private school/etc.) and throw money at it until we make it into what we want.

    Maybe the answer is in creating software, education, ideas, etc. that allows people to work jobs that are not tied to a desk and a specific schedule.

    New businesses will surge. Like nannies that specialize in teaching something. I mean, we already have that. And I really don’t believe it’s bad to get help with raising children. I think it’s good for the kids and the parents to expand the circle of trust. But it’s nothing in comparison to just dumping the responsibility to educate and raise your child on an institution and underpaid teachers.

    I am interviewing people that can help me take my kid to the park. I’ve talked about how I really dislike going to the park. I can’t work or do something there. I think it’s okay to find someone that can take the kid to the park and somewhere else for a couple hours so Chris and I can go catch a matinee (my favorite thing. It feels like cheating life when you go to a movie at 1 pm on a Wednesday just because you can).

    My favorite thing is to read books, chase my kid, watch movies while snuggling, etc. We eat together. We spend a lot of time together.

    I have been so lucky that my hard work has resulted in ways to make an income so my family is provided for and I can work with a very flexible schedule. But many parents don’t have that.

    Want to disrupt the system? want to shake the jenga tower?

    Create ways for parents to be able to work well with a flexible schedule and locations.

    I know Penelope said already that she cheers Marissa Meyer for nixing telecommuting. I don’t think the problem is telecommuting. I think the problem stems from having a mentality forged out of a school system where people are used to seeing work as what you do when you’re forced to a place and a time frame. Otherwise they slack. They don’t know how to maintain a strong work culture and environment. People don’t communicate as well. People don’t finish projects on time.

    So while we’re disrupting education by investing in the future of unschooling let’s also come up with plans where people are only required to be at work for the jobs that absolutely require it (like restaurants that need people in shifts and such). Everything else can be rearranged.

    Also, if we stop thinking of the work week as a Monday through Friday and weekends are for rest and partying we would do ourselves a favor.

    Let’s start the disruption there and see how parents will have less barriers and less defense for a school system that kidnaps the kid away from them for an entire day.

  6. Chris
    Chris says:

    Thank you for calling bullshit on the “everyone should learn to code” mantra that is making the rounds. As someone who has been writing software and managing software engineers for over 25 years I am here to tell you that not everyone can or should code. Your analogy is spot on. (In fact, I think a good software developer and a good mechanic have exactly the same jobs – look at a large, complex system and figure out what is not working.)

  7. Amy K.
    Amy K. says:

    I don’t think like an entrepreneur, so I will be interested to see what others can come up with to make money off of unschooling.

    We’re new to this, but so far the best piece of advice I’ve found re: home/unschooling is that all you really need is an internet connection, a printer and a library card.

  8. Liz
    Liz says:

    I just got back from a trip to Silicon Valley. Biggest bunch of weirdos I have ever been around. I don’t care how much money someone paid me to work/marry into/etc. to live there–I could not do it–at least not long term. (Note: I have a particularly scientific history myself as well as having lived in some seriously “scientific” places).

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      Software companies make headlines, but bio-tech is still huge in the valley.

      I moved to the Bay Area as a small child with my scientist parents. While I agree that scientists are (lovable) weirdos, are you saying that SV scientists are particularly bizarre?

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Hi Liz I’m just curious what you mean when you say you lived in “scientific places.” ? I’ve just never heard that expression before so my interest is piqued.

  9. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    Most homeschoolers use some kind of out of home classes for their kids. Many use in-home tutors as well. It’s undeniable that our numbers are growing, and this means there’s more space for tutelage providers.

    The difficulty is in making the model efficient. Space costs money; underutilization of expensive space is a business-killer. Freelancing as a tutor is an uncertain endeavor compared to a paycheck and a pension.

    I see a transition playing out with organizations that provide “after-school” classes providing “instead-of-school” classes as well. That’s better leverage of existing sunk costs. There’s market space for a limited number of non-school daytime dropoff places too.

    Less certain is how many teachers will be able to replace their daytime school business with daytime tutoring business. I could see private tutoring (and not for test prep) becoming a better line of work.

  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I did well in school including four years at a university. I did learn quite a bit. However, what I’ve been thinking lately is how well that time was spent. In other words, how much more would I have learned if I was learning in a more self-directed environment? I think that’s really the question. Learning efficiency.
    All kinds of schools are really a compromise as you’ve repeatedly stated here. Eventually knowledge is imparted to the student if the student is willing to learn. Unfortunately, there are way too many students that either quit or squeak by to graduate for the degree or certificate. I had to go to classes, study, labs, etc. to do well and there was a lot of work involved. I think I got a lot out of school because I put a lot of effort into it. I was (and still am) always motivated to learn new things everyday. In fact, I love it. That’s me. One of the biggest things I’ve learned from this blog are the shortcomings of school. How its ‘one size fits all’ model leaves a lot to be desired.
    I hear a lot of people say they’re for school choice. I was also for school choice. I’ve now decided I don’t like that terminology. So now I’m for education choice. Education, however one wants to get it, as long as they get educated, enjoy it, and want to learn for the rest of their life.
    Recently, I read this article ( ) about sixth-graders taking ‘trial’ standardized tests. The kids are asking for payment for their time from United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Massachusetts Secretary of Education Matthew Malone, and PARCC since the tests were administered to them involuntarily. It made my day. Now that’s education. :)

  11. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    Great article – have the same sentiment but you articulate it so well. (Only thing I see as more nuanced is the coding/personality thing) But really good, and love the title. As a friend recently said to me education has become about hitting the targets but missing the point.

  12. Vanessa
    Vanessa says:

    This post is truly a gem- I wish I would have read this sooner! I especially love that you brought up coding. My son LOVES making gaming videos to publish on YouTube to gain subscribers- but he hates coding programs and we’ve tried several, including one called Tynker that we paid for. I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t want to learn to code until now- he’s an ENTJ. Of course he doesn’t want to spend his time coding! He’d rsther be interacting with other gamers.

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