In 2014, Ken Montgomery had a problem. The educator was working to build Design Tech High School, a public charter school in the San Mateo Union High School District focused on personalized learning, that he hoped would change its students’ lives and serve as an inspiration for other high schools. But back then, d.tech was stuck in just five classrooms at Mills High School in Millbrae. “It was clear they didn’t want us there,” Montgomery says. “There was no stability around location, and it was really slowing us down in making progress.”
That’s when Safra Catz, CEO of Oracle, stepped in. Earlier in the year, Montgomery and three d.tech colleagues had participated in a design challenge at the tech giant’s Redwood Shores campus. Along with other educators and nonprofits, they worked with members of the Oracle Education Foundation to prototype ways Oracle employees might provide high school students with meaningful educational experiences. Catz and others at Oracle were so impressed with Montgomery and d.tech that, in summer 2014, the company offered to build a 64,000-square-foot LEED-certified school facility directly on Oracle’s campus. If all goes according to schedule, it will open in fall 2017.
For decades, Bay Area tech companies and magnates have poured millions into education philanthropy, donating to foundations and school districts, and asking their employees to volunteer their time. Recently, Netflix’s Reed Hastings launched a $100 million education fund, while the Salesforce Foundation has donated nearly $14 million to the San Francisco Unified School District. But as members of the tech community continue to work to tackle the tough problems of education, as well as entrenched issues like the lack of diversity in the workforce and equal pay, several are getting involved at the school level—either as philanthropists looking to change the world, or nonprofits looking to disrupt an outdated model. “This is philanthropy, pure and simple,” says Colleen Cassity, executive director of Oracle Education Foundation, of d.tech. “This generation of students and successive generations are the ones who are going to need to solve the problems that exist today. In this school and its programs, we see enormous potential to prepare young people better than any model that we’ve ever seen.”
While Oracle is essentially donating a new campus and lots of employee time to d.tech (the school’s rent will be just $1 per year), Priscilla Chan—pediatrician, former teacher and wife of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg—is the CEO of the Primary School, a free elementary school that will combine education and primary care for the communities of East Palo Alto and Belle Haven. Laurene Powell Jobs is chair of XQ Institute, which has committed $50 million to its Super School Project, a challenge that will grant five winning teams $10 million to build revolutionary new high schools. Meanwhile, former hedge-funder Sal Khan of Khan Academy, the nonprofit site with free video lessons on topics from Algebra 1 to black holes, has created his own brick-and-mortar private school called Khan Lab School, which also aims to create lessons that would train teachers at other schools, via Khan Academy—for free. “It’s not just opening a new brick-and-mortar school,” says Dominic Liechti, the Mountain View school’s executive director and president. “It’s helping school districts adopt this personalized, project-based education model and providing training. How can we help them transform? It’s part of the key mission.”
Corporate involvement in education reform is not a new phenomenon. Look back 100 years or so to the Industrial Revolution, and titans of industry were influencing public schools and creating vocational programs to ensure a better-trained workforce. In the 1960s, when advocates argued that segregated, factory-model schools were no longer preparing students for the workforce of the later 20th century, a whole raft of alternative schools emerged. Now, half a century later, another wave of reform is building throughout the country, and it comes from that same cyclical concern—that our schools are not keeping pace with changes in the workforce—coupled with a rejection of the standardized education metrics championed in No Child Left Behind, and the more recent and controversial Common Core State Standards Initiative. “Silicon Valley’s reformers are looking to create the kinds of schools that will almost replicate high-tech work places,” says Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford, and a former social studies teacher, “and be much more flexible and amenable to a future that’s harder to chart out.”
For Khan Lab School, d.tech and the Primary School, that means a heavy emphasis on personalized learning, a concept that veers away from the old-school model of a teacher standing at the front of the room delivering one lecture to every student. With personalized learning, students work at their own pace, control much more of their own time and lessons, and, in some cases, don’t even have grades. “Students get bored in other schools because they’re not challenged enough,” Liechti says. “Here, they know how to learn, and they’re on their own, self-paced track. It’s important that they learn content and core skills, but even more important that they can apply that to real-life projects.”
At Khan Lab School, for example, students of different grades might all focus on a project like building a well in Africa. One student might learn about the mechanics of the project, while another studies the concept of volume, and others consider the cultural and political tensions the well could create. At d.tech, Algebra III/IV students laser-cut wooden models of satellite dishes to learn about parabolas, study the empathy necessary in design work and build their own schedules three days a week. “Instead of a factory model where a bell rings and you go to first period, we’re trying to create a situation that mirrors what we do as adults, where they know what goals they have to accomplish, and then build their schedule to get those goals accomplished,” Montgomery says.
Zuckerberg and Chan have also championed the method through their eponymous initiative, choosing to focus the efforts of their significant philanthropy on four things: curing disease, building strong communities, personalized learning and connecting people. At Oracle, the hope is that this style of learning will roll out what is not just a better-prepared workforce, but a more evenly prepared one.
“We’re not seeing young people coming out of American universities with the skills they need to be effective at a company like Oracle,” Cassity says. “Things are very siloed. You’re a programmer, and that’s what you do. But if you don’t learn to engage with the end user and understand their experience of the problems you’re trying to solve, you don’t have the empathy skills you need.” To help ensure that its students are prepared for the workforce, d.tech focuses on technology, design thinking and creative problem solving.
Changing education policy and the way American schools operate is a tough haul. Bureaucracy is a huge obstacle; structures are hard to change; and there are many stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers and unions. And as Cuban points out, the many schools rolled out by previous generations of reformers ultimately failed, often because, eventually, funding dries up. But Russlynn Ali, CEO of XQ Institute and former assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S Department of Education under President Obama, believes that if change can happen anywhere, it’s Silicon Valley. “The thing that’s so remarkable is that the most intractable obstacles—the things that justify stagnation—in Silicon Valley, those are the impetus for change,” Ali says. “That’s what excites these entrepreneurs.” And having read through the 700 applications that have come in from across the country with revolutionary ideas for changing the way we build our high schools, she’s confident that successful models will emerge. (XQ will announce the contest winners in August.)
Montgomery, who has served as an educator both in San Diego and in San Mateo, has found that working to change the way we educate students is much easier in a place like Silicon Valley, where failure is a celebrated part of any process, and iteration is a key to success. “So much intellectual capital is attracted to this area; if any place can figure it out, it’s probably around here,” Montgomery says. “It’s really nice to see that talent and expertise work to solve these really important problems.”
Originally published in the July issue of Silicon Valley