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Tech CEOs want to disrupt education. What could possibly go wrong?

What happens when Elon Musk asks you to help build his school?

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In the Spring of 2014, a private school blog called Beyond the Brochure posted on Facebook saying they had heard from two mothers that “uber-wealthy” Elon Musk had decided to create his own school.

Parental imaginations were inflamed. Soon enough, Business Insider buzzed about how students at the school apparently played with “flamethrowers,” and “battle-bots.” The Washington Post called it a “secretive ‘laboratory school’ for brilliant kids.” Ars Technica called it “LA’s most exclusive” learning institution, conducted in “an atmosphere closer to a venture capital incubator than a traditional school.” 

In reality, Ad Astra resembled something closer to a pandemic learning pod than a moonshot model for privatized education. The school initially taught only nine students, five of them Musk’s own, the others the children of SpaceX executives. By 2019 enrollment rose to nearly fifty students, about half whose parents worked at SpaceX. It was housed in available office space on SpaceX campus and for a time at one of Musk’s homes. 

To run the school and develop its curriculum, Musk chose 27-year-old Joshua Dahn, who had just completed his second year as a fourth grade teacher at The Mirman School, an exclusive school for “highly gifted” children in Los Angeles where he’d taught one of Musk’s many sons. (Speaking on the condition of anonymity, other Mirman teachers told Techworker that Musk tried to recruit them, too, and that they’d declined.) Dahn’s prior educational experience was a stint as a Gifted Ed specialist in a Las Vegas public school for Teach for America. 

“I was working on some other projects at the time, and I asked him about an optimization problem or something,” Dahn says of the first time he spoke with Musk while at Mirman. Dahn had no aspirations to start a school, and had only asked wanted to pick the entrepreneur’s brain. Shortly thereafter, Musk invited Dahn to the SpaceX campus to talk about a new venture. “Suddenly, I was at SpaceX meeting with Elon about this potentially life changing opportunity,” he recalls. 

When Musk told Dahn about his ambitions to start a small school — backed by Musk’s considerable resources — it was an opportunity Dahn says he simply couldn’t pass up. 

“When we talked about the school, my own parents were just assuming I would be a teacher at a school that Elon was going to create,” Dahn said. “Obviously, it became something much more than that — Elon and I co-founded the school together, then I designed it and ran it.”

An important disclosure: I myself attended the Mirman School myself for nine years, from kindergarten through the 8th grade. Some of the teachers familiar with Musk and his children were my own teachers.

There exists an assumption that if children are to compete in a tech-driven world, those who follow the example and advice of tech CEOs will be ahead of the curve. AltSchool, for example, was treated like the unicorn startup of schooling because of its support from Mark Zuckerberg and Peter Thiel before collapsing in 2019. Proponents of Jeff Bezos’ nonprofit preschool suggested his investment could right the wrongs of an unequal public education system, until he made a few tone-deaf comments about treating the students like Amazon customers. The charter school on the Oracle Campus – Design Tech –offers students the chance to be mentored by Oracle employees. 

The rise and fall of AltSchool in particular illustrates why this assumption is pure myth. Promising to use algorithms and smart technology to tailor the common core to individual student’s “needs and passions,” Altschool seemed like the ultimate solution to stale, cookie-cutter curriculums. This model of schooling was to engage students who were hard to reach and accelerate students that were moving beyond the curriculum in unique, if unspecified, ways. Within two years of Altschool’s founding, investment reached $100 million

By 2019, however, Altschool had become an embarrassment. All of the physical schools were sold while the founders tried to pedal a piece of  educational software based on its principals. Headlines like “How an Education Startup Wasted over $200 Million” were shared widely on social media, and the names of all the major investors, from Andreessen Horowitz to Laurene Powell Jobs, were dragged through mud. 

The school’s founder, ex-Googler Max Ventilla called his own bluff in an interview with Forbes. “We’re kind of flying the plane while we’re building it,” said Ventilla – an analogy also beloved by Musk, and coined by fellow PayPal founder Reid Hoffman. “The difference is that Altschool is experimenting with the lives of children, not a better way of tagging beer-bust photos” Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky, summarized.

The same could very easily happen to the school Musk founded. Now that Musk’s sons have aged out of Ad Astra and the pandemic has added extra difficulties to in-person education, Dahn has created Astra Nova, a selection of gamified online classes that accepts students from all around the world. Unlike Dahn’s previous project, Elon Musk is not involved in Astra Nova.

Far too often, Americans assume financial success indicates expertise in a large majority of topic areas. When these wealthy individuals are proven brainiacs, as is often the case with famous technologists, this assumption is even stronger. This is not only a false assumption, but one that can prove detrimental to students and society as a whole. 

As a student at Mirman, I felt the residual pressure of this mode of thinking. Parents, near-panicked because some other private school had integrated tech we hadn’t, would raise hell thinking students couldn’t hear. Teachers, working overtime to learn new techniques would become tired and snippy. All that stress about “falling behind,” transferred straight to me, piling on my already anxiety-ridden brain like a heavy stack of books.

MACHINE LEARNING

And yet. Technology, no doubt, can enhance education. Spatial-Temporal Math curriculums, for example, which most often use computer programs, can generate a significant increase in testing proficiency. One-to-one laptop programs, though inconsistent, have proven to generally increase student performance in English, writing, math and science. Schools that effectively use technology for personalized learning yield better results than those who don’t. 

Ad Astra, for example, emphasized the importance of technology. In an interview for a Chinese TV program, Elon Musk said that students learn about topics like artificial intelligence and robotics. In the pandemic, Ad Astra converted into the fully online Astra Nova, which offers both a full-time and piecemeal curriculum where students learn with others internationally through games and digitized simulations. But just because Musk invents innovative technology, doesn’t mean technology, even in his own school, is the cure-all for education’s bigger problems.

But when I recall my experience with Mirman’s one-to-one laptop program, for example, I don’t think of cutting-edge learning. I remember my 6th grade math teacher desperately trying to capture our attention while 13-year-old boys sang along to the crude YouTube video they played on their laptops. 

“I feel so separated from my students,” says Ellen Brown, an award-winning teacher who taught second grade at Mirman for twenty years about the oversaturation of technology in the classroom. “I understand technology as a supplement to education, but I’m really unhappy with it just taking over.”

Brown’s talents lie in her soft skills — she’s brilliantly adept at engaging students with stories, multimedia, and personalized, one-on-one attention. Her famed Star Wars-themed curriculum earned her a LA Times feature in 2002, and was known to leave an impact on students long after they graduated. 

After retiring from Mirman, she was invited to teach a few classes at a tech-savvy school where she struggled to keep pace with the new equipment. Quickly, she learned technical proficiency was considered more important than her ability to connect with students.

“Everything was supposed to be done with technology, and that isn’t my style — I mean, I walk around the room and wave my arms and show media, and they wanted everything done with computers,” she says. The parent’s disappointment with her low-tech teaching was the worst part. Parents, looking for affirmation that their student would grow up as tech-savvy as possible, rejected Brown’s methods of hands-on learning. “It crushed me.” 

Frank C. Worrell, a professor at the Berkeley Graduate School of Education with extensive expertise in psychology and highly gifted education, says the technology problem is two-fold: “for the teacher to do their job, the technology needs to work so that teachers aren’t troubleshooting all the time…and the teacher needs to know how to use the technology.” Tech can’t just be added to a curriculum — it requires rigorous training and a clear, set purpose to be effective. Technology improving education, Worrell says, is “not an automatic thing.” 

Additionally, students who don’t have the economic background to work with tech at home fall behind — something America has seen exacerbated by the need for online learning over the last 11 months. Students who use cutting-edge technology at home find themselves at a big advantage when given tech-based assignments for school. Simultaneously, the students without those advantages are hurt the most when classroom time is wasted on technical troubleshooting. The two factors together create a double-whammy of class-based education gaps. “The kids who are getting a lot at home are going to continue to get that, and the ones who need the classroom more are the ones who are going to lose out more” says Worrell. 

Though I don’t think I fell behind academically at Mirman, I was hyper-aware of the class difference between myself and my peers. Having one-to-one Macbooks revealed, quickly, who had compatible devices like iPods and iPads. It was embarrassing when a friend could ask their parents for troubleshooting help while mine, who didn’t always have the newest version of all the Apple devices, scrambled to figure it out. The program, as a whole, made me feel inferior more than it did technologically competent.

CHARACTER DEVELOPERS

Then, of course, there is the problem of technologists teaching ethics. 

In creating the school curriculum, Ad Astra partnered with edtech company ClassDojo to create what they call “conundrums.” Astra Nova makes use of “conundrums,” too. In essence, they’re puzzles intended to make troublesome ethical questions accessible to grade school children. 

For example, take the Lake Conundrum, published as a video on the Astra Nova YouTube channel. It goes like this: 

There is a large lake next to a small town, and a large corporation (the largest employer in town) dumps their waste into the lake. Scientists study the pollution, and conclude that the lake will be ruined in 10 years — but then the corporation’s CEO (called the “puppetmaster” in the video) hires his own scientists to doctor conflicting research. Politicians, instead of stopping the pollution, do nothing because of the political power of the corporation, and because the scientific research seems to conflict. Journalists “both sides,” the situation, and cover the research from both groups of scientists. Confused voters re-elect the politicians, and the lake dies in 10 years because nothing was done about the pollution. 

The conundrum then asks students who they think is the most to blame: the corporation, the scientists, the CEO, the media, the politicians, or the voters.

If you don’t have a lot of experience with gifted education, you might think these “conundrums,” are a novel way to teach students ethics (Business Insider seemed to think so). But that isn’t entirely the case. 

“The conundrums are not something new,” says Jocelyn Balaban, another retired Mirman instructor who is now the Director of School Development at Nasri Academy for Gifted Children. “It’s just called problem solving, and he gave it his own name.” 

Problem based learning is a major buzzword in gifted education, and ethics, though less a buzzword, is always given high importance. The idea that private school kids, growing up with disproportionate privilege, must be explicitly taught basic ethics has existed for centuries — to this day it can actually boost enrollment because of it’s commonly agreed upon importance. For example, Nasri Academy has a class called “social and emotional,” in which teachers pose difficult real-world problems to students and talk through the potential consequences. 

What concerns me, however, is that a school funded by Elon Musk is teaching children ethics by having them decide whether to hold corrupt CEOs accountable. Sure, Elon Musk’s companies aren’t major polluters, but his Tesla factory in Fremont, for example, created local panic when Musk defied local public health orders and continued operations despite a proven public health risk. In that situation, politicians, the media, and employees all pushed back, making the responsibility for wrongdoing even less diffuse. 

That’s only one example. There have been questions about Tesla batteries being tainted and  extensive reports on racism and sexism at Tesla factories. He also openly flirts with the alt-right on Twitter. Needless to say, Elon Musk is not formally qualified to teach ethics. Neither are many other of the tech CEOs – Bezos and Zuckerberg amongst them – who have gone on to start or fund their own schools.

By looking to these CEOs as model citizens — and the novel bells and whistles they create as the future of education — students miss out on the interpersonal elements required to teach students how to be good people. 

American Philosopher Michael Davis explains in his report “What’s Wrong with Character Education” that the intention of such carefully calculated lesson plans don’t always serve their intended consequence. For example, you can’t assume the Lake Conundrum teaches students about corporate responsibility when it might also be teaching some students how to manipulate politics and the public for financial gain. Second, he highlights that character education programs like this often teach morality “for the wrong reasons,” — i.e., character education dictated via necessary-to-complete assignments can teach students to think of ethics as a chore. 

Dahn, for his part, doesn’t believe teaching ethics should be considered this way. If students drew some unexpected conclusion, he says he would encourage them to explain their logic and talk through the ethics with them. “What better time to talk about the connection this student is making than when they’re in these really important years, right?’ he asks.

Ethics should not be over-clinicalized. Rather, they must be taught in more subtle ways, like through conversations with teachers and mistakes made on the playground. In Brown’s words, “the skills that are necessary to live in this world vs. the skills that make us unique as people, like communication schools, interpersonal intelligence, knowing how to read people — you can’t get that through a computer.” 

PRIVILEGED CLASSES

Last, there is an important emotional impact generated by exclusive schooling in general that goes unacknowledged by “conundrums”: the fact that such schools can raise students to be significantly less well-rounded than they would otherwise be. Students that are told they are privileged, smarter, or more talented than others from an early age can not only develop a superiority complex, but also often learn to avoid subjects they’re not naturally good at.

“You need to have a program that ties, hand in hand, the academics and character education,” says Brown. “Believing that everybody is special in a different way, and that everyone has skills we’re good at and can use to help other people, and skills we’re not good at that we have to practice until we get better — that’s basic to human growth.”

Students at exclusive schools are not reminded enough that their receiving that education doesn’t make them better than other people. Oftentimes, the very pitch schools make to parents — that their school has better technology, uses cutting-edge teaching techniques, or caters to the very best and brightest — that reinforces a superiority complex in students. 

Mirman, for example, has students take an IQ test before they can formally submit an application. When, several years after I had been admitted, Mirman lowered the IQ threshold from 145 to 138, many parents were furious. For some parents, this appeared to signal that Mirman’s mission to create the perfect curriculum for students within this specific IQ range was all a lie. 

Of course, students absorbed this fury. One friend of mine, who’s mother was particularly upset, told me that the students admitted after us were “dumber,” because of the change in admissions standards. Others started teasing students who they thought had a lower IQ. Some students who quite literally tested “off the charts” in their original IQ test were given additional exams just to see how high they could score. Like any child who’s told they’re a genius would, these students bragged about their scores incessantly.

This behavior can breed real consequences. Oftentimes students that are told they’re geniuses from a young age “underrate the importance of effort” and “overrate how much help they need from a parent” according to a 2007 investigation by New York magazine. In other words, they end up excelling in subjects they know they’re good at, and find it difficult to power-through learning subjects that don’t come as easily to them.

This, of course, mimics an ethos we see all the time in tech: the stereotypical engineer, for example, who excels at coding but never learns how to write a well-constructed essay. Many future technologists choose hyper-specialized STEM classes, for example, over a liberal arts education.

MINISTRY OF MUSK

These flaws are not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of my time at Mirman. I think of teachers who had such a profound impact on me I find myself debating and conversing with them a decade later. I think of brilliant kids who entered college immediately after 8th grade. Children who met President Barack Obama when he was in office because of their exceptional science project they skipped classes to go work on. I can’t say that the Mirman School did not give me and my peers an exceptional education. It did.

What I can say, however, is that if Mirman has any flaws, it’s in the ways it allowed pressure from parents who look to people like Musk as leaders to impact the curriculum. 

In a recent interview with Protocol, Techworker advisor Tracy Chou illustrated an important point about technology and the technologists who make it. Her startup app Block Party, uses machine learning (ML) to allow users to filter out and track harassment from trolls and stalkers online. And though she aims to solve a very human problem with tech, she admits it’s not the end-all-be all. “People who think ML is going to solve everything are generally men enamored with this technology,” she said. 

The ideas and gadgets that arise out of Silicon Valley can certainly be useful tools in education. However, it’s a fool’s errand to think they alone can properly guide how we raise our youth. In fact, much of it can make education worse. 

If we continue on this path, the future of education can seem Orwellian. Like teacher Ellen Brown warned, “when all the kids know is how to use machines, I think that shows a lack of humanity.”

Illustration by Brad Jonas for Techworker