The future of schools

John Danner
5 min readJun 27, 2019

One of the things I’m most excited about is founders who are trying to divide schools into care and academics. Running Rocketship, I noticed that we had many teachers who were incredible at care — the social emotional side of learning, building culture, classroom management, relationships, and trust and we had teachers who were incredible at academics — the ability to engage students in a dialogue that really helped them make new ideas concrete. Sadly, we had a very small number that were good at both. Since Rocketship had some of the highest performing schools in the country, my guess is that this was true for almost all schools.

Another thing I noticed in my thousands of classroom observations was that even in the best classrooms, a good chunk (25–50%) of time was spent on completely non-academic things like transitions, getting kids set up on whatever they were doing, etc. Another big chunk was spent on things which didn’t require much academic expertise, just classroom management and leadership skills, like group projects, individual and group work, and other things where the students learned the routines and knew what to do. This was most obvious among the teachers who were gifted academically, but were not as good with care, because they took longer and hurt their academic time. It pained me that the academics were struggling so hard to get students into a position where their core skill of connecting academically could work, and that was maybe 10–20% of their time.

Both of these issues bothered me for a long time. How could we build the best schools for the most children if there were clearly two different roles and very few people were good at both roles? How could we get more leverage out of the gifted academics, who were spending two thirds of their time in the classroom doing things that didn’t require their expertise.

Ten years passed, and the first schools came along that were focused on dividing the two roles. The reason made sense. They could hire para-professionals (usually high school backgrounds with great people skills and wonderful with kids), who took the role of ‘guide’ and provided care. They helped kids, were much less expensive, and much more available. Then they moved the academics to the cloud. The first one that I know of was Acton Academies and the second was Prenda Learning, one of my investments.

To be clear, I don’t think either of these organizations are taking good advantage of academics in the cloud. Their starting point was that there were enough free videos and resources out there that with a little help from the guide, students could find what they were interested in. As veteran educators will realize, there are some things that are pretty hard to learn, and don’t lend themselves to this approach. Reading is a good example. Math fluency is another. I think we will see those amazing academic teachers move to the cloud and do their work with groups of students all over these school networks and many others. My instinct is that this will be done synchronously, with small groups of well-matched students, but we will find out now that there are models where this makes sense.

Two things happen when a school splits care from academics. First, the cost of the school drops significantly. Since the role of care provider is the minute by minute role, they will be at relatively low ratios of students to teachers, ten or twenty to one at a time. On the other hand, the academics may be able to reach hundreds of students in short sessions over the course of a day. Since school costs are about those ratios, this can mean a gigantic (10x?) reduction in cost.

The second, and in my opinion, even more exciting thing, is that when academics are moved to the cloud, they start to follow exponential improvement in quality and exponential decrease in cost.

For example, let’s say an AI company like Amira Learning comes along and revolutionizes the early reading assessment known as a Running Record (real company). This a test that can take two days to administer for your class because you literally have to read carefully constructed passages with all of your students. It’s usually given three times a year in good schools because it helps you figure out what reading groups students should be in and what extra help each student needs. That means 6 of 180 days (3%) of your academic time just got taken away by this test. Replacing this test with Amira is hard to operationalize in physical space because all of the teachers need to buy in, get students logged on, and then figure out how to use the result. When you move academics to the cloud, it just becomes part of the system. Students are already logging in, and next time they do, you give them the Amira assessment. Then your teachers all know they don’t need to do that any more and you build systems around interpreting results.

What this means is that over time, your reading teachers become more and more efficient because they are spending their time on the interventions most needed by students. That means the student:teacher ratio changes and your school gets less expensive to run.

Acton Academies priced at $5000 per year, and my hope is Prenda will beat that. As the exponential curve continues, I’m pretty sure we will see schools priced at a small premium to care. To make that concrete, if a guide makes $30k per year and has 30 students (most of these programs run morning and afternoon groups), you should see about $1k per year plus maybe $500 more for everything in the cloud.

That is a price point that I think makes most parents think a lot more seriously about putting their kids in private schools. It’s really a throwback to the Catholic schools in an era where there were enough nuns and priests to run them cheaply. I have experienced this at these low-cost networks where public school parents have pulled their students out for this new experience. Based on these conversations, I think we currently have 15% of parents who have opted out of the public system (12% private, 3% home school), but those parents either need to have a lot of money or a lot of time. An affordable private school removes those barriers, and my bet is that instead of 15% of parents, we will see 30% or more getting their kids a more personalized education using cutting edge technology, something that I think badly needs to happen to save education.

If you are a founder and thinking about a model like this, drop me a line.



John Danner

Co-founder and CEO NetGravity, Rocketship Education, Zeal Learning, Dunce Capital.