MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.—Last fall, the public school district here in Silicon Valley’s epicenter ditched its conventional sixth-grade math curriculum for a course that relied on software.
Behind the new program, which students accessed from Chromebooks provided by the school, was New Classrooms, a nonprofit education technology startup backed by the foundation of Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates, who called it “the future not only of math, but a lot of subjects.”
Parents in Mountain View, home to Google parent Alphabet Inc., were optimistic the program—which blends teacher-led instruction with online lessons and assignments, tailored to each student’s ability level—could accelerate their children’s progress.
But weeks into the program, many complained that it was an incoherent, error-plagued mess, and demanded the schools return to the old teaching method. Earlier this month, the district announced it was canceling the program it for the year.
“You would think that, of all the places, Silicon Valley would be an ideal place, given that all of us embrace and use technology in our daily lives and are first adopters of anything that comes out,” said Alan Wessel, a bio-tech employee and mathematics Ph.D. whose daughter was one of the Mountain View students receiving New Classrooms instruction. But the program, he said, “was not ready for prime time.”
Educators world-wide are debating how, or whether, to integrate technology into classrooms. Some schools embrace it as a way to personalize education. Others argue that classroom computers distract students and hurt their ability to process and think.
Some investors and philanthropists view education technology—edtech, in the parlance of Silicon Valley—as one of the last frontiers, an industry not yet transformed by technology.
In 2015 and 2016 combined, venture-backed edtech companies, excluding nonprofits, received $2 billion in equity financing, according to Dow Jones VentureSource. Plenty of tech billionaires are pouring in their money, too.
Manhattan-based New Classrooms was founded in 2011 by two former teachers. The 125-employee organization has an annual $20 million budget, of which 60% comes from philanthropists such as famous tech billionaires, and 40% from fees that schools pay.
In 2012, New Classrooms launched its sole instructional program, a course called Teach to One: Math, which evaluates how students fare on assignments and places them at appropriate levels within each class. For example, a student who aced fractions but bombed geometry might focus on advanced fractions one week and then work on filling in gaps in geometry the next week.
“It’s a personalized curriculum,” said Joel Rose, New Classrooms’ chief executive and co-founder.
For the 2016-17 year, New Classrooms partnered with 40 mostly public elementary, middle and high schools, including Mountain View’s two middle schools, Graham and Crittenden. The Mountain View Whisman School District estimated it would pay New Classrooms $478,250 this school year.
Teach to One appealed to Mountain View’s school district, where 30% of students come from low-income households, and the rest tend to be the children of highly educated, tech-sector employees, one school official said. In an email to parents in September, Assistant Superintendent Cathy Baur said the district’s goal was to “meet the diverse needs of each student.”
But after they started quizzing their children about Teach to One, many parents didn’t like what they heard.
Mountain View parent Mr. Wessel said he would log into his sixth-grade daughter’s account every day to look at the next day’s lesson plan. He said he found multiple-choice questions with mismatched answers and that the orders of the lessons didn’t make sense. He said another education nonprofit, Khan Academy, which offers free online courses and which Mountain View’s district has used, had better teaching material.
Mr. Rose said miscoded answers were rare and that Teach to One presents new math concepts to students when they are ready for them.
Other parents lamented the absence of teacher instruction. “The teachers, in my view, are generally relegated to a more administrative role,” said Graham parent Robin Linsenmayer Colman, a lawyer. “There are kids dealing with computer glitches, internet connectivity problems, kids playing videogames or goofing around on their computers.”
Mr. Rose said there are sometimes technical glitches when a school first implements the program. He said Mountain View students spent 46% of class time in teacher-led instruction and 12% in teacher-guided group work.
On the other side of San Francisco Bay, Oakland Unified School District math director Phil Tucher said Teach to One was helping one middle school, doubling the total minutes of math instruction for students. He said it was still too soon to assess the program’s long-term impact at that school and at another site.
In early December, the Mountain View district received a letter signed by more than 180 parents asking that Teach to One be discontinued. On Jan. 12, Mountain View’s school district announced it was immediately dropping Teach to One and would replace it with the previous, teacher-led curriculum.
“The rollout did not go as well as we hoped,” schools superintendent Ayindé Rudolph wrote in an email to parents. He cited the glitches, concerns about the order of lessons and a desire for a “better balance” between teacher-led and computer-led instruction.
New Classrooms’ Mr. Rose said it was a communication problem. “There was a subset of parents of higher-achieving students who didn’t fully understand how Teach to One operated and how much it benefited their children,” he said.
Mr. Wessel said he thought such teaching software had far to go before it could match old-fashioned teaching.
“For an underperforming school district, this could be a better alternative,” he said. “Overall, we have pretty good teachers who are dedicated to their craft.”