No one is going to question Silicon Valley's technology chops.

Dreamers come here from around the world to build the future, the next big things that are going to change the way we work and live. There are app makers, device designers, data crunchers, cloud seeders, networking gurus (social and telecommunication). The place practically crackles with innovation.

So what's up with the valley's schools? Why are some of them creaking along with museum-grade technology? Why are many teachers on their own when trying to figure out what gizmos or innovations to bring into their classrooms to help their students do better?

"Everyone comes to the valley for phones and search and silicon," says Muhammed Chaudhry, CEO of the nonprofit Silicon Valley Education Foundation. "No one comes here for education innovation."

Well, no one comes in a big way, anyway, Chaudhry says, and that's largely because it's hard for educational technology inventors to get noticed. "They build something great," he says, "and they try it at their kids' school. And then they can't get scale, because nobody knows who they are."

On the flip side, faced with a barrage of untested products from obscure companies, how are teachers and administrators supposed to figure out which tech solutions make sense in the classroom?

Given his line of work, it's a situation that has eaten at Chaudhry and his crew for some time. It may be that Silicon Valley schools aren't much different from schools elsewhere, but that's beside the point. Why shouldn't schools be receiving the full benefit of our race to the digital future?

With the help of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the NewSchools Venture Fund, Chaudhry and company decided that it was time to shake things up. Why not hold a competition -- a competition, if you must know, based on the reality show "Shark Tank," in which entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of cranky investors?

Hey, desperate times and all that. Despite the gimmick, the bigger idea is promising. The companies in this case aren't competing for funding, but instead for the kind of focus group any company would kill for.

The education foundation's idea is to match entrepreneurs working on educational technology with classroom teachers who have shown creativity in deploying innovation in the interest of learning. The experiment, which the education foundation is calling the iHub Pitch Games, kicked off this week on the 18th floor of a downtown San Jose office tower. Ten companies, selected from 80 original applicants, had three minutes to convince a panel of educators and then a panel of business brains that their ideas would be a difference maker in middle school math classes.

The four most impressive companies would win the chance to have eight local teachers put their technology to work in their classes for the rest of the year. They'll report back on how and whether the technology improved their students' performance -- information that will prove helpful to the teachers in Silicon Valley and beyond.

While the startups offered different approaches to take tackle different challenges, some general themes emerged. The key features offered in the Web and mobile products provided a way for teachers (and the products themselves) to tailor lessons and assignments to individual students based on their mastery of the material, while at the same time allowing teachers to monitor in real time how each student was doing while working on problems.

The competition was a day for startup chic featuring energetic entrepreneurs in bluejeans and sports coats, casual slacks and running shoes, bobbing and weaving as judges threw questions at them about common core standards, pedagogy, business plans, scaling up, competition, differentiation and on and on.

In the end, four of the 10 survived the gantlet and won the chance to be unleashed in local classrooms. And the winners are: Blendspace, a San Francisco company that helps teachers create digital lessons using Web-based content; Front Row Education, of San Francisco, which generates individual quizzes for students and tracks their progress as they work through problems; LearnBop, a New York company offering an automated tutoring system with content written by veteran math teachers; and Zaption, a San Francisco company that lets teachers use existing online videos as lessons by adding quizzes, discussion sections, images and text.

"This is just a great opportunity to even see what's out there," says Rachelle Soroten, a Burnett Middle School math teacher, who attended the Shark Tank competition and will be among the eight teachers battle testing the winning entries. "Otherwise, I have to try it out on my own and that's a lot of trial and error."

And, of course, once Soroten and her fellow teachers are able to report back on the pluses and minuses of the products they are trying, many more teachers will have much more to go on when trying to decide what might be best for their students.

Contact Mike Cassidy at mcassidy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.