Fresh Start: The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the New Era of K-12 Philanthropy

If you’ve thought the ed wars would never end, you aren’t alone. The grinding battle that has pitted advocates of choice and accountability against teachers unions and progressive educators has, at times, felt as intractable as the partisan deadlock in Washington, D.C.

Now, though, signs abound that this era of polarization is giving way to a different and more constructive phase in U.S. efforts to boost student achievement.

In the philanthropy world, few funders are doing more to turn the page than Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg. Yesterday, the couple announced a new leader to head the education work of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Jim Shelton, and elaborated on their plans to make personalized learning the centerpiece of that work.

Zuck, of course, famously started out as an ed donor squarely aligned with the pro-reform cabal, making a $100 million gift in 2010 to improve Newark’s schools. That effort has yielded better results than many critics acknowledge, but was otherwise a case study in why the efforts of top-down ed philanthropists have often been so polarizing and unconstructive.

True to his tech roots, Zuckerberg learned from the missteps of his ed philanthropy 1.0, and with Priscilla Chan has been rolling out a new 2.0 version. Taking a look at the couple’s plans offers insights into not just their education giving, but that of like-minded ed funders now emerging, like Laurene Powell Jobs. Here are a few points that seem to be guiding the Chan and Zuckerberg vision of K-12 philanthropy.

Demolition Work Is Not the Answer

To many hardcore ed reformers, the only way to dramatically improve public schools is to basically blow up the existing system—with its bureaucracies, teachers unions, regulatory undergrowth, etc.—and start over from scratch. New Orleans is the fantasy scenario—a city where the old system actually was destroyed and has now been replaced, with 95 percent of students in charter schools. Many reformers hoped that Newark could also be the scene of disruption on a large scale. 

You can see why Zuckerberg might have been originally attracted to a reform model hinging on a dramatic upending of existing systems. Many of the people in the tech world have made their fortunes by destroying yesterday’s industries and creating new products that sweep quickly to market dominance. Business funders have flocked to a charter movement promising the same thing: The creation of a better product that would, over time, put traditional public schools out of business. They’ve also backed attacks on teachers unions, hoping to knock off defenders of the status quo much as Uber is now working to bust the cartel power of taxi drivers worldwide.

But Newark showed the limits of these strategies, as have failures in other cities, such as Milwaukee. And Zuckerberg and Chan's takeaway, apparently, was that wielding dynamite is not the proper way to achieve change in systems where, in fact, everyone mostly shares the same goal: helping children succeed. In announcing the Shelton appointment yesterday, and the work on personalized learning, Zuck wrote, “[W]e believe in listening to and working closely with parents, teachers and students to understand the specific needs of the communities we're working in.” Zuckerberg has said this often in the past year or two, making it a mantra of the couple's 2.0 philanthropy.

The Focus Is More on Learning Than Systems

The most notable thing about the Chan Zuckerberg initiative is that the focus is mainly on how students learn, as opposed to the institutional context in which they learn. While the choice and accountability push has been all about systemic reform, aiming to sweep away dysfunctional bureaucracies and perverse incentives, Chan and Zuckerberg, along with some other new funders, are preoccupied with something else: engaging students so they learn better and faster. As Zuckerberg wrote yesterday:

For the last century, our education system has been based around lectures, where every student learns the same thing at the same pace in the same way. But in reality, some kids grasp subjects quickly and could be learning much more, and others need more practice in certain areas and get left behind.

Personalized learning is different... Every student can learn in their own way at their own speed in a way that maximizes their potential.

Zuckerberg said efforts by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to promote personalized learning might take different forms, including building new technology, engaging in advocacy, and addressing challenges that students face outside the classroom. It’s certainly possible, if not likely, that this outfit will engage in some contentious battles with defenders of the status quo. But the overall thrust right now is overthrowing yesterday’s pedagogy, not the existing institutions of public education.

Charters Are Still Part of the Solution, But Not THE Solution

Just to be clear, Zuckerberg and Chan are staunch believers in charter schools, and are strongly supporting charters in a variety of ways. If you look through the partners of Startup:Education, the grantmaking education organization that has led the couple’s ed work, you’ll find a number of charter outfits. But you’ll also see that money is going to public school districts, too, and that overall, Startup is backing a wide and diversified array of ed efforts. Grantees include groups focused on improving teaching, new approaches to blended learning, and efforts to inspire young people to reach their potential.

One of the bigger grants by Startup:Education that we’ve seen in the past year was $20 million for EducationSuperHighway, a group that aims to upgrade internet access in “every public school classroom in America so that every student has the opportunity to take advantage of the promise of digital learning.” In turn, that advance is key to the broader vision of personalized learning.

One way to understand the breadth of the Chan Zuckerberg education vision is to look at the school that Priscilla founded in East Palo Alto, The Primary School. On its bilingual website, it describes its mission as fostering “each child’s well-being as a foundation for academic and life success by drawing on the strengths of the child’s entire community including family, educators, medical and mental health providers.”

Clearly, the funders behind this effort grasp the importance of poverty and other challenges outide of school that hold children back. 

Teachers Aren’t the Enemy

A final point worth noting about the ed vision of Chan and Zuckerberg is their belief that teachers have to be part of any solutions. In a video yesterday, discussing their plans and introducing Shelton, the couple started off by noting that it was teacher appreciation week and talking about the teachers that had inspired them over the years.

This may seem minor, but it’s not. Anti-teacher rhetoric from reform quarters has been a powerful and toxic factor in polarizing the education debate over the past decade. But Zuckerberg has said often lately that it is important to listen to people in communities and also teachers. Evidently, Mark and Priscilla grasp an obvious point that still eludes many ed reformers: Bashing teachers and warring with one of the most powerful unions in America isn’t very constructive.

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The emergence of the Chan and Zuckerberg Initiative isn’t the only big thing happening in K-12 philanthropy right now. We’re also seeing the emergence of other major new funders, like Laurene Powell Jobs, who is also focused on changing how students learn. And there are significant changes happening at the Gates Foundation, another funder moving into personalized learning and, significantly, one that is now examining how factors outside of schools impact student achievement. And as we’ve reported, a number of older foundations have become excited about school-to-career learning approaches that also seek to overthrow yesterday’s factory model pedagogy.

Put it all together, and it does feel like we’re seeing the dawn of a new era of K-12 philanthropy.

To be sure, the choice and accountability forces are still going strong, with Walton doubling down on charters and the Broad Foundation leading an ambitious effort to move half of all L.A.’s students into charters. But it’s fair to say that funders of this ilk are no longer the dominant drivers of K-12 philanthropy.

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