What's Interesting About the Latest K-12 Move by Chan Zuckerberg

photo:  wavebreakmedia/shutterstock

photo:  wavebreakmedia/shutterstock

Mark Zuckerberg’s education philanthropy has come a long way since his $100 million investment in Newark public schools in 2010. The latest K-12 gift from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the organization that Zuck and Priscilla Chan created two years ago, underscores the couple's commitment to personalized learning and embraces a community-led approach, one worlds apart from the top-down Newark initiative. The gift also pairs CZI, the most prominent new grantmaker to emerge from the Silicon Valley, with the Ford Foundation, the largest legacy grantmaker in the U.S. and a funder well-known for its progressive leanings. 

CZI and Ford are working with the Coalition for Community Schools, Communities In Schools and StriveTogether to launch the Student at the Center Challenge. As part of the challenge, 10 communities that show the potential to move toward a student-centered learning system will get planning grants up to $150,000. After a six-month planning period, several communities are expected to get implementation grants. Proposals for planning grants are due next spring.

Zuckerberg and Chan have made personalized learning the centerpiece of their K-12 giving since last year, when they hired Jim Shelton—a former deputy secretary of education and Gates Foundation executive—to pilot this work. When the couple hired Shelton, Zuckerberg spoke of their hope for a future in which children could "learn 100 times more than we learn today" by embracing approaches that allow every student to "learn in their own way at their own speed in a way that maximizes their potential."  

Since that announcement, CZI has sought to move this vision forward in several ways. As we've reported, it's creating a free online tool, the Summit Learning platform, which "empowers teachers to customize instruction to meet their students’ individual needs and interests." It's also made grants to promote personalized learning, including a $2 million gift in Rhode Island. In June, CZI teamed up with the Gates Foundation to fund a $12 million personalized learning initiative managed by New Profit, which in turn has made a number of grants to organizations and schools working in this area. 

The Ford Foundation, meanwhile, has shifted how it approaches K-12 giving. The foundation ended its focus on after-school and out-of-school programs for urban schools when it restructured in 2015 to concentrate on ending inequality. The foundation no longer has an education-specific track, but does focus a portion of its work and funds on youth and counts the failure to invest in public schools among the inequalities it wants to correct.

Supporters of personalized learning believe the approach could close the achievement gap for low-income and minority students because lessons meet students where they are. The Students at the Center Challenge requires communities to explain how they will adapt methods to students’ needs, with special attention to low-income children and low-income communites, which is in line with Ford’s focus on inequality.

It’s a little too early to say whether the hype around student-centered learning is justified. A 2015 RAND study on the approach was encouraging, but is so far the only comprehensive research released on personalized learning. Several more studies are underway, which should give us a better idea of the method’s value. Critics, like Diane Ravitch, a former assistant of education, have said that supporters underestimate the limits of technology in methods like this.

But perhaps even more interesting than the support of personalized learning is the community focus of this challenge. Lately we’ve seen several big funders known for their top-down approach to K-12 philanthropy, like Gates, shift to more community-led projects.


Projects and methods to promote personalized learning will originate within communities, as part of the Students at the Center Challenge. The funders and organizing nonprofits start out with an overarching goal—promoting student-based learning—but allow communities the freedom to determine what that looks like.

Tellingly, StriveTogether, one of the groups running the challenge, recently received $60 million from the Ballmer Group, a newcomer that focuses on the connection between education and poverty and emphasizes community-sourced solutions. Like Pricilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, billionaires Steven and Connie Ballmer are relatively new to philanthropy, but not afraid to spend big money.

The Students in the Center Challenge is hardly a large investment when compared to the coffers of its donors or some of their past projects, but it’s in keeping with trends we’ve seen across K-12 philanthropy lately. Projects like this can show us where money may go when these funders are ready to place their next big bets.