The Bezos Family Foundation is All About Education. Here's What They're Doing

Your son is revolutionizing publishing and retailing and just purchased one of the nation’s top newspapers. What do you do next? Well, of course, you underwrite a documentary film about students designing an underwater robot named “Stinky,” right?

Let us explain: The film documents the work of students in Arizona who were challenged by their teacher to build and deploy an underwater robot as a way to learn about marine science. It's just the sort of thing that sparks the interest of the Bezos Family Foundation, which is funded and run by Jeff Bezos's parents, Mike and Jackie Bezos, as we've explained here.

The bigger message in this particular investment: The foundation is very interested in student-driven learning and innovative departures from the traditional school experience across their range of education investments. Their grantmaking strategy demonstrates an interest in students becoming activists in their education and learning by doing.

Why are we paying attention here, aside from the Bezos name? Because the foundation, which focuses exclusively on education, has been ramping up its giving, from $3.4 million in 2010 to $15 million in 2012. When the 2013 tax returns come out, our bet is that the dollar figure will be bigger still. 

What's more, this funder has broad ambitions and a track record of spreading its money widely and generously, including quite a few six-figure grants to national organizations. Of course, there's potentially big wealth waiting in the wings here, although exactly how much isn't known, since this isn't Jeff Bezos's operation.  

As the foundation has ramped up, its investments have fallen into three main categories: Early Learning, Excellence in K-12 Education, and Youth Leadership and Engagement.

The Early Learning work pushes the use of the latest neuroscience research to improve early learning environments. This work is being done through the foundation’s investments in programs such as Early Childhood Nation and Vroom, which are pushing the integration of recent advancements in brain science into the curriculum and pedagogy of pre-school programs. The foundation has also made some big research grants to help advance the science itself. 

On K-12, the foundation has invested in a number of the usual suspects pushing school reform, charter schools, and teacher training. In 2012, it gave large grants to KIPP, Teach for America, the New Schools Venture Fund (a tech-backed ed reform group we've written about here), Stand for Children, New Profit, a pass-through funder, and other groups. 

The youth engagement and leadership work is a longstanding passion of Mike and Jackie Bezos, and the Bezos Scholars Program, which aims to empower high school juniors and their teachers, is a signature effort now its tenth year. The program promotes student-led projects to expand learning outside of the classroom and the related Aspen Challenge Project trains student leaders and provides them with resources to solve local issues in their communities. The Students Rebuild project has supported students in the U.S. working with a charity to bring clean water to communities in Tanzania.

The Bezos Family Foundation is making it clear that they believe in the power of students to take the lead and learn by getting their hands dirty, sometimes quite literally.

The motto of the foundation seems to be “putting education into action,” which it is doing through its recent investments across a broad range of investments mentioned above. While you might look at the big money to KIPP and TFA and typecast this funder, that would be a mistake.

The foundation looks to distinguish itself as one that invests in innovative education practices that prioritize student-led fieldwork connected to classroom learning.