Executive Skills & Strategy

Gates, Zuckerberg Team Up to Craft New Ideas for Schools

By Benjamin Herold — May 15, 2018 6 min read

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are teaming up on a new research and development initiative aimed at identifying “state of the art” educational strategies and bringing them to the classroom.

The focus is on spurring development of new measures, new ways of teaching, and new technologies for tracking and supporting students’ writing ability, math skills, and “executive functions,” such as self-control and attention.

In a Request for Information released last week, the groups write that researchers from fields as diverse as education, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and technology are generating exciting new ideas about how people actually learn—but that information “has not yet been translated effectively into methods and tools for teachers and students to use in the classroom every day.”

Such “research insights must inform ongoing development of tools and instructional approaches that will enable students to overcome math, literacy, and other learning challenges and at scale, in order to reach millions, if not billions, of students,” the document says.

Reactions about the new partnership ranged from cautious enthusiasm to critical skepticism.

“In general, I think the growing attention to the potential value of ensuring that educators both know, and can apply, principles of learning science in practice is something to celebrate,” said Benjamin Riley, the executive director of the nonprofit Deans for Impact, which seeks to improve teacher preparation, in part through grounding such work in rigorous research and scientific evidence.

“The key,” Riley said, “is making sure that ‘learning science’ doesn’t get co-opted to mean ‘misinterpreting research to support preconceived notions about what the education system ought to look like.’ ”

Writing, Math, ‘Executive Function’

The focus of the new efforts is on identifying promising new developments and ideas in three main areas:

Improving students’ writing, especially nonfiction. “The skills connected to writing—evaluation of arguments and evidence, critical and creative thinking about solutions and sources, identifying support for a key idea or process, clear and evocative argument-making—are frequently cited as 21st-century skills in high demand by employers,” the RFI says. “Yet, the majority of high school graduates are not prepared for the demands of postsecondary and workplace writing.”

Among the areas where the groups hope to generate improvements: comprehensive writing solutions, new metrics for measuring student progress and proficiency in writing, and new tools to promote more collaboration and better feedback.

Improving students’ mathematical understanding, application, and related mindsets. Here, the language of the personalized-learning movement, which both Gates and CZI support, is clear: Promising approaches already exist that “help teachers to address individual students’ needs by mirroring the same personalized approaches used by the best 1:1 tutors,” the document says. “Highly personalized-learning experiences and tools have the potential to analyze student responses to understand barriers to student learning, provide immediate feedback, and apply immediate and effective remediation to students when needed.”

Among other things, the groups are specifically looking for tools that can further personalize math instruction via a focus on the “whole student"—including children’s mindsets, beliefs, attention, and “affective” or emotional states.

Measuring and improving students’ executive function. “Student success in academics and in future careers is associated with their ability to wrestle with multiple ideas at once, think flexibly, and regulate their action and thoughts,” the RFI says. “There is much to be done to track and improve students’ progress on [executive function] development and connect it to real-world benefits, especially for those who are most at risk.”

Areas of focus here include advances in techniques for tracking children’s development of these skills and abilities, interventions (including “technology-enhanced programs in or outside of school”) designed to improve desired behaviors, and supports for teachers.

Powerhouses Collaborate

The Gates Foundation is a traditional charitable foundation, chaired by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Over the past decade-plus, the group has dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars a year to such education-related causes as promoting small high schools, changing the way teachers are evaluated, and supporting development of the Common Core State Standards. In October, the Gates Foundation announced a strategic shift in focus, including a new emphasis on “locally-driven solutions” and “innovative research.” (Education Week receives financial support from the Gates Foundation for coverage of continuous-improvement strategies in education and has received grant funding in the past for coverage of college- and career-ready-standards implementation. Education Week retains sole editorial control.)

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, meanwhile, is a newer entity, founded and led by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan. Structured as a limited-liability corporation, CZI is free to make charitable donations, invest in for-profit companies, and engage in political lobbying and advocacy, with minimal disclosure requirements. The venture-philanthropy group has announced that it will give hundreds of millions of dollars annually to support a vision of “whole-child personalized learning” that aims to customize each child’s educational experience based on academic, social, emotional, and physical strengths, needs, and preferences.

Last June, the two groups announced their first substantive collaboration: a $12 million joint award to an intermediary organization known as New Profit, which supports organizations working to promote personalized learning.

Critics’ Concerns

In their new Request for Information, the Gates Foundation and CZI said that technology is not the focus of what they hope to spur, but it is expected to play a role.

The groups also emphasized that their new plan is currently in draft stage. Individuals, nonprofit groups, universities, private companies, and government-sponsored labs are invited to respond, with the expectation that those groups’ input will in turn shape the foundations’ funding plans moving forward.

No decision has yet been made as to how much money the groups will ultimately invest in the new R&D effort.

In an op-ed published in the magazine Fast Company, CZI president of education Jim Shelton and Gates Foundation director of K-12 education Bob Hughes described the reason their groups joined forces on this effort: “We believe the scope and importance of this work exceeds what any single organization can or should undertake alone.”

But the new collaboration between two of the most powerful groups in education philanthropy and venture funding also prompted concerns from critics.

“I continue to be astounded that these two multibillionaires are intent on ‘reinventing’ or ‘redesigning’ American education, which is not their area of expertise,” education scholar, blogger, and activist Diane Ravitch wrote in an email to Education Week, “Other than being extremely wealthy, they have nothing in their history that suggests they know anything about teaching and learning.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2018 edition of Education Week as Gates, Zuckerberg Team Up to Craft New Ideas for Schools

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