Executive Skills & Strategy

Zuckerberg Talks Personalized Learning, Philanthropy, and Lessons From Newark

By Benjamin Herold — March 07, 2016 5 min read
Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg arrive at the 2nd Annual Breakthrough Prize Award Ceremony at the NASA Ames Research Center on Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014 in Mountain View, California.

As he watched his $100 million donation to the Newark, N.J., public schools go primarily to consultants and contentious labor battles, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg received some advice from his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan.

“She’s like, ‘You know, I don’t think that you can make any more investments before you actually go and teach students yourself,’ ” Zuckerberg recalled in an exclusive telephone interview with Education Week.

The billionaire took the sentiment to heart, leading a weekly after-school entrepreneurship class at a K-8 school near Facebook headquarters for two months in 2013. Three years later, Zuckerberg and Chan have embarked on what he calls “v2 of our education work.” Now, the couple’s education focus is two-fold: understanding and responding to the needs of San Francisco Bay Area schools, and supporting “innovators” around the country who are pioneering new approaches to personalized learning.

The work will be supported via the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, created in December with a commitment of Facebook stock valued at an estimated $45 billion, and via a tangled web of other entities the couple had already established.

It’s a big shift, with far-reaching implications for public education, philanthropy, the ed-tech sector, and more. Following are highlights from Zuckerberg’s March 1 conversation with Staff Writer Benjamin Herold.

Key lessons from Newark?

The approach in Newark, Zuckerberg said, was “let’s have a controlled project in one place with good people and try to do a whole lot of different things.” That meant pushing for a new teacher’s contract, closing under-enrolled district-managed schools, opening new charters, and paying huge sums to consultants with big ideas for transforming the 40,000-student system into a “portfolio” of different school models.

The success of Newark’s new charters is a point of pride, Zuckerberg said. Now, he intends to “double down” on that strategy, but with a focus on charter networks that are working on new approaches to personalized learning.

“We felt like we could have a bigger impact helping to grow that, rather than some of the other models like KIPP or Success Academy, which we also want to support, and are more focused on discipline and a very rigorous setting,” Zuckerberg said.

Overall, though, the takeaway from Newark, he said, was that he and Chan “want to just go in the opposite direction” from the approaches they previously took on many issues.

Two of the biggest: listening to communities and working with teachers.

“Our work [in Newark] really put us into this tough negotiation with the unions,” Zuckerberg said. “Going forward, what we’d like to do is work more in partnership with them rather than against.”

Why personalized learning?

“The model just intuitively makes sense,” Zuckerberg said.

He cited as influences on that belief the work of California charter network Summit Public Schools, the nonprofit NewSchools Venture Fund, and students in that entrepreneurship class he led. Zuckerberg also said he’s encouraged by the results of a recent study by the RAND Corporation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, (the Gates Foundation helps support some coverage in Education Week) which found early signs of promise at dozens of personalized-learning focused schools around the country.

But the Facebook CEO acknowledged that there’s not yet any independent, large-scale research to show personalized learning’s effectiveness.

“The point of philanthropy is to try new ideas and be the research-and-development [arm] for the public,” Zuckerberg said. “We want to make sure that [personalized learning], which seems like a good hypothesis and approach, gets a good shot at getting tested and implemented.”

Why is your organizational structure so confusing?

Establishing an LLC, or limited liability corporation instead of a charitable foundation gives him and Chan more levers to pull, Zuckerberg said.

“Just constraining yourself to only nonprofit giving cuts off a lot of good options,” he said. ”I believe that companies can do a lot of good stuff in the world. Maybe I’m biased, because I run Facebook.”

But Zuckerberg acknowledged the messiness that has resulted from the various other entities that he and Chan have established in recent years. “All of the different pieces of this—the nonprofit, the venture—we’ll probably just kind of rebrand over time to make it clear that it’s all one thing,” Zuckerberg said.

Are you going to donate to elected officials and political campaigns?

“There’s no specific plan right now. We’re not active in the current election,” Zuckerberg said.

Does Facebook need to get into the K-12 market?

“Not really,” Zuckerberg said, noting that students are already big users of the social-networking platform, as well as communications apps the company has acquired, such as Instagram and WhatsApp.

That said, Facebook does have something to gain by having its engineers involved in education, he said.

“There’s this very big competition for talent in the technology industry,” Zuckerberg said. “People want to work at companies they believe are doing good things, and where they can learn new things.”

Many are concerned that aligning your business, venture, philanthropic, and political interests will give you too much influence, with too little transparency and oversight.

“I understand why people would have questions, and my hope would be that we’d earn trust over time as people see how we operate,” Zuckerberg said.

Still, he said, “any assumption that the amount of effort that we put in on the philanthropic side is going to influence any outcome for Facebook seems pretty far-fetched.”

Are you worried that you’ll pour millions into personalized learning, only to be stymied by the same structural barriers you encountered in Newark?

“I think certainly over time, in order to reach the fullest scale we think this [approach] can potentially reach, we will need to help solve additional barriers as well,” Zuckerberg said. But for now, he said, there’s plenty of room for growth, and plenty of demand from schools and educators.

“It’s just like any other idea in any sector,” Zuckerberg said. “If the investments we make are good, then people will want to make more like them, and if they’re not, then people will do other stuff.”

The perception is that you’re focused on systems and your wife is focused on meeting the individual needs of students and families.

“I think the caricature is probably broadly accurate,” Zuckerberg said. “I’m used to building products with Facebook that hundreds of millions of people use. For this [philanthropic work in education], you need to know the specific communities and you need to know the teachers and the students.”

Why should people trust you to get it right this time?

Zuckerberg said he faced similar skepticism when trying to launch Facebook, and the concerns observers are raising are not unique to education.

“At some level, you just have to do the things you believe in and make sure they get a shot,” he said. “Ultimately they will be judged on the results.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2016 edition of Education Week as Zuckerberg Charts New Path

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