Education Opinion

An Open Letter to Mark Zuckerberg

By Susan Graham — June 21, 2011 4 min read
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Dear Mark,

It’s really nice of you to give that $100 million to Newark schools because times are hard and you probably heard that there is insufficient funding for public education. Our economy is in trouble and I hear it’s the fault of self-serving groups like teacher unions who demand huge guaranteed salaries and unrealistic benefits. Still, there are a few like yourself who, against all odds, achieve success through ingenuity and hard work. And since you’re getting richer while schoolteachers are getting poorer, that must prove that you’re smarter. Right?

As a country we admire your efforts and certainly don’t want don’t want you and other ambitious self-starters like yourself to become unincentivized. That’s why we understand that it would be a mistake to raise taxes on the top income brackets; but we’re all really grateful that you are motivated to give back to the community. So thanks again for your willingness to adopt a failing public school system and contribute not only some money, but also your management skills to solving education issues. In fact, I’ve noticed, just like other philanthropists who made their fortunes in technology, real estate, retail or banking and investments, you seem to be pretty adamant about contributing your knowledge along with your money. You’re confident of your skills and that’s understandable.

I noticed the KIPP banner in the photo so I’m guessing that you, Mayor Booker, and New Jersey Commissioner of Education Cerf support the innovative practice of placing charter schools in shared space with public schools. I can see how that makes sense to you. After all, KIPP schools are patterned on the sort of pre-Ivy prep experience you had a Phillips Exeter and attract a lot of Harvard alumni like yourself who are interested in spending a few years getting some urban issue field experience. But even if all the kids in Newark learn to Work Hard and Be Nice, I’m not sure that they’ll all make it to college. And even if they get there, statistically most won’t graduate. And even if they do graduate, they just may not be able to move directly into good stable jobs with benefits.

It must have surprised you that while they were grateful for the cash, the citizens of Newark seem to be questioning what you and other donors are looking for in return. I guess they’re a little concern that the residents of Newark, whose children go to Newark schools, no longer seem to have much say in decisionmaking about their schools. I guess they’re sort of unsophisticated and don’t understand that in business terms, you’ve sort of the majority stockholder now.

Of course I got all of this from NPR and maybe they were just slamming. You know people do that on the internet. So, I thought I’d check in with the group you’ve probably friended on Facebook to see what the cool entrepreneurial venture capital kids at Fast Company had to say. Here’s what I read at both sites:

NPR: The mayor and the new superintendent are hoping to solicit another matching $100 million from other philanthropists. he donors are venture capitalists, hedge fund managers and technology billionaires. Another board member works for Goldman Sachs, which donated to the foundation and also invests in for-profit education companies. FAST COMPANY: It was quite a year for Mark Zuckerberg and crew, whose site added a whopping 200 million users. Now, as they brush off the crumbs of MySpace and other competitors, it's time to look for their next meal. They're very, very hungry. NPR: People are also suspicious about who is making the decisions and whether they stand to profit. FAST COMPANY: Zuckerberg, sweetness translates as pure power, which is now Facebook's to lose. NPR: There's been no community meetings. There are parents, there are community people who really want to be involved—they want to be in on the ground floor. We want to see community schools. We want to see functioning traditional public schools. FAST COMPANY: At the heart of the process is the notion of "hacking," which Zuckerberg insists is not about breaking and entering: "It's about being unafraid to break things in order to make them better." Buchheit [whose company was acquired by Facebook], a strong internal voice for hacking, describes it as a mix of arrogance and curiosity.

After looking at both perspectives, here’s what bothers me: Facebook has it roots in privileged elite kids from prep schools wanting to make sure they make got in the “right” classes at Harvard. And then you figured out that your good idea could get better if you modified your program to create a “who’s hot and who’s not"—a sort of virtual and viral form of a slambook. Even though it got you put on probation at Harvard for doing it, it was such a good idea, that Facebook spread to other Ivies and then to the general college population and finally down to middle school kids. And what’s the problem with trickle down networking?

Cyberbullying is being cruel to others by sending or posting harmful material or engaging in other forms of social cruelty using the Internet or other digital technologies. It has various forms, including direct harassment and indirect activities that are intended to damage the reputation or interfere with the relationships of the student targeted, such as posting harmful material, impersonating the person, disseminating personal information or images, or activities that result exclusion.

And now guess who’s job it is to deal with this? According to UCLA’s Jaana Juvonen,

There is no reason why cyber-bullying should be 'beyond' the school's responsibility to address. Rather, it seems that schools need to enforce intolerance of any intimidation among students, regardless of whether it takes place on or beyond the school grounds.

But The New York Times has now explained to me Why Students Have a Right to Mock Their Teachers. It seems that

... the court said that schools were wrong to suspend students for posting parodies of their principals on MySpace—one in which a boy made fun of his principal's body size, and another in which a girl made lewd sexual comments about her principal. ... when speech is merely offensive, and taking place outside of school hours and property, principals and teachers should ignore it—and think of it as the price we pay for living in a free country.

Yeah ... but you know what it’s like when even well meaning people start meddling in your business. It’s a distraction. Trust me, after that Waiting for Superman thingy I know exactly how you feel. But you’re making those people in Newark a little anxious with your innovative style of coming to their schools “looking for something new to break and make better” because their kids are in those schools. It’s not that they don’t appreciate the offer, it’s just that they’d rather decide what’s best for their kids and their community for themselves. That may not may seem overcautious, but trust me, someday when you have kids of your own you’ll understand.

I have a suggestion. I understand that smart people get smart people to work for you and I hear that Facebook is the hot spot for the cool kids in the information industry, so, since money is tight, it makes sense to work smart on the Newark project. Bring in some experts.

I know that I’m no expert on virtual social networking just because I have a Facebook page. But you are and so I’ll bet you have some great ideas about how to solve the issues of cyber-bullying; especially since that sort of thing happens on social networking sites so often.

At the same time, while I realize that you spent two years in pubic high school before transferring to Phillips Exeter, that doesn’t really make you an expert on public education, so why not just hand over the money and let people with some knowledge and experience in the field figure out how to take care of public education, okay?


A Little Old Lady Schoolteacher

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.