School & District Management

Chan-Zuckerberg to Push Ambitious New Vision for Personalized Learning

Former deputy secretary of education to head expanded initiative
By Benjamin Herold — June 29, 2017 12 min read
James H. Shelton, head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative's education division, at the organization's offices in Palo Alto, Calif.

Pediatrician Priscilla Chan and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg are gearing up to invest hundreds of millions of dollars a year in a new vision of “whole-child personalized learning,” with the aim of dramatically expanding the scope and scale of efforts to provide every student with a customized education.

The emerging strategy represents a high-stakes effort to bridge longstanding divides between competing visions for improving the nation’s schools. Through their recently established Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the billionaire couple intends to support the development of software that might help teachers better recognize and respond to each student’s academic needs—while also supporting a holistic approach to nurturing children’s social, emotional, and physical development.

The man charged with marrying those two philosophies is former Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education James H. Shelton, now the initiative’s president of education.

“We’ve got to dispel this notion that personalized learning is just about technology,” Shelton said in an exclusive interview with Education Week. “In fact, it is about understanding students, giving them agency, and letting them do work that is engaging and exciting.”

Vast Resources, Many Levers

To advance that vision, Shelton has at his disposal a massive fortune and a wide array of levers to pull.

Chan and Zuckerberg created CZI as a vehicle for directing 99 percent of their Facebook shares—worth an estimated $45 billion—to causes related to education and science, through a combination of charitable giving and investment.

The initiative is structured as a limited-liability corporation, rather than a traditional foundation. That means CZI will be able to make philanthropic donations, invest in for-profit companies, lobby for favored policies and legislation, and directly support candidates for elected office—all with minimal public-reporting requirements.

For now, Shelton said, CZI is “one of the best-resourced startups in the world, but still a startup,” with fewer than 20 people on its education team.

In the near future, though, he expects the initiative to give out “hundreds of millions of dollars per year” for education-related causes. Such a figure would place the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative among the highest-giving education-focused philanthropies in the country.

Within five years, Shelton said in the June 22 interview, CZI’s work should have helped launch a “meaningful number” of schools and learning environments “where kids are performing dramatically better, and feel more engaged, and teachers feel more engaged in the work that they’re doing.”

Chan, 32, and Zuckerberg, 33, also have embraced the idea of a long horizon for the initiative’s work, saying their support for personalized learning will extend over decades.

From the outset, however, the couple’s attempt to engineer big changes in the U.S. education system faces significant obstacles.

“Personalized learning” was an amorphous concept even before this new attempt to integrate it with equally hard-to-define “whole child” strategies. It remains unclear how Chan, Zuckerberg, and Shelton intend to balance the organization’s support for research and development with their desire to quickly bring to scale new products and approaches, many of which have limited or no evidence to support their effectiveness.

And CZI won’t commit to publicly disclosing all of its financial and political activity or to making the source code for its software open and accessible to the larger education community. That stance has stirred complaints about a lack of transparency.

Other large-scale philanthropic attempts at improving education have run aground on similar barriers.

It can be hard for smart people with a fortune at their fingertips to remain patient, said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

But the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative would be wise to avoid trying to go too far, too fast in its support for personalized learning, Hess said.

“This isn’t engineering a new ride-sharing app,” he said. “It’s how do we influence the learning of millions of children, day after day, for years to come.”

’Whole Child’ Personalization

Chan and Zuckerberg officially announced the creation of CZI in December 2015, shortly after the birth of their first child.

The couple’s commitment to personalized learning was a major boost for a trend with strong winds already at its back. Over the past several years, other philanthropists, venture capitalists, and advocates, along with the ed-tech industry, have pushed the notion hard. Many district and school leaders have responded favorably.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, prepare for a speech in San Francisco in 2016.

Now, Chan and Zuckerberg have a second child on the way. Facebook has its hands full with its network of nearly 2 billion social-media users, a new mission, and public concerns over its role in the spread of “fake news.” And Zuckerberg has been meeting with Iowa truckers and Ohio families on a 50-state tour, which many observers have speculated may be a precursor to a run for public office, although he has denied any such plans.

Still, the couple is finding time to play a hands-on role in shaping CZI’s educational strategy. Chan, a former classroom teacher, is at the initiative’s Palo Alto, Calif., offices as often as four days a week, Shelton said. Zuckerberg is there at least once every other week.

Each brings different priorities to the table, according to Shelton.

“Priscilla and I come into this work from similar perspectives,” he said. “She saw firsthand the impact that things outside the classroom had on students, and the range of needs that young people have.”

Zuckerberg, meanwhile, brings an engineering and design perspective to education problems, Shelton said. His focus: “how you get to everyone in the world.”

Both points of view are reflected in the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s early efforts on education.

To date, CZI has hired both its own engineers and its own learning scientist.

On the technology side, the initiative has invested in BYJU’S, an India-based startup behind a popular online-learning app, and Enlearn, a Seattle-based nonprofit that has developed a new adaptive-learning platform. The organization has also partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on a $12 million “venture philanthropy” grant award. (The Gates Foundation has also provided grant support for Education Week.)

At the same time, Shelton has overseen a number of grants to groups without a technology focus. Among them:

Vision to Learn, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that has provided free eye exams and prescription glasses to tens of thousands of students;

The Center on the Developing Child, a Harvard University research center focused on using science to improve social policy and care for low-income children and families; and

SAGA Innovations, a Newtown, Mass.-based nonprofit that provides struggling students with intensive face-to-face help from human tutors.

“Many people have a preconceived notion that ‘personalized learning’ is a kid in the corner alone with a computer,” Shelton said. “Forget about that.”

It’s a welcome message for a field that has long been split into opposing camps, said Robert Schwartz, a professor emeritus of education policy at Harvard and a former director of education grantmaking at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Saying we have to focus either on what happens inside schools, or on underlying issues around poverty and communities and families, is a false choice,” Schwartz said. “This is an important signal that CZI is sending.”

The initiative’s whole-child focus is also a smart tactical play, said David DeSchryver, a senior vice president at Whiteboard Advisors, an education policy research firm.

One big reason: the newest version of the main federal K-12 education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which is already pushing states and schools to think about more than standardized-test scores when determining what it means to help students thrive.

“It makes complete sense [for CZI] to push out [its] strategy in the context of what current administrators and leaders are already discussing,” DeSchryver said.

Personalized Learning Ready to Scale?

Still, some observers worry that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s broad approach will further muddy two concepts—“personalized learning” and “whole child”—that already mean different things to different people.

The lack of clarity has made the personalized-learning movement hard to evaluate. Research so far is mixed, yielding some promising early findings around specific instructional practices and schools, but limited evidence to back up the transformative potential that proponents describe. The research has also sent strong signals that implementing personalized models is a huge challenge for many schools.

Those dynamics create a dilemma for the CZI. The resulting tension has shown up in Zuckerberg’s public remarks.

In a March 2016 interview with Education Week, for example, the Facebook CEO said many versions of personalized learning needed to be tested in the real world before any conclusions could be drawn, suggesting a focus on R&D.

But nine months later, Zuckerberg talked during a speech in Peru about “bringing personalized learning to all children” and helping “upgrade a majority of schools to personalized learning,” suggesting a Silicon Valley-style focus on rapid growth.

In the interview with Education Week, Shelton sought to straddle that divide. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, he said, will first aim to bring small advances to large numbers of students. As an example, he cited a recent grant to the College Board, aimed at expanding access to the organization’s personalized online SAT preparation and college-planning resources, which have shown early promise.

“You can bring those incremental improvements to people and improve their lives on a daily basis, even as you figure out how to get better,” Shelton said. “One small breakthrough leads to another breakthrough leads to another breakthrough, [and] pretty quickly they start adding up.”

But some skeptics say that if Chan, Zuckerberg, and Shelton were truly interested in seeing a thousand flowers bloom, they would pledge to making the software tools that CZI is developing and supporting open-source. That way, the underlying code would be available to others to use and adapt in ways that their original creators may not have foreseen.

Shelton avoided such a commitment. Any such decision would be made “over time,” he said.

Bill Fitzgerald, an open-source proponent and the director of the privacy-evaluation initiative at Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit and advocacy group, is among those who find that stance less than satisfying.

“If you’re serious about allowing people to learn in the ways that make the most sense to them, you have to give them more choices than just using your software, under your rules,” Fitzgerald said.

And Stanford University emeritus education professor Larry Cuban described an even more fundamental challenge in bringing personalized learning to scale.

Innovations in public education are more about people than technology, Cuban said. As a result, even the best-funded improvement efforts are often stymied by institutional barriers to changing how teachers teach and children learn.

“What they have run up against in public schools are the structures of the age-graded school, the demand of standards, and the responsibility for doing well on standardized tests,” Cuban said.

“If the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative thinks it will be easy to scale up within those structures, they’re in for a massive disappointment.”

Transparency Concerns

That’s a reality that Shelton has been wrestling with for a long time.

Before joining CZI, the 49-year-old Washington, D.C., native worked as a program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As a top official in President Barack Obama’s Department of Education, he oversaw the Investing in Innovation program, which awarded $1.3 billion in federal grants to create a “pipeline” of research-based interventions.

Neither the foundation nor the department found clear success in bringing educational innovations to scale.

Now, though, Shelton said the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is “trying to do something that’s never been done before, in a way that has never been done.”

One big difference is the many levers the organization will be able to pull.

One example: Traditional nonprofit philanthropies, such as the Gates Foundation, are generally prohibited from lobbying for specific legislation or participating directly in political campaigns. As a limited-liability corporation, CZI is not bound by such rules.

For now, at least, Shelton said CZI is “just figuring out how to use” the policy-advocacy tools at its disposal. The organization does not currently have a specific education policy agenda it is seeking to advance, he said.

But CZI won’t rule out the possibility that it might engage in a host of political activities in the future, including giving to candidates and establishing its own 501(c)4 organization or political action committee.

Nor would the initiative commit to publicly disclosing such activity if it occurs.

Despite professing a “commitment philosophically to transparency,” Shelton declined to commit to letting the public know of all the initiative’s philanthropic grants and for-profit investments.

And CZI has clearly signaled its intent to try to shape policy debates in education and to exert different kinds of influence in complementary ways. An online job description for the position of “director of innovative schools and tools,” for example, called for someone who can “ensure our nonprofits and for-profit investments are coordinated for maximum impact.”

Those emphases create the real potential for hidden conflicts, said Sarah Reckhow, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University who tracks philanthropic giving in education.

It’s not hard to imagine a CZI grant award predicated on schools using CZI’s favored software, Reckhow said, or a lobbying campaign to push for a charter school authorizer to approve new schools that use CZI’s favored personalized-learning approach.

So what is the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative doing to mitigate the potential for problematic overlap in its spheres of influence?

“We’re paying really close attention,” said Shelton. He added that forcing grantees to adopt specific tools is “not how we want to operate.”

Whether that’s enough to assuage critics who have already begun to mobilize against the personalized-learning movement—and who have voiced concern at the prospect of another billionaire seeking to push the educational system in his preferred direction—remains to be seen.

Ultimately, Shelton said, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative feels as though it’s responsible primarily to the people the organization is hoping to serve.

“What we hope to do is understand how we can create the environments, tools, and resources that let all teachers do their best work and all students benefit from their teacher’s best teaching,” he said.

“I know many people will be watching.”

An alternative version of this article appeared in the July 19, 2017 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the July 19, 2017 edition of Education Week as Personalized Learning Gets a Fresh Push

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