Every Student Succeeds Act

Facebook’s Zuckerberg to Bet Big on Personalized Learning

By Benjamin Herold — March 07, 2016 10 min read
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at an event earlier this year in Barcelona, Spain. Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, are using their massive fortune to reshape public education with technology.
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Developing new software for K-12 schools. Investing in hot ed-tech startups. Donating tens of millions of dollars to schools experimenting with fresh approaches to customizing the classroom experience.

All are part of a new, multi-pronged effort by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, to use their massive fortune to reshape public education with technology.

“We think that personalized learning makes sense,” Zuckerberg told Education Week in an exclusive telephone interview last week. “We want to see as many good versions of this idea as possible get tested in the world.”

In December, the couple announced they will eventually give 99 percent of their Facebook shares—worth an estimated $45 billion—to a variety of causes, headlined by the development of software “that understands how you learn best and where you need to focus.”

The move set off seismic rumbles in both education and philanthropy.

First, it signals a major shift away from the long-dominant philosophy behind the national movement to improve education, which focuses on expanding charter schools, using standardized-test scores to hold educators accountable, and weakening the influence of teachers’ unions. In 2010, Zuckerberg closely aligned himself with such strategies, giving $100 million to a top-down effort to remake the struggling school district in Newark, N.J. Six years later, that work is widely regarded as a failure, and Zuckerberg is charting a new path.

The result is the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative LLC, a limited-liability corporation that also embodies a major shift underway in the philanthropic world. Like a handful of other Silicon Valley tech billionaires, Zuckerberg and Chan decided against establishing a traditional foundation, choosing instead a more flexible organizational structure that allows for a mix of philanthropic donations, for-profit investment, and political activity.

For rich donors, the upside is more levers to pull when trying to change the world. For everyone else, the downside is that these new structures further blur the lines between business and philanthropy and partly circumvent the regulations that have governed charitable giving for decades.

Zuckerberg said he and Chan are committed to openness and will eventually streamline what is now a messy network of overlapping organizations.

Observers from the fields of education, technology, venture capital, and philanthropy are paying close attention.

“It’s hard to tell exactly what these new donors emerging from the tech sector are doing, because so much is in flux and they’re not very transparent,” said David Callahan, the founder and editor of the digital news outlet Inside Philanthropy. “But any time super-empowered people with lots of money try to influence how the rest of us educate our children, we have a right to know what they’re up to.”

What Is Personalized Learning?

In the world of K-12 educational technology, personalized learning generally means using software and other digital technologies to tailor instruction to each student’s strengths and weaknesses, interests and preferences, and optimal pace of learning.

The ed-tech sector has been focused on the notion for roughly half a decade. While companies have generated hundreds of products and a smattering of new school models are showing promise, there is little large-scale evidence that the approach can improve teaching and learning or narrow gaps in academic achievement.

Many in Silicon Valley, including Zuckerberg, don’t seem to mind.

“We don’t know for certain that it’s going to work,” he said. “All we can really hope to do is provide an initial boost and try to show that this could work as a model, and hopefully it gets its own tailwind that carries it towards mainstream adoption.”

Twelve years and 1.6 billion users after he first launched Facebook in his Harvard dorm room, Zuckerberg now controls a tangled web of overlapping entities through which he can provide that “boost.”

Start with the company itself. In 2014, Facebook assigned a team of its employees to work with a California charter school network known as Summit public schools. Together, the engineers and educators are developing a digital platform called the PLP, short for Personalized Learning Plan. Some observers describe the effort as akin to a law firm doing pro bono legal work, and Zuckerberg stressed that Facebook doesn’t have any business plans attached to the project.

But Facebook and Summit have also made clear they hope to eventually make the PLP available to every K-12 school in the country, and their contract leaves the door open for Facebook to commercialize the tool in the future.

Zuckerberg and Chan are also at the helm of two intertwined charitable-giving entities: a “donor-advised fund” at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, created with donations of Facebook stock valued at around $1.5 billion, and Startup:Education, a nonprofit that now receives most of its money from that fund. Startup:Education now guides all the couple’s education-related grantmaking.

On the venture-capital side, meanwhile, is Zuckerberg Education Ventures, an LLC that has invested more than $25 million in for-profit ed-tech companies.

And at the top of the pyramid is the newly created Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which could eventually serve as a central (and very, very large) pool of capital for the other entities, whose efforts it will help coordinate.

Zuckerberg acknowledged in the March 1 interview that the structure is confusing, and said he and Chan will likely “rationalize” and “rebrand” some or all of the various entities over time.

In the meantime, outside experts describe the couple’s giving network as murky.

“This web of entities, each with a different legal form and different transparency requirements, makes it very hard to follow what each organization is doing and to understand their collective impact,” said Sarah Reckhow, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University who tracks philanthropic giving in education.

Tangled Web of Interests

Silicon Valley is home to other tech billionaires who have taken a similar approach.

Among the most prominent: eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who describes his Omidyar Network as a “philanthropic investment firm,” and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, whose Emerson Collective focuses heavily on education issues.

Zuckerberg and Chan have cited those organizations as models and have co-invested with each.

One reason that connection is of interest, said Michigan State’s Reckhow: Emerson Collective has given substantial sums to influence elections by funding political action committees, ballot initiatives, and local school board candidates in California, Colorado, and a handful of other states.

Should Zuckerberg and Chan follow a similar pattern, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which:

  • A local school district receives philanthropic support via Startup:Education.
  • That district is also governed by board members who have been lobbied by, or received campaign contributions from, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
  • The district and board must decide whether to adopt software developed by Facebook or an ed-tech company in which Zuckerberg Education Ventures is invested.

“They are definitely setting up a model where [Zuckerberg] can push on multiple sides of an issue,” Reckhow said.

A representative from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative said that the couple “hear concerns and are committed to being open about the work.”

Zuckerberg himself described as “far-fetched” the idea that his philanthropic work in education is intended to benefit Facebook, pointing to the variety of companies he is supporting and his commitment to put any earnings from for-profit investments back into the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s mission.

Some experts are similarly untroubled.

“Corporate foundations have always been supportive of their parent corporation’s business interests, and this country has always permitted people to express themselves anonymously about public policy issues,” said Harvey P. Dale, the director of the National Center on Philanthropy and the Law at New York University. “It’s a conflict of interest, but conflicts of interest are ubiquitous.”

New Crop of K-12 Donors

In the world of education reform, meanwhile, Zuckerberg and Chan are also part of a changing of the guard.

For more than a decade, more-established philanthropic organizations such as the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation have aggressively pushed different elements of a collective agenda of change that featured charter school growth, business-style management, and test-based accountability, sometimes in close concert with federal policymakers.(The three foundations help support some coverage in Education Week.)

Now, though, the Facebook founder is at the fore of a new crop of young donors who made their fortunes in technology and are looking to draw on that background as they seek to improve public schools.

The emerging shift mirrors Zuckerberg’s own trajectory, said Callahan of Inside Philanthropy.

“In 2010, he allied himself with the usual suspects, and he got burned in a big way,” Callahan said, referring to a whole-district transformation effort Zuckerberg bankrolled in Newark.

“I think he feels now that kind of top-down approach has run into a buzz-saw of community opposition without really producing big, systemic changes, and he’s evolving into a different kind of funder,” Callahan said.

The larger shift underway isn’t neat or simple: The Gates Foundation, for example, also supports education technology, and Zuckerberg is adamant that the charter schools he helped fund in Newark are paying dividends, saying that’s one part of his prior strategy on which he is now “doubling down.”

But it is clear that Zuckerberg and Chan are now focused on two new types of efforts, both of which diverge sharply from their work in Newark: supporting “innovators” who are pioneering tech-heavy school models with a focus on personalization, and responding to the needs of local district-managed schools in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In part, the couple’s evolution reflects a larger uncertainty in the K-12 sector. Key allies and levers of change for the education improvement push of recent years are no longer in place: President Barack Obama will soon be out of office, longtime education secretary Arne Duncan is no longer at the U.S. Department of Education, and Congress last year overhauled the nation’s flagship K-12 law, loosening federal control over the state accountability systems that provided leverage for Newark-style measures for over a decade.

Also a factor is the influence of Chan, a practicing pediatrician who once worked as a classroom teacher.

Her signature education initiative to date, for example, is the establishment of a free private school that will operate in conjunction with a local community health center in East Palo Alto, Calif.—a move that observers say reflects Chan’s focus on meeting the needs of individual students and families.

Zuckerberg acknowledged that orientation as an important counterbalance to his own inclinations.

“I’m used to building products at Facebook that hundreds of millions of people use,” he said. “For this [philanthropic work in education], you do need to know the specific communities, and you need to know the teachers and the students.”

‘Judged on the Results’

Not everyone, though, is buying Zuckerberg’s hubris-to-humility narrative.

Silicon Valley is rife with investors and donors who believe that a broken public education system just needs them and their technologies, said Trace Urdan, a senior analyst with Credit Suisse and a longtime observer of the K-12 ed-tech market.

Because they have successfully “disrupted” other industries and sectors, Urdan said, such donors and investors tend to believe they can do the same in K-12, despite often having a limited understanding of how school systems actually work.

“I think about Zuckerberg in that same vein,” Urdan said. “I’m not persuaded he’s gotten all the way down in the weeds of the issues yet, and I haven’t seen anything that suggests he’s got a coherent plan or approach.”

Undoubtedly, $45 billion will afford Zuckerberg and Chan plenty of opportunity to figure it out as they go. The couple has also been clear that they see their new philanthropic direction as a long-term effort, expected to play out over decades, with plenty of listening and learning along the way.

But the skepticism of K-12 veterans such as Urdan, the reality that the jury is still very much out on personalized learning, and the concerns raised over the ways in which the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative maximizes the couple’s influence while minimizing the checks and balances to which they are subject all add up to a big question:

Why should educators and parents trust Mark Zuckerberg to get it right this time?

There are no guarantees, the new face of philanthropy in education said.

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

Library Intern Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2016 edition of Education Week as Facebook CEO Bets on Personalized Learning


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