Education Funding

Gates, Zuckerberg Teaming Up on Personalized Learning

By Benjamin Herold — June 20, 2017 5 min read

Two of the biggest names in technology and education philanthropy are jointly funding a $12 million initiative to support new ways of tailoring classroom instruction to individual students.

The grant marks the first substantive collaboration of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, chaired by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropic and investment arm of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan.

Their joint award was given to New Profit, a Boston-based “venture philanthropy” organization. New Profit will in turn provide $1 million, plus extensive management advising, to each of seven other organizations working to promote personalized learning.

Bill Gates has a history of supporting efforts to personalize learning in K-12.

“We are pleased to work with CZI to strengthen the impact and sustainability of each of these organizations,” Adam Porsch, a senior portfolio officer at the Gates Foundation, said in an interview.

“It’s 100 percent collaborative,” Porsch said of his foundation’s burgeoning relationship with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. “We’re looking for ways to work together and to coordinate when it’s appropriate.”

In a statement, an initiative spokeswoman expressed similar sentiments.

“The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is excited to partner with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support New Profit’s work,” the statement says. “We share an interest in seeing significant improvement in education and are committed to learning from each other."Since 2009, the Gates Foundation has given more than $300 million to support research and development on personalized learning, including past grants to New Profit totaling about $23 million. (Education Week has received support from the foundation in the past for the newspaper’s coverage of personalized learning.)

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, meanwhile, was launched in 2015. Zuckerberg and Chan said then they intended to 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 group’s early grants have gone to the state of Rhode Island, a network of state and district leaders called Chiefs for Change, and the College Board, among others. The initiative is also hiring its own engineers to help develop personalized-learning software tools.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is not a traditional nonprofit foundation. Instead, it’s an LLC. That organizational structure allows for direct investment in for-profit companies and political lobbying and donations, as well as philanthropic giving. It also limits the extent to which the group is legally required to publicly report on its activities.

The new collaboration between the Gates Foundation and the initiative reflects deep ties between the staffs of the two organizations, Porsch said.

The head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s education division, a former U.S. deputy education secretary, James H. Shelton, was previously a program director at the Gates Foundation for more than seven years. Shelton’s deputy at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Jon Deane, previously worked as a program officer at Gates.

While both entities are going all in on personalized learning, research supporting the concept remains thin.

Mark Zuckerberg is a relative newcomer to philanthropic support of personalized learning.

In the most comprehensive study to date, the Rand Corp., with funding from the Gates Foundation, found that 11,000 students at 62 schools using personalized-learning approaches made greater gains in math and reading thanpeers at more traditional schools. The longer students used “personalized-learning practices,” the greater their achievement gains. But the schools studied were mostly charter schools that won competitive grants and used a wide range of instructional practices, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions.

One of the goals of the new grant is to change that reality, said Trevor Brown, a partner at New Profit who will lead the organization’s new personalized-learning initiative.

“We’re partnering to ensure that we are building that evidence base,” Brown said. “Personalized learning is a nascent field, and we’re thrilled to be on this journey with this new cohort [of grantees], as well as our funders.”

The new round of New Profit grantees are:

• The Highlander Institute, which provides research, development, and implementation support to schools and policymakers pursuing personalized learning.

• imBlaze, an internship-management platform created by Big Picture Learning, which runs a national network of schools focused on hands-on, student-centered learning.

• The International Association for K-12 Online Learning, which conducts research and policy advocacy around personalized learning.

• PowerMyLearning, a nonprofit that partners with low-income schools to provide professional development and other services.

• The Learning Accelerator, a research and advocacy organization focused on blended learning.

• Transcend, a nonprofit that supports school redesign efforts through research and development.

• Valor Collegiate Academies, a network of free college-prep schools in Nashville, Tenn.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Gates also gave New Profit a separate $750,000 grantto support the creation of the “proximity accelerator,” an effort to help build a pipeline of “social entrepreneurs” from underrepresented communities working on a variety of issues.

‘Unintended Consequences’

In addition to unrestricted capital—a huge boon for any nonprofit—those organizations will receive hands-on organizational support around everything from strategy development to staff recruitment. The focus will be on scaling up.

Such support may be even more valuable than money, said Dana Borrelli-Murray, the executive director of the Providence, R.I.-based Highlander Institute.

“We’re still sort of figuring out who we [the Highlander Institute] want to be when we grow up,” Borrelli-Murray said. “Are we doubling down on our region? Or focusing on a specific area of expertise? Should we get more involved in policy? What does going to scale even mean when everything we create is open source?”

She applauded the idea of two major funders joining forces to support such work.

“We all have to think more about networked giving, so we’re all in this together, rather than being asked to compete against each other for the same pot of funds,” she said.

Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic, though.

The notion of large philanthropies teaming up to support a common education reform strategy is nothing new, said Sarah Reckhow, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University who tracks philanthropic giving in education.

The Gates Foundation, for example, previously has coordinated with other foundations to support issues like small high schools, charter school replication, and the Common Core State Standards.

“For me, the concern is that it’s a powerful way of setting an agenda, and it can sideline other ways of doing things,” Reckhow said.

That can cause problems, especially when the foundations move from one “big bet” to the next, she added. “This is a pattern we’ve seen before, and there can be unintended consequences.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2017 edition of Education Week as Gates, Zuckerberg Teaming Up on Personalized Learning

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