By Michelle Goldchain
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has named Sandra Liu Huang as their new head of education, saying that she will help the ambitious limited liability corporation and investment vehicle increase its focus on “whole-child” and “evidence-based” support for schools.
Huang first joined CZI last year as head of product and technology. In that role, she oversaw the ed-tech team’s partnership with the Summit Learning Program, a digital-learning software application.
Before joining CZI, Huang was the head of product at Quora and led product teams at Facebook and Google. She earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Stanford University.
In a statement, Huang said her goal is to “work more closely with educators, researchers, and our grantee partners to build a deeper understanding of how kids learn and develop and to figure out new ways to share those practices and tools more widely across diverse communities.”
The founders of CZI, Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, first announced plans to use the organization to invest in a broad range of education, health, and communities-focused efforts in December 2015. The goal was to give 99 percent of their Facebook shares--worth an estimated $45 billion--to those causes.
Other than the sheer size of their effort, one of the things that made the Zuckerberg’s and Chan’s plans with CZI unusual was their decision to form it as an LLC, which offered a relatively flexible organizational structure that potentially allows for a combination of philanthropic donations, for-profit investment, and political activity.
Huang takes over as head of education at CZI for Jim Shelton, a former top U.S. Department of Education official during the Obama administration who announced in July that he would resign. April Chou, a former official with the KIPP Bay Area Schools and one-time consultant at McKinsey and Company, had served in the role on an interim basis after Shelton’s departure.
When Shelton first began working for CZI in June of 2017, he said the organization would be intently focused on supporting technology’s role in creating a customized educational experience for students.
“We’ve got to dispel this notion that personalized learning is just about technology,” Shelton said at the time. “In fact, it is about understanding students, giving them agency, and letting them do work that is engaging and exciting.”
To date CZI has invested in commercial companies such as Brightwheel, a San Francisco startup that helps early-childhood providers and parents stay in contact; BYJU’S, an India startup that created a popular online-learning app; and Panorama Education, a U.S. company that works with more than 500 school districts across the country to survey students and teachers about school climate and social-emotional learning. CZI retains an equity stake in the companies in which it invests.
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So far, CZI’s largest single gift made directly to a school district to support personalized learning occurred in May of 2018. CZI donated $14 million over two years to more than 100 Chicago-area schools, split between the Chicago public schools and the nonprofit group LEAP Innovations. CZI has also provided money to the California-based Summit Public Schools charter network and to Bay Area school districts, such as Ravenswood and Redwood City.
This past November, nearly 100 students at a New York City’s Secondary School for Journalism walked out of class to protest the school’s adoption of Summit Learning. The students reportedly complained that the program, which is supposed to deliver personalized learning, kept them looking at computer screens for too long, and that the tech program in the school was riddled with technology problems. (An official for Summit Learning said the school’s implementation was “hasty” and recommended that it be dropped for 11th and 12th graders.)
The Summit Learning Program’s learning software was created jointly by the Summit Public Schools charter network and a dedicated team of Facebook engineers. Summit Learning recently told Education Week that Facebook no longer lends engineers to the learning platform, but CZI is still a “long-term engineering partner” on that work.
Clarification: This post has been updated to clarify CZI’s relationship with the Summit Learning platform.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.