Personalized Learning

Jim Shelton to Step Down as Head of Chan Zuckerberg’s Education Initiative

By Benjamin Herold — July 11, 2018 6 min read
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Jim Shelton is stepping down as the president of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s education division, a surprising shakeup at the top of a venture-philanthropy organization that has vowed to pour hundreds of millions of dollars per year into K-12 education.

In a blog post published Wednesday, Shelton touted the organization’s “track record of genuine accomplishment” in the three-plus years since Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, announced they would dedicate tens of billions of dollars in Facebook stock to causes in education, science, and justice.

“When Mark and Priscilla invited me to help build an organization dedicated to those ideals—with nearly unparalleled resources to do it—from the ground up, it was as if destiny called,” Shelton wrote. “But the price of moving away from [Washington] D.C. was high, for me and my family, and it has only gotten higher.”

Shelton was hired by CZI in May 2016. His last day on the job will be August 31, although he will continue as an informal advisor to Chan and Zuckerberg.

Shelton will be replaced on an interim basis by April Chou, CZI’s current vice president of education. Chou previously worked as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company and as the chief growth and operating officer for KIPP charter schools in the San Francisco Bay area.

Chan Zuckerberg is expected to launch a national search for a permanent head of its education work at a later date. In the meantime, CZI is expected to continue making grants and investments without pause. The group is expected to continue its focus on personalizing learning to better support students academic, physical, emotional, social, and mental development, a vision first outlined by Shelton in a June 2017 interview with Education Week.

While at CZI, Shelton “has moved the conversation to an emphasis on the whole child, which is especially refreshing coming from a group with a core competency in technology,” said Julia Freeland Fischer, the director of education at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

“It’s been helpful in clarifying the ‘why’ for everyone working to redefine school as we know it.”

CZI’s Grants and Investments

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is structured as a limited liability corporation, rather than a traditional philanthropic foundation. That gives the organization the flexibility to make 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.

Under Shelton’s leadership, CZI has invested in companies such as Brightwheel, a San Francisco-based startup that helps early-childhood providers and parents stay in contact; BYJU’S, an India-based startup behind 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, and sometimes sits on their boards.

Shelton has also overseen a wide range of grants, to groups including:

  • Chicago Public Schools and LEAP Innovations, to support personalized learning in 100 Chicago-area schools.
  • 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.
  • The College Board, to expand college-access opportunities and free online SAT-preparation tools to low-income and rural students.
  • Ravenswood Elementary School District, one of several California districts to which Chan and Zuckerberg made a long-term, $120 million commitment before formally establishing CZI.
  • Rhode Island, to support a statewide personalized-learning effort.
  • Summit Public Schools, the California-based charter network behind the Summit Learning Platform, personalized-learning software that is expected to be used in 350 schools in 40 states by next school year.
  • Vision to Learn, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides free eye exams and prescription glasses to students.
  • The Woodrow Wilson Academy for Teaching and Learning, which aims to make teacher preparation more personalized and “competency-based.”

In addition, Chan Zuckerberg has hired a large team of its own engineers.

And twice in recent years CZI has joined forces with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where Shelton worked as a program director from 2003-2010. Last June, the two groups announced a joint $12 million gift to a group called New Profit, which in turn is giving grants and management advising to seven groups supporting personalized learning. And in May, CZI and Gates released a joint request for “state-of-the-art” educational strategies for improving students’ writing, mathematical understanding, and executive functions, such as the ability to pay attention.

On Twitter, Gates Foundation director of K-12 education Bob Hughes wrote that “we remain excited about the work that continues together.”

Regardless of whether one supports such initiatives and philosophies, it’s important for policymakers and parents alike to remember that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is a private, for-profit company that is ultimately accountable only to its funders, said Megan Tompkins-Stange, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan and expert on educational philanthropy.

“Under Jim Shelton’s leadership, CZI’s promotion of K-12 personalized learning has impacted schools and districts across the U.S., in some cases making major changes to how learning is delivered,” Tompkins-Stange said.

“The next person to take the helm at CZI will inherit a bully pulpit to influence policy and practice at the highest levels—for better or worse.”

What’s next for Shelton, CZI, and schools?

In addition to his work at CZI and the Gates Foundation, Shelton previously worked as a deputy secretary and deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education; as a partner at the New Schools Venture Fund; and as the president and chief impact officer for ed-tech company 2U.

In the post announcing his departure, Shelton said he has not “figured out exactly what I’ll do next.”

Despite rumors that he might be interested in becoming schools chancellor in his native Washington, D.C., which currently has an interim chief, that possibility “was not a factor in my decision,” Shelton said in a statement to Education Week. “I’ve never even spoken to anyone involved in the search.”

Observers said it remains to be seen how significant the ripple effects from CZI’s leadership shakeup at CZI will be.

Whether it’s in government, with another foundation, or in a new role altogether, Shelton will likely have the opportunity to continue advancing the ideas and vision he has consistently championed for years, said Doug Levin of consulting group EdTech Strategies.

“In many respects, the work that Jim Shelton has been engaged in over at least the past decade, in his roles in philanthropy and government, has been ‘field-building,’” Levin said. “There is no reason to believe he could not continue his work in a new organization if it is well-resourced.”

In the short term, at least, there’s not likely to be any dramatic impact on schools, Levin said.

The biggest question mark, then, is what happens next for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the massive fortune its founders still intend to distribute.

“As an organization, CZI is immature, and there is little we can point to in their past actions to help us predict the future,” Levin said.

Photo: James H. Shelton, head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s Education division, at the organization’s offices in Palo Alto, Calif., in 2017.--Ramin Rahimian for Education Week-File

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.