Classroom Technology

Zuckerberg, Chan Tap James Shelton to Lead Huge Education Giving Effort

By Benjamin Herold — May 04, 2016 4 min read
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Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education James Shelton will head the education efforts of the multi-billion dollar philanthropic organization created by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan.

“I am honored to join the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and work with Priscilla and Mark,” Shelton said in a statement accompanying the announcement. “Their vision for the future is bold and I am enthusiastic about the opportunity to expand opportunities for every child.”

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was formed last fall, when the couple announced their intent to give 99 percent of their Facebook stock, valued at an estimated $45 billion, to a variety of causes, headlined by technology-enabled personalized learning in K-12 education. Created as a limited liability corporation, the organization is free to make philanthropic donations, invest in for-profit companies, and engage in political lobbying and policy advocacy.

Shelton will now bring a wealth of experience to those efforts. After spending six years in the federal education department, he departed last summer to become the president and chief impact officer of 2U, Inc. an education technology company that develops online courses for colleges and universities. Shelton previously worked as a program director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and as a partner at the NewSchools Venture Fund, both of which have donated and invested heavily in education technology, charter schools and other new school models, among other K-12 causes.

Read Education Week’s 2012 interview with James Shelton, then the assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement at the U.S. Department of Education.

In a Facebook post announcing the hire, Zuckerberg touted Shelton’s background working on the issues he and Chan hope to support.

“I’ve seen the difference software can make in how we teach and learn. Priscilla’s work as a pediatrician and a teacher has taught her how important life outside the classroom is to a child’s ability to learn inside it. And now Jim will bring all of his own experience in improving personalized learning and helping underserved communities,” Zuckerberg wrote.

In March, Education Week took an in-depth look at the 31-year old billionaire’s shift to focus his education-related giving on personalized learning, following a $100 million investment in the Newark, N.J. public schools that is widely regarded as a failure.

In an exclusive interview, Zuckerberg expressed excitement about the potential of technology to better customize the educational experience for each child, but acknowledged the limited research base in support of personalized learning.

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

Education Week also detailed the tangled web of organizations that Zuckerberg and Chan have created over the years to support their education-related efforts.

The couple’s recent investments, for example, have been managed through a for-profit entity known as Zuckerberg Education Ventures. They include $15 million for microschool network-slash-software company AltSchool, as well as an undisclosed amount for Newsela, an app that provides current-events reading materials for students at their own reading level.

The couple’s recent philanthropic commitments, meanwhile, are mostly directed through a nonprofit organization known as Startup:Education. They include $120 million for Bay Area schools and millions to support charter-school growth.

And Facebook, the giant social-networking and communications corporation that Zuckerberg founded in his Harvard dorm room in 2004, is also developing new personalized-learning software in partnership with California-based charter school network Summit Public Schools.

Former educator and management consultant Jennifer Holleran will continue to direct the couple’s non-profit grantmaking, while the venture-capital side of Zuckerberg and Chan’s effort will continue to be led by tech investor and business analyst Vivian Wu. Former management consultant Caitlyn Fox will continue as the chief of staff at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Shelton’s move to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative mirrors a recent transition for his old boss: Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was hired last month as a managing partner at the Emerson Collective, another Silicon Valley philanthrophy-slash-investment entity that focused on K-12 education. Emerson is headed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Zuckerberg, Chan, and Shelton will be discussing the announcement and their plans and taking questions in a Facebook Live event beginning at 2 p.m. Eastern time today.

Photo: Melissa Golden for Education Week-File

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