We shouldn’t be entirely surprised by the sales pitch from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) about the glories of so-called “personalized” learning. When tech giants push education theory, one always needs to watch for ideas that embody the use of technology. But in the case of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, there is another reason to be careful. Jim Shelton leads the education work of CZI, a limited-liability corporation that will also be granting gobs of money to develop and promote its education agenda.
In a piece at CHALKBEAT last week, Matt Barnum reports: “Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made a bold statement in a recent essay: By giving students individual help, average students can be turned into exceptional ones. ‘If a student is at the 50th percentile in their class and they receive effective one-on-one tutoring, they jump on average to the 98th percentile,’ Zuckerberg wrote. It’s a remarkable claim, one that strains the limits of belief. And for good reason: The results from the 1984 study underlying it have essentially never been seen in modern research on public schools. Still, the results have become a popular talking point among those promoting the ‘personalized learning’ approach that Zuckerberg’s philanthropy is advancing. One video created by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative features an illustration of a 50 on a graph zooming upward to hit 98. The New Schools Venture Fund, another influential education group that backs personalized learning, cites the same work by Benjamin Bloom.”
Barnum’s short report is very much worth reading, for he describes years of academic research discounting Bloom’s claims, beginning with Johns Hopkins researcher Robert Slavin who, in 1987, described Bloom’s claims as, “misleading, out of context, and potentially damaging to educational research.” Barnum also reminds readers that whatever Bloom’s claims for the value of personalized tutoring in 1984, Bloom was referring to tutoring by human beings, and not tutoring by a computer—even one driven (as people are now beginning to predict) by artificial intelligence.
What Barnum leaves out, however, is another reason for skepticism about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s glowing claims about tutoring by computer—now dubbed by its promoters as “personalized” learning. Jim Shelton is in charge of education work at CZI, and for quite a long time he has been promoting innovation and computer-driven education. While Shelton has one masters degree in education, he also has degrees in computer science and business administration and years of experience in the worlds of ed tech and philanthropy, but no experience at all in the classroom.
Jim Shelton worked for Arne Duncan in the Obama administration’s Department of Education. Shelton rose during his tenure to become the Deputy Secretary, second in command to Arne Duncan. For most of Duncan’s tenure as Education Secretary, however, Jim Shelton headed the Office of Innovation and Improvement and led the ill-fated Race to the Top program. According to a Department of Education biography, Shelton majored in computer science at Morehouse College and subsequently earned two master’s degrees from Stanford University in business administration and education. He developed computer systems, then joined McKinsey & Company in 1993 before moving to the education conglomerate founded by Mike and Lowell Milken, Knowledge Universe, Inc. In 1999, he founded LearnNow, later acquired by Edison Schools and then worked for Joel Klein to develop and launch Klein’s school strategy in New York City that closed public schools and opened charter schools and based it all on test score data. Shelton became a partner for the New Schools Venture Fund and then in 2003 joined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the program officer for its education division. In 2014, Shelton left the Department of Education. He later became the president and chief impact officer of 2U, Inc. an ed tech company that creates online courses for colleges and universities.
In his recent piece at CHALKBEAT, Matt Barnum reminds readers why it should matter so much to us that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is investing in computer-driven—so-called “personalized”—learning. There is a whole lot of money behind the endeavor: “Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have pledged to donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares—worth an estimated $45 billion in late 2015—to CZI over their lifetime. The organization—which also focuses on criminal justice, immigration, and economic policy—is expected to give ‘hundreds of millions of dollars’ per year to education causes.” Not only does CZI wield power with lots of money, but its corporate structure gives it added political power. CZI is a limited-liability corporation, which, unlike a foundation, can lobby for specific legislation and participate directly in political campaigns.
In a piece he published in Medium in December, Jim Shelton himself promotes what he says is CZI’s philosophy of “personalized” learning. Shelton seems not to worry about justifying CZI’s work with Benjamin Bloom’s 1984, now-discredited report on the role of personalized tutoring to lift a student’s achievement from the 50th to the 98th percentile. He embraces Bloom’s work as the basis for what he says are the essential questions: “The study proved that the large majority of students had the capacity to learn much more if the experience was well designed and tailored to their needs. That knowledge provokes questions that remain pressing today: What might all our children be capable of if they had the opportunity to reach their true potential? What if our challenges educating children have been the result of our inability or unwillingness to provide the conditions for their success?… And, knowing that today it is the most privileged young people who receive the most tailored education, what is fair and just to those who need it most? These are the questions that drive the education work of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.”
Not only is Shelton using ancient and now-discredited research to justify CZI’s work, but he stipulates that ed tech will be involved in personalizing and individualizing education “at scale” and yet, at the same time involve the human teachers we now count on for this work: “Our notion of personalized learning… is focused on enabling powerful relationships and shared experiences between people—between teachers and students as well as students with their peers, each empowered by learning opportunities with fewer boundaries and much more intensive support. Technology can support great teaching and has potential to help individualize learning experiences in ways and at a scale that Bloom could not have imagined in the 1980s. But it is still just a tool. The heart and soul of education remains about great practitioners working lovingly and skillfully to create the environments and experiences that truly change lives.”
Maybe we can be reassured by this. Perhaps not. It is filled with platitudes and all the right code language to reassure those who worry about what Shelton continues to claim CZI’s theory of “personalized” learning is not about: a school where “a computer screen intermediates or substitutes for a child’s relationship with a teacher, and where an academic measure is the only one that matters.” Most schools today already do incorporate use of the internet; many teach coding. It is hard to imagine what Zuckerberg’s millions are to be invested in, though if we are talking about expanding digital access and added online research and exploration, that would be wonderful. George Orwell criticizes Shelton’s kind of language, however, for being so abstract that it may in fact mean any number of things. Shelton’s rhetoric causes us to pose one important question: What exactly does CZI plan to do?
In an interview for Education Week last June, Shelton tried, for a broad educators’ audience, to dispel any concerns that “personalized” learning is about replacing teachers with computers. Once again Shelton applies all the right education buzzwords to CZI’s endeavor: “We’ve got to dispel this notion that personalized learning is just about technology… In fact, it is about understanding students, giving them agency, and letting them do work that is engaging and exciting.” Good teachers, of course, understand that their students’ need to own their accomplishments, but there is no evidence that individualized computer-driven projects are the exclusive way to make that happen. Shelton’s implication here is that real live teachers today do not “let”—permit or allow—students to do exciting work. The excellent public school teachers I know would tell you that engaging students in exciting learning is their purpose. Shelton denies that the project will be entirely technology driven and says the project will assist teachers in the classroom: “Many people have a preconceived notion that ‘personalized learning’ is a kid in the corner alone with a computer… Forget about that.” The claim is that CZI is promoting technology along with a focus on the whole child.
Benjamin Herold, the Education Week writer who interviewed Shelton last year, also spoke with Larry Cuban, an emeritus professor at at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, who is skeptical that CZI will be able to achieve its ambitious school transformation agenda. Herold describes Cuban’s concerns: “Innovations in public education are more about people than technology, Cuban said. As a result, even the best-funded improvement efforts are often stymied by institutional barriers to changing how teachers teach and children learn. ‘What they have run up against in public schools are the structures of the age-graded school, the demand of standards, and the responsibility for doing well on standardized tests… If the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative thinks it will be easy to scale up within those structures, they’re in for a massive disappointment.'”
CZI must be carefully watched—both the ways in which CZI pushes technology into America’s classrooms and the influence CZI seeks to exert on education policy. It will also be important to look for the reality beneath the slick promotion. In Herold’s interview, Jim Shelton, the careful rhetorician, frames “personalized” learning as though the goal is not to replace teachers with cheaper computerized alternatives: “‘We’re paying really close attention,’ said Shelton. He added that forcing grantees to adopt specific tools is ‘not how we want to operate’ ‘What we hope to do is understand how we can create the environments, tools and resources that let all teachers do their best work and all students benefit from their teacher’s best teaching.'”
That last sentence tells us neither what CZI plans as the thrust of its political work nor what will be the focus of its philanthropic giving which, due to the amount of money being invested, will likely shape think tank research, maybe program and curriculum development, and promotion of CZI’s theory of education.