Chan Zuckerberg Priorities, Including “Personalized” Learning, Are Veiled in a Haze of Rhetoric

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.

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Did Mark Zuckerberg Just Get Taken In Again on Education Reform?

You may remember that Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg’s initial foray into education was in Newark, NJ, where he allowed then-mayor Cory Booker and governor Chris Christie to convince him to donate $100 million to fund their scheme to charterize Newark’s public schools.  Now Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, have launched the huge Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and they have hired Jim Shelton to run it.  Shelton headed up the Office of Innovation and Improvement at Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education, where he rose through the ranks to become Assistant Deputy Secretary, Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer.

Shelton was really good with the rhetoric. In 2012 he told Michele McNeil of Education Week: “(T)hough the federal government provides only a small fraction of education funding, we are one of the largest single sources. We send incredible signals to the marketplace about what should happen with innovation.  That’s not been something either policymakers or regulators have thought a lot about… (I)nnovation happens in the context of an ecosystem.  R&D leads to entrepreneurship and investment, which leads to adoption and use… (W)hen we create things like the Investing in Innovation competitive grant program (i3), we are defining an evidence threshold that was not a part of most federal education programs before… As i3 continues and as we get more comfortable putting tiered evidence levels in other areas of the department, we will work on that.”

Shelton has now taken a job heading up the new Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, described by Benjamin Herold for Education Week: “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.” Mark Zuckerberg built his fortune from Facebook.

In many ways, Shelton’s resume and training are a perfect match for his new job running the Chan Zuckerberg philanthropic limited liability corporation. Shelton came to the U.S. Department of Education via a series of jobs in the business and philanthropic sectors.  Writing for Schools Matter, Susan Ohanian explains that after graduate school, he worked as a program analyst at Exxon, then moved to McKinsey, Edison Schools, the NewSchools Venture Fund, then the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. After he left the federal government last year, he took a job as Chief Impact Officer at 2U, a company that helps colleges and universities develop online degree programs.  He earned a B.A. in computer science and then a joint business-education MBA/MA from Stanford.  Ohanian quotes the Stanford Educator‘s description of this program: “training people to apply business know-how to the field of education. Numerous high-profile alumni like Shelton now fill the leadership rosters of charter school organizations, venture funds, other education-related nonprofit and forprofit enterprises…”

Describing Shelton’s new appointment for Inside Philanthropy, David Callahan argues that Shelton will be leading Chan and Zuckerberg’s philanthropic corporation to signal a primary shift in the direction of school reform.  Callahan reminds us of Zuckerberg’s earlier failed initiative—investing $100 million behind the Booker-Christie effort to expand charters in Newark: “You can see why Zuckerberg might have been originally attracted to a reform model hinging on large-scale disruption.  Many of the people in the tech world have made their fortunes by destroying yesterday’s industries and creating new products that sweep quickly to market dominance. Business funders have flocked to a charter movement promising the same thing: The creation of a better product that would over time, put traditional public schools out of business.  They’ve also backed attacks on teachers unions, hoping to knock off defenders of the status quo much as Uber is now working to bust the cartel power of taxi drivers worldwide.  But Newark showed the limits of these strategies, as have failures in other cities, such as Milwaukee.  And Zuckerberg and Chan’s takeaway, apparently, was that wielding dynamite is not the proper way to achieve change in systems where, in fact, everyone mostly shares the same goal: helping children succeed… The most notable thing about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is that the focus is mainly on how students learn, as opposed to the institutional context in which they learn.”

We’ll see how all this goes.  It is important, however, to consider what is largely missing from the coverage about the new philanthropic corporation Shelton will be managing.  Zuckerberg’s definition of “personalized learning” is about the use of computers and represents what he has apparently learned from his very successful business—Facebook. “Personalized learning” here has nothing to do with the trust and understanding built in the relationship of a real child and a human teacher. There is no talk about what teachers study about learning theory or education research in academic college and university programs. There is no talk, so far at least, about the experiences of real teachers and what they think they need to help children. There is no attention at all to the scale and coverage required in public education understood as a systemic enterprise intended to meet the needs and protect the rights of an enormous and very diverse population of children and adolescents—50 million of them. It is really all about experimenting with new innovations and trying to replicate them.

Natasha Singer, covering Shelton’s new appointment for the NY Times, quotes Shelton: “When you think about philanthropy, the question is, ‘How can you be catalytic?’ It’s a huge opportunity for transformational work.”  Shelton may be better at being catalytic and transformational than demonstrating careful follow-through, however.  Though evidence-based reform was his claim at the U.S. Department of Education, Shelton’s management of the Department’s Office of Innovation and Improvement has been criticized for lack of oversight. In June, 2015, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a coalition of national education organizations, asked Secretary Duncan to establish a moratorium on federal support for new charter schools until the Department improved its own oversight of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which is responsible for the federal Charter School Program.  The Alliance cited a formal 2012 audit in which the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG), “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.”  The OIG’s 2012 audit discovered that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement was ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight of the funds it disbursed.  An October, 2015 report from the Center for Media and Democracy, Charter School Black Hole, also exposed the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement’s total abrogation of responsibility for oversight of an education sector to which it has granted $3.7 billion since 1995.

Based on Shelton’s record managing the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement and his reliance on business rhetoric, one wonders where Shelton will take Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg’s new philanthropic corporation and its effort to redefine the future of American education.