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.

The Edu-Tech Billionaires Promote “Personalized” Learning That Lacks the Personal Touch

I was relieved when I read the Los Angeles Times‘ editorial a couple of weeks ago about the newfound humility of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as regards its education philanthropy. Recounting the history of billions spent on failed projects like the small-schools initiative, the initiative to evaluate teachers and reward the best with merit pay, and the investment to develop, publicize and spread the Common Core standards, the LA Times editorial board writes: “Tucked away in a letter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last week, along with proud notes about the foundation’s efforts to fight smoking and tropical diseases and its other accomplishments, was a section on education. Its tone was unmistakably chastened. ‘We’re facing the fact that it is a real struggle to make systemwide change,’ wrote the foundation’s CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellman… ‘It is really tough to create more great public schools.'”

The only problem is that it isn’t quite true that Gates has disappeared from the world of education “reform.” Gone are the days, of course, when Arne Duncan hired Jim Shelton, right out of the Gates Foundation to lead the Office of Innovation at the U.S. Department of Education. But the Billionaire Boys continue to work behind the scenes.

Today the focus is “personalized learning,” the Orwellian name its proponents are calling computer-driven learning.  And, no surprise, Jim Shelton has come back to lead the philanthropically-driven effort, but this time he’s working with the Gates Foundation from a perch as head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, what Benjamin Herold at Education Week calls “the philanthropic and investment arm of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan.” “The head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s education division, former U.S. deputy education secretary Jim Shelton, previously worked as a program director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for more than seven years.”

Here is Herold’s description of the new project: “Two of the biggest names in technology and education philanthropy are jointly funding a $12 million initiative to support new ways of tailoring classroom instruction to individual students. The grant marks the first substantive collaboration of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, chaired by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative…. Their joint award was given in April to New Profit, a Boston-based ‘venture philanthropy’ organization. New Profit will in turn provide $1 million, plus extensive management advising, to each of seven other organizations working to promote personalized learning… The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is not a traditional nonprofit foundation. Instead, it’s an LLC. That organizational structure allows for direct investment in for-profit companies and political lobbying and donations, as well as philanthropic giving.”

Reporters for Inside Philanthropy, who call the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative CZI, add that since Shelton took over a year ago, “CZI’s work on personalized learning has evolved rapidly, and now has a number of parts. Developing and promoting the technology for personalized learning is a central focus. In March, Shelton wrote on Facebook that CZI is ‘building a world-class engineering team with a commitment to developing breakthrough products and practices that support personalized learning.’ More specifically, it’s creating a free online tool, the Summit Learning platform, which ’empowers teachers to customize instruction to meet their students’ individual needs and interests.’  This platform was developed by a partnership between Facebook and Summit Public Schools, a leading charter school provider. It’s now used by 130 schools, 1,100 teachers and 20,000 students, according to Shelton. But CZI is dreaming even bigger… Shelton described the philosophy here more broadly: ‘It turns out when you let people choose, their level of engagement and motivation goes up.'”

And, explains Inside Philanthropy, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has made a grant to Chiefs for Change, a network of local and state school superintendents convened by Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Excellence in Education, which has pushed all sorts of ed tech contracting. “Chiefs for Change will use the funds to support the new Transforming Schools and Systems Workgroup.”

Inside Philanthropy concludes its report: “What can be said is that personalized learning, facilitated by new technology, obviously tracks with Mark Zuckerberg’s own background and world view. And it reflects a techno-optimism at the core of CZI’s work. ‘We believe engineers can help turbocharge and scale solutions to facilitate social change,’ the organization says.”

In a new analysis for the NY Times, Natasha Singer is a little more skeptical about The Silicon Valley Billionaires Remaking America’s Schools, including Facebook’ s Mark Zuckerberg: “The involvement by some of the wealthiest and most influential titans of the 21st century amounts to a singular experiment in education, with millions of students serving as de facto beta testers for their ideas. Some tech leaders believe that applying an engineering mind-set can improve just about any system, and that their business acumen qualifies them to rethink American education.”  She continues: “If Facebook’s Mr. Zuckerberg has his way, children the world over will soon be teaching themselves—using software his company helped build. It’s a conception that upends a longstanding teaching dynamic. Now educators are no longer classroom leaders, but helpmates… Mr. Zuckerberg has described how it works. Students cluster together, working at laptops. They use software to select their own assignments, working at their own pace. And should they struggle at teaching themselves, teachers are on hand to guide them. ‘When you visit a school like this, it feels like the future—it feels like a start-up.. You get the feeling this is how more of the education system should work.'”

Let me be very clear.  Students need to learn how to use technology. Even as a relatively computer-illiterate blogger, I compose on a laptop. I recently found an old kitchen mug to store all the pencils that have been lying around the house, and I carried them up to the attic. And technology is a wonderful tool for exploring and researching and calculating.  School should incorporate technology beginning in the elementary years.

But there is something very important missing from these articles about Zuckerberg and Gates and Shelton and the huge grant to New Profit.  In Education Week, Benjamin Herold quotes the Gates Foundation’s program officer commenting on the new work with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: “It’s 100 percent collaborative… We’re looking for ways to work together and to coordinate when it’s appropriate.”  If this is a collaborative project about how students are going to learn in the future, I wonder about the very important people whose voices seem to be missing from the collaboration: teachers.  If this effort were really collaborative, wouldn’t you think the edu-philanthropists might have folded in some contributions from experts at Teachers College or Bank Street or the state teachers’ colleges? What about engaging the wisdom of advisory panels from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers? Teachers might bring a focus to the kind of classroom leadership, student mentoring, and classroom management that is going to be needed for this “remaking” of education.

And finally there is the really personal part of learning.  While the tech edupreneurs might dream about each child’s “personal” exploration through the computer, lots of us worry about protecting the personal relationships between children and their classroom peers and their real live teachers—in small enough classes where those relationships can flourish. We must insist that, just as patients in hospital beds need doctors and nurses (assisted by technology of course) to care for them, children be provided well-trained, experienced teachers to build classroom communities and nurture learning.

In a recent book, First Do No Harm, progressive educator Steve Nelson shares his concerns about so-called “blended” and “personalized” learning: “My objections to technology are mostly directed to the misuse with young children and to the alarming tendency to substitute technology for real human interactions… The world’s greatest problem is not a shortage of people who can write computer code… Our challenge is to develop humans who have the fluid intellect, creativity, imagination, aesthetic sensibilities and ethical convictions to save the world from the sorry mess we have created. That’s the purpose of education… Relationships are central to learning, both as a contributor to the release of dopamine, but also as a critical social context for language development as articulated by Vygotsky, Bruner, et al.”

Nelson continues: “The colorful images that often accompany education articles or on school websites show children sitting in small cubicles, smiling at their computers, with little human interaction at all…  The symbolic representation of life is not the same as life itself. Perhaps the greatest harm done by technology is an act of omission. Every hour of screen time, whether in school or at home, is an hour not spent in some much more important activity, especially those things that involve real human engagement…. (T)echnology is just the most recent manifestation of the industrial model of education.  Inherent in the technological model of education is economy of scale. It must be impersonal, and people and parts must be interchangeable. It must be replicable…  Most importantly, it must be profitable.” (First Do No Harm, p. 126-133)

It Is Spring and Big-Money Conferences on School “Reform” Bloom

I  was educated in the public schools of small town Havre, Montana, and my children were educated in the public schools of inner-ring suburban Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  I am a strong believer in public education—publicly funded, universally available, required to accept all children who present themselves at the door, and accountable to the public. A public system seems to me the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children. While public education is not a utopia, I believe it has fewer structural flaws, from the point of view of the common good, than privatized alternatives.

How quaint seem my attitudes this month when the money blooming around privatizing public schools is far more lush than the flowers of spring.   Privatization—privately managed charters, vouchers,  all the private contracting that creates and services all the standardized testing, and the education technology sector—is rapidly expanding.  There is money to be made and power to be wielded.

Two national conferences in the next couple of weeks demonstrate the impact of money in education this spring.  Beginning yesterday, the Arizona State University and Global Silicon Valley Education Innovation Summit is meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Diane Ravitch quotes the sponsors of the conference:  “Our founders have spent the past two decades focused on the Megatrends that are disrupting the $4 trillion global education market along with the innovators who are transforming the industry.”

The long list of speakers includes a who’s who of supporters of “corporate” education reform: Margaret Spellings (George Bush’s Secretary of Education), Penny Pritzker (portfolio school reform supporter in Chicago before she became Secretary of Commerce), Jim Shelton (formerly director of education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, now Assistant Secretary of Education), Jeb Bush (former Florida Governor and through his Foundation for Excellence in Education a proponent of awarding schools and school districts A-F grades), Christopher Cerf (now with Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify ed tech company, formerly Governor Chris Christie’s New Jersey commissioner of education), and Reed Hastings (CEO of Netflix and vocal supporter of the elimination of elected boards of education).  The 49 sponsors of the conference include publishers, test designers and data processors like Pearson, McGraw Hill Education, and Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt; for-profit universities like Apollo, DeVry, and Kaplan; tech companies like Microsoft, and philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Over 100 companies are slated to present their wares.

Maggie Severns at Politico describes the reason for the conference: “Capital flows into companies serving the K-12 and higher education markets jumped to $650 million last near—nearly double the $331 million invested in those spheres in 2009.”

Or if you want a different kind of education “reform” experience, you can make your way to an Adirondack Camp at Lake Placid, New York on May 4-6 to “reform, relax, retreat.”  Your host will be the Honorable Andrew Cuomo, New York’s charter-friendly governor.  Hofstra professor Alan Singer describes what is to be called Camp Philos in this fascinating piece at Huffington Post. The fee for normal participants is $1,000, but VIPs can pay $2,500 for the three day event being sponsored by Education Reform Now, which Singer describes as closely but unofficially tied to Democrats for Education Reform, the pro-charter, hedge fund-supported, pro-privatization national PAC.

This event isn’t about making money from education; instead it is about using money to shape education policy.  The sponsors are the people who, for example, used their money to ensure that Governor Cuomo blocked New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s attempt to reign in the Success Academy charter school network of powerful Eva Moskowitz.  Singer notes that Education Reform Now has made campaign gifts to Cuomo since 2010 that add up to $65,000.  “The Education Reform Now Board of Directors,” writes Singer, “reads like a list of hedge fund royalty.”  Board members head up Highfields Capital Management, Cornwall Capital, Bain & Company, Sessa Capital, Gotham Capital, Covey Capital, Maverick Capital, Charter Bridge Capital… and the list goes on.

M. Night Shyamalan, the film maker, is also a sponsor.  According to Singer, Shyamalan “attended elite private schools as a youth, decided he is an education expert and wrote a book about saving public schools after filming in a Philadelphia public high school.”  Shyamalan’s preferred genre, however, is not the public education documentary;  Singer lists Shyamalan’s Hollywood horror films: After Earth, Devil, The Happening, The Village, and The Sixth Sense.

Singer concludes: “According to the online agenda, break-out sessions include discussions on ‘The Next Big Thing: Groundbreaking Approaches to Teacher Preparation,’ ‘Up, Down, and Sideways: Building an Effective School Reform Coalition,’ ‘Tight-Lose Options for Ensuring All Kids Have Access to a Great Education,’ and ‘Collaborative Models for Changing State and Local Teacher Policies.’ But really only one topic will be discussed — How to promote and profit from the privatization of public education in the United States.”