Personalized Learning May Appear to Solve Pandemic Education Challenges but New Research Raises Big Concerns

Here we are at the beginning of July, and the COVID-19 numbers are soaring across many states. The recessionary collapse of state budgets makes public school funding look shaky, and nobody can quite say how to make school safe. With the 2020-21 school year expected to start in six weeks, school leaders face overwhelming uncertainty. It is easy to imagine that a well-known, free, online learning platform and curriculum, funded entirely by tech philanthropists, might be extremely tempting.

But there are reasons for caution. Last week, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published a guest column from researchers at the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a guest column describing the Summit Learning Platform, and warning about some of the reasons for school district leaders to be cautious. These researchers, Alex Molnar and Faith Boninger, have documented serious concerns about protecting the privacy of student data collected by Summit Learning and its sponsors. To underscore the seriousness of their concerns, they describe the powerful people behind Summit Learning:

“Summit Public Schools, founded in 2003, currently operates 11 schools enrolling approximately 4,675 students in California and Washington State. In 2013-2014, there was no Summit Learning Program or ‘partner’ schools. Things changed quickly after a 2014-2015 agreement between Summit and Facebook established the goals of enhancing Summit’s self-created software platform and collaborating on a marketing strategy for its nationwide adoption. Since then, Summit Public Schools has received extensive technical support from Facebook and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and almost $200 million in funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Iniative, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and others.”

Molnar and Boninger review Summit’s marketing claims: “Summit Public Schools claims that its educational program does an exceptional job of preparing students for college and that its graduates succeed in college. Its specific claims are that its students are ‘100 percent Eligible for 4-Year College,’ that ’98 percent [of its students are] accepted to four-year college,’ and that its students graduate from college at ‘2X the national average.’… Schools that agree to become ‘partner’ schools agree to adopt Summit’s free, off-the-shelf program, use its digital platform, and participate in the required staff trainings and Summit-organized support activities… This marketing pitch has met with considerable success. By the 2018-2019 school year, nearly 400 schools nationwide, with nearly 3,800 educators and more than 72,000 students were using the Summit Learning Program.”

Molnar and Boninger’s report on their five years of research focuses on what ought to be serious data privacy concerns for school districts that might choose to fall back on this free digital education platform in these difficult times.  But the new research on the difficulty of protecting students’ data is not the first serious critique of Summit Learning.


A year ago, as part of an in-depth evaluation of the Providence, Rhode Island public schools, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy condemned the use of Summit Learning in that city’s public schools for academic reasons. In extensive classroom visits, researchers observed that students were neither engaged by their online lessons nor learning very much:  “(W)e witnessed significant problems in the use of the Summit Learning Platform. In one school, Summit was the major mode of mathematics instruction; in other classrooms, it seemed to be used for supplemental (e.g., remedial or practice) instruction. When we observed students using Summit, they were not engaged with the software in optimal ways. Instead of watching videos or reading tutorial texts, students went straight to the exam and attempted to answer the questions. When they answered incorrectly, corrective text popped up, which students did read; they then tried again with the next question. Even if students progressed according to plan, their learning would be limited to how to answer problems in the format presented by the Summit exam. In one school, we did not observe a single Summit math teacher engage in whole-class or even small-group math instruction. Instead, teachers either completed work at their desks, and/or answered questions when students raised their hand. Finally, the lack of teacher surveillance of student progress in some Summit classrooms meant that students worked very slowly through the material.”

It is, therefore not surprising that the Johns Hopkins researchers discovered students hated the program: “Students almost universally disliked the Summit program. They told the team that they are burned-out through the overuse of screen time, and bored. Some claimed that students actively left school as a result of the platform. There were classes we visited in which teachers appropriately integrated a blended learning model, but in most cases, students were just staring at the screens, totally disengaged.”

In 2018, students at New York’s Brooklyn Secondary School of Journalism walked out of school in protest and formally wrote to Mark Zuckerberg to critique the program: “Unfortunately we didn’t have a good experience using the program, which requires hours of classroom time sitting in front of computers. Not all students would receive computers, the assignments are boring, and it’s too easy to pass and even cheat on the assessments. Students feel as if they are not learning anything and that the program isn’t preparing them for the Regents exams they need to pass to graduate. Most importantly, the entire program eliminates much of the human interaction, teacher support, and discussion and debate with our peers that we need in order to improve our critical thinking.”  In their letter, the Brooklyn students also demanded information about the massive amount of student data being collected by Summit Learning.

A New York advocacy organization, the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, has investigated and protested Summit Learning’s collection of student data: “Summit claims the right to collect an extraordinary amount of personal student information. Among the data collected by Summit… include: student and parent names and e-mail addresses; student ID numbers, attendance, suspension and expulsion records; their disabilities, gender, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status; their date of birth, teacher observations, their communications with teachers; their grade promotion or retention, test scores, college admissions, survey responses, homework assignments, and extracurricular activities they participate in. Summit plans to track students even after they graduate from high schools, including their college attendance and eventual careers. Summit shares this data with as many as 20 corporate ‘partners’ including CZI (the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative) and Google….”

NEPC’s New Report by Faith Boninger,  Alex Molnar, and Christopher M. Saldana

In their new report reflecting five years of research, Boninger, Molnar, and Saldana emphasize Summit Learning’s serious failure to protect student privacy: “Our review of summit partner school contracts suggests that student data collected by the Summit Learning Platform… presents a potentially significant risk to student privacy and opens the door to the exploitation of these data by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and possibly by unknown third parties—for purposes that have noting to do with improving the quality of those students’ educations.”

Summarizing the report in their guest column published by Valerie Strauss, Boninger and Molnar remind readers: “Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have taught the world that data are fungible and can mean big money. And, also that data can be very dangerous when controlled by an opaque organization immune to public oversight. Regardless of who is named the owner of student data in partner school contracts, as Summit Learning’s technology partner, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has full access to the de-identified data and certainly has access to the technical expertise to re-identify it. Though it is often thought of as a charity, it is important to note that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is nether a charity nor a philanthropic organization. It is a limited liability corporation. A business.  As a result, although it may make charitable contributions, it may also make political contributions, engage in political lobbying, and invest in for-profit companies. Among the things the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative can gain from its collaboration with Summit Learning is access to significant amounts of student data that it can convert into a considerable amount of money.”

In their report, NEPC researchers recommend that state departments of education upgrade their oversight of personalized learning platforms “to require that the digital personalized learning programs be externally reviewed and approved by independent third-party education experts…; require that the assumptions and programming of all algorithms associated with personalized learning materials be audited for bias and other possible risks to students before the algorithms are implemented; and develop a standard data-security agreement that protects the privacy and limits the use of all data, including de-identified data, collected by schools through personalized learning materials….”  (emphasis in the original)

The researchers report that Summit Learning did not comply with their requests for data and detailed information. Data shared was anecdotal. Summit Learning persisted in undocumented claims that its learning platform is: “a ‘science-based’ personalized learning mode of teaching and learning that results in all of its students being academically prepared for college… None of the claims made by Summit Public Schools have been confirmed by independent evaluators.”

Boninger, Molnar, and Saldana conclude:  “The rapid spread of the Summit Learning Program—despite a lack of transparency and the absence of convincing evidence that it can deliver on its promises—provides a powerful example of how policymakers are challenged when faced with a well-financed and self-interested push for schools to adopt digital personalized learning programs.  There is now an urgent need for policymakers to move quickly to protect the public interest by establishing oversight….”


Chalkbeat Disputes Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative’s Claim that Summit–“Personalized”–Learning is Research-Based

“Personalized learning” is how the creators and promoters of computer driven education at school describe their programs, which they claim are advanced enough to tailor education to the particular needs of each student.  One of the biggest “personalized learning” platforms is Summit Learning, developed by Facebook engineers and now engineers at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as one of the philanthropy’s largest projects.  School districts can use Summit Learning for free, courtesy of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

In November, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss described Summit Learning: “The free platform, which offers online lessons and assessments, was developed by a network of 11 charter schools in California and Washington known collectively as Summit Public Schools, and Facebook engineers helped develop the software. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, back the learning platform with engineering support through their… Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The Summit website says the platform is a ‘personalized, research-backed approach’ to teaching and learning.”

The contention that Summit Learning is research-based is challenged, however, in a report last week from ChalkbeatMatt Barnum reports: “Summit Learning, a fast-growing ‘personalized learning’ system, touts a partnership with Harvard researchers even though Summit actually turned down their proposal to study the model… The program ‘is based on collaboration with nationally acclaimed learning scientists, researchers and academics from institutions including the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research,’ Summit’s website says. ‘Summit’s research-backed approach leads to better student outcomes.'”

Barnum continues: “Schools have used that seeming endorsement to back up their decision to adopt the model.  In fact, though, there is no academic research on whether Summit’s specific model is effective. And while Summit helped fund a study proposal crafted by Harvard researchers, it ultimately turned them down.”

Thomas Kane, one of the Harvard education professors who helped design a possible study of Summit Learning told Chalkbeat: “All I can say is that the work that we did for Summit involved planning an evaluation; we have not measured impacts on student outcomes.”

Barnum describes the reasons why Summit Learning’s founder, Diane Tavenner, says the proposed Harvard study was declined: “The organization had a number of reasons for not moving forward with the proposed study, including its potential to burden teachers and to limit the platform’s ability to change or grow… Tavenner said the organization had learned a lot from the process of developing a potential study… More broadly, Tavenner says she is skeptical of the usefulness of large-scale research of the sort the Harvard team proposed, saying the conclusions might be of interest to journalists and philanthropists, not schools.” Tavenner also said that a study designed as a blind comparison of students using Summit Learning with students not using the program would deny the students in the control group the opportunity to have benefitted from use of the platform.

The researchers designing the study, Thomas Kane and Martin West of Harvard, expressed concern in an e-mail to Chalkbeat: “The evaluation we proposed would have assessed the impact of the model at that point in time, even if the model continued to evolve.  When a model is still changing so radically that a point in time estimate is irrelevant, it is too early to be operating in hundreds of schools.”

Barnum describes the concern of Sara Reckhow, a Michigan State University professor who has studied the impact of philanthropy on education policy: “(S)he worries that school districts might be less likely to carefully examine programs that are offered free of charge, like Summit. ‘If you reduce that barrier, you’re making it potentially more likely to adopt something without as much scrutiny as they otherwise might do… That increases the obligation of Summit and CZI to evaluate the work.'”

The platform’s use has rapidly expanded from the original 11 charter schools where it was developed to 380 schools today, with 72,000 students, Barnum reports.

But Summit Learning hasn’t always been popular in the schools and school districts which have adopted it. The school district of Cheshire, Connecticut dropped the program when parents complained.  And in November, students at Brooklyn’s Secondary School for Journalism walked out of class in protest and sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg challenging the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s promotion of the program.

Valerie Strauss published their letter which said: “Unfortunately we didn’t have a good experience using the program, which requires hours of classroom time sitting in front of computers… Students feel as if they are not learning anything and that the program isn’t preparing them for the Regents exams they need to pass to graduate.  Most importantly, the entire program eliminates much of the human interaction, teacher support, and discussion and debate with our peers that we need in order to improve our critical thinking.”  Strauss reports that the Brooklyn Secondary School for Journalism stopped using Summit Learning in courses for juniors and seniors but continued its use in ninth and tenth grade courses.

New Yorker Profile Warns: When It Comes to Mark Zuckerberg, Be Careful!

Evan Osnos’s extraordinary profile of Mark Zuckerberg, published in the September 17, New Yorker, wouldn’t seem a fitting topic for coverage in this blog about public education. Osnos hardly touches on Mark Zuckerberg’s ventures thus far into education philanthropy—the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, which has made education-based philanthropy one of its primary foci, or the $100,000,000 gift to help Chris Christie and Cory Booker charterize the public schools in Newark, New Jersey, a controversial and poorly conceived initiative that did not improve the education of children in Newark.

Osnos’s profile explores the question of who has the power,”to pull the lever of what we see, hear, and experience.” Osnos is, of course, examining the role of Facebook and whether and how it functions as an arbiter of free speech. The central subject of the profile, however, is Mark Zuckerberg himself and how he thinks and operates.  Continuing to explore the issue of free speech, Osnos explains: “Zuckerberg is hoping to erect a scalable system, an orderly decision tree that accounts for every eventuality and exception, but the boundaries of speech are a bedevilling problem that defies mechanistic fixes.”

Last spring when Zuckerberg testified before Congress, the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank described Zuckerberg as “the boy billionaire,” a caricature that precisely captures the Mark Zuckerberg Osnos depicts: a naif who knows coding and tech systems but who cannot comprehend his own and his company’s power.  Unfortunately, Zuckerberg also seems unable to grasp what he doesn’t know.

How the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative will affect public education remains unclear. Writing for Chalkbeat, Matt Barnum explains: “In late 2015, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan promised to donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares to their philanthropy, which would focus part of its work on improving American education… But the organization remains one of the least transparent funders in education.  Unlike a number of other philanthropies, CZI does not publicly list its grants, instead announcing only certain awards on Facebook or in press releases…  As a limited liability company, CZI is not required to list donations on its tax forms, unlike private foundations… The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s recent giving vaults CZI into the top echelon of education funders, though it remains behind the Gates Foundation and Walton Family Foundation for now.  Whereas CZI averaged a bit over $100 million in grants each of the last three years, Walton spent $191 million on U.S. education programs in 2016 and Gates spent about $367 million. That kind of funding is dwarfed by the public dollars spent on education. But philanthropic money can have an outsized influence on policy: think the rapid spread of teacher evaluation changes, the Common Core standards, and charter schools, all catalyzed by funding from major philanthropies in the last decade.”

Barnum summarizes a broad range of CZI’s grants that have been announced since 2016, including grants to promote what appears Mark Zuckerberg’s primary interest: personalized learning, defined in Zuckerberg’s thinking as the development of programs to help students learn independently via computer “CZI has funded personalized learning efforts directly in a variety of places: statewide in Rhode Island ($1.5 million), in more than 100 Chicago-area schools ($14 million), and in a small district in California, Lindsay Unified ($775,000).  It has supported personalized learning-focused work by leadership groups: Chiefs for Change ($3 million) and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers (nearly $400,000).  CZI has backed efforts to infuse the concept into teacher training, including through the Woodrow Wilson Teaching and Learning Academy ($3 million), the New Teacher Center ($1.7 million), and the Harvard Graduate School of Education ($1.1 million).”

Just as “personalized learning” for Mark Zuckerberg is defined as designing programs and apps that shape the way children can learn on their own in front of a screen, “community” also has a specialized definition in the world of Zuckerberg and Facebook.  Osnos explains what Zuckerberg means when he talks about building the Facebook community: “Over time, Facebook devoted ever-greater focus to what is known in Silicon Valley as ‘growth hacking,’ the constant pursuit of scale.  Whenever the company talked about ‘connecting people’ that was, in effect, code for user growth.”

Not only does Zuckerberg conflate company growth (and profit) with the kind of human relationships that most of us think of when we define “community,” he is also comfortable with encouraging his company to manipulate human psychology to grow his “community”: “Facebook engineers became a new breed of behaviorists, tweaking levers of vanity and passion and susceptibility.  The real world effects were striking… These powers of social engineering could be put to dubious purposes.” When the company’s design ethicist shared “his concern that social media was contributing to alienation… Zuckerberg and his executives adopted a core belief: even if people criticized your decisions, they would eventually come around.”

There is also Zuckerberg’s ethical naiveté—the assumption that people in “community” will pursue good and honorable ends and use his online system for the right reasons.  Osnos describes Zuckerberg dismissing the possibility that someone would use Facebook to try to manipulate the 2016 election: “(H)e still bristles at the implication that Facebook may have distorted voter behavior. ‘I find the notion that people would only vote some way because they were tricked to be almost viscerally offensive… Because it goes against the whole notion that you should trust people and that individuals are smart and can understand their own experience and can make their own assessments about what direction they want their community to go in.'”

Finally, Zuckerberg embraces the idea of disruptive innovation at all costs: “Facebook had adopted a buccaneering motto: ‘Move fast and break things,’ which celebrated the idea that it was better to be flawed and first than careful and perfect… In Zuckerberg’s view, skeptics were often just fogies and scolds. ‘There’s always someone who wants to slow you down,’ he said… ‘In our society, we often don’t do big things because we’re so afraid of making mistakes that we ignore all the things wrong today if we do nothing.  The reality is, anything we do will have issues in the future. But that can’t keep us from starting.’ ”

Evan Osnos’s profile of Mark Zuckerberg hoists one red flag after another to warn anyone who might embrace Zuckerberg (and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative) as arbiters of public education policy. For very good reasons, public schools have been the domain of the kind of people Zuckerberg calls “fogies and scolds.”  In so many ways public education as an American institution represents the very definition of a set of principles that starkly contrast with the values Mark Zukerberg and Facebook represent.  The evolution of our society’s public schools over time has demanded the creation of programs to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the obligation to serve all children.  And we have recognized the urgent need for laws to protect children’s equal access to schooling in a society where some with evil motives would deny quality education for children they dismiss as unimportant or undeserving.

  • Zuckerberg seems to lack a real understanding of community—the kind of community made up of educators and children together in a school learning to trust each other, to communicate with one another and to collaborate.  Public schools also serve as neighborhood anchors and the source of real live community pride.
  • Zuckerberg has tolerated a business culture of manipulating human psychology to make his product more addictive to children as well as adults. Public school educators and researchers continue to strive instead to make education more supportive of normal child and adolescent development. Another primary goal is to help children and adolescents discern occasions when they are being manipulated and to develop good judgement.
  • Zuckerberg prefers to reject the idea that someone might misuse his system for an evil purpose—to throw an election or incite a genocide against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Burma. The history of activism for justice in public schools demonstrates our society’s recognition of the need for laws banning racism and other kinds of institutional oppression in schools. Laws now protect the rights of racial and ethnic minorities; protect services for the disabled, and protect the rights of LBGT students at school. State school funding formulas are intended to protect equity in the distribution of tax dollars invested across jurisdictions. When students’ rights are denied, students and their families have a right to petition under law for protection.
  • Zuckerberg promotes the motto, “Move fast and break things. ” Inside the company, if his strategies fail and Facebook ceases to grow, Facebook may see its stock price drop. When education “reforms” fail, the victims are innocent children. In fact in almost every case the children hurt worst are the poorest children in the poorest communities. Core community institutions are also wrecked. We watched the Gates Foundation move fast to break up comprehensive high schools, and to announce the failure of that experiment a few years later.  Then the Gates Foundation experimented with financial incentives and penalties to make teachers work harder to raise students’ test scores.  When that experiment failed, the public school district in Hillsborough County, Florida was left covering millions of dollars in costs when the Foundation walked away.

In a 2013 NY Times column, tech-reform critic Evgeny Morozov describes the kind of thinker Mark Zuckerberg represents: “They are driven by a pervasive and dangerous ideology that I call ‘solutionism’: an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are ‘solvable’ with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal… Such predisposition makes it harder to notice that not all problems are problems, and that those problems that do prove genuine might require long and protracted institutional responses, not just quick technological fixes produced at ‘hackathons’… ‘In the future,’ says Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, ‘people will spend less time trying to get technology to work… If we get this right, I believe we can fix all the world’s problems.’ ”

Morozov quotes Mark Zuckerberg: “There are a lot of really big issues for the world that need to be solved and, as a company, what we are trying to do is to build an infrastructure on top of which to solve some of these problems.” Morozov examines what is really underneath Zuckerberg’s thinking:  “Such digital humanitarianism aims to generate good will on the outside and boost morale on the inside. After all, saving the world might be a price worth paying for destroying everyone’s privacy, while a larger-than-life mission might convince young and idealistic employees that they are not wasting their lives tricking gullible consumers to click on ads for pointless products. Silicon Valley and Wall Street are competing for the same talent pool, and by claiming to solve the world’s problems, technology companies can offer what Wall Street cannot: a sense of social mission.”

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)