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.

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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.”

Chris Christie and Chris Cerf: Dismantling Equity in New Jersey’s Public Schools

Late last week New Jersey Spotlight, an online news service that covers information on issues critical to New Jersey, published an opinion piece by Mark Weber, Looking Closely at the Dangerous Legacy of Commissioner Chris Cerf.  Weber profiles Christopher Cerf, Governor Chris Christie’s appointed state Commissioner of Education.

One of the reasons the piece is so important is that New Jersey had so much to lose when Christie and Cerf imposed what has become known as a “corporate reform” agenda on the state’s public schools.

New Jersey is an extremely segregated state racially and economically with wealthy suburbs of New York City, beach communities along the Jersey Shore, rural truck farming communities, and cities like Newark, Camden, Jersey City and Paterson—cities that are racially segregated with extremely concentrated poverty.  Last fall the Southern Education Foundation—noting that, “The nation’s cities have the highest rates of low income students in public schools.  Sixty percent of the public school children in America’s cities were in low income households in 2011.”—documented that 78 percent of the school children in New Jersey’s cities are low income.

Unlike other states, however, and thanks to the decades-long efforts of the plaintiffs in Abbott v. Burke and their attorneys at the Education Law Center, New Jersey has in the past made the greatest strides of any state toward school funding equity.  And the data have proven that sending significant extra state funds into New Jersey’s 31 poorest school districts along with guaranteeing pre-school for the children of these districts has been an important investment in opportunity for these children.  Here is how David Kirp, in an important 2013 book, Improbable Scholars, describes the impact of Abbott v. Burke:

“In twenty-one decrees issued over the course of nearly three decades, the justices have read the state’s constitutional guarantee of ‘a thorough and efficient system of education’ as a charter of equality for urban youth. That 1875 provision, said the court in its historic 1990 ruling, Abbott II, meant that youngsters living in poor cities were entitled to an education as good as their suburban counterparts… In crafting its decision, the court concentrated on the state’s thirty-one worst-off districts…  Thrust and parry—beginning with its 1990 decision, the justices dueled repeatedly with lawmakers…  Money cannot cure all the ailments of public education…. but the fact that New Jersey spends more than $16,000 per student, third in the nation, partly explains why a state in which nearly half the students are minorities and a disproportionate share are immigrants has the country’s highest graduation rate and ranks among the top five on the National Assessment of Education Progress…. The additional money also helps to account for how New Jersey halved the achievement gap between black, Latino, and white students between 1999 and 2007, something no other state has come close to accomplishing.”  (pp. 84-85)

A new report by the Education Law Center demonstrates that while , due to Abbott, New Jersey’s high poverty districts were  in 2007 funded 40 percent more than low poverty districts, the state’s investment has slipped under Christie and Cerf.  Today New Jersey’s high poverty districts get only 7 percent extra.

Weber’s profile of Christopher Cerf as New Jersey’s Education Commissioner is troubling in many ways.  Not only have Christie and Cerf reduced school finance equity, but they have “deconstructed” urban school districts.  School closures in Newark’s African American neighborhoods fill the newspapers today.  Tests and accompanying state ratings of schools are the centerpiece of the Cerf tenure.  Teachers are under intense scrutiny and being evaluated by their students’ “growth percentile scores.”

According to Weber, “Leadership has been redefined, and not for the better.” Many of New Jersey’s big-city school districts are under state control, and Cerf has ensured that their appointed superintendents fit the profile for which he is the prototype.  Weber’s summary of Cerf’s career is the very definition of the corporate school “deformer.”  Here are highlights.  “He never taught in a public school, never earned a degree in education, and never ran a school building…  After a few years of teaching at a private school, Cerf pursued a law career, eventually working in the Clinton administration.  He shifted over to education not as a practitioner, but as the president of Edison Learning, the ill-fated school management company that never lived up to its promises in Philadelphia and elsewhere.  That was followed by a stint in the vast and complex New York City schools, serving as deputy chancellor under his colleague in the Clinton White House, Joel Klein….”

Joel Klein, an attorney by profession, left his position as Chancellor of the New York City Schools (under Mayor Michael Bloomberg) to head up a new education technology division, Amplify, for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.  Amplify is the division that manages data for school districts and produces computer tablets for sale to school districts.  Christopher Cerf is leaving his position as Commissioner of Education in New Jersey to join Klein, his former boss, at Amplify.  Weber comments: “When Cerf departs at the end of March, he’ll be continuing a pattern of sliding back and forth between the private and public sector that he’s engaged in over his entire career.”