Education Week - July 19, 2017 - 11
activity nor to making the source code
for its software open and accessible to
the larger education community. That
stance has stirred complaints about a
lack of transparency.
The initiative would be wise to
avoid trying to go too far, too fast in
its support for personalized learning,
said Frederick M. Hess, the director of
education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
"This isn't engineering a new ridesharing app," said Hess, who also
writes an opinion blog for edweek.org.
"It's how do we influence the learning
of millions of children, day after day,
for years to come."
Chan, a former classroom teacher,
is at the initiative's Palo Alto, Calif.,
offices as often as four days a week,
Shelton said. Zuckerberg is there at
least once every other week.
Each brings different priorities to
the table, according to Shelton.
Chan, he said, "saw firsthand the
impact that things outside the classroom had on students and the range
of needs that young people have."
Zuckerberg, meanwhile, brings an
engineering and design perspective
to education problems, Shelton said.
His focus: "how you get to everyone in
Both points of view are reflected
in the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative's
early efforts on education.
To date, the initiative has invested
in a number of companies such as
BYJU'S, an India-based startup behind a popular online-learning app,
and partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on an $11
milion "venture philanthropy" grant.
(The Gates Foundation has provided
support in the past to Education
Week for its coverage of personalized
At the same time, Shelton has overseen a number of grants to groups
without a technology focus, including
Vision to Learn, a Los Angeles-based
nonprofit that has provided free eye
exams and prescription glasses to
tens of thousands of students.
That dual commitment sends a welcome message for a field that has long
been split into opposing camps, said
Robert Schwartz, a professor emeritus of education policy at the Harvard
Graduate School of Education and a
former director of education grantmaking at the Pew Charitable Trusts.
"Saying we have to focus either on
what happens inside schools, or on
underlying issues around poverty and
communities and families, is a false
choice," Schwartz said. "This is an important signal that CZI is sending."
'Massive Disappointment' Ahead?
Still, some observers worry that the
Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative's broad
approach will further muddy two
concepts-personalized learning and
whole child-that already mean different things to different people.
The lack of clarity has made the
hard to evaluate. Research so far is
mixed, yielding some promising early
findings around specific instructional
practices and schools, but limited evidence to back up the transformative
potential that proponents describe, in
part because of major implementation
In the interview last month with
Education Week, Shelton sought to
balance an emphasis on research
and development with a Silicon Val-
ley-style focus on rapid growth. The
Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, he said,
will first aim to bring small advances
to large numbers of students.
"You can bring those incremental
improvements to people and improve
their lives on a daily basis, even as
you figure out how to get better," Shelton said. "One small breakthrough
leads to another breakthrough leads
to another breakthrough, [and] pretty
quickly, they start adding up."
But some skeptics say that if Chan,
Zuckerberg, and Shelton were truly
interested in seeing a thousand flowers bloom, they would pledge to make
the software tools that CZI is developing and supporting open source. That
way, the underlying code would be
available to others to use and adapt
in ways that their original creators
may not have foreseen.
And Stanford University emeritus
education professor Larry Cuban described an even more fundamental
challenge in bringing personalized
learning to scale.
Innovations in public education are
more about people than technology,
he said. As a result, even the bestfunded improvement efforts are often
stymied by institutional barriers to
changing how teachers teach and
"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," Cuban said. "If the ChanZuckerberg Initiative thinks it will
be easy to scale up within those
structures, they're in for a massive
That's a reality that Shelton has
been wrestling with for a long time.
Before his time at the U.S. Depart-
ment of Education, the 49-year-old
District of Columbia native worked
as a program officer for the Bill &
Melinda Gates Foundation. As a top
education official in the Obama administration, he oversaw the Investing in Innovation program, which
awarded $1.3 billion in federal grants
to build a "pipeline" of research-based
Neither the Gates Foundation nor
the Education Department found
clear success in bringing educational
innovations to scale.
more-traditional school performed 3
percentile points better than average
as a result of attending a personalized-learning school, the researchers
determined. That was true in both
reading and math, although only
the math gains were statistically
significant. Students in personalizedlearning schools who started the year
academically behind also made up
slightly more ground than comparable students in traditional schools.
The researchers also found a cumulative improvement in student-test
scores after schools had completed
their second year of implementing a
Still, Pane of RAND cautioned
against making too much of the
positive achievement results.
One reason: The charter schools in
the new study generally outperformed
the district-managed schools, many of
which actually saw drops in student
achievement after implementing a
It's also impossible to tell at this
stage which specific personalization
strategies and practices have the biggest impact, the report says.
"There's promise here, but we
have to do the scale up in a way
that's cautious and thoughtful,"
Many Levers to Pull
Now, though, Shelton said the
Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative is "trying to do something that's never been
done before, in a way that has never
One big difference is the many levers the organization will be able to
pull. Traditional nonprofit philanthropies, such as the Gates Foundation,
are generally prohibited from lobbying for specific legislation or participating directly in political campaigns.
As a limited-liability corporation, CZI
is not bound by such rules.
For now, at least, Shelton said the
initiative is "just figuring out how
to use" the policy-advocacy tools at
its disposal. The organization does
not have a specific education policy
agenda it is seeking to advance, he
But the organization won't rule out
the possibility that it might engage
in a host of political activities in the
future, including giving to candidates
and establishing its own 501(c)4 organization or political action committee.
Nor would the initiative commit to
publicly disclosing such activity if it
Despite professing a "commitment
philosophically to transparency,"
Shelton declined to commit to letting
the public know all the initiative's
philanthropic grants and for-profit
And CZI has clearly signaled its intent to try to shape policy debates in
education and to exert different kinds
of influence in complementary ways.
Those emphases create the real potential for hidden conflicts, said Sarah
Reckhow, an assistant professor of
political science at Michigan State
University who tracks philanthropic
giving in education.
So what is the Chan-Zuckerberg
Initiative doing to mitigate the potential for problematic overlap in its
spheres of influence?
"We're paying really close attention," said Shelton. He added that
forcing grantees to adopt specific tools
is "not how we want to operate."
Whether that's enough to assuage
critics who have already begun to
mobilize against the personalizedlearning movement-and who have
voiced concern at the prospect of another billionaire seeking to push the
educational system in his preferred
direction-remains to be seen.
Ultimately, Shelton said, the ChanZuckerberg Initiative feels as though
it's responsible primarily to the people
the organization is hoping to serve.
"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," he said. "I know many
people will be watching."
Visit the DIGITAL EDUCATION blog,
which tracks news and trends on this
By Benjamin Herold
Customizing instruction for every
student can generate modest gains
in math and reading scores, but it
can create major implementation
challenges for schools, concludes
a report released last week by the
The researchers behind the most
comprehensive ongoing study to date
of personalized learning describe
their latest findings as a "cautionary
tale" about a trend whose popularity
far outpaces its evidence base.
"It's important to set expectations," John F. Pane, a senior scientist and the distinguished chairman
in education innovation at RAND,
said in an interview. "This may not
work everywhere, and it requires
careful thought about the context
that enables it to work well."
The report, "Informing Progress:
Insights on Personalized Learning
Implementation and Effects," is the
third and most recent study in a
multiyear RAND analysis underwritten by the Bill & Melinda Gates
Foundation. (The Gates Foundation
has provided support in the past for
coverage of personalized learning in
Personalized learning generally
means using digital technologies to
tailor instruction to each student's
strengths and weaknesses, interests
and preferences, and optimal pace of
RAND's new findings are based
on surveys, interviews, and focus
groups with students, teachers, and
principals at 40 schools that have
embraced the idea. All have won
funding from Gates.
'Cautious and Thoughtful'
On the ground at "personalizedlearning schools," researchers found
that many management and instructional practices closely resembled
those employed at more-traditional
schools used as a comparison group.
Teachers also reported major challenges, such as not having enough
time to craft customized lessons for
RAND did find that embracing
personalized learning led to small
test-score gains. A student who would
have had average test scores in a
Pat McDonogh for Education Week
'A Cautionary Tale'
Fifth grader Jack
McGeen works on a
app at Amity Elementary
School near Cincinnati.
The school was not part
of a new RAND Corp.
study that found modest
test-score gains from
but challenges in
EDUCATION WEEK | July 19, 2017 | www.edweek.org | 11