A Conversation on K-12 Education Philanthropy

K-12 Education

A Conversation on K-12 Education Philanthropy

Marc Sternberg, director of the K-12 Education Program at the Walton Family Foundation, talked with Jim Shelton, president of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and former deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, at the Philanthropy Roundtable 2016 National Forum on K-12 Philanthropy. 

They discussed successes and missed opportunities in education philanthropy, how technology can create systemic change and the future of education reform. 

Here are highlights from their conversation, edited for length.

Sternberg: I am struck by your comment about the fragility of the political coalition. Do you want to diagnose that a little bit, either retrospectively or prospectively how it gets fixed?

Shelton: We have always underinvested in the demand for and understanding of how to acquire high-quality options by families and decision makers in communities. And making sure that we have a broad coalition of people who shared a vision of where we were trying to go with the schools. And, so therefore, those folks are easily co-opted when the going gets hard. 

Second, as we move things forward, the notion of doing it in a way that assumes that the structural changes are the ones that are going to drive the quality outcomes and not keeping a laser-like focus on doing things that are not just incrementally better but dramatically better. If we don’t stay focused on doing things that are dramatically better, so the benefit to those people we’re trying to get to want to support change is clear, they have every reason to continue to be skeptical. So we have to be focused on how we’re going to actually change and improve the lives of the kids that we’re trying to serve. 

Third, I don’t know many people in my friend category who are only concerned about how their kid scores on standardized assessments. They assume their kids are going to learn to read and write. But almost everything else they’re concerned about is something else that has to do with the development of their child and what kind of person they’re going to be. We have allowed our movement for reform to be defined as only interested in that very narrow, necessary but insufficient lens of success. 

So, broadening the definition of success is going to be critical… We’ve got to create that kind of open space for young people to run, support them in doing it and convince people we care enough about their kids the way we care about our own. 

Sumit Kohli
Sumit Kohli

Sternberg: What other work is rising to the top for you? 

Shelton: We’ll continue to build on the work of trying to find models and approaches to providing a very different kind of education to young people that is much more personalized, that takes advantage of everything we know about mastery-based learning, about individualized learning, leveraging technology in some cases, in other cases not leveraging technology, to produce very different outcomes. 

It’s been said that social movements often take a little bit of anger and a whole lot of hope. And so you’ve got to stoke both of those things at the same time.

Sternberg: I’ve heard you say that this feels like the same question folks were asking five years before you went into government.

Shelton: I remember [education reform activist] Howard Fuller making the case, it has to be at least a decade and a half ago, that we should be investing in community organizing. And especially targeting communities of color to do that work, so there would be an informed constituency for the things we were trying to do. And he could not get funded for it. I can count myself among those who did not have the foresight to make a big bet on it myself…I hope I don’t make the same old mistakes again. And I’m hoping that as a collective, we can recognize where we could have done better. 

Sternberg: You’ve talked about the need to get past the idea of reaching thousands, even tens or hundreds of thousands of kids, to thinking in the millions. Talk to us about how we’re going to pull that off. 

Shelton: Impact in an individual classroom and with an individual student always matters, but when we’re talking about the tipping point, when we’re talking about moving the needle nat¬ionally or globally, you have to be talking about millions…

So, we have to figure out how to break out of the tens and hundreds and into the thousands and tens and hundreds of thousands and millions of students being served. And, one of the great things is that this is one of the places where we can leverage technology to do the things that technology has done really well for a long time, which is: how has technology figured out how in every other sector to take what was previously a luxury good and make it affordable and broadly accessible to the masses? 

Mark [Zuckerberg] and Priscilla [Chan] were focused on personalized learning before I got there, but if you had said, there are two things that are a perfect match for me, one is this notion, this fixation, this obsession I’ve had with a simple question which is: there have already been studies to show, you guys know the two-signal problem, right? If you give a kid a one-to-one tutor and do mastery learning, they will outperform their peer in the classroom by two standard deviations. For those of you like me, that means 50th percentile kid goes to the 98th percentile. And you close the gap between the bottom and the top. So the question is, if we know this, and this has been repeated over and over again, then why aren’t we doing it? 

…There’s no reason to believe that we can’t actually do it…

Once you can demonstrate truly dramatic outcome differences, not incremental, not debatable, it gets a lot harder for any opposition, for whatever reason they may have, to get in the way.

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