Personalize That

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have pledged 99% of their fortune to making the world a better place. Given the relentless flow of bad news in the world, this is indeed cause for optimism if not wild celebration. Predictably, some folks have quibbled about the means (an LLC rather than a traditional charity) or questioned the sincerity of their altruism. And others are skeptical of their ability to pull this off this given their fiasco in Newark in which $100 million investment in public schools mostly wound up in the hands of consultants.

But no one, so far, has questioned what’s at the top of the list of things they want to focus on: personalized learning. Because, let’s face it, who could be against such a thing even if we’re not sure what it is? I’m not sure I know exactly what it is despite having spent three years of my life working on a portfolio software platform whose very premise was based on a tenet of personalized learning— that students will be motivated towards deeper learning if they are given the ability to demonstrate it through content they create using different media and apps.

Somewhere along my trek with tech I began to see that my lens on education was of a decidedly different color than that of my fellow ed-tekkies.

1. I was old enough to be their grandfather – my lens was progressive bifocal, with a curmudgeon tint.

2. I didn’t have their unquestioned faith in the ability of our apps to affect positive social change. I couldn’t see how real social change, even in the age of Twitter, could happen without thankless work and commitment.

3. Data obsession. Everything had to be data driven and I was beginning to feel that data was driving us off a cliff.

4. A high-minded but often misleading vocabulary: traction, value proposition, disruptive technology, personalized learning. Truth be told, in the context of edu-tech, “personalized learning” means kids spending more time with an electronic device rather than a real person.

Then there were the hidden forces. So much of what drives startups are the agenda and vocabulary of the money that funds them rather than the actual social or capital value of the ideas. And in education that can lead to wastelands like the $100M Newark school reform boondoggle.

Investors want scale. Investors want quick results. And investors believe that any idea of value can and should be described in a 30-second elevator pitch.

But education, is a social good with elusive rules. Many of our best schools are small and not easily scalable. And the road to success in a good school may be long. And the “value propositions” behind a successful school may take hours to describe, not seconds.

So, at the very least, I hope that Mark and Priscilla (might as well be on a first name basis with folks who are going to shower us with this much money) show themselves to be open to ideas about education that require more sophisticated thinking and a longer time horizon than the current crop of education reform-minded funders have as yet embraced.

One more point: There was a time, not that long ago actually, when charter schools were equated in the public’s eye with a progressive, personalized approach to education, pedagogically as well as technically. Sadly, we don’t have to look too far to see that this is not the image our sector enjoys by those who think and write about what we are doing.

There was a recent article in the NYTimes about the AltSchool opening in Brooklyn – one of growing number of such private, for-profit schools, with strong progressive and technical bona fides and with a healthy Zuckerberg investment. This was the kicker at the end of the article:

AltSchool… is serious about the idea that progressive education should not simply be the provenance of the well off. This is a notion markedly absent in the boot-camp model of so many of the city’s charter schools, where learning can too easily be divorced from pleasure, and fear rather than joy is the operative motivator.

I found that statement to sting – personally.

But I’m also hopeful that Mark and Priscilla will learn a great deal through their investment in private education that can help inform their philanthropy in public education. They’ve shown admirable generosity and an ability to learn.

Stay tuned and Happy Holidays!

Steve Zimmerman, Co-Director of C3S


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