Dr. Priscilla Chan visited Summit Denali School in Sunnyvale, Calif., in December 2014, a year before the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, or CZI, was founded, and saw students learning in a lot of different ways at once. There was a group of students teaching one another how to solve a problem; teachers were having a miniconference on one student’s needs; and another student worked by himself on a web media project.
Chan realized that a small school run by the public charter organization Summit Public Schools was able to “flip what the classroom looks like historically” to a model “that would be preparing kids for success in the future,” as she told an audience attending the George W. Bush Center Leadership Forum last spring in Dallas.
After Chan and, later, FacebookCEO Mark Zuckerberg, visited the Summit classroom, they told Diane Tavenner, Summit’s founder and CEO, “This is what schools should look like.” Then they asked, “What is it that you need?”
What Summit needed was to scale the project-based, personalized approach to education that it developed in its public charter schools in California and Washington state to schools everywhere. By this point, “thousands” of people had asked how to institute Summit’s approaches, Tavenner says.
With the help of Facebook engineers, Summit transformed its own cobbled-together platform into a free, online tool that will soon be used by 330 schools.
“We’re trying to provide every child in the world with an exceptional education over time,” says Jim Shelton, who recently stepped aside as CZI’s head of education. That means students “are prepared for the world as fast as it’s changing, and they can thrive and contribute to it.”
As Chan’s and Zuckerberg’s eyes opened to the possibilities of personalizing learning, Shelton, a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Education Department under President Barack Obama, was becoming aware of the science of learning and development. The science “pretty quickly walks you toward several conclusions that add up to needing to have much more personalized learning environments and experiences for young people,” he says.
Summit is a key part of CZI’s educational reform efforts, but the initiative is supporting a host of approaches, and not expecting any one group or program, including personalized learning, to be a magic bullet. Zuckerberg had an uneven early experience with a $100 million education donation to then–Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker’s controversial effort in 2010 to reform Newark schools. But the couple had been donating to and investing in new and varied approaches to improving public- school education by the time of their Summit visits.
Chan and Zuckerberg have spent a total of $500 million on education, before and after CZI began. They set up CZI in December 2015 as a limited liability corporation, instead of a foundation, to have flexibility in meeting their philanthropic goals, whether through traditional grant-making or via impacting investing, advocacy, or building tools like the Summit Learning Platform. Last May, CZI granted $14 million to Chicago public schools and LEAP Innovations, a Chicago nonprofit focused on personalized learning initiatives, to expand personalized learning practices in more city schools. CZI also invested in for-profit companies like BYJU, an Indian educational-technology firm, and Ellevation Education, a software maker.
CZI’s efforts are clearly welcome in a sector often woefully short on funds, particularly for innovation, but philanthropists shouldn’t think they have education covered. “Mark and Priscilla are very generous, but it isn’t sufficient to transform a whole system,” Tavenner points out. “I see this as a huge opportunity for people to work together for large-scale change.”