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Illustration by Mark Weaver

How to Spend $100 Million to Really Save Education

It's Not as Easy as Zuckerberg Thinks. (Tweet your ideas here!)

The elite has become obsessed with fixing public schools. Whether it's Ivy League graduates flocking to Teach for America or new-money foundations such as Gates, Broad, and Walton bestowing billions on the cause, "for the under-40 set, education reform is what feeding kids in Africa was in 1980," Newark, New Jersey, education reformer Derrell Bradford told the Associated Press last fall.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is the latest entrepreneur to join this rush. He announced in late September that he planned to donate $100 million to the city of Newark to overhaul its school system. Zuckerberg, a billionaire by age 23, has little experience in philanthropy and no connection to Newark; he met the city's mayor, Cory Booker, at a conference and was impressed with Booker's ideas for school reform. Plans are still sketchy, but Zuckerberg has endorsed merit pay for teachers, closing failing schools, and opening more charters.

So will this princely sum produce a happy ending? Unlikely. The Zuckerberg gift, like all social action, is based on a particular "theory of change" -- a set of beliefs about the best strategy to produce a desired outcome. The United Way has one theory of change about the best way to feed the hungry (direct aid funded by international private donations). Che Guevara had a very different one (self-help through armed revolution). Unfortunately, the theory of change behind the recent infusion of private money into public schools is based on some questionable assumptions: First, public schools will improve if they harness more resources. Second, charter schools and strong, MBA-style leaders are the preferred means of improvement. And third, a school's success can be measured through standardized testing.

The Newark Public Schools already belie the first assumption. They allocate $22,000 per year per student, more than twice the national average of $10,000. Yet Newark graduates only half its charges. Private-sector education crusaders often counter that it's not just money they bring to the table -- it's a mind-set. Whether from Silicon Valley or Wall Street, they believe that empowering the chief is the key to a school's success. These execs are expected to foster competition, raise expectations, emphasize metrics, and take on the unions. It's a logic embraced by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for one, in his decision to appoint a magazine publisher, former Hearst Magazines chairwoman Cathie Black, as the chancellor of the New York City Department of Education.

Zuckerberg wants to follow this playbook by insisting that Newark install Mayor Booker as the head of its school system, which would require skirting state law. Already, local activists have threatened a lawsuit, a move Zuckerberg shrugs off. "For me, this is more like a venture-capital approach where you pick the entrepreneur, the leader that you believe in, and then give them a lot of leverage," he told the blog TechCrunch.

Venture capitalists, and those who take the VC approach to school reform, love the independently run public schools known as charter schools, another trend Zuckerberg is likely to promote in Newark. Charters function like an educational startup. They give ultimate power to leaders, freeing them from many district rules, including union agreements, and they depend on a round-the-clock work ethic. Sadly, charters fail at similar rates to startups -- and when they do, children can be the casualties. A 2009 national study from Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that 37% of charter-school students performed worse than their counterparts at public schools: 46% matched up, and just 17% showed clear gains.

Of course, such "performance" stats hinge on one central metric: standardized test scores. And it's here, I believe, that the philanthropic narrative of school reform breaks down. A growing chorus of educational iconoclasts, including Diane Ravitch and Sir Ken Robinson, argue that such scores are exactly the wrong gauges of success. What do they really measure? "Taking tests again and again does not make kids smarter," Ravitch says. "Their motivation does not improve, their interest in their education does not increase, and their achievement does not improve." Judging schools based on test scores means pushing students to conform to a single standard deviation, rather than cultivating their individual passions.

Many of the people who disagree with Ravitch and Robinson (and me, for that matter) are smart and dedicated. The face of their movement is former Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee, who is profiled on page 94, revealing why she's pushing her new billion-dollar program. Also included in this package: suggestions from a wide range of experts, from elementary-school principals to philanthropists and union chiefs. Put it together, and you've got a foment of ideas all aimed at benefiting children. Whatever your policy position, that's a good thing.

Our continued prosperity in a postindustrial economy depends on creativity and innovation. And that's why Zuckerberg's decision to follow the popular script disappoints me. I wish he had taken his $100 million, and some of his smartest people, and designed a new framework for education from the ground up, much the way he built Facebook from a dorm-room idea to a global brand. Is it possible to craft an education platform that's as participatory, offers as much opportunity for self-expression, and is as magnetic to young people as Facebook itself? That would be a theory of change worth testing.

13 Radical Ideas

How would you spend $100 million? the answers are as varied as the edu-experts we asked.

Radical Idea #1
Radical Idea #2
Radical Idea #3
Radical Idea #4
Radical Idea #5
Radical Idea #6: Rethinking Teaching
Radical Idea #7
Radical Idea #8
Radical Idea #9
Radical Idea #10
Radical Idea #11
Radical Idea #12
Radical Idea #13: Build a Better Classroom

How Would You Spend $100 Million To Save Education?

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Illustration by Mark Weaver

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15 Comments

  • michael kaufman

    When I read the ideas offered in this article I find myself getting really sad. I find it frustrating to see how many people continue to confuse the word education with the word schooling - making the mistake that they are somehow one and the same thing. What we actually have in the United States is a free public schooling system. Schooling ≠ Education.

    From where I sit making this distinction (and really understanding it's meaning) should make all the difference in the world when it comes to thinking about 'improvements' or making changes or coming up with 'radical ideas.'

    First, all of us must make a decision whether schooling is what we want for our children. If it is - then certain suggestions (like most of the suggestions in this article) make sense.

    If schooling isn't what we want for our children and what we really want is an education system then the suggestions, solutions, improvements, and changes we would suggest would in fact be radical - and very different from what is suggested in this article.

    If I had $100million dollars I would spend some of that money on "educating" people about the difference between schooling and education. I would then help them decide which one of these they want, and then begin the process of designing the appropriate environments and methods to achieve those outcomes. Assuming people want a real "education" system we would start to see some 'radical' ideas.

    I'd be happy to continue to dialog about this!

  • James Whitman

    After spending my whole life in public schools and teaching for another seventeen years in a public high school, I can state with 100 percent certainty that $100 million can't save public education. You really can't put a price tag on what it would take, but whatever the price, it will be well worth it in the long run. To succeed at educational reform, we must succeed in several areas of social reform. The fractured American family, the uban ghettos, the growing prison population.....a progressive trillion dollar effort to restore the families in these communities would actually save many trillions of dollars in the long run, and more importantly, it would save lives. Today, we are actually perpetuating the decline by ignoring the root of the problem. Offering a paultry $100 million dollars is tantamount to sending firefighters to a large house fire and telling them to extinguish the flames with just their spit! We need a monumental effort that reaches deep into our communities to provide solid, healthy role models that can guide our nation's youth in the absence of a good parent. Save one kid from the cycle of a broken home, and there's an exponential postive effect. It will take decades and a much greater financial investment, but it is the only real solution.

  • Joseph Schwartz

    I've been a teacher in a suburban NJ high school for eight years and came from private industry before that. I currently teach a course in Computer Graphics & Design and have come to realize in my grad school research on Design Education that the "one size fits all" format does not work anymore. It did, when the basic education level of children was rudimentary, at best. When you start with a low bar, as it was 100 years ago, creating a standardized format for the educational process worked - and worked well.

    Today's typical student is technologically savvy by third grade, uses computers and the internet for research, entertainment and communication, and has more knowledge by eighth grade than a high school graduate had 40 years ago. Yet, our educational system is based on systems that are decades old.

    Our inability as a society to innovate and design original solutions has been hampered by an inability to modify methods of teaching to suit the latest generation of students. How would I spend $100 million? I would create a new model of education that is customized for the needs of the students, not some antiquated and fictitious need that requires every student to graduate high school having taken classes that they will never use again. Not every student is wired to take advanced placement math and science courses, yet many of them are shoved into these seats to justify the expense of running such courses. We are not adequately preparing each student for their own path of success - we are restraining them and giving them a late jump. Using $100 million to develop a curriculum toolkit that brings the American education system up to 21st Century needs would be a much more effective way to help students.

    When non-experts such as Oprah, Mark Zuckerberg and John Legend get more press and recognition than actual teachers, we have a problem. When NJ Governor Chris Christie can appear on CNN and declare that a 92% graduation rate in his own state is "a pocket of success", rather than an indicator of success, we have a problem. When Michelle Rhee can start a PAC with a $1 billion fundraising goal, despite her failures in Washington, DC, we have a problem. The problem is that none of these people have brought any real solutions to the table - they are looking to grab attention for themselves, not students. They are not innovators - they are reality-show contestants in a reality-show world.

    Hey, Mark - another idea: you want to spend $100 million wisely? Put your money where your mouth is - quit your job at Facebook, get your butt into a classroom and walk the walk. All you did was put the money up and walk away.

  • Cari Begin

    I agree with much of what you said here, however I think the Oprahs and Legends are finally bringing attention to this situation. As educators we have been discussing these issues for years. This is not a new problem, we've known we were headed down this road for decades. It's only been since the big names have come on board that it is being highlighted in the general public's eye. While this is frustrating and maddening at times, I am relieved that this conversation has finally been escalated to this point.

  • Chris

    How about spending the money on creating more personalized instruction - matching teaching styles to student's learning styles, personalities and interests. What's really wrong with public education is that it's always been one size fits all.

  • Scott Kaple

    After being in the high school classroom for 28 years, I would offer up a few observations. State mandates about curriculum--what every child should know for standardized tests--go way beyond what is necessary to function in society. Literacy as in the ability to read a complex work beyond a pargraph is on the decline. Add to the mix a lack of motivation to partcipate in schooling, and society has much to work on. That being said, the current generation's brightest students are every bit as bright as before, but what they will do with their abilities is the hundred-million-dollar-question.

  • Terrence N. Bailey, PE

    I believe if we want to make the USA an innovative enterprise we as a nation should add computer science and all of its sub-disciplines into the core curriculum in our school. That is computer construction, programming, network operations etc. The same way there are 4 years of mathematics and english required to graduate high school, 4 years of computer training is a reasonable expectation to keep the US on the cutting edge on innovation.

  • Terrence N. Bailey, PE

    I understand the initial role of the teachers union is to protect the interest of the teachers, but at what point is the betterment of the students more important than the need of the individual teacher. Is that even a reasonable expectation that teachers think of students before themselves? This is a free market economy, why do we need unions and why should teachers or any employee for that matter be guaranteed anything. If you do your job and do it well then you till most likely keep your job. Why should the weak and incompetent be protected underneath the umbrella of a union contract.

    Its a good gig if you can get it, be then were would that leave our economy if everyone was guaranteed a job, I believe that's one of the fundamental tenets of socialism, isn't it.

  • Terrence N. Bailey, PE

    How about someone create a crowdsourcing site where the best and brightest can submit ideas, and others in the education community can add to the idea and even vote on the most popular and practical idea. The WINNING idea would potentially be implemented in select locations.

  • Terrence N. Bailey, PE

    I say year round school, start pre-k at age 2, and begin a process to identify children's strengths by age 7 then pour encouragement into the student in those areas that they excel, while simultaneously creating a system which allows student's to grow into new areas of experience. If student's are encouraged in area they excel they will be more inclined focus and pour themselves into their own education.

  • Patrick

    IMHO the best way to spend that kind of funding is to help fund a self-sustaining system of future funding and revenue generation. A system that will generate funding for schools through use of social media. One that will continue on after the original funding is gone.

  • Andrew Krause

    @Rita, studies have proven out that parent engagement - with both teachers and children - is the absolute key. There is no tighter correlation to scholastic succes - not with classroom size, nor with per-student spending and not with incentive programs. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the issue in his book "Outliers", and how parent engagement is one of the biggest success factors in a child's development. (Look for the section about Christopher Langan, arguably one of the smartest people of our era, but certainly not successful by the standards most people would hold for someone with the "supergenius" label. Langan was abandoned by his abuse father at an early age, clashed frequently with authority figures and wound up never finishing university.)

    (Sir) Ken Robinson has given some talks at TED (videos are online), and I believe he's hit the nail on the head. The US and much of the world has based its public education system the needs of and therefore the principles of the industrial age. Everyone at a public school received the same basic education. As our society has changed, this model hasn't changed only the direction; in 1900 (around the start of the High School movement), it was assumed that every child receiving a public education was going to work in a factory. They learned reading, writing and arithmetic. Affluent children went to private schools or had individual tutors, and it was assumed that they were going to take the reigns of society, so they additionally learned law, economics, latin, arts and history.

    In the middle of the 20th century, a large middle class grew out of the proletariat with aspirations of affluence (and many of the trappings), but whether for preference or financial reasons, they sent their children to public schools. Because middle class parents tend to be more engaged with their children and teachers than working class parents, they drove the entire public schools system to mirror the education of private schools; it was now about providing an education to prepare children for university then professional careers, and not for life as a tradesman or factory worker. As a result, public schools are marginalizing some 20% of students while underserving an additional 33%. (I generalize these stats from the Stanford University Center for Educational Outcomes report on Charter School performance.)

    Simply put, we have a one-size-fits-all mandatory public education system. The only significant change to that has been the introduction of public charter and magnet schools which focus on vocational prep or STEM training. These have been proven to be a wild success for marginalized students, but have made no change or even worsened the problem for other students. What we need is - and forgive me for this - is a Sorting Hat that chooses at an early age which path most fits a childs aptitudes. School systems are reticent to sort children for fear of stigmatizing them, but if the choice of path is voluntary and the Sorthing Hat is only a suggestion then we can maximize both educational outcomes and individual satisfaction with education. By sorting children and setting them on the path that will give them the greatest chance for individual success, we can channel students through a two or three pronged educational system similar to the hauptschule/mittelschule/gymnasium system used by Germany or Japan - two countries consistently at the top of global education rankings.

    One of the best books I've read on the issue as of late is "Outrageous Learning" by former Microsoft executive Scott Oki. He draws on his extensive experience in trying to reform education in Washington State. I think the big lesson from his book - and from most educational thinkers today (even the retreads) - is that it doesn't matter what we do, as long as we do something. Where there are alternatives, the aggregate of decision making by parents, children and educators will get us as close to the best solution as we can possibly get without otherwise complete omniscience. As long as we do nothing more than what we always have done, the situation will not improve.

  • Danielle

    I'm not impressed with the education in Washington state. I teach here. Really.

    Would anybody besides me like to just get rid of the College Board?

  • John Mack

    1. Follow the collaborative process involving all affected parties as used in Alberta, Canada. Earned full teacher support. Successful results.

    2. School reform cannot be accomplished through the cultish worship of the Ivy league MBA and the CEO.

    3. School reform should not be led by Ivy League and corporate propagandists. Let them clean up the crooked operations of Wall St, where they dominate and make no effort to do the right thing.

  • Rita Ernst

    I see a lot of retread of the same old thinking. As a parent of children in public schools, I don't think we know what the differentiators are. Is it really about earlier intervention or is it about parent engagement? I would love to see the results of an independent study like the one conducted for the book "Good to Great" focused on school and students that definitively articulates the top 10 differentiators between Great schools and student and Good ones.