How to Spend $100 Million to Really Save Education

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

How to Spend $100 Million to Really Save Education
Illustration by Mark Weaver Illustration by Mark Weaver

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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About the author

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her 2011 ebook The Edupunks’ Guide was funded by the Gates Foundation