How Mark Zuckerberg Can Help the Bay Area’s Poorest Schools

By Kristiana Raube

Wicked public challenges, such as providing high-quality education or breaking the cycle of poverty, require collaboration between all sectors – government, philanthropists, for-profit businesses, and the communities themselves.

But harnessing all those elements is harder than it sounds, even when you have a dedicated source of funding for an ambitious new effort.

The Bay Area is about to become a laboratory for exactly this kind of opportunity and challenge. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, has pledged $120 million over five years to revitalize public schools in several of this region’s most underserved communities.

Public Schools California

It’s a courageous and praiseworthy move by Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. Unfortunately, as they themselves know first-hand, money and good intentions do not guarantee success. Since 2010, the couple has pumped $100 million into an attempt to radically revamp the schools of Newark, N.J.

But as the New Yorker magazine reported in May, that effort has produced a lot of conflict and local criticism without – at least so far – significant improvements in educational outcomes.

It’s wrong to dismiss the Newark effort as a failure. Impoverished school districts face a complex tangle of challenges, from budget woes to social turmoil. There are no simple solutions, and almost any proposed reform will spark conflict. Even if a reform is exactly what a school district might need, it still takes years to produce a measurable improvement in overall student performance.

But since Zuckerberg and Chan are taking a second bite of the apple, it’s important to reflect on the lessons so far about the interplay between private and public efforts in solving public problems. This is a precious opportunity, but it’s an easy one to fritter away.

As Zuckerberg and Chan themselves have remarked, even $120 million is a “drop in the bucket.” The Oakland school district’s annual school budget alone is more than $1 billion.

The real opportunity here is for innovation, for testing promising ideas and building on the results.

Governments have the scale to reach the entire public, but they are inherently risk-averse and weak on innovation. Philanthropists like Zuckerberg and Chan have more freedom, and can play a role similar to that of venture capitalists. They can provide seed funding for new strategies, and accept the risk that many of their projects will not work out as hoped. If a project does produce measurable benefits, however, it offers a template that countless other school districts to replicate at much less risk than if they had started out from scratch.

If Newark showed one thing, it was the dangers of over-confidence. Then-mayor Cory Booker declared at the outset that “we know what works.”

That should have been a red flag. No matter how good an idea might be, it’s dangerous to impose it from the top down. It’s crucial to listen to people in the community – parents, teachers, local community leaders. If people in the community feel that a reform is being imposed on them from outside, even great ideas will either be blocked at the outset or wither and die from apathy. Even altruistic reformers can provoke powerful resentment among parents and educator.

It’s important to remember that parents, teachers and local community leaders have crucial knowledge. They are the ones on the front lines, and they understand the nuances of the challenges in a particular neighborhood or school. These are also the people who have the highest stakes in their schools, and they will be around long after the philanthropic money has been spent.

To their credit, Zuckerberg and Chan are thinking along these lines. In a column for the San Jose Mercury News, they emphasized the importance of “listening to the needs of local educators and community leaders so that understand the needs of students that others miss.” They also seem to be targeting modest goals: grants to provide more computers and connectivity; teacher training; leadership training for principals; programs to ease the transition between middle and high school.

All this is good. Ironically, however, the new risk may be excessive humility.

If Zuckerberg and Chan’s foundation, Startup:Education, simply supports a wish-list from local school administrators, it’s easy to imagine their money being frittered away with almost nothing to show at the end.

There is no shortage of genuine bread-and-butter needs. California ranks almost dead last among the nation’s 50 states in per-capita spending on public schools. Schools need everything from computers and books to lab equipment and teachers’ aides.

Those aren’t problems that philanthropists can solve with a one-shot injection of money. They require ongoing funding from local, state and federal taxpayers. “Philanthropy is no substitute for government funding. You can’t say that loud enough,” Robert W. Conn, president of the Kavli Foundation, told the New York Times.

What philanthropists can and should be doing is underwriting innovation and bold ideas. Today’s schools still tend to be based on assumptions about the workplace of the 1950’s and 1960’s rather on than today’s hyper-connected and fast-changing information economy. Educators themselves need training to keep up and catch up with the changing nature of work itself.

We are all groping for answers, especially for students who wrestle with huge social and financial obstacles in their day-to-day lives. But that isn’t a reason to think small. It’s a reason to focus on the big questions, try bold ideas that schools can’t or won’t try themselves, measure the results, and learn from both the successes and failures.

Over the long-term, those are the kinds of investments that will really pay off.

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