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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative's Skewed Values

You can't define your goals if you don't understand your values.

July 12, 2018

Stipulated: Everyone involved in education wants what’s best for students.

Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg are among those who have declared this desire and have put some money behind the goal of achieving the best for students with their Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI).

In the first paragraph of their education mission statement, headlined with “Putting students and teachers at the center of education," CZI says, “The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative believes that every child should enter adulthood able to recognize and realize their full potential. This means that by age 21, everyone should be able to earn a living wage, build independence, and identify and pursue their passions.”

It’s a pretty solid mission statement. I’m willing to sign on.

But what the CZI is up to with its highlighted programs reveals the limits of declaring a goal without also discussing the values which underpin the pursuit of that goal. As education reformers have found out, declaring we want to raise student achievement is not particularly meaningful when that achievement is defined by standardized test scores which can be manipulated by cheating, as happened in Atlanta and Washington D.C.

A goal absent shared values in the pursuit of that goal becomes problematic. In fact, if the values aren’t shared, we may not actually be agreeing on the goal in the first place. We all want students to “learn,” but you’ll find many different definitions and ways to measure learning, some of which may be in direct opposition.

When values aren’t considered before setting goals, some odd things can happen.

Consider one of the CZI’s chief education projects, its Summit Learning Platform for personalized learning. I left out the final sentence of the first paragraph of the CZI mission statement, “We believe a whole child approach to personalized learning – focused on and led by the learner – is the most promising way to achieve this vision.”

So while there’s no doubt the CZI wants what’s best for students, that best must also involve technology-mediated personalized learning as housed in a proprietary technology developed by the CZI which is not a charity, but a limited liability company.

Unfortunately, there is as of yet no evidence that personalized learning software works. Larry Berger of Amplify, one of the pioneers of personalized learning says the “engineering model” (which the Summit Learning Platform) embraces, doesn’t work. In fact, we have no evidence that personalized learning is capable of any of the things its supporters claim to value in education. 

Another CZI program, a partnership with The College Board to expand access to “customized SAT practice through Kahn Academy, and Advanced Placement computer science courses and peer advising through the National College Advising Corps,” is even more befuddling when weighed against the goal of every child entering adulthood “able to recognize and realize their full potential.”

This particular initiative makes little sense on its face.

  1. There will always be a limit on how many students can be admitted to the most selective institutions. While free SAT tutoring may help more students compete for those slots, the number of students who benefit is, by definition, finite.
  2. Only 4% of all 4-year institutions accept fewer than 25% of applicants. Eighty percent of 4-year institutions accept more than 50% of applicants. Add in 2-year colleges and we see he vast majority of students, regardless of background, will go to a non selective institution where SAT scores have little bearing.
  3. SAT scores are not correlated to success in college, therefore improving on the SAT is not a useful thing for its own sake.
  4. If that’s not enough, elite institutions are in the process of moving away from using standardized tests as a key part of admissions criteria. AP exams are also being phased out by elite secondary schools as they are no longer sufficiently “differentiating.”

In many ways, the College Board partnership is focused on helping students with less access to resources compete in a game which the well-resourced students are already leaving behind.

Without an underlying system of values about what is meaningful in education, the CZI programs seem kind of  random.

In reality, these CZI programs embody a very narrow definition of what it means for a  student to realize their full potential, and how that potential can be achieved. There is little evidence their programs would achieve CZI’s goals even if they were completely successful.

Interestingly, there is one major CZI program which has a “one of these things is not like the other” quality, Vision to Learn, which helps provide access to basic eye care because if you can’t see, you can’t read.

How simple, and how great is that? Consider how different the values embodied in the Vision to Learn program are. It is not a program to help students compete. It is a program which allows them access to actually play.

What would it look like if all CZI initiatives were focused on achieving this kind of equity?

What if they also made sure no student was hungry at school or any other time for that matter?

What if every student had access to teachers who were able to pay them an appropriate amount of individualized attention?

What if every student had access to music, art, and theater programs to enhance their academic, emotional, and social capabilities?

I’m certain there’s less profit in it, but the goal is for every child to recognize and reach their full potential, right?





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