An early look at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative's investments in education

A student in Vietnam. Photo by: Chau Doan / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

You may not recognize the acronym yet — CZI — but you’ve probably heard of the founders.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan launched the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative at the end of 2015 — in a letter on Facebook to their newborn daughter. CZI counts education among its early top priorities, and has started to make investments that shed light on the approach CZI will take.

Chan and Zuckerberg have brought on leaders whose expertise they value and perspective they trust to take big risks in advancing the issues they care about. Jim Shelton, the head of Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s education efforts, spoke Thursday at Social Capital Markets in San Francisco, California. Here are three takeaways from his talk, which offered some insight into how this new and much-discussed philanthropic venture thinks about education investments:

1. Learning is the most powerful lever to improve education.

“Education is teaching and learning, learning and teaching, with the overlay of politics, policy, and organizational norms. A lot of people spent a lot of time talking about those last three,” said Shelton, who worked most recently at the education technology program 2U, with previous stints as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education and program director for education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Shelton’s focus at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is how to transform learning. By investing in solutions that empower the learner, funders can take pressure off of educational systems, he said.

Recent investments by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in emerging markets include BYJU’s, an India-based company that helps students learn math and science on their own, and Andela, a Nigeria-based company that trains top tier tech talent from across the African continent and pairs them with companies in need of skilled developers.

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2. Governments need to put the right incentives in place.

A world beating education system can transform a developing country to a thriving economy, Shelton said. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, while many of its investments begin in the United States, aims to contribute to system-level improvements that can benefit the globe. But when it comes to this kind of transformation, apps such as BYJU’s and startups such as Andela are only part of the picture.

One of the problems with education is that it lacks an innovation pipeline in which many things are tried and those that work get access to resources to go to scale, Shelton said. Governments, he said, need to fund the interventions and innovations that do not offer market incentives for people to “jump in and get it done.” The best role that government can play in the future of education is to get the incentives right, Shelton said.

He pointed to higher education system in the United States, explaining that the U.S. set up a perfect system for broad access to higher education, but forgot one thing: graduation. As a result, a whole sector has risen around getting people into college without much attention at all to whether they get their diplomas.

“Foresight,” he said. “We’ve got to bring it into government.”

3. Education requires exponential thinking.

The audience laughed when Shelton called the Chan and Zuckerberg Initiative’s approach to such modest goals as unlocking human potential, promoting equality, and helping people learn 100 times more than they do today “straightforward.”

But his optimism reflects an “exponential” versus “incremental” mindset, characteristic of the CZI approach. This is the kind of thinking needed to respond to problems in ways that make things, as Shelton put it, “not just a little better but dramatically better, and not just for a few people but for a lot of people.”  

Shelton asked who in the audience had heard of “Bloom’s 2 sigma problem.”

In 1984, educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom discovered that “mastery learning techniques” in one-to-one tutoring sessions helped students perform two standard deviations better than conventional instructional methods. While Bloom acknowledged that this model would be too costly to implement at scale, his work inspired others to replicate the effectiveness of one-to-one tutoring in more affordable and scalable ways.

The growth of technology and the spread of connectivity, which Zuckerberg is supporting through his initiatives at Facebook, are allowing for new products such as personalized learning apps to simulate the effects of tutoring without the high cost of in person sessions.

“We need to talk about orders of magnitude of change when we talk about improvement,” Shelton said.

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About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.