I am sorry Mr. Zuckerberg, Startup: Education will improve your reputation but not necessarily the lives of children

These days we hear a lot about Zuckerberg’s $100 million foundation Startup: Education, which was established in cooperation with the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker in order to improve student educational success and “champion great teachers.” In fact, this ambitious project aims to reform public education in the United States if testing New Jersey’s waters proves successful.

At its core, the idea is simple. In order to reform public education one can use a simple formula, which will embrace one billionaire and the support of local authorities. Supposedly, by implementing an entrepreneurial approach to education, it is possible to make schools accountable, transform low performing students into high achievers, and improve teachers’ performance. Wait a second. Does it mean that public education cannot be improved from within? Without private investors? What do teachers think about this initiative? What does education research have to offer? Does it imply that if you can donate $100 million, you actually have a say in shaping public education policy? Why is it so?

There is not much transparency about the operation of Startup: Education. In an interview to NJ.com, the Teacher Union President Joe Del Grosso says that he is troubled by the ongoing secrecy surrounding the Facebook donation: “We don’t know what the foundation is doing or how they intend to spend the other money.” Del Grosso insists that “with that money comes a responsibility to the public to be clear about its use.” Yet, many teachers, parents, and broader members of the community continue to raise their concerns about the murky conditions under which Startup: Education operates.

Startup: Education is another privatization effort in public education, reflecting the logic of running schools like businesses.  In 2011, for example, a $500,000 grant from the Facebook money was used to attract high-quality principals to the district who were given the authority to staff their schools as they see fit.  According to NJ.com, teachers who did not make the cut were demoted to teacher’s aide jobs or other supporting roles. The funding also went to support the establishment of charter schools and the introduction of merit pay schemes. Not surprisingly, the foundation became quickly implicated in the closure of some public schools and many teacher layoffs on the pretext of ‘low performance delivered.’

However, public education is not a business and should not be managed like a company. While there is no clear answer to the question whether private donations lead to student higher academic achievements, it is crystal clear that in a democratic society, all players – think students, parents, teachers, and local communities – should be involved in the decision-making process regarding public education.

Feel free to like the idea of the Startup: Education, “surprisingly”, on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/startupeducation.

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9 thoughts on “I am sorry Mr. Zuckerberg, Startup: Education will improve your reputation but not necessarily the lives of children

  1. Neat post Olga! I had no idea that our Facebook activities were funding public education charities. While I agree that public education in the US is not a business, it is hard to ignore the financial difficulties that many public school districts are facing now. Zuckerberg is a businessman and he sees injections of cash as helpful for business, so I don’t know that we should fault him for that. However, he clearly is addressing a problem a lot of our lawmakers don’t seem to bring up: our schools are broke and breaking down, and it is affecting educational quality.

    • Thanks for your comment, Carolyn! Why do businessmen deal with matters of public education without broader public discussion of how those money are spent?

  2. All their millions don’t seem to go toward the kids. Just toward breaking up teacher unions and funneling public money into private hands. The Waltons are doing the same thing in LA.

    • Lots of Zuckerberg’s money from that donation were spent on consulting firms and funding of other businesses unfortunately!

      • Yes, but many great charities have a lot of overhead and spend money in areas that aren’t directly related to their mission. Great organizations need to provide great salaries and benefits to attract good employees. The Red Cross, Oxfam, Save the Children….I bet those organizations spend about 10% on overhead…that’s millions!
        However, I think with Zuckerberg, he’s a businessman and his answer to issues is to throw money at it. He’s also not that much older than we are and probably hasn’t benefited from the type of comparative education we have and couldn’t predict the outcomes of his work. Perhaps the results aren’t up to our specialized, educated beliefs, but should we fault his purpose or his charity? I don’t think so. He’s a very, very wealthy kid who wants to help his local schools.
        It would be the responsibility of his advisors, Chris Christie and Cory Booker to counsel him on the best methods and what NJ schools need. But I also think it’s the recipients’ responsibility to be firm about what is needed and will help and what won’t. They know best, and they should communicate that. Perhaps they have, but to deaf ears…
        I know it’s easy to criticize development/charity work that goes badly because it’s obvious where the flaws are. I don’t think he doesn’t care about education, Michael (how can you know that?); but he might not know about educational planning, leadership, success, etc. When wealthy individuals express a desire to help out through financial contributions, which are extremely valuable, than perhaps it is the responsibility of the community to be impacted to try their best to counsel the donor on what they want/need. Obviously, they know best. And the donor must listen. If it doesn’t work, try, try again….

        (The next time I’m able to give millions to a cause, I’ll keep all these lessons in mind… :))

  3. I firmly believe that innovation is not the answer. I think in a lot of respects, we, America, need to resort back to the basics. Mr. Zuckerberg does not care about education, however what he does care about is the image of Facebook. Which in my opinion ruined interpersonal communication, contributed to addiction, and has damaged the educational system. It is clear to see, this is nothing but PHILANTHROCAPITALISM!

    On a positive note, very well written and informative post. Knowledge is power!

  4. I can’t fault million dollar donations to education-every state should be so lucky. However I can fault its use and the term ‘failing schools.’ I think failing schools are often the result of ‘failing communities.’ Highly paid, highly motivated teachers can’t make up a lack of resources in the community, at home, parental education, child development and the cultural importance of education etc.
    It’s not just the education system that needs financial development.

  5. I agree with you, James. By injecting money in education social problems are not resolved. In addition, why do some schools receive money and others don’t? Who decides it and how does this process take place?

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