Social Inclusion & Human Rights

Philanthropy in Education by Tech Billionaires: A Mixed Success Story

education measuring impact
October 24, 2017

Tech billionaires, including Bill Gates of Microsoft and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, have shown considerable zeal for philanthropy in education, not only in the United States but also in countries around the world. Unsurprisingly, Silicon Valley’s wealthy entrepreneurs often fund technology-driven initiatives.

Such contributions can be crucial, as schools are often underfunded and tech innovations have begun to reshape the classroom and job market. At the same time, however, this kind of giving has a mixed record of success. As philanthropists continue to provide often-crucial support to cashstrapped schools, it’s important to keep in mind where spent dollars have equaled success, and where they have brought more challenges than good.

Philanthropists Fund Educational Technology Initiatives

One tech entrepreneur who has funded pedagogical innovation is Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. Hastings has given money to help schools use DreamBox Learning, an online “adaptive” math education program for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The program, which has inspired many positive teacher comments about “massive gains” by students, uses algorithms to teach math in the same way that Netflix helps you choose your next movie.

Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, have also given money to promote software that lets students set their own pace in classes. Like DreamBox, this has been a success in some of the school districts where it’s been tried. According to the Economic Times, Zuckerberg and Chan have also funded BYJU’S, a wildly popular remote-education app developed for students in India.

John Doerr, an early backer of Google and Amazon and one of Silicon Valley’s most successful investors, has even established the NewSchools Venture Fund to channel money into startups dedicated to changing the way public education works. Investments have included ClassDojo, a messaging app for teachers, parents, and students, and LearnSprout, which aims to give educators tools to make use of student data to improve teaching.

Critics Pose Questions

Other examples of Silicon Valley philanthropy in education have proven more controversial. For instance, a number of tech billionaires have contributed to an educational effort called Code.org, designed to teach kids how to write computer code. In theory, this is an admirable goal, as computer programming is an increasingly important skill. However, the effort to put pressure on schools to include coding in curricula has come under fire as self-serving on the part of the software industry.

Philanthropists disagree with this assessment of their efforts. Bradford L. Smith, one of the largest donors to Code.org, firmly stated that, “Broad public education should not be grounded first and foremost in the needs of any particular industry — or in the needs of industry as a whole.”

But it’s when tech billionaires stray into education policy itself that they hit serious flak. Zuckerberg and Chan gave more than $100 million to improve the schools in Newark, New Jersey, including $50 million to help end teacher seniority rules that Zuckerberg felt kept nonperforming educators in top roles. But the donation largely failed to achieve any improvement in Newark schools, in part because of a lack of collaboration with community members, existing nonprofits, and teachers’ groups.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been one of the most generous donors for education causes. According to a Los Angeles Times op-ed, the foundation has given more than $3 billion to improve American schools. Yet no tech philanthropy has been more controversial. In 1999, the Gates Foundation spent heavily on programs to reduce school size—an effort that was abandoned when its purpose turned out not to be as impactful as originally thought. Ten years later, it funded a $100 million program to evaluate teachers in a Florida school district but abandoned the program before its completion, leaving the public schools to pick up a considerable tab. And most recently, it helped finance a rapid rollout of the Common Core curriculum before teachers were adequately trained, causing a revolt by parents.

The foundation’s CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, conceded that these ordeals represented a “challenging lesson” and said that improving education was a “vast and complicated” problem for which the Gates Foundation didn’t have “all the answers.”

The foundation’s difficulties earned a rebuke from the Los Angeles Times editorial board—a rebuke that could apply to other large-scale private education reform efforts. “Philanthropists are not generally education experts, and even if they hire scholars and experts, public officials shouldn’t be allowing them to set the policy agenda for the nation’s public school,” wrote the Editorial Board. “The Gates experience teaches once again that educational silver bullets are in short supply and that some educational trends live only a little longer than mayflies.”

Philanthropists interested in the education sector may want to look before they leap, taking steps to help ensure that dollars spent lead to students helped. Grantmakers for Education offers a workbook that can help interested parties and foundations set goals. From there, it’s important to develop a careful plan that will deliver the greatest possible positive effect.

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