It won’t be by buying new computers for schools. It won’t even be by dumping bajillions of dollars into schools. But Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement that he plans to donate 99% of Facebook shares—some 45 BILLION dollars’ worth—might just make a difference if he can learn from his mistakes.
You’ve seen the story by now. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have pledged oodles of their nerd-gotten gains to help low-income families. Good for them. The danger is that they will continue to misunderstand the nature of the relationship between schooling and society.
Money helps. But in the past, philanthropists in general and Zuckerberg in particular have misunderstood the basic relationships involved. As a result, big money has not made a big impact.
You may have read about Zuckerberg’s ill-fated promises in Newark. Charmed by Mayor Cory Booker, Zuckerberg pledged up to $100 million in matching funds to improve Newark schools.
As journalist Dale Russakoff described in her book The Prize, big dreams petered out into only meh results. Russakoff blamed poor communication between philanthropists, city managers, teachers, and parents. The money, she argued, did not go to the right places at the right time, because Zuckerberg and Booker took a “knight in shining armor” approach to complicated educational problems. Instead of communicating with interested locals, they hired fancy $1000-a-day education consultants. Instead of building a consensus about problems and solutions, they dictated solutions and labeled people as problems.
There is a more basic difficulty, however, that Russakoff did not address. She argued that the roll-out of the Newark plan was flawed and ill-considered. At a more foundational level, however, even the best-considered plans to fix society by fixing schools are doomed.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Schools can’t fix society. Schools ARE society.
In other words, if a society is racist, dominated by a wealthy elite, and strangled by cultural divisions, a new set of textbooks, computers, or state standards will not change that. Throughout the twentieth century, as I argued in my recent book, conservative activists repeated progressives’ attempts to reform society by reforming schools. Without the proper understanding of the ways schools function in society, such plans are doomed before they begin.
Consider the sobering example of Native American education. As a recent article in Politico described, government-run schools are a failure. And they fail despite the fact that they spend more money per student than do comparable schools.
The Facebook folks have made some worrying noises. In announcing their gift, they suggested that they were still trapped in their old, mistaken views. They seemed to be saying that society can be healed—poverty can be alleviated—if only we can make sure that all kids have good schools. It is just not that simple.
In their announcement, for instance, Zuckerberg and Chan declared that their money would help level the social playing field. As they put it,
You’ll have technology that understands how you learn best and where you need to focus. You’ll advance quickly in subjects that interest you most, and get as much help as you need in your most challenging areas. You’ll explore topics that aren’t even offered in schools today. Your teachers will also have better tools and data to help you achieve your goals.
Even better, students around the world will be able to use personalized learning tools over the Internet, even if they don’t live near good schools. Of course it will take more than technology to give everyone a fair start in life, but personalized learning can be one scalable way to give all children a better education and more equal opportunity.
Watch out! Despite their qualification that “it will take more than technology to give everyone a fair start in life,” it sounds as if the rest of their plan depends on their assumption that the right technology can indeed do just that.
To be fair, they make smarter noises elsewhere. They have also argued, for example, that
“We need institutions that understand these issues are all connected.” . . . Only with schools, health centers, parent groups, and organizations working together, they said, “can we start to treat these inequities as connected.”
That is exactly right. Only if we understand that young people are more than just schoolchildren can we see the problem with earlier philanthropic efforts in education.
We need to be careful about the conclusions we draw. Some observers have concluded that since increased spending on schools does not lead to utopia, we don’t need to increase funding for schools. That’s not right.
Rather, we need a better analogy. Spending money on schooling is not like putting a Band-Aid on a gut wound. Rather, spending money on schooling for low-income students is like building a three-legged stool with one strong leg. Only one. Because the other two legs are harder to reach, they are usually ignored. But a three-legged stool needs three strong legs, not just one. The legs need to be improved at the same time, in the same degree, in order to make a real difference.
I’ll say it again and then I’ll be quiet: We DO need to pour money into schools. But not ONLY into schools. We need to address questions of poverty and structural racism.