Throwing Money at Education


In a post from last month, Chalkbeat reported that, after six years and a few hundred million dollars, the Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation is shutting down Summit Learning, their “grand design” for American schools.

It’s just the latest example of a rich-guy fail when it comes to “fixing” school.

Bill Gates, of course, was a pioneer in field.

All the way back in 2006 his foundation began shutting down their “small schools” project (also after six years) having spent nearly a billion dollars. They called the expense “research and development for educators”.

The Gates Foundation has since gone on to take several more pricey swings at disrupting education, with similar results.

Then there was AltSchools, a start up backed by “legendary Silicon Valley investors” like Marc Andreessen.1 Their idea was to roll out a chain of “micro schools” that would combine “concepts from Montessori and other progressive educators with data-driven technology”.

That lasted about three years before they “pivoted” from “operating a few expensive boutique private schools to marketing software for “personalizing” learning in regular public schools”. That only cost the backers around $33 million.

Sal Kahn is another education “disruptor” with rich sponsors. His big idea was to put everything kids needed to learn into short videos that they could watch instead of going to school. Sort of a combination of “personalized” learning and the flipped classroom.

With lots of backing from rich tech guys (and it’s almost always guys), he founded the free Kahn Academy online and a very much not free brick-and-mortar school in Mountain View, California. After more than a decade, neither seems to have had much effect on education as a whole.

Look around and you can find plenty of other examples of rich people who have thrown their money at ideas to “reform” education with minimal impact.

However, a relatively new addition to the mix is charter schools. A concept which started as a way to reform schools from the inside out but has morphed into something very different.

Today, instead of presenting themselves as school reformers, charters are being sold as a good investment, with companies attracting private equity to build large chains of profit-making schools. As part of the process, siphoning money from public schools to make wealthy people even richer.

The difference between charters and the other examples is that Zuckerberg, Gates, and the rest at least started their efforts with good intentions. Even if they were largely clueless about what is needed to improve public education. (Hint: it ain’t just technology)

On the other hand, there is very little innovative about most charter schools in the US, other than finding new ways to generate profits.

The photo really has nothing to do with the topic. Just something observed while wandering around the Foggy Bottom neighborhood in DC.

1. Zuckerberg’s foundation was also involved with that one.

2 Comments Throwing Money at Education

  1. Doug Johnson

    Given a blank check, how would you spend an unlimited amount of money to improve education? I’m sincerely curious.

    1. tim

      Good question, Doug. And not one that I have a simple answer for. I do know that my first step would be to involve many more people than just me. There are a whole lot of smart educators, parents, and especially students who should be involved in any kind of reform to the education system..

      However, as a starting point, I would abandon the one-size-fits-all approach we use in most school systems. Kids have a wide variety of needs, interests, and talents and K12 should be a place for them to explore them, rather than follow the pretty ridged path that almost always leads to college we have now.

      Anyway, since you have me thinking about this, I guess I need to write a post or two. :)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.