Nearly 250 individual philanthropists, family members, private foundation leaders, and experts gathered in California’s Bay Area for The Philanthropy Roundtable’s 2016 National Forum on K-12 Philanthropy. Attendees had the opportunity to tour innovative local schools in Silicon Valley that are pioneering new personalized learning models, and participate in interactive workshops with the field’s leading experts and practitioners. They also heard firsthand from visionary leaders in K-12 philanthropy.
School Site Visits
More than 100 Forum attendees arrived early to visit a truly unique group of schools, which included Summit Everest in Redwood City, a 9th through 12th grade charter high school and one of ten campuses within the nationally-recognized Summit Public Schools network. Through personalized, project-based, and data-driven learning, Summit students use a Personalized Learning Platform (PLP) to track their progress against a range of goals, ultimately aimed at helping them achieve college and career readiness.
“From day one, there was a commitment to diversity, there was a commitment to not just college acceptance but college readiness, and there was a commitment to character education and helping our students become thoughtful, contributing members of society,” Chris Lewine, executive director of Summit Everest, said of the Summit Public Schools network.
The PLP was not implemented until 2013 after Summit Public Schools examined how students were performing in college and ultimately decided to re-tool its model.
“What we found was both inspiring and depressing at the same time. Inspiring because we were doubling the national average in each demographic subgroup [for graduating college], and it was depressing because it was still only 55 percent. We were not satisfied with that,” Lewine said.
The PLP focuses on college readiness and is based on four specific elements that emerged from Summit’s assessment. The first is cognitive and deep thinking skills, which Summit identifies as the most important concept. Content Knowledge, real-life experiences, and habits of success, or the “soft skills” of character education, round out the four core elements of college readiness.
Summit embraced technology as a means to implement the PLP which caught the eye of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook and Summit developed a partnership and co-developed the current software used by Summit schools – and now shared with over 100 schools nationwide through an innovative endeavor known as Summit Basecamp.
Summit’s inspiration for embracing technology came out of a desire to follow the pathway set by Khan Academy, which was also among the schools visited by Forum attendees. Khan Academy was started when its founder, Sal Khan, created YouTube videos to teach his cousin math. It now has nearly 100 employees and has reached over 100 million users in just under 10 years.
“I just thought about, ‘What did I want when I was that age?’” said Khan when he addressed attendees at the Forum.
Khan Academy, along with its independent brick and mortar counterpart Khan Lab School, is headquartered in Mountain View, California, and looks every bit like what one would imagine a virtual education platform based in Silicon Valley would look like. Dozens of computer programmers, coders and content creators sprawled across an open office space teeming with computers maintain Khan Academy’s virtual education space.
Attendees bounced from station to station, hearing Khan Academy’s growing team share what each department does and how it fits into the methodology behind its revolutionary approach to making world-class learning available to anyone, anywhere in the world.
Hoover Elementary, which serves as a demonstration site for the Sobrato Early Academic Language (SEAL), also served as a one-of-a-kind visit opportunity. SEAL is unique in that it aims to boost literacy and math skills among English Language Learner (ELL) students in early grades—and works exclusively in district schools. During classroom observations, attendees learned how early language development is critical for a child’s long-term academic growth, and how subtle language prompts throughout the day can have a multiplying effect on student learning.
Following SEAL, attendees visited Design Tech High School in Burlingame, a startup charter school that emphasizes problem-based learning and design thinking. Aimed at developing self-management skills and creativity, the school adapts often to meet individual student needs. Attendees took part in a classroom scavenger hunt, where they looked for instances of personalized learning, student agency, and real-world problem solving. They also learned the rationale behind the distinctive school model, and took part in an interactive design-thinking workshop that encapsulated the attributes that make Design Tech truly unique.
Sal Khan’s Next Steps
Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, was the subject of the opening session at the 2016 National Forum on K-12 Philanthropy following the site visits. Khan created his first math tutorial video for his cousin, Nadia, in 2006—the first product that would eventually become the online learning tool that would ultimately reach more 100 million students.
“In that very first upload, I actually made a mistake,” said a self-deprecating Khan.
Khan credits the authenticity in his YouTube videos as a reason why they became so popular with a wide audience in those early days. By 2008, Khan had launched his online education platform with a mission to provide a free “world class education to anyone, anywhere.” And while students were among the millions of people taking advantage of the free tutoring videos, Khan was receiving tremendous feedback from teachers who were able to use the videos to supplement their teaching.
“The virtual is not a replacement for the physical, it is to supercharge the physical. It is there to empower teachers who I would say will be even more critical in this new wave of education,” Khan said.
Khan says his academy has flipped the concept of homework and classwork, allowing students to receive daily instruction from the videos while freeing up class time for teachers to provide explanations. While it might seem counterintuitive for a virtual school to create a brick and mortar school, Khan decided to put the concepts he had advocated for years into practice and created Khan Lab School in 2014.
“I had a rising Kindergartener and some other Khan Academy parents had rising Kindergarteners…but I had been preaching these concepts for the last four or five years and it would be hypocrisy if my own child went to a more traditional model,” Khan explained.
Khan Lab School is housed in the same building as Khan Academy. The school issues three benchmark tests per year so the students can evaluate where they are strong and where they need work. Students are not assessed grades on those tests but rather are evaluated on their progress. The school also employs a mixed-age setting rather than separating the students by grade level. Khan Lab School is expected to add a high school next year.
Khan also told the audience of over 200 attendees about the other recent projects Khan Academy has initiated as well as gave an insight into what he sees as future opportunities his direct-to-learner organization can fulfill. One of those recently-launched projects is a two-month math competition for students in third through fifth grade called LearnStorm. The program was first piloted in the Bay Area, Chicago, Ireland and Idaho.
“We hosted the kickoff event of LearnStorm in a very rural school in Idaho and the gymnasium sounded like a Notre Dame football game. The kids were going crazy,” said Jamie Jo Scott, president of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, who led the conversation with Khan.
Khan’s vision for the future sees his online learning platform reaching even more students worldwide who currently lack access to a quality education. He also believes there is an opportunity for using his platform to educate those who are in prison so they are better, not worse, off after serving time. He also underscored the critical need for more effective early learning for children—and he told of an unprecedented development that occurred just a few weeks ago that will help Khan Academy make great strides in early learning. The popular learning app service Duck Duck Moose donated its entire organization to partner with Khan Academy.
“They were leaving money on the table. They were getting offers because they are such a respected team,” Khan explained.
Khan Academy took possession of Duck Duck Moose’s full portfolio, a total of 21 apps, and made them free. It is just one step toward Khan’s ultimate goal of using his platform to discover those students from around the world who could push civil society forward but are currently facing great odds.
Same Goal, New Strategies
An interview with Michelle Rhee, former schools chancellor of DC Public Schools (DCPS) and founder of StudentsFirst, opened the second day of the National Forum. StudentsFirst was founded as a state policy advocacy group supporting education reform and had its launch on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2010. In March 2016, StudentsFirst announced a merger with 50CAN, another education policy nonprofit. It was a step that resulted from a lesson Rhee learned about whether a national or local emphasis would be most effective to advance the education reform movement.
“Within the first year [StudentsFirst] had a million members…by the second year, we had two million members. But what I learned is that the national movement made absolutely no sense whatsoever because everything, when you came down to it, was local. The merger for us made a lot of sense because 50CAN’s approach was very much a local approach,” Rhee said.
Two years prior to the merger, Rhee stepped down as CEO of StudentsFirst, for two reasons: first, to spend more time with her children; and second, she felt she had become so polarized that she wasn’t sure if she was actually helping the movement.
“The polarization and my potential role in that pushed me to take a step back. I have watched what has happened to some pretty amazing leaders across the country…they basically get dehumanized in this work,” Rhee said.
With the host of social and political issues facing this nation—from civil rights to economic mobility—it is possible and even likely for education reform advocates to lose focus. Rhee urges advocates to remain focused on education reform because she believes it is the closest example of a comprehensive solution for communities facing a multitude of challenges.
“Whether education reform leaders will be able to make clear that all of these issues are important but at the same time, we believe that the best way to fix the inequalities in this country is to focus like a laser on how to best fix the public education system,” said Rhee.
One clear message to the donors in the room was as simple as it was sobering: this is going to be a prolonged, difficult process. Rhee referred to the process as the “long slog that is not particularly sexy.” Donors don’t necessarily like to put money down for a local school board fight and lose. It’s disheartening but part of the process. She also explained the reality that those fighting against the education reform movement have a 40 year head start with unlimited coffers that are refilled every single year.
“The reality is that in order to make any headway on the political front, and on advocacy, it requires time, patience and steady resources,” she said.
Rhee emphasized the need to engage and partner with local communities in education reform, particularly leaders and civil rights organizations focused on people of color. Unless the communities most negatively impacted by the current state of public education are driving reforms, there will not be the large-scale success advocates are striving for.
“On the flip side of that, when we see these pockets where community leaders start to drive [education reform], then we have to support that, and that support has to be whole-hearted,” Rhee said. “You have to acknowledge the unique importance of having efforts led by local leaders of color and they have to be supported to success.”
America’s Most Ambitious K-12 Philanthropic Venture
Through rapid fire questioning, a real-time audience poll, and expert opinion from three long-time education leaders, Wednesday morning’s conversation thoroughly assessed the current state of the charter school movement in America, and staked out priorities for the future.
Since their founding just 25 years ago, charter schools have become “an education reform that according to everybody’s calculation has drawn more philanthropic support than any other education reform,” said Chester E. Finn, president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. “So this has been a huge investment of American philanthropy overall. It’s worth talking about what we’ve accomplished, what we’ve learned from it, and of course what the future holds.”
The first charter school law was adopted in Minnesota in 1991. Today there are nearly 7,000 charter schools educating nearly 3 million students across the country. The rapid growth of multiple charter schools and networks where low-income children excel was made possible by philanthropy and discussed at length by the session’s panelists: Nina Rees, president and CEO, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; Kevin Hall, president and CEO, Charter School Growth Fund, and; Neerav Kingsland, senior education fellow at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and CEO of the Hastings Fund.
To begin the session, Finn asked for audience feedback via numerous multiple choice questions. The audience was provided answers through voting devices in a process reminiscent of the “Ask the Audience” lifeline from “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Topics ran the gamut from school accountability, market share in major cities, importance of community buy-in, and academic achievement.
The panel then discussed the audience feedback and dug deeper into the questions one by one. Among the major takeaways from the panel discussion:
- The charter sector as a whole should have better prioritized school quality and accountability when forming the first charter school laws and authorizers
- There is a concern that founding a school is not as appealing to the talented entrepreneur as it once was 15-20 years ago, prompting the need for more harbormasters and incubators at the community level
- Robust policy and teacher talent has only gone so far without philanthropy and adequate public funding for school facilities and per-pupil allotment
- The continuous increase in charter school market share in major cities demonstrates that charter schooling is working
- There cannot be school buildup and placement of more kids in more seats without investments in the wider “ecosystem” of infrastructure organizations
- The philanthropic sector has underinvested in advocacy
- The concern remains that many districts do not have the capability or the mindset to effectively incubate charters as ‘laboratories of innovation’
- The debate over ‘no excuses’ has calmed down now that many of these models have shifted their approaches, and that no excuses has become no excuses for the adults
The panel concluded with one final poll from the audience on expectations for the future as the charter school movement progresses. Among the responses from the audience were:
- Political battles will only increase, slowing growth
- Charter infrastructure (e.g. authorizing, advocacy, policy, talent) needs more attention to support building actual schools
- National funders should focus where there is need and limited resources for better school options; local funders should focus locally
- There will always be bad apples in the charter space. Funders should focus on supporting success.
The Opportunity Ahead
What would be your reaction if the founder of Facebook and his wife tapped you to head up their newly-minted organization to donate 99 percent of their stock to philanthropic causes?
For Jim Shelton, the former U.S. Department of Education official, program director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and president of 2U, a digital learning platform for college degrees, he described it as “anti-climactic.” Shelton had informal conversations with both Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan about a vision for their education giving, but he didn’t really think those conversations were leading to anything for him beyond conversation. That soon changed.
“The interesting thing was that Mark and Priscilla…said, ‘This might be the most awkward call ever.’ That was how it started. I had literally just a few months before I had taken the presidency of 2U. And so it was startling, exciting, fantastic,” Shelton said in the Forum’s closing plenary session.
Shelton accepted the offer to become president of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which is structured as an LLC and will serve as the philanthropic avenue by which the Facebook couple will make high-impact investments to revolutionize student outcomes for millions of kids worldwide.
Before diving into the work of his current role, Shelton discussed his time in government as chief innovation officer at the U.S. Department of Education and his optimism about working with an agenda centered on accountability, high standards, and school choice.
Shelton’s definition of education is a child being taught with an overhead of policy, politics, and institutional norms. Animosity and gridlock occurs when too much time is spent on the overhead and not enough devotion to improving student outcomes.
“Government is good, when it works well, at creating context,” Shelton said, referring to the importance of establishing goals, progress benchmarks, and accountability systems, and how for a while that was not happening in our education system.
Pivoting to the work of Chan Zuckerberg, Shelton alluded to the previous work of its predecessor, Startup Education. While he is still laying groundwork, there will likely continue to be a focus on funding successful personalized learning models around the country, as well as the people with the vision and perseverance to see them through.
“How do we help people in a way, frankly, where we’ve been unsuccessful before, not only have a different view of what’s possible but to trust that there is actually a pathway to do it?” he said.
He also stressed the need to adjust his own impact scale and move beyond trying to help thousands of kids, and instead try to help millions to truly break through widespread inequity.
“If you want to touch millions, you’ve got to go where the kids are. Period,” Shelton emphasized.
Shelton also discussed Zuckerberg and Chan’s highly-publicized $100 million challenge grant to transform education in Newark, New Jersey. Their resiliency in acknowledging both the positive student achievement currently taking place along with the difficult lessons learned made him comfortable in accepting his current role and confident in what the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative can potentially achieve.