$500 million question: What to do with Mark Zuckerberg’s gift?

January 16, 2013

In December, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg donated $500 million to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation for projects related to health and education. Zuckerberg and the Community Foundation haven’t announced yet what they have in mind, so that got us thinking:  why not pass along some ideas?

We asked some educators and EdSource Today contributors from Silicon Valley what they would do if they had $500 million to give away. For the purpose of this exercise, we assumed the interest from the money (roughly $25 million annually) would go to schools in Silicon Valley – Santa Clara and San Mateo counties – for education, broadly defined to include health and wellness from preschool through high school.

Their suggestions are below. We hope you’ll join the conversation by posting comments with your ideas as well.

Xavier De La Torre: Invest in a virtual K-16 school  

Xavier De La Torre

Mr. Zuckerberg’s generosity should be invested in developing a county-sponsored, virtual K-16 charter school complete with comprehensive, Common-Core-standards based, teacher-led, online courses that meet California’s A-G requirements and college/university courses required to earn a baccalaureate degree. Using the economics of the Internet, we can connect some of the greatest teachers to thousands of students who need credit recovery; who wish to accelerate their learning; whose lives and realities require greater flexibility than we can offer in our brick-and-mortar schools; who are not being engaged or challenged in their current classes; who want to complete college courses while still in middle or high school; and who have dropped out of school but have an interest in returning. Colleges and universities are already recognizing the value of providing online, teacher-led courses. I believe it is time for the public K-12 community to make the same options available to students.

Xavier De La Torre is Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools.


Merrill Vargo: Build something lasting

Merrill Vargo

The Zuckerberg gift is an opportunity to create a resource for the entire region. For example: a 21st Century Leadership Institute that would recruit, train and support a next generation of education leaders. Include teacher leaders, student leaders, school board members as well as administrators, and find a sponsor willing to design a curriculum that is truly new – as are the challenges facing public education today.

Or create a New School Incubator that would function something like a business incubator and offer a more thoughtful alternative to the administration’s “school turnaround” approach.

The big idea? Build something lasting!

Merrill Vargo is executive director of Pivot Learning Partners, a nonprofit school reform organization supporting schools and districts in the Silicon Valley and beyond.


John Porter: Expand early childhood education and Internet access 

John Porter

My idea for Mr. Zuckerberg’s amazing donation of $500 million to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation is to take the interest (approximately $25 million per year) and fund sustainable matching grants to school districts and their partners in two areas: First, create quality preschool programs for children that are not eligible for Head Start (and still live at or under the poverty level); and, second, make sure all children and their families can access the Internet at home. Local school districts can then partner with First 5, Santa Clara County Office of Education, and others in creating programs like “Power Pre-School” or “Summer Kinder Academies” to make sure all children in the county are really “ready” for Kindergarten. Partnering with Comcast, AT&T and other Internet providers will significantly reduce the price of connecting online at home for families that cannot afford this service now (naturally, with a Netbook or equivalent).  Both of these services will address two critical needs as we move into the new internationally benchmarked Common Core Standards and Assessments and prepare our students for the 21st Century global economy.

John Porter is superintendent of the Franklin-McKinley School District.


Manny Barbara: Target the achievement gap, especially in math

Disclosure statement: the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, of which I am an employee, has benefited from the largess of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation through their funding of the SVEF Stepping Up to Algebra program.

Having said that, it should come as no surprise that I see this funding as a rare opportunity to dramatically affect the achievement gap among the racial and ethnic student groups, especially in mathematics. Success in math, particularly in algebra by grade 8, is a significant predictor of future success in graduating from high school with the courses required for admission to University of California. Only 23% of Santa Clara County Latino students are proficient in algebra at grade 8. Targeted intervention for students starting at the pre-kindergarten level through high school, along with quality professional development for teachers, can make the difference.

Manny Barbara is vice president of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. 


 Vito Chiala: Invest in one high-need community

Vito Chiala

I would invest deeply in the educational systems in one high-need community. The funds would be used to extend the school day and the school year, providing more time for all students to extend their learning. This extra time would allow for more creative lessons in core subjects as well required enrichment in the arts, music, dance, language and athletics.

This extended time would not place an extra burden on the existing teachers. Funds would be used to increase staffing and reduce teacher loads, allowing each teacher to focus on a smaller group of students. Time for regular teacher professional development would be integrated. Adding counselors and administrators would provide necessary support.

Focusing funds on one high-need community would provide all children there access to the American Dream.

Vito Chiala has been the principal at Overfelt High School in San Jose’s East Side Union High School District for six years.


Arun Ramanathan: Develop a Valley-wide plan for student success 

Arun Ramanathan

With this investment, the Foundation could incentivize the development of a Valley-wide plan for student success and help build the unified data system necessary to track its implementation. The Valley is separated into dozens of districts with hundreds of superintendents, board members, foundations and nonprofits. It has huge gaps in wealth and educational quality. As the Community Foundation knows, it’s hard to get all these folks working together and far too many students fall through the cracks. To overcome this fragmentation, the Foundation could borrow from Facebook’s model of artfully using data and technology to promote individuality while building community. By unifying hundreds of separate education, government and nonprofit data systems into a single system, stakeholders—including foundations, businesses and districts—could finally assess the effectiveness of any program or innovation. They could then make investments based on actual benefits for kids. Now that would be revolutionary!

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of the Education Trust-West.


Shelly Masur: Support and expand full-service community schools

Shelly Masur

Connecting health and education, full-service community schools offer an integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development and community engagement. This approach leads to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities and provides an emphasis on personalized and real-world learning.

Support for existing community schools and for development of this model across both counties would effectively leverage the monies invested with the schools and the organizations working with the schools. Research is showing this model’s success across the country and locally as we see improved attendance, health indicators and academic achievement.

Shelly Masur is president of the Redwood City School Board and immediate past president of the San Mateo County School Boards Association.


Seth Rosenblatt: Help poorer communities, modernize facilities and develop innovative programs 

Seth Rosenblatt

As long-term funding reform must be tackled by the state, this money can address two of our other biggest structural issues: providing resources for lower-wealth communities and catalyzing 21st-Century learning.

For our poorer communities, we must expand the scope of services to approximate the advantages that higher-wealth communities enjoy, including universal preschool, higher pay in hard-to-staff districts, and health, medical and counseling programs.

For all districts, we can usher in a wave of 21st-Century learning by funding construction of modern school facilities and innovative programs allowing local districts to redesign our centuries-old model of education.

Seth Rosenblatt is a member of the Governing Board of the San Carlos School District and president of the San Mateo County School Boards Association.  


Bill Honig: Focus on instruction, teacher development and students not going to college

Bill Honig

Here are my priorities:

1) Improve instruction through large-scale professional development and school-site team building around implementing Common Core standards (a key strategy in jurisdictions that went from mediocre to world-class; see www.learningforward.org).

2) Improve teacher quality by attracting high-quality candidates, revamping their training, giving induction support, and offering career ladders for the best. See the Greatness by Design report.

3) Develop a true interactive curriculum, say in math, based on research incorporating visual potential of computers and reward strategies from the gaming community.

4) Wrap around student support services using the school and the community.

5) Bring the community and state colleges together with schools to implement demanding tech-prep strands for the non-four-year college bound students.

Bill Honig chairs the state Instructional Quality Commission, guiding the implementation of Common Core. He previously served three terms as California Superintendent of Public Instruction.


Ted Lempert: Develop a new school model

Ted Lempert

California’s public schools are designed much the same as they were in the 19th century, despite the fact that the knowledge and skills students need to acquire to succeed today have changed dramatically. There’s no better place to prototype 21st-Century schools than in the Silicon Valley. With this generous investment, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties can begin to develop a scalable, updated school model, redesigning teacher training, facilities and curriculum with a focus on quality birth-5 early learning programs housed at schools, integrated technology and blended learning, and support services like on-site health care that children need to succeed.

Ted Lempert is the president of Children Now, a national research and advocacy organization based in Oakland.


Kirk Hanson: Next generation of innovators starts with skills in Algebra

Kirk O. Hanson

There are two ways to define Silicon Valley’s greatest  needs. One is from the perspective of economics and self interest: The Valley, and all California, will be in deep trouble if we do not graduate more students from college, and more with science, technology and mathematics skills. The most effective way to accomplish this is 1) getting our middle and high schoolers to Algebra and beyond, and 2) supporting their transitions to high school and college.

The second approach looks at the needs of our poor and underserved populations: We are a wealthy community with a sizable underclass. We need to provide more transitional economic and housing assistance for families in need, and more enrichment programs for pre-K children. Middle and upper classes can protect themselves from the Valley’s boom and bust cycles; the poor cannot.

Kirk O. Hanson is executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University and has studied the rise of high-tech philanthropy in Silicon Valley.


 KC Walsh:  Prepare first-generation students for college 

KC Walsh

This is a very generous donation, and our needs are overwhelming.

One area that has been underfunded is providing for the basic health needs of students. A survey of school nurses in the counties would probably provide a long list of needy students, hearing-impaired students who need hearing aids, for example.

Another area is to expand the work of getting “first-generation” students to college. I know there are programs like SVEF’s Step up to Success math summer program, but it’s been operating on less than a shoestring and could benefit from additional funding.

KC Walsh is a veteran special educator and currently serves on both the California Teachers Association and the National Education Association boards.


Jeff Camp: Don’t play it safe: advocate and fund data

Jeff Camp

Mr. Zuckerberg, you could play it safe. You could fund demonstration projects in a few districts. But your money and time will have a transformative impact if you concentrate on just two areas.

1) Advocacy: Since the passage of Proposition 13, real investment in education has withered as a share of California’s economy. The system has become centralized and rule-bound, stifling innovation. The state needs a person of your stature to call for major changes, including in the ways that schools are funded. If you invest in advocacy, with patience, you can get it done.

2) Data: The state’s education data infrastructure is creaky and cheap. The data models will make you weep; they assume that the status quo shall reign evermore. California desperately needs your leadership in this area.

Please don’t play it safe.

Jeff Camp is the primary author of Ed100.org, a primer on education reform options in California, and co-chairs the Education Circle of Full Circle Fund.


Vincent Matthews: Invest in a single district as a model for change

Vincent Matthews

I would suggest directing the investment towards efforts that will create sustainable and long-lasting change in public education. An approach would be to select a reform-minded, progressive school district (and I have one in mind) and make deep, 3-5 year investments in key levers for system change that later could be adopted into other neighboring school systems in the region. These investments might include offering one-time funding for dramatic changes in evaluation and compensation systems for teachers and school leaders (see here), investing in new models of teacher professional development through aligned, targeted skill building via online modules that are then assessed on mastery of use in the classroom, or offering support to school teams to rethink the physical space, use of time, and organization of adult-student interaction in schools to deliver a fundamentally different learning environment for students.

Dr. Vincent Matthews is the Superintendent of Schools for the San Jose Unified School District, which has embarked on executing a 5-year strategic plan, Opportunity21.


Jennifer Thomas: Healthy students are better ready to learn

Jennifer Thomas

To improve student health is to make the educational promise possible. We should focus on community partnerships that create health clinics at sites where physical and/or psychological health issues of families are responsible for chronic absenteeism or academic failure. We should also support districts’ efforts to improve student nutrition programs. Partnering with successful community programs, we should create more school gardens so students take ownership of their food and learn how to care for themselves and the environment. These ideas would significantly improve the health and happiness of students, strengthening their relationship to their school communities.

Jennifer Thomas is the president of the San José Teachers Association, empowering its 1,700 members to educate, inspire, and change lives through public education.


John Danner: Education technology can bring promising school models to scale

John Danner

The current model of education will never scale up to meet the needs of every child in the world. Mark should invest his money in education technology that enables student-driven learning without the same reliance on human capital and physical collaboration that have prevented current systems from succeeding.

John Danner is CEO of Rocketship Education.


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