If You Had $45 Billion, What Would You Do to Improve Education?

November 30, 2016

If ever there was a plum job in the world of education, Jim Shelton has landed it. Seven months ago, Shelton was hired by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to head up its education portfolio.

CZI is the unusual new company created by Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and his wife, Priscilla Chan, to "improve the world for the next generation." That’s how they put it, anyway. To fund CZI they pledged Facebook stock worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $45 billion. Health and medical projects will no doubt get the biggest share of that money. But Shelton is the guy who will write the checks for all of CZI’s investments and philanthropic donations related to education. That means he’ll have a lot of sway in an organization that is going to become hugely influential.

Hello and welcome to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Re:Learning podcast, a look at the future of education. I’m Goldie Blumenstyk.

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In many ways, Jim Shelton has the perfect résumé for this job at this unusual organization. He’s worked at a philanthropy — for the Gates foundation. He’s worked in government — he was a top official in the Obama administration’s Education Department. And he’s held various stints at businesses focused on K-12 and higher ed, most recently at the distance-ed company 2U.

Shelton has yet to fully uproot to Silicon Valley — his wife and his two kids still live here in D.C. But as you’ll hear, he’s no stranger to that culture. I caught up with him last week while he was here in D.C for the holidays (and both of us were fighting off colds). He said learning science will be a high priority for CZI, along with a commitment to operate with "humility," while also avoiding what he call "analysis paralysis." And even though CZI and Facebook are really separate entities, we also talked about the problem of "fake news" on social media, and the role education needs to play in creating an informed citizenry.

Listen to the full audio. Below is an edited and adapted transcript of the podcast.

Q. Other than the fact that this is clearly one of the great dreams jobs in America right now, what do you personally hope to accomplish with it? What is it that you care a lot about that you see having some impact with CZI?

A. One of the things that has been great is that the vision that Mark and Priscilla has is so aligned with my personal passions. They set up CZI to both advance human potential and promote equality, two things that are really important to me. What I hope to do is solve two of the big problems that we’ve had in education. One is, can we actually make dramatic improvements in learning outcomes and help teachers to do the work that they got into education to do? And can you also figure out how to take those things that are working in terms of practices and products and solutions of various kinds and get them to go to scale? Help them travel down the hall between teacher to teacher and school to school and state to state.

Q. Where do you see the problems right now with education? Is it just that it’s not personal enough? Is that enough of an answer?

A. No, no. I think there are a whole range of issues that we actually need to tackle. I mentioned very early on that I do think that it’s really important that we identify that if you say you’re going to work with a learner, and if you use the language of personalized learning, you can’t say you’re going to personalize learning without understanding the status of the learner. Knowing where they are physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially is important, and I think we have allowed ourselves to get caught up in an either-or conversation about rigorous academics or these other factors that are also important. And in fact it is both that matter. I think bringing those together is the really important thing to do to recognize how we’re going to make dramatic progress.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
I think the second thing is this issue that I’ve talked about, that one of the things we’ve not been great about is figuring out how we get the thing that the teacher down the hall is doing really well, to figure out if that’s something that other teachers can be doing as well. How do we actually vet these things, make them easier for other teachers to adopt, and then help them to spread effectively?

The third thing is that we ask teachers to do a lot to differentiate instruction or personalized instruction already. A teacher walks into a classroom, and we ask them to know what a student knows, know what they don’t know, what they’re interested in, and come up with a perfect instructional approach. We believe that you need more tools and resources that we often provide teachers in order to do that, but also that you can provide students with more tools to actually manage their own learning, to have more agency in what they’re learning, and to be able to demonstrate what they’ve learned and made progress on on their own.

Q. There’s an assumption in here that there’s going to be a tech solution to this?

A. Well, I think there’s two things in particular that technology can do for you. One is, when you say you want to reach lots of people and you want to do it in a way that allows you to meet their more personal needs, there clearly have been lots of applications of technology to do that in other contexts. I think the second thing is that one of the big things we have to do now is to figure out how to learn faster about learning. When you use technology, one of the things that happens is that the learning process becomes transparent, not just the outcomes of the learning. For the first time, we’ll have lots and lots of ability to understand how many different people are learning in many different contexts and to use that insight to come up with better ways of learning and teaching.

Q. When you’ve had this opportunity to take this position, the fact that it was this part philanthropy, part investment vehicle, how important was that for you?

A. It was very important. The symbolism is that Mark and Priscilla are very focused on using whatever tools they can to have impact of the world. This mission is important enough that it’s a "Whatever it takes" kind of mission. I’ve been in this space long enough to know that the barriers to actually doing great work and doing it at scale come in multiple forms. They come in forms of the things that our nonprofit community are doing and could be doing in a broader scale with grant money, but they also come in terms of the kind of incentives that our for-profit companies have to do great work. We know that they know how to go to scale, but you’ve got to be able to get those things in balance.

We know that in order to create the incentives for that to happen that you have to have the policy and regulatory environment right too, or you could wind up with bad actors in the sector. Having all of those tools available to be able to work across all of those different parts of the sector and use them for good, that’s a very, very powerful thing to me.

Q. When you were at the Education Department, you were involved a little bit with the My Brother’s Keeper initiative. How much of that do you expect to be able to carry into the CZI Initiative?

A. Sure, the principles are pretty straightforward, right? When you look at how you’re going to drive outcomes, whether it’s for boys and men of color or disadvantaged youth or frankly anyone, there are milestones along the way that matter. Are you ready for school? Can you read by third grade? Do you have a good transition to high school? Do you graduate high school? Do you get into a great postsecondary option, whether that’s training for a great job or into a college for something bigger and better later on? All of those milestones matter, and of course when we do our work to try and do innovative solutions, we’re going to do it against things that matter in people’s lives, like being ready for school.

The other thing that’s true is that you can’t say that you’re going to provide equality without going through equity. The difference being, you want to be able to treat everyone the same, but if everyone’s not starting at the same starting point, then you need to meet people where they are and figure out how to get them on an even playing field. We very much recognize the need to be able to do that, which is also why we pay close attention to the whole set of needs that kids have when they come to school. I think there’s tremendous opportunity for overlap, but it is a universal mission with very specific strategies that you have to use to reach populations that have been underserved.

Q. So far with CZI you’ve announced a couple of education investments. What’s even the nature of the kinds of things you’re going to be investing in or promoting?

A. I think that they go back to what I described as one of the big challenges and opportunities in the sector. The reality is that we have a real opportunity to take all the things that are happening, that we’re coming to understand from learning science, and all of the technological advances that we have, and say, "How do you put those things together to come up with new and better solutions that enable learners to learn on their own, but as importantly enable teachers to do what we ask them to do every day, which is change people’s lives?" We’re going to be working very hard on producing breakthrough solutions. We’re going to be working hard on helping to encourage and support directly a much more robust R&D sector than exists today focused on improving learning outcomes.

Q. A lot in learning science?

A. There will be a great amount of stuff in learning science, both codifying what we already know but also talking about how do we organize ourselves to do the kind of interdisciplinary work that brings it all together.

Q. I know they recently they announced a pretty big initiative in the health-science fields. Is something comparable in the works now for education?

A. I think you could imagine that there’s a big part of the work that will be very similar, right? I mean, building tools that actually help people learn faster about learning, bringing people together in unusual ways and in unusual configurations to try and come up with very different kinds of solutions, advocating and helping to mobilize people around this increased funding and support for learning sciences, as well as doing the work to bring more people into the field of studying the learning sciences. I think you could imagine that kind of work but and then also think about real solutions on the ground. Mark and Priscilla have made significant investments in supporting a school model called the Summit Personalized Learning Platform that they co-developed. I think you’ll see us doing that kind of work as well.

We can help put solutions on the ground that help kids and teachers today. Previously they did some great work to invest in helping get the infrastructure for connectivity to schools done. I think that won’t be a big focus of our work, but we know the next frontier is home. So how do we make sure that every kid has an opportunity to be connected at home as well?

Q. On the life-science side, one of the big innovations in that project that was recently announced was a way of, as you said, putting scientists together in different ways. Is there sort of an opportunity to do that with learning science as well?

A. I think they’re definitely is an opportunity. I’m not ready to talk about the specifics about it.

Q. Come on, really?

A. No, but what I will say is that we don’t have many places where you put together learning scientists with educators and practitioners, with students who would benefit, with entrepreneurs and investors, and engineers who could actually think very differently about how you solve the problems that those people are trying to solve every day drawing on that learning science. I think that when you imagine what we might be able to put together, you can imagine spaces where you’ve got highly instrumented sites with good, rich data backbones and the resources to actually begin to develop together with those kinds of collections of people, solutions that are either better versions of what we do today already or even entirely different visions of what’s possible.

Q. Drawing on your Education Department background, there is something called the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education in the Ed Department. You’re sort of envisioning kind of like a super, tech-enabled version of that?

A. Well, I think that they idea that they used — Fipse is the short name for it — of being able to have those people that are at the university come up with ideas and then figure out how to get them done, I think that is exactly right. I think that not only just infusing the technology but infusing people with different areas of expertise and having them work together, that’s an important part of it. But we’ll see how it comes together. There’s this thing I’ve learned about from the Silicon Valley folks, this thing they call Joy’s Law, and Joy’s Law basically says that no matter who you are, most of the smartest people in the world don’t work for you.

The way I take that is, the best ideas are out there about how to do this work, as well as what some of the solutions may be. And so I’m going to take our strategies to a certain point and then gauge lots of other people to get their voices in and then I’m sure they’ll come up with even better ideas than what I had thought of already.

Q. You call yourself a "Tri-Sector Connector." I guess that’s because of your experience in business, in government, and in philanthropy. What have you learned from that?

A. I think I learned a few things that are really important. The first thing is that, going back to our earlier conversation, people walk around with lots of biases and stereotypes, whether you are a government person who has a stereotype of what people in business think or you’re business person who has a stereotype of how government people work. People walk around with these stereotypes of what they think other people are thinking, and it makes them create odd incentives for each other or work with each other in strange ways where they don’t really communicate fully. I think that there’s a real opportunity if we find ways to leverage these sectors together to go to the second thing, which is there are lots of things that are in common.

People that are in the nonprofit sector and the public sector often get uncomfortable talking about markets and market dynamics, but the reality is supply and demand works in the nonprofit sector as well as in the public sector. The lack of the number of high-quality schools is a scarcity of supply. Parents who want great options for their kid is a certain amount of demand. There’s ways that those things play out that are very much similar to the way business plays out. Business knows how to take things to scale. That’s what they do and how their incentives work. There are lots of things that we need to figure out in the nonprofit and the public sector about how to do that. The nonprofit and public sector understand the complexity of understanding environments with diverse populations. Oftentimes the things that you see, businesses stumble around on quite a bit. There’s a lot each of the sectors have to learn from each other, and we can capitalize on those learnings and what each does best. I think we can create a new wave of solutions.

The last thing I’ll say is this assumption that everybody does the best they can and uses the tools that they know, there’s a lot of truth to that. There’s great talent in every one of the sectors. If we give each other the benefit of the doubt we can definitely crack really important problems.

Q. The Facebook motto is, "Move fast and break stuff." Is that going to be the CZI model as well?

A. I think there’s definitely a sense of urgency and definitely a sense of being willing to try things, recognizing that they’re not all going to work, and that one of the ways that you learn is to do things as opposed to keep thinking about them and thinking about them. I think that when you’re dealing with people’s lives, the idea that you’re just going to break things as you go — you have more respect in humility and caution as you go. We’ll definitely do that appropriately. Education’s not the same as someone’s personal page.

Q. Right, or their app, right?

A. Or their app or whatever the case might be. So we’ll have that respect and humility as we approach the work. That said, we’re going to learn by doing, and we’re going to learn by building, we’re going to learn by investing in other people. And we know that "analysis paralysis" is a real thing, so while we need to be thoughtful, people look at the amount of resources that Mark and Priscilla have, and that CZI has, and think it’s a lot of money.

Q. Something like $30 billion?

A. Even a little bit more than that, but the reality is in the education space — in K-12 education in the U.S. alone — we spend over $650 billion per year. If you’re going to do anything that’s going to have radical transformation in order to improve even a sector that big, one that’s trillions of dollars worldwide, then you really have to be thoughtful about where you’re placing your bets, and how you’re engaging others, and how you get more leverage out of every dollar that you spend than just your own impact. That’s how we’ll be thinking about it. We’ll be doing things that allow us to learn really quickly. I say a lot: We need to learn fast, learn fast, learn fast, that is our theme. And also where is the leverage? Where are the levers to have broad impact so that we’re changing as many people’s lives as possible for the better:

Q. Facebook has been taking some heat itself in the wake of this election, with some concerns about that it might be sort of facilitating people’s misunderstanding of the news in some cases. There’s this whole controversy about fake news right now and whether people have enough information literacy. Is that something you think CZI needs to be focused on a little bit more? Helping with information literacy as an educational priority?

A. I just want to make sure it’s clear that Chan Zuckerberg and Facebook are two totally different entities. There are going to be priorities that emerge for them every day that we will always consider in a grand context, but I doubt it will ever have disproportionate influence over our long-term or even short-term agenda. That said, our broader definition of success in the education space means that people can do the kind of complicated work and live in the complicated society that surrounds all of us and will inevitably persist as long as we can evolve as human beings. When we say we want to give everyone the opportunity to recognize and realize their potential, that means they need the skill set to operate in today’s world, and being able to take in lots of information and discern what it means, that’s definitely a part of it.

Q. What role, if any, do you see for CZI in sort of policy advocacy? I know with the Gates foundation they did a little bit of that in some cases to advantages and in some cases to a disadvantage.

A. We’re still figuring it out. The reality is there are certain policies that create more space and opportunity for certain things to happen. I’ll give you an example: the E-rate program. There’s a program from the FCC that funds connectivity to schools. Getting the E-rate regs changed to an increased amount of funding and allow it to be used for wireless and lots of things that let you do great technological solutions in school and give access to low-income kids, that’s pretty important. We’ll lean in on those kinds of things. You’ll see there are places that have recognized competency-based education — being able to progress based on demonstrated mastery as opposed to seat time. That’s important to be able to have an environment where you can actually personalize learning and people can move at their own pace.

We’ll look at policies like that. Mostly state-level stuff, but who knows? There are lots of people working on those issues. I’m sure we’ll be supportive where we can, and then over time we’ll see what role and voice we feel like we need to lean on in the policy space.

Q. Foundations like Gates and Lumina, when they set their priorities, they tend to have an outsized influence on the sector. Even if they’re not funding something themselves, people sort of see that, and other projects start to follow some of the same priorities even if they’re not directly funded by them. Do you hope that CZI has the same role?

A. What I’ll say is that both at CZI, and frankly if you look at my career, especially in the last years in government, that what I hope actually influences the field is data evidence and a learning posture about what works and what doesn’t. And that if we are focused on doing that kind of work, sure. I’d love for that to have disproportionate influence on the sector that we can continue that trajectory of education being a sector that looks to data and evidence in order to decide what deserves to be put in front of our children day to day. What scares me is the idea that people won’t give us the kind of insight that we need about how our work is going.

Q. People won’t speak truth to —

A. Yeah. It just is human nature that if you are in need of resources and there’s somebody there who has them, you tend to find a way to make sure that they wanted to have a conversation with you. Sometimes it’s by telling the truth, but most people don’t assume that.

Q. Last question. I looked at LinkedIn the other day, and according to LinkedIn, it still has you as working at 2U. Do you have a Facebook page, and is it updated right now?

A. So my LinkedIn page has not been updated? I guess I should take care of that. I do have a Facebook page, thank you for asking me. I now finally have a public Facebook page and it is up to date, though I am just now starting to put content on it.

Q. Is that a way for people to reach you?

A. People can reach me straight through either the CZI Facebook page or my professional Facebook page that’s associated with CZI.

Q. Well thank you very much for coming in to talk with us.

A. Thank you for giving me the opportunity. Hopefully this was helpful.

Q. We’ll look forward to some of your first announcements — in weeks? Months?

A. 2017.

Q. 2017. Thank you very much.

This has been the Re:Learning Podcast. It’s part of The Chronicle of Higher Education’s coverage of innovation at colleges. If you like this podcast, please subscribe on iTunes or the podcaster of your choice, and take a moment to give it a rating. You can sign up for our free newsletter and read our articles at

Today’s show was edited and produced by Brock Read. Our theme music was by Jason Caddell. We’ll be back soon with more conversations about the new learning landscape.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at

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