Hi, everyone. You might have heard that this week Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan announced that they’re going to give away 99% of their Facebook stock in hopes of making the world a much better place for their newborn daughter and her generation. Now, I just want to be right up front with you. I have no inside information about this fascinating development. But what I do have is inside information, the inside story, on a gift that this couple made five years ago in their first act as philanthropists.
They gave a hundred million dollars, not to try to change the world, but to try to do something that was almost as hard. They wanted to turn around the very broken schools of Newark, New Jersey, a city that’s probably one of the poorest and most violence-plagued cities in the country. And I’d like you know I did write a book on this. I spent five years following this adventure, and I’d like to show you today how I think what happened in Newark, and what Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan learned from it, is shaping the way they’re approaching this much bigger venture that they announced on Tuesday.
Let’s wind back the clock. It’s 2010. Mark Zuckerberg is twenty-six years old. He’s the fabulously successful, very wealthy founder and Facebook. And he’s decided that unlike Bill Gates, he doesn’t want to wait till retirement to become a major philanthropist, he wants to start right now. And he and his wife Priscilla Chan (well, she’s then his girlfriend, but we all know she’s going to be his wife), decide they want to do something in education, and they want to do something big in education. And so Mark Zuckerberg decides that what he wants to do is he wants to figure out how to increase the status of teachers in America. He thinks this is a huge issue. And he believes that one of the biggest problems facing the American economy is the failure of education, particularly in urban centers. And he thinks that the way to fix education is to get the most talented people in the country to become teachers.
Now, he has all the most talented people in the world beating down his door to come to Facebook, and he thinks the reason that they’re coming is that he’s paying them for their performance. The best people get the biggest bonuses. Well, in education, as we know, teachers get raises for their longevity year after year. It’s not based on performance. And so he’s saying the deadwood get the same raises as the superstars. Who would want to work in a situation like that, he asked.
So, his idea is to try to figure out how to revolutionize teachers’ contracts. And he says if he can get teachers to get big bonuses, the best teachers to get the biggest bonuses the way the best workers at Facebook do, he says that’s the way to get the very best people into teaching, a lot of the very best people. So he has this idea, and as luck would have it who does he meet but Cory Booker, the rockstar mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Oprah Winfrey calls him. And he also meets Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey who is himself a rising star in the Republican party. And they tell Zuckerberg that there’s no more promising place in America to do something big, something transformational, in education than in Newark, New Jersey. So if Mark and Priscilla will give a hundred million dollars, Cory Booker says he’ll raise a second hundred million from other donors. And he’ll win a revolutionary teachers’ contract from the union in Newark, and it will become a model for the country. And meanwhile Cory Booker says he will commit himself 24⁄7 and he will make education the number one priority of his second term.
So Zuckerberg signed on, and before he knew it he was on Oprah Winfrey show sitting alongside Cory Booker and Chris Christie. And they’re all telling the nation that in five years, they’re going to take a city of predominantly failing schools and turn it into one of universally high performance. And as Cory Booker says, it’s going to be a “hemisphere of hope.” And they’re not going to stop there. They said they would emerge in these five years with a model, they called it a “proof point,” for how to turn around all failing urban districts. And Mark Zuckerberg with his philanthropy will take this model to city after city, and he will solve the crisis in education in urban America, just the way he revolutionized global communications from his Harvard dorm room at age nineteen. Just like that.
Well. In the first two interviews I had with Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, they were disarmingly open about how little they knew about philanthropy. And they said in committing this hundred million dollars they hope not only to help children in Newark, but also to learn from the experience. And to become better philanthropists as a result of it. And I was really struck when they said that. They said it with such openness and conviction that I knew that they were really serious about this learning piece, about whatever happened in Newark, they wanted to be really honest and confront it and learn from it.
For the Chan-Zuckerbergs, Newark became a school of hard knocks. As you may have heard, the promises made on the Oprah show did not materialize. The young philanthropists did not emerge from Newark with a model for even turning around Newark, much less all urban districts nationally. Without question some good did come of the hundred million that Zuckerberg spent and another hundred million from the matching donors. A very significant expansion of the city’s high-performing charter schools. Improved management systems inside of what had been a really dysfunctional school district bureaucracy. And a new teachers’ contract with much tougher accountability for teachers instruction of students, although nothing like the revolutionary contract that Mark Zuckerberg wanted at the beginning.
But the district schools in Newark that are attended by 60% of the children have been plunged into a financial crisis, in part because of one of the good things. Because of the exodus of children to charter schools. The dollars went with them. More than a third of the traditional public schools have been closed, consolidated, restructured, repurposed, restaffed, and turned over to charter schools. And also there’s been massive reassignment of staff and teachers and layoffs.
And maybe as a result of all this upheaval, and in spite of the positive management changes that they made throughout the district, student achievement on the standardized test in the district schools has gone down, not up, since this reform process began. So Newark has a bifurcated education system now. They have 40% of students in high-performing charters, most of which are beating the state average on the standardized tests. And then there’s 60% of the students in the traditional district schools, where the scores have gone down. And if you talk to teachers in the district’s schools, they say that the budget crisis has taken away the support that they desperately need to address challenges that children face from growing up in an extremely poor and a violence-plagued city.
Politically, the road has been even rockier. Booker and Christie imposed their reform strategy on the city without the input of teachers or parents, triggering an uprising so intense that it propelled into the mayor’s office a former city councilman named Ras Baraka, whose platform was entirely dedicated to stopping all the reforms in their tracks. Education reformers from around the country poured five million dollars in contributions into a campaign to try to defeat him, but he still won decisively with a very severe fundraising disadvantage.
From three thousand miles away, imagine this. Mark Zuckerberg is reading that at rallies in Newark, residents are decrying him as an uncaring billionaire who’s wreaking havoc with their schools. Based on what Cory Booker had told him, Mark Zuckerberg said that he thought he was doing what the people in Newark wanted for themselves. And meanwhile Cory Booker vow to be the 24⁄7 education mayor got hijacked by multiple distractions, including a murder wave in the city, a crushing fiscal crisis, a political revolt by his city council, and his race for the Senate.
Instead of Newark becoming the hoped-for model of education for the nation, multiple philanthropists are now using it as a case study for how not to treat a community that you hope to help. But here’s the fascinating part. Mark Zuckerberg at the riper, older age of thirty-one has emerged as one of Newark’s most serious and self-reflective students. In a letter that he and his wife Priscilla Chan wrote to their newborn daughter Maxima Chan Zuckerberg last week and posted on Facebook, they laid out six guiding principles for what they call the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, to be funded by their stock, which as we said is now estimated at forty-five billion dollars.
Principles number one and two were drawn directly from what went wrong in Newark. The first one calls for investing for the long term. Twenty-five years, a hundred years, certainly not five years, which was the time frame in Newark. “Short-term thinking,” they wrote, will not begin to solve the great challenges of their time. And in this they included poverty, disease, educational inequity, and broken communities.
Their second principle is to “engage directly with the people we serve. We can’t empower people if we don’t understand the needs and desires of their communities.” That doesn’t sound like what happened in Newark. In Newark, largely bypassing the community was not only politically calamitous, it produced an agenda that did not equip the schools to address profound emotional needs that children bring into classrooms every day, needs about which parents and teachers could have offered powerful insight if they had been consulted.
It is interesting that the couple chose to put Priscilla Chan’s name first in christening their new venture the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. Dr. Chan, who herself comes from a disadvantaged background, is a proponent of a holistic approach to education. As a pediatrician working with underserved children in San Francisco area safety net hospitals, she became convinced that children raised in extreme poverty suffer health and emotional consequences and require extensive support that the prevailing education reform agenda simply doesn’t contemplate. She’s using her and her husband’s philanthropy to start a school that will operate in partnership with a community health center in the bay area, providing medical and mental health care in tandem with education and community-based services, creating a web support for students with the greatest needs, beginning in early childhood.
Hours before Zuckerberg and Chan revealed their initiative to the world on Tuesday, the foundation dispensing their gift in Newark announced that it was committing ten million dollars to create a network of community schools. These are a big priority of mayor Baraka’s. They’re schools with wraparound services for children, as well as for adults and for the community and the neighborhood.
In the aftermath of the uprising that produced Ras Baraka’s election, the foundation has made other visible investments in the community, including in the mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program, and a citywide campaign to increase the proportion of college graduates, in Newark which is now only 12%. The goal is to reach 25% by 2025. At Tuesday’s community schools announcement, Mayor Baraka stood shoulder to shoulder with the foundation’s president, and the state-appointed school district superintendent, appointed by governor Christie. It was a real tableau of rapprochement, although it was belated.
Cory Booker and Chris Christie, as you may have heard, left the fray of the education reform struggle that they set in motion with so much fanfare in 2010. Booker left for the Senate, and Governor Christie has left for the Presidential campaign circuit. Mark Zuckerberg, alone among the three men who sat on Oprah Winfrey’s stage that day, appears to have been changed by the experience. As he and Chan wrote to their baby daughter, it will be decades, maybe even a century before their new far-grander initiative reaches fruition. But if it bears even some of the fruits they hope for the world in which Maxima is going to grow up, it will be in part because of the lessons her parents learned the hard way in the tough educational precincts of Newark, New Jersey.