The elite has become obsessed with fixing public schools. Whether it’s Ivy League graduates flocking to Teach for America or new-money foundations such as Gates, Broad, and Walton bestowing billions on the cause, “for the under-40 set, education reform is what feeding kids in Africa was in 1980,” Newark, New Jersey, education reformer Derrell Bradford told the Associated Press last fall.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is the latest entrepreneur to join this rush. He announced in late September that he planned to donate $100 million to the city of Newark to overhaul its school system. Zuckerberg, a billionaire by age 23, has little experience in philanthropy and no connection to Newark; he met the city’s mayor, Cory Booker, at a conference and was impressed with Booker’s ideas for school reform. Plans are still sketchy, but Zuckerberg has endorsed merit pay for teachers, closing failing schools, and opening more charters.
So will this princely sum produce a happy ending? Unlikely. The Zuckerberg gift, like all social action, is based on a particular “theory of change” — a set of beliefs about the best strategy to produce a desired outcome. The United Way has one theory of change about the best way to feed the hungry (direct aid funded by international private donations). Che Guevara had a very different one (self-help through armed revolution). Unfortunately, the theory of change behind the recent infusion of private money into public schools is based on some questionable assumptions: First, public schools will improve if they harness more resources. Second, charter schools and strong, MBA-style leaders are the preferred means of improvement. And third, a school’s success can be measured through standardized testing.
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