Jim Shelton to Leave Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

column | Movers and Shakers

Jim Shelton to Leave Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

By Betsy Corcoran (Columnist)     Jul 11, 2018

Jim Shelton to Leave Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Jim Shelton is leaving the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

In a post that goes live today on CZI’s site, Shelton wrote that by the end of the summer he will leave his position as head of the Education group at CZI, a team that he built from zero to about 70 people over the span of about two years. (Some 250 people in total work at CZI, including groups other than education.) April Chou, formerly chief growth and operating officer at the charter school network KIPP Bay Area Schools, who joined CZI in the spring, will serve as interim head of the group.

On Tuesday, Shelton shared the news with colleagues at CZI and with a handful of people leading organizations that have received grants from CZI. (Note: EdSurge was among them.) Although stepping down from a job to “spend time with family” has become a modern-day trope, Shelton means it: He said that his family, including his two boys, willingly made big sacrifices over the past decade to support his work, including relocating to San Francisco last year. And so after building the CZI team and having “a proper dose of humility about my essentiality,” he concluded that it was time to go back to the Washington, D.C. area.

Many in the education and philanthropy communities were caught off guard by his decision but expressed support. “We lose one of the seminal visionaries in education reform in our country,” said Phyllis Lockett, who heads LEAP Innovations in Chicago. “I was surprised—but I know [the CZI job] has been a strain on his family,” added Angela Glover Blackwell, founder of PolicyLink, an economic and social equity institute based in Oakland.

Priscilla Chan, who has devoted an increasing portion of her time to working with CZI, and her husband, Mark Zuckerberg, thanked Shelton for his work in a note. “When we started our work together, we were a small team of four working above the Hoot ‘n Toot dry cleaners!” they wrote. “Since then, you’ve helped redefine student success in ways that go beyond academics and made learning science more accessible to teachers.” Shelton will also continue to serve at CZI as an advisor.

Shelton leaves an organization that rocketed into a dominant position in education in two years’ time. The organization, which is legally structured as a limited liability corporation (LLC), has so far awarded about $1.4 billion in grants and made $100 million in investments. Its potential is staggering: Zuckerberg and Chan have pledged to donate—eventually—99 percent of their fortune, which is currently estimated to be almost $70 billion.

Even so, the couple’s first forays into education drew decidedly mixed results: An early $100 million investment in Newark, N.J., attracted sharp public critique and few demonstrable gains.

Shelton, who had served in the Department of Education during the Obama administration, began meeting with the pair in 2015 after he had joined the online graduate education company, 2U.

“What became clear was that we shared some core beliefs,” Shelton writes of his early meetings with Chan and Zuckerberg. Among them: “that humans have incredible untapped potential; that with the right educational opportunities and supports to address the needs of the whole child, every kid—regardless of their background, could achieve at the highest levels; that to solve the hardest problems and make the solutions available to everyone required using all of the tools (engineering, grants, investments, and advocacy).”

When Shelton teamed up with Chan and Zuckerberg, he led the newly formed education group at CZI into a broad exploration of the multitude of barriers that many students face, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Supporters point to two fundamental contributions: First, creating a strategy for CZI that supports a broad exploration of solutions rather than a narrow or “silver-bullet” approach to improving education. And second: building a team with a rich diversity of experience and interests that could carry out the work.

“Jim has really helped [Priscilla and Mark] set the vision for CZI—personalized, whole-child education,” which includes physical, academic, mental, and emotional learning, noted Linda Darling-Hammond, an emeritus professor at Stanford University and co-founder of the Learning Policy Institute. Driven by Shelton, CZI began championing the “science of learning development,” namely pulling together the science behind how students learn and seeking practical implications for that work. One essential element has become understanding the social-emotional challenges faced by children, particularly ones subjected to trauma.

From its early days, CZI has also been closely linked with the concept of “personalized learning.” Critics have charged that the approach has become a shorthand for relying on technology to teach. In particular, CZI is pouring significant resources into building out the technology platform that supports the school model developed by Summit Public Schools, which combines personalization, technology and project-based learning.

But Shelton remains adamant that education demands a multitude of approaches, maintaining that tech was merely a tool serving teachers and students and that “personalization” has to have purpose. “It’s not just about ‘Is it made for me?’ The question is: What am I striving for?” said David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board.

David Plouffe, who joined CZI in January 2016 and heads its Justice and Opportunity team, pointed to Shelton’s championing of Vision to Learn, a program which provides eyeglasses, as an example of how CZI is helping knock down just one of the many barriers that underprivileged students face. Added Lockett: “Jim’s willingness to try new things is such an important signal especially in philanthropy,” a field where organizations have a long history of making cautious choices.

Shelton has also obsessed over what Coleman calls “learning fast.” “He insisted we build a ‘learning-fast’ organization,” pushing the College Board to gather data about the most effective practices for helping students on exams. That effort is already paying off, Coleman said, and has helped double the number of black and Latino students and girls taking AP computer science and provide free SAT prep for thousands.

Shelton says he’s proud of his team, which includes educators, learning scientists, academics and engineers. “What they share is a deep commitment to expanding opportunity, especially for those most underserved, an unshakable belief in what is possible, and deep care for each other,” he wrote. “And while that makes it hard to leave, it is the team’s strength that makes me feel confident that the work will continue to build momentum.”

Others are also counting on the team to continue to support a broad swath of approaches to improving education, and not fall into the Silicon Valley trap of excessively focusing on a single technology solution—even a solution as compelling as the Summit platform. “The measure of CZI’s success will be how well it holds onto those values,” said Coleman. “If there’s a reduction to technology alone, then that will be a great loss.”

“You always want Jim in the room,” said Glover Blackwell. “We lose something when Jim steps down, because of who he is and what he represents.” The U.S. needs to tap the expertise of people of color as well as leaders who listen to communities of families and advocates. “Diversity in this country is an asset,” she added.

Shelton has not picked a next role. Even so, the network of people who have worked alongside him fully expect that he will continue his campaign to find ways to support the lives of young people. “I am very confident that Jim will continue to be a substantial leader,” said Coleman.

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