Seven Questions for Sandra Liu Huang, Chan Zuckerberg's New Head of...


Seven Questions for Sandra Liu Huang, Chan Zuckerberg's New Head of Education

By Stephen Noonoo     Dec 20, 2018

Seven Questions for Sandra Liu Huang, Chan Zuckerberg's New Head of Education

Earlier this week, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative named Sandra Liu Huang as its head of education, filling a vacancy created when Jim Shelton, the former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, left the organization this summer.

Unlike Shelton, Liu Huang’s background isn’t in education philanthropy, nonprofits or government. After a career working at tech-centric companies, including Google and Quora, in product roles, Liu Huang joined CZI in 2017 to oversee product development, notably over the Summit Learning platform. Work on the platform began within the charter network Summit Public Schools and was transformed when Facebook began to lend engineering support in 2015. (The development of the technology platform has been run by CZI since 2017.)

As head of CZI’s education division, Liu Huang will step into one of the most influential roles in education philanthropy. In September, CZI reps told Chalkbeat that the organization has provided more than $300 million in grants to various school systems, nonprofits and education-focused organizations, including Chicago Public Schools, Teach for America and ISTE. (Note: EdSurge has also received grant support from CZI).

Recently, Liu Huang answered questions from EdSurge via email, addressing a range of questions about her background, concerns over student privacy and the kinds of projects she’s most interested in funding.

EdSurge: Sandra, you hail from the world of tech and product development. Your predecessor Jim Shelton had different experience. How does your background shape the focus and direction for CZI’s work going forward?

Liu Huang: Our focus and direction for our education work at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) remains the same. It’s work rooted in a commitment to lifting up the very best of what we know from learning science and child development, listening to teachers to understand the challenges—and opportunities—they see, and building tools that can help teachers create the sort of learning experiences that so many of us are inspired by, but too many students rarely experience.

This is hard work. And it requires authentic, meaningful collaboration across sectors, so CZI has always had a diverse team, from educators and researchers to the technologists who make up our education team.

I am excited by that—and by how different our model and approach here is. CZI aims to be a different type of philanthropy looking to integrate grantmaking, advocacy and technology to serve others. My background in leading collaborations between multi-disciplinary teams to drive social impact helps me bring new tools and perspectives to our philanthropy. That is truly my passion and now my focus will be bridging across sectors to help us integrate our efforts and execute our vision across our team of 100-plus educators, researchers and technologists in service of young people.

The announcement highlights your work with the Summit Learning Program. Will CZI’s education technology development efforts remain focused on Summit, or will this work expand to other digital tools?

CZI was founded on the belief that by bringing technology to philanthropy, we can dramatically accelerate the pace of social progress at scale in science, education and issues related to justice and opportunity.

The best way to think about our work with the Summit Learning Program, in the context of this question, is as a platform that is continuing to grow and evolve.

On the technology side, our team’s primary focus at the moment is continuing to partner with Summit to support and learn from the program’s teachers and students. We see innovations in the field from educators who are adapting their approach and their usage of our online tools in ways that reflect the unique needs and aspirations of their students and schools. We’re encouraged by the early results, but know there is much more work to do.

Over time, I expect that we’ll continue to identify needs from teachers and students and be guided by learning science and research on student development to create additional tools and resources for teachers.

You’ve helped build products for Google and Facebook, companies that in recent months have been scrutinized over data collection and sharing practices. Similar concerns continue to flare up over online educational tools, including the Summit platform. How do these perceptions shape CZI’s approach to developing online services for students and teachers, and communicating what you’re doing (or not) with data?

Protecting students’ personal information is absolutely central to what we do and is a responsibility we do not bear lightly. It informs every aspect of our design process. We comply with the rigorous privacy policy set by the Summit Learning Program and have signed the Student Privacy Pledge. We actively encourage all of our grantees to do the same. We know that we have to be ahead of the curve when it comes to privacy and security, and we expect to share even more about our practices in the coming year and continue to set a high bar for ourselves and others in our sector.

It’s always worth restating that CZI is an independent philanthropic organization that is entirely separate from Facebook. We provide our engineering resources and technology for free, with no expectation or intention of earning a return. As an organization, we have zero commercial interests in education.

We do not and will not ever own or sell student data, period.

The announcement also mentions continued support for “whole child” education. For those unfamiliar with the term, it may seem overly generic and nebulous. What are specific initiatives that CZI will support on this front?

We believe that advancing evidence-based approaches in education and expanding the definition of success beyond academics to include the physical, mental, social, emotional, cognitive and identity needs of students is crucial to ensuring students have the skills and abilities to reach their full potential. Teachers have always known that learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum but that issues in these other domains deeply affect their ability to learn, and we want to recognize and support this reality. Furthermore, educators regularly share with us the needs they have to support students across these domains. We are currently funding a wide range of programs and organizations that are taking an evidence-based, whole child approach to learning, including:

  • A $7 million grant to Turnaround for Children, which is focused on turning research into new tools that will accelerate learning and development, especially in schools serving underserved students.
  • $300,000 in grants to High Resolves, a McNulty Prize–winning organization that’s researching how best to help students build the skills and habits they need to become caring, responsible citizens.
  • We’ve also provided $2.3 million in support to a Tennessee-based network of schools called Valor Collegiate Academies. Valor schools prioritize social and emotional development as part of a whole-child approach to education, and their students—many of whom come from low-income families—consistently outperform their peers in higher-income communities.
  • With support from CZI, Vision to Learn has provided eyeglasses to more than 120,000 students to help them meet their basic needs – and to learn and thrive
  • Using $13.9 million in grants from CZI, the College Board has given more than half a million students access to personalized learning opportunities—including customized SAT practice through Khan Academy, AP computer science courses and peer advising from the National College Advising Corps.

Recently, CZI disclosed its funding totals and details of multiple, separate grants. What kind of commitment to transparency can we expect under your leadership?

We have disclosed many of our grants publicly, either in announcements we’ve made ourselves or in news coverage—and like many peer philanthropic organizations, we annually disclose our grantmaking via IRS Form 990. We are still a young organization, launched in late 2015, but we do plan to make it easier to see information about our grantmaking and investments in the coming year—above and beyond the public disclosures we already make today around our giving.

As you start your job, what educational issues do you need to catch up on and learn about the most?

Like so many of the team members at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, I’m deeply interested in understanding more about what makes great teachers tick. What inspires them, where do they see opportunities, and what sorts of challenges do they experience inside the classroom. If we are going to play a role in helping teachers and schools meet the unique needs of each student, then we have to listen and learn from teachers that are already doing that work every day.

We have to move beyond the sort of superficial understanding that so many of us have—who have been on the receiving end of transformative educational experiences—toward a deeper level of understanding. Learning from teachers about the practice and art of teaching is the area I’m most excited about. And I’m looking forward to collaborating with educators, and bringing a complimentary and different skill set to the table, in ways that support and enable their work.

What kinds of organizations and initiatives are you, personally, interested in growing and possibly funding going forward?

My father, the youngest of nine children and a son to farmers, was able to come to the United States and earn his Ph.D. so that he could better provide for his family. His story, and abiding belief in the transformative potential of education, has—and will continue to have—a profound impact on my work. It’s a story that is, in many ways, emblematic of many immigrants to this country. But it’s not the story of far too many new Americans, or families from low income backgrounds. Because, while we know that education remains our greatest lever for social and economic mobility, we still grapple with challenges of access and equity.

I’m inspired by the potential to improve outcomes for all students. But I’m especially committed to identifying practices that can be game-changers for our most vulnerable students and populations. We’re going to continue to invest in programs with research-based practices, and the potential to address access and equity gaps not just on a limited basis, but at the sort of scale we need to fulfill the promise of our K-12 schools.

Efforts that allow me to combine interests in technology, education and bridging cultures are especially appealing. That might include collaborations between teachers, researchers and technologists to do research and build tools that are informed by the experiences and perspectives of teachers; advancing the work to translate what we know today about how students learn and develop it into practical resources that teachers can use in their classrooms; or building the infrastructure to accelerate research and development into how young people learn and develop.

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