IN 2017, Mark Zuckerberg gave the commencement address at Harvard University, his alma mater, which he famously quit in his sophomore year to create Facebook. Zuckerberg, the fifth richest person in the world, had previously contributed $100 million to corporate school reform in Newark, New Jersey, in a project launched in 2010 that particularly focused on replacing public schools with privately managed charters and weakening teaching as a secure profession. Zuckerberg’s privatization initiative in Newark was marked by its antipathy to democratic and community control over schools in a district suffering from historical disinvestment and the related ills of racialized class inequality. As Dale Russakoff details in The Prize, the restructuring of the Newark schools began with sham community information-gathering meetings that presented the public with a false sense of involvement. Secretly, Mark Zuckerberg, Newark mayor Cory Booker, and Governor Chris Christie had already planned the corporate school reform fate of Newark’s public schools. Zuckerberg was deeply involved with key figures and organizations across the political spectrum dedicated to the radical business-led transformation of public schools by privatizing ownership and control over schools, administration, teaching, and curriculum. Privatization in this context referred to redistributing control from the community, teachers, and teacher’s unions to superrich individuals and politicians.
In his Harvard address in 2017, Zuckerberg discussed his second major foray into education, CZI, emphasizing how his “for-profit philanthropy” focused on online personalized learning that would create meaningfulness and purpose for students by providing them the “freedom to fail” as they become entrepreneurs. Zuckerberg acknowledged that his own financial successes were only possible due to the economic privilege he inherited that provided him financial support and security to take entrepreneurial risk. Zuckerberg spoke of a new social contract with a universal basic income and lifelong educational services to confront the coming joblessness and insecurity brought about by technological innovation, of which, he neglected to mention, he has been both contributor and beneficiary. Zuckerberg recognized in his speech the extent to which economic success of individuals depends on support and security, and he advocated expanding the safety net in the interest of fostering a culture of business entrepreneurship. Zuckerberg’s apparently liberal commitments to expanding the safety net are toward the end of a neoliberal vision of inclusion defined by markets and entrepreneurialism. Everyone should be supported to “fail up” aided by continuous education. And Zuckerberg’s companies, Facebook and CZI, will be there to supply the lifelong learning products. Yet Zuckerberg did not mention in his address that CZI, LLC was a for-profit education company. Instead, he described it as a charity.
Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, had announced CZI on Facebook upon the birth of their daughter in 2015. At that time, they claimed that they were fulfilling Bill Gates’s “giving pledge,” which challenged billionaires to commit to give away the bulk of their fortunes. Zuckerberg and Chan alleged that they were pledging 99 percent of their Facebook stock, or $45 billion, to the new philanthropy. Yet, Zuckerberg and Chan gave their gift not to a philanthropic foundation but rather to their own LLC—an organization that shared staff, leadership, and a profit motive with Facebook. Whereas Facebook is a publicly traded corporation, CZI is privately held.
CZI follows the lead of Steve Jobs’s billionaire widow Laurene Powell Jobs’s for-profit LLC Emerson Collective and billionaire PayPal cofounder Pierre Omidyar’s Omidyar Network. All three of these companies target public schools for profit and participate in the neoliberal restructuring of public education while framing their profit-seeking, union-busting, standardization-promoting, and anticritical activities as “philanthropy”—a gift to children, schools, and the public. All three promote themselves as “innovative” for selling technology products to public schools.
CZI in several ways expresses a view of education that affirms the concentration of economic, cultural, and political power: it promotes a pedagogical format that appears to emphasize individual student control while undermining education as dialogic and democratic and shifting control over curriculum and pedagogy away from teachers and communities and toward for-profit corporations. CZI also functions as effective public relations for Zuckerberg and Facebook as they have come under fire for disseminating fake news during the 2016 presidential election and for live streaming murders and suicides. The first section discusses CZI’s redefinition of philanthropy and the importance of recognizing CZI primarily as a for-profit business. The second section discusses CZI’s “personalized learning” projects and how they displace teachers and the possibilities of democratic educational practices while creating the conditions for profit.
Misrepresenting Profit as Philanthropy
CZI has been widely discussed in the popular press for the controversial LLC form. Most accounts discuss the advantage to billionaires of retaining the greatest degree of control over the use of their money. The for-profit approach to “philanthropy” has been termed by some as philanthrocapitalism. However, there is vast confusion in the popular press and academia as to whether the term refers to the application of business ideals, corporate culture, and a private-sector approach to charity (as typified by nonprofit venture philanthropy foundations, such as Gates, Walton, and Broad) or to the declaration of a for-profit company itself as a philanthropy (CZI, Emerson, Omidyar). For-profit corporations cannot meaningfully be considered philanthropy.
Unlike nonprofit philanthropic foundations, which must release tax reports on the use of money, LLCs can do absolutely anything with the money in them without disclosing what they do. Money in the LLC could be taken as profit, invested in educational projects, or moved to other for-profit businesses, such as Facebook, or arms dealing for that matter, and there is no way for the public to know. Money can be withdrawn freely, and unlike with nonprofits, there is no requirement that a portion of funds be used for the mission. Indeed, CZI could do nothing at all, and nobody would be the wiser. Furthermore, unlike tax-exempt nonprofit foundations, for-profit LLCs can conduct political lobbying and can do so secretly. CZI and other LLCs do not shelter income from taxes, but they can write off business losses and get tax benefits that way.
As I detailed in my book The Gift of Education: Public Education and Venture Philanthropy, the early 1990s began a shift from traditional or “scientific philanthropy” typified by Carnegie and Rockefeller to “venture philanthropy.” Scientific philanthropy, which held sway in the twentieth century, was animated by industrial capitalists’ desire to support and expand the public sphere in part to bolster a meritocratic ideology. Public knowledge sources, such as libraries, museums, and schools, would allow individual citizens the means to acquire knowledge for private-sector development and public participation. Moreover, Carnegie was deeply worried about the growth of radical social movements, especially communism, and saw philanthropy as a means of undermining them by funding public institutions in ways compatible with the maintenance of elite economic and political rule. Traditional philanthropists simultaneously supported the expansion of public institutions and promoted the redistributed burden for social opportunity onto individuals who had better be willing to work hard to acquire knowledge and culture to compete for social ascendance. Giving, for scientific philanthropy, was largely publicly oriented and largely granted control over the uses of the money to the recipient public institutions.
In contrast, venture philanthropy (VP), which began in Silicon Valley in the early 1990s, promotes a financial agenda of public-sector privatization and deregulation while remaking philanthropy on the model of corporate culture. The language of VP is derived from tech start-ups and venture capital. For VP, charity is positioned as an “investment” with outcomes termed “return on investment.” Money is to be “leveraged” and initiatives to be “scaled up.” Venture philanthropists endow their own nonprofit foundations, and get tax breaks to do so, but then largely retain control over the uses of the money. Most significantly, these uses involve privatizing public goods and services, such as schools, and promoting the ideology of corporate culture. For example, of the big three venture philanthropies, the Gates Foundation most aggressively promoted charter expansion, the Walton Foundation promoted vouchers, and the Broad Foundation promoted deregulating and privatizing educational leadership on the model of the corporation and database tracking projects. Venture philanthropists leverage their funds by often staging competitions among states, districts, and schools for scarce money. VP has created what I term elsewhere a “new market bureaucracy,” in which the public bureaucracy has been denigrated as hopelessly inefficient and yet new layers of privately controlled organizations, such as charter funding and lobbying organizations, have been rolled out at the local, state, and national levels.
VP-style “leveraging” as a model of influence was adopted by the Obama administration’s signature Race to the Top program. It dangled money in front of states in exchange for aggressive efforts at expanding test-based accountability and lifting caps on charter expansion. There is an unvirtuous circle in which corporations and the superrich lobby to maintain low taxes that result in the inadequate funding of public infrastructure, and they lobby to get specific educational policies legislated that promote private-sector responses. Then venture philanthropists get tax benefits to put their money into foundations that they control to influence and shape the public sphere—often in ways that allow them to pillage and profiteer, such as getting for-profits into the public sector. Venture philanthropies have managed to strategically influence the use of public money toward privatization and corporatization projects while allowing the billionaire donors to have outsized influence over these initiatives. For example, two of the largest recent educational reform pushes, charter schooling and the Common Core State Standards, were so massively promoted by the Gates Foundation that it is unlikely that they would have been implemented nearly at the scale they have without it. In this sense, venture philanthropists have managed to hijack governance from the public with regard to the use and direction of public wealth and decision-making.
VP ought to be understood as profoundly political in that it reallocates political control over public institutions and influences the priorities of them. As well, it transforms social relationships and culture in institutions in vertical and authoritarian as opposed to democratic ways, largely by promoting the ideologies of corporate culture. For example, public schooling has the potential to create the conditions for democracy by providing the knowledge and dispositions for collective democratic self-governance. Yet the accountability and charter movements aggressively promoted by venture philanthropists promoted rigid and repressive pedagogical approaches while shifting curriculum decisions to private control. VP has played a central role in delinking public schooling from its formative capacities in democratic society, fostering instead a conception of schooling for private training for work and consumption.
While VP has de-democratizing tendencies in part by privatizing ownership and control over the public sphere, it is nonetheless philanthropy. In contrast, philanthrocapitalism, as typified by CZI, Emerson, and Omidyar, is mistakenly discussed in both mass media and academia as philanthropy albeit with greater secrecy and less transparency because it does not have to file tax forms disclosing its activities. Philanthrocapitalism in the form of the LLC should not be considered philanthropy but rather business. Writing in the New York Times, Singer and Isaac announced CZI with the headline “Mark Zuckerberg’s Philanthropy Uses L.L.C. for More Control.” They went on to explain the advantages to the LLC form for Zuckerberg, including for-profit investment, political activity, fewer rules, and no disclosure. They conclude, “In all those ways, the L.L.C. acts more like a private investment vehicle for the couple.” While they are right that CZI acts like a private investment vehicle, it is impossible for anyone ever to find out what CZI really does in terms of giving or business. It is a mistake to describe CZI as philanthropy. The British medical journal The Lancet warns, “When it comes to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the public may never know—and we have no legal right to know—whether any of the promised charity will actually go to charity at all.” Similarly, attorneys Dykes and Schwartz, writing in the journal Trusts and Estates, point out that “the donor has near total flexibility to change the LLC’s mission or projects at any time and has wide latitude to engage in self-dealing. . . . And because the promise to contribute to the LLC is unenforceable, the founder needn’t even follow through on the plan of funding the LLC at all and can unfund it at any time.”
CZI’s secrecy and privacy need to be seen in the context of the earlier Zuckerberg corporate school reform activities in Newark. Zuckerberg sought to reform schools while circumventing public participation in policy enactment. He was criticized for actively excluding the public from planning. Furthermore, the reforms themselves, such as the chartering, faced public criticism. The LLC form appears to be intended to specifically circumvent public accountability. However, there is a serious question as to whether CZI functions philanthropically at all or whether its activities are only profit seeking and “philanthropy” is a label intended to project an image of “corporate social responsibility.”
VP already significantly redefined charitable giving by eroding the distinction between private good and public good. Nonprofit foundations like Gates, Walton, and Broad promote the idea that public problems are ideally addressed through private-sector solutions, that only the rich can save the poor, that the private sector is always more efficient and less bureaucratically encumbered than the public sector, and that public institutions, such as public schools, ought to be privatized and corporatized for their own good.
Perhaps most insidiously, VP contributes to a neoliberal reimagining of obligation in which private individuals are only responsible to themselves but not to the other members of the public. The LLC corporate form of CZI continues yet goes beyond VP’s efforts to celebrate private dominance over public goods and services. Philanthrocapitalism represents an effort to collapse the distinction between public and private spheres and between profit seeking and charity. For example, a number of writers assume that for-profit “philanthropies” need to show both financial returns and “social returns.” Because LLCs are not required to reveal their finances or activities, the distinction between these activities could not be ascertained. Nonetheless, giving the LLC the benefit of the doubt, these imperatives for financial and social returns are often in conflict, as they are with any business corporation, and the pursuit of profit comes at the expense of social returns, that is, the public interest when the survival of the business is at stake. Zuckerberg largely profits through providing free content generated by other users and selling advertising on that volunteered content, while most philanthropy supports nonprofit causes that are intended to serve the public interest. These contradictory aims of wealth extraction and public purpose become glaringly obvious with CZI’s central project of personalized learning and data extraction and its aims of replacing teacher labor with automated programs.
CZI’s “Personalized Learning” Projects
Some of CZI’s for-profit educational investments follow a profit model of pay-for-fee services. CZI invested $50 million in the BYJU’s (Think and Learn Pvt. Ltd.) for-profit educational app that teaches mostly math, science, and test preparation, with its largest audience in India. Parents pay for the courses and subscription. This represents a development of neoliberal education that the World Bank has been promoting for years—pay-for-fee privatized education instead of the development of free universal public education in developing countries. It deepens the educational privatization that Chubb, Moe, and other U.S. rightists have been advocating through the use of technology, namely, “unbundling” the school and treating each piece of what a school does as a commercializable service.
CZI is investing in for-profit educational technology companies like BYJU’s, whose primary goal is the accumulation of wealth by selling to end users and public school districts and cutting costs to maximize profit. The profit motive results in an effort to extract money from the educational process by maximizing the amount of money taken in by the company and minimizing business expenses for labor, materials, and other overhead. BYJU’s appears poised to compete globally for educational spending, as following the CZI investment, it purchased Edurite and Tutorvista from educational for-profit giant Pearson. The big take in these purchases was not so much these companies as their databases of students, including millions of U.S. students. The acquisition of student data is at the center of personalized learning as a business.
Personalized learning itself developed out of commercial marketing applications. As an announcement of CZI’s $50 million investment in for-profit education company BYJU’s puts it, “personalization is a theme long pursued by consumer internet companies, especially e-trailers, who offer consumers a bouquet of choices to pick from based on their past shopping or browsing history. This in turn increases a consumer’s engagement on the platform and significantly increases probability of a purchase.” While there is no widely agreed upon definition of personalized learning, proponents allege curriculum and pedagogy to be relevant to and tailored to students’ interests. However, personalized learning has come to be associated with educational technology products that are designed to standardize and “deliver” content regardless of the specificities of the student, the teacher, or the context.
Summit and the Trade in Student Data
CZI bought Summit Charter School Network and has been promoting the implementation of Summit personalized learning technology in public schools around the United States. Summit is connected to advertising-driven Facebook, using software engineers to develop its online education platform. While Summit is initially given to schools without a fee, like Facebook, it collects user data. The connection to Facebook raises troubling school commercialism implications regarding the imposition of advertising in the classroom, the uses of private data, and the nonconsensual gathering of private, personal information from minors.
Unlike its investment in BYJU’s, CZI’s personalized learning project Summit does not profit by providing a fee for service. Summit enters use agreements directly with schools and hence becomes a part of the required curriculum. Facebook profits in part through advertising and in part by selling user data. While the pilot Summit Basecamp program is being rolled out to public schools without charge, just like Facebook is provided to users “without charge,” critics raise privacy concerns because, like Facebook, Summit collects valuable user data, that is, student data. The agreement between Summit and the participating school states that Summit may use student data to develop educational services. Since Summit is part of a for-profit company, CZI, LLC, this means that the data could be used to develop other for-profit educational services within CZI’s umbrella. Facebook is an advertising company. Most of its profit comes from using volunteered data to sell ads targeting its users. A personalized learning curriculum sets the stage for a new kind of profit taking by educational investors in the form of data mining. Just as Facebook uses and sells data from its users to advertisers, the data that can be collected from a young school-based “captive audience” not in a position to refuse it could be worth a fortune.
CZI’s private for-profit form and the interrelations of for-profit and nonprofit entities and sharing of commercializable information raise a number of troubling questions: Will CZI finance its educational activities through the commercialization of its users’ data, as Facebook does? Will the content in Summit applications embed advertising? Will Summit deliver users to Facebook, which will deliver them to advertisers? Will Summit use taken data and put them through big data models to derive commercially valuable marketing information? There appears to be nothing in the user agreement or the laws structuring CZI as an LLC that would preclude these commercial possibilities. Moreover, due to the LLC form, one can never know the answers to these questions. Consequently, the public ought to assume that the answers to these questions are all yes unless proven otherwise.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal that emerged in 2018 revealed that as early as 2015, Facebook and Zuckerberg were aware that Cambridge Analytica was secretly taking Facebook users’ data and using them to advertise political campaigns, such as Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. The taking of 87 million people’s data without their knowledge or consent to be used to manipulate them politically highlights more than the questionable judgment of CZI and Zuckerberg. It also showcases how private companies with a vested financial interest cannot be trusted to regulate themselves when it comes to the responsible use of private information. The Cambridge Analytica scandal shows that Zuckerberg, Facebook, and CZI ought to be forced to open Summit and all of CZI’s activities to public accountability, oversight, and regulation or face expulsion from public schools to protect children’s legal rights to privacy.
Among the most troubling aspects of CZI’s expansion of Summit is the effort to replace teachers with machines and to shift the control over knowledge from teachers to a for-profit company. CZI has been promoting “personalized learning,” “software that puts children in charge of their own learning, recasting their teachers as facilitators and mentors.” Zuckerberg has explained the vision for how personalized learning works in a classroom: “Students cluster together, working at laptops. They use software to select their own assignments, working at their own pace. And, should they struggle at teaching themselves, teachers are on hand to guide them.”
On the surface, this vision for personalized learning appears to counter some of the worst aspects of the past two decades of excessive standardized testing, the central feature of the so-called accountability movement. It replaces the single high-stakes test with the possibility of taking a test as many times as is necessary to check “mastery.” However, rather than getting rid of the accountability movement’s legacy of overtesting, which has been opposed by the antitesting Opt Out movement, Summit’s program appears to build testing more deeply into the curriculum and worsens the problems of teaching to the test. Orienting learning around constant testing and teaching to the test displaces dialogue in favor of a monologic form of learning. Such a model of pedagogy displaces dialogue, curiosity, investigation, interpretation, judgment, and debate in favor of transmission through passive absorption. Moreover, standardized tests obscure the social and ideological positions of the makers of the tests and the takers of the tests. As a consequence, knowledge appears disconnected from its conditions of production and the symbolic and material contests that inform claims to truth.
CZI’s expansion of standardized testing is more extensive than its integration into personalized learning. In spring 2017, CZI partnered with The College Board, which sells the PSAT, SAT, and Advanced Placement tests, to expand adaptive learning test preparation in school. CZI does not appear to be committed to ending or replacing standardized testing as a gate to academic promotion and economic inclusion so much as it wants to enter into pay-for-fee services in an ever more competitive testing climate.
Proponents of personalized learning claim that in opposition to competitive individualized learning, personalized learning emphasizes collective learning with students clustered around tables together. Zuckerberg and Summit CEO Diane Tavenner liken this collective learning to the corporate culture of a tech company. According to Zuckerberg, “it feels like the future—it feels like a start up.” And says Tavenner, “It looks more like Google or Facebook than a school.” Empirical evidence of traditional measures of test-based achievement do not exist to support the claims of proponents of personalized learning. Such traditional measures of test-based achievement fail to address a more significant matter that bears on the personalized learning debate, namely, how it impacts the ways that teachers and students address the politics of the curriculum—that is, contested knowledge and meanings and the ways that these contests are connected to broader material and symbolic struggles.
CZI’s promotion of “personalized learning” aims to replace teachers with machines, to replace dialogue between teachers and students with student use of programmed software. It replaces the meaning-making work that teachers do in classrooms, which is often contextually based, with a decontextualized software program. Promoters of the software suggest that, by being adaptive to students, it is “responsive” and “relevant.” Providence, Rhode Island, school superintendent Christopher Maher, who is overseeing one of the most extensive implementations of personalized learning with CZI, stated, “Personalized-learning technology helps students choose subjects they find personally meaningful and culturally relevant.” However, whereas teachers can link knowledge to student experience to make learning relevant, such software cannot. Furthermore, teachers can go beyond linking knowledge to experience by problematizing how knowledge is produced and how its production relates to the particular social environment experienced by the student. To give an example from Maher’s district, how might a working-class student who is African American or Latino use personalized learning software to make sense of the experience of the extreme racial and class segregation that currently structures the city of Providence and the racialized and class-based pedagogies of repression that currently organize its public schools? Whereas a teacher can engage in dialogue with this student about the history of that reality, the competing ways of theorizing and interpreting that reality, the curriculum software cannot. As CZI moves to displace teachers with technology, it repurposes teachers as “mentors.” As mentors, teachers are not “deliverers of content” but rather take on the role of fostering “cognitive skills.” In CZI’s vision, there is an artificial split introduced between “content” and “thinking,” as if one can think without content. As Paulo Freire emphasized, teachers are always more than facilitators or “mentors.” A teacher’s pedagogical authority is always exercised whether the teacher intervenes to question the content or silently affirms it and tacitly endorses it.
“Personalized learning” is not just a misnomer; it is an oxymoron in that it depersonalizes learning as it removes learning from the subjective realities of students’ lives, the objective realities of the broader context for learning, and the dialogue between teachers and students. By depersonalizing learning, such software also denies the relationships between claims to truth and the ideological positions and social interests that often animate claims to truth. In this sense, CZI’s educational activities run contrary to the aspirations of democratic education that aims to promote dispositions of curiosity, dissent, and dialogue and that links knowledge to power such that knowledge can form the basis for social agency. Instead of rewarding students with understanding their potential to act on the community and the world, personalized learning software often rewards learning with video game–style extrinsic rewards.
A key feature of “personalized learning” is what Garrison et al. has referred to as “the Netflixing of education,” or the implementation of adaptive software and data analytics. Adaptive software works like Netflix to predict and suggest the direction of lessons. Data analytics compile and quantify the student’s use of the software, measures her use with tests, and provides the teacher with data that are supposed to inform the teacher’s mentorship. As I have discussed elsewhere, the expansion of adaptive learning technology and its informatization is troubling because it provides a prescribed path of curriculum and creates a longitudinal case about the student over the course of a year and from year to year. Because the “data” about the student’s activities are numerically quantified, these activities falsely appear as neutral and objective. As well, because the student chooses some activities and to some extent the pace of use, the program appears to foster individual control over learning despite the fact that the lessons are prefabricated and standardized. Adaptive learning software sorts and sifts students, promoting some and punishing others. Like standardized testing and the standardization of curriculum, such sorting and sifting are informed by a cultural politics that the software does not make explicit to its users. Hence the curriculum of adaptive learning software puts forward particular class and cultural group values, ideologies, and subject positions while falsely wrapping these cultural politics in a guise of disinterested universality and objectivity abetted by the ideology of technology.
Personalized learning software recontextualizes knowledge in ways that are viscerally stimulating but remove the skill acquisition from any meaningful individual or social use. Take, for example, Netflix founder Reed Hastings’s Dreambox Learning:
Dreambox takes elements from animated video games, with some math lessons populated by aliens that whoosh and animals that cluck. When students complete a math lesson successfully, they earn points that they can use to unlock virtual rewards.
Learning math in this case becomes not about learning tools to understand the self and the social world to be able to act on it. Math in this case is a desocialized skill linked to meaningless extrinsic rewards and frivolous entertainment. The point is not that there is no place for frivolous entertainment but that the pedagogical approach favored by personalized learning disconnects skills from their social meanings and possibilities. Compare this Dreambox example to a lesson developed by critical math educators who, for example (to use a former Chicago colleague’s lesson), teach Latinx youth fractions by doing driving while brown/driving while black lessons. In this case, the experience of these youths being targeted by police was analyzed with fractions, furthering the comprehension of the experience. The lesson then became the basis for a community action project to challenge racist police practices. This example highlights the crucial difference between what relevant and meaningful learning can be about when contextualized socially and made relevant to the individual student experience.
There is a false debate found in both the popular and academic literature about personalized learning. Proponents, such as Maher, falsely portray it as relevant and meaningful while celebrating these supposed virtues against transmission models of pedagogy. Critics of personalized learning, such as Benjamin Riley, defend the role of teachers as imparters of knowledge that can be accumulated by students. Both positions fail to comprehend the cultural politics of knowledge making in schools. Such proponents of personalized learning are now appropriating from traditions of critical education the rhetoric of meaningful and relevant learning while promoting forms of learning that are neither. Personalized learning is depersonalized by decontextualizing knowledge from its conditions of formation. The transmission model that sees the teacher as imparter of knowledge treats knowledge as static and the student as an empty vessel. Both positions miss the way that knowledge is co-created through dialogic exchange between teachers and students. As Stuart Hall emphasizes, culture is made through meaning-making practices through exchange, albeit in always unequal ways.
Pillaging Teacher Work for Profit
According to Dale Russakoff in The Prize, Zuckerberg’s central focus on school reform in Newark involved changing teacher work. Russakoff writes that Zuckerberg saw the teacher workforce as a problem and was interested in making teaching work attractive. What Russakoff does not explain is why, then, Zuckerberg embraced neoliberal educational reforms that are thoroughly off-putting to prospective teachers by transforming teaching from a profession with professional security, autonomy, and control over pedagogical and curricular decisions to an insecure job subject to intense surveillance, micromanagement, punishing test-based accountability, and downward pressure on pay and benefits. Specifically, Zuckerberg in Newark was onboard with Booker and Christie’s push for union busting, chartering, and value-added modeling.
CZI continues Zuckerberg’s long-standing focus on framing the teacher and teacher work as problems that need to be overcome. The different aspects of CZI’s educational activities hinge on an allegation that teachers are “unaccountable” and need to be made accountable. This was evident in Zuckerberg’s Newark activities that positioned the teacher workforce as both problem and solution. It is also evident in CZI’s project of replacing teachers with machines. According to Zuckerberg, what will allegedly produce accountability is students’ activities on the software, which can be numerically quantified and will represent real learning. Students are to be accountable to the software, which is made elsewhere by experts. Yet students are not to be accountable to the teachers who play a new role in CZI’s vision no longer as teachers but as “mentors.” As Zuckerberg’s educational solutions demand numerically quantifiable accountability from his product, Zuckerberg’s own educational activity has been and continues to be unaccountable to the public due to the secrecy afforded the LLC structure.
CZI’s plan to replace teachers with a “student-centered” approach is not a new privatization strategy. When Chris Whittle announced his plans for the Edison Schools, now Edison Learning, a for-profit company that manages schools, he described a seemingly progressive vision in which fewer teachers could be used as students taught students. This labor and cost saving plan was soon enough scrapped by Whittle and replaced with a radically rigid and standardized approach that involved having every student in every Edison School learn the same thing at the same time. The earlier example of Edison is significant for how, in the history of corporate school reform, the celebration of student freedom from teachers has been about reducing the overhead of teacher labor to maximize profits by reducing the single biggest element of school overhead. In the case of CZI, the shift of money away from the teacher workforce and toward for-profit companies that develop curriculum software and adaptive learning technologies represents a redistribution of public wealth from public employees to private ones. It also represents a shift in control over who decides what should be taught and how it should be taught. The media scandal over Facebook’s editorial role in overseeing its newsfeed following the 2016 presidential election has great relevance for this question of curricular control. Following the discovery that a large quantity of fake news stories during the 2016 presidential election were circulated through Facebook, the company’s editorial oversight came under scrutiny. This scrutiny revealed that a small number of people at the company were making decisions about what news to send to users’ Facebook pages. News, like curriculum, always comes from a particular vantage point with particular assumptions.
Personalized learning promoted by CZI denies and obscures the human and inherently political practices of meaning making by disappearing those making the curriculum and disallowing dialogue between students and those making claims to truth. In this sense, CZI’s version of personalized learning is antithetical to democracy itself. Henry Giroux makes the point that education is always implicated in both politics and the kind of society people are collectively forming:
Education [is] important not only for gainful employment but also for creating the formative culture of beliefs, practices, and social relations that enable individuals to wield power, learn how to govern, and nurture a democratic society that takes equality, justice, shared values, and freedom seriously.
As CZI works rapidly to expand as an education business disguised as a philanthropy, citizens need to comprehend the broader social and political stakes in the expansion of standardized testing and standardized curriculum, destruction of the dialogic relationship between teachers and students, redistribution of educational resources, and decision-making about pedagogy and curriculum from the public and teachers to the corporation.