Sorting Out the Advice for Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan

Dear Mark and Priscilla,

Apologies for again interrupting your summer peace, but my respected friend Marc Tucker—in his open letter to you taking issue with my earlier missive —sorely misinterpreted or misstated one of my central points, so I must at least try to set the record straight. (I’ll also take the liberty of demurring from Marc’s well-intended advice in a couple of other areas.)


First, to correct the record: Marc (T, not Z) has me “urg[ing] you [and Chan Zuckerberg] to provide scholarships, supplemental learning opportunities and great summer programs for poor kids from low-income communities.”

Wrong, wrong and wrong. Marc’s a smart guy who is deeply informed about many things and often right about them. But he should have read my piece more closely, Common Core style. Here’s what I wrote:

If a philanthropist wants simply to “do good” in the education space, none of this matters. It’s a no-brainer to underwrite a building, a professorship, a scholarship, a summer program, a lecture series, a roomful of laptops, a field trip, or a gala recognition dinner. You can get thanked, praised, photographed, tweeted about, or liked on Facebook…. All those sorts of things are easy and generally without controversy, much less rancor.

But it wasn’t—and isn’t—“simply doing good” that I urged upon you. I actually deprecated that approach to philanthropy in favor of much more ambitious end-runs of the entrenched K-12 system: all sorts of great charter schools, policy changes (e.g. for special ed), unconventional human-capital development programs, better information for kids regarding their progress (or lack thereof) in school, personalized learning via sophisticated technology, and much more.

Nothing wrong with scholarships and summer programs, no, but I’m pretty sure my original letter was clear that that was not what I am recommending. I do want to see the system change—as does Marc—and I don’t think serious philanthropists should just “do good” and “get thanked, praised, photographed [and] tweeted about.”

Where Marc and I truly differ, however, isn’t about that. It’s about whether philanthropists can most powerfully effect “system change” by going at the system frontally or by circumnavigating it with actions that will inevitably compel it to change, actions such as those I sketch two paragraphs above.

Marc has spent a lot of time studying effective education systems in other countries and he knows a lot about them. But that doesn’t make what they do transferrable to the U.S. context or susceptible to being imposed upon a calcified public-education enterprise that doesn’t yet manifest them and has entrenched interests opposed to their imposition. Certainly such practices cannot be imposed via the relatively puny instrument of private philanthropy.

Marc cites Massachusetts—which deserves praise for what it did to its own public-education system via the policy route—as a place where an outside entrepreneur “led the charge.” But Massachusetts was also one of those rare places where the political stars and system leadership aligned so that could happen. I cited several such examples—local ones—in my first letter to you, and explained how infrequent and exceptional they are.

Marc also cites David Kirp’s account of Union City, New Jersey, as an example of effective reform wrought by the system itself. I don’t know whether he’s read Russ Whitehurst’s critique of Kirp’s analysis, but if he hasn’t he should. (So, perhaps, should you.) 

Yes, there are indeed isolated places where “the system” is ready to change and philanthropy can lend a hand. But there aren’t many and it would be a waste of Chan Zuckerberg’s immense potential to expend much money and effort seeking—or trying to create—more of them. Philanthropy just doesn’t have that much leverage.

What philanthropy can do is induce change in the system by creating competitors to it, opportunities for it, and policy shifts that foster it. At the risk of getting into trouble with other readers, let me note the huge impact—mostly positive—of the Common Core initiative that was undertaken outside government with philanthropic dollars.

But there’s another lesson in the Common Core saga. Once government got entangled, the whole thing became controversial and politicized. Had it stayed entirely free from Uncle Sam’s embrace, the Common Core State Standards would be doing even more good and we’d be closer to a public-education system where kids’ and schools’ results could be compared from place to place.

Which makes me restate the central point in my earlier letter: philanthropy does best when it preserves its independence to do things that government cannot or will not do, and when it refrains from sticking its finger into the government tar baby save in the most exceptional circumstances.

You and Chan Zuckerberg can do great good in the education space. But if you want to effect the kinds of long-term change in the K-12 system that Marc Tucker and I both yearn to see, you will spurn his counsel to tackle it through the front door. You’ll be so much more effective slipping through the side door and building better structures in the neighbor’s yard.

With high hopes and best regards, I am sincerely yours,

Chester E. Finn, Jr.

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