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How Zuckerberg should have spent $100 million

My guest is Robert Pondiscio, director of communications at .the Core Knowledge Foundation who launched the Core Knowledge Blog. This post first appeared there.

By Robert Pondiscio
When Charles Lindbergh flew to Paris in 1927, he was aiming for more than glory. His flight netted him the $25,000 Orteig Prize, a reward offered a decade earlier by a wealthy New Yorker to the first aviator to to fly from New York to Paris. Such prizes were a common means of spurring achievement in the early days of aviation.

More recently, the $10 million Ansari X Prize was offered for the first non-government group to launch a reusable manned spacecraft twice in two weeks. Big prizes get attention, capture the imagination, and create a multiplier effect as competitors battle it out for the money. The team that won the Ansari X prize spent $25 million of Paul Allen’s money in pursuit of their $10 million pay day. Prizes are small beer compared to the potential to spur an entire industry, like aviation or space exploration, which is precisely what the underwriters have in mind.

This brings us to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his decision to give $100 million to Newark, New Jersey’s school system. Zuckerberg has no apparent reason for friending Newark. After meeting Mayor Cory Booker, he merely decided, ”This is the guy I want to invest in. This is a real person who can create this change.” One gift, one district, one time, so they can “try out new things.”

Zuckerberg is to be commended for his generosity. But if he wanted to give $100 million to an urban school district to drive change, why not follow the lead of the X Prize or its many predecessors? Offer it up in the form of a $100 million windfall to the first inner city school district that closes its 8th grade reading achievement gap on NAEP and keeps it closed for three years running? Or the first district to graduate 80% of its 9th graders from high school four years later? Create a rigorous, independent reading test and give the prize to the first district that gets 95% of its third-graders to pass it. Since charter schools are supposed to be our engines of innovation, invite them to the party. Even the sharpest critics of KIPP will stand up and applaud if (to pick another potential prize goal) they manage to send 90% of their graduates to college without the need for remediation.

At, Neil Weinberg cautions that the names Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates swirling around Zuckerberg’s largesse are “enough to blind an observer with its starlight.” So much so, he warns, as to obscure the question of whether the Facebook founder’s money is “headed down a rat hole.” Newark already spends roughly $23,000 per pupil.

“Even the L.A. Unified School District, whose students are just as poor as Newark’s, gets by with half as much,” Weinberg notes. He also wrote:

“Given that Zuckerberg’s $100 million will be spread over five years and 40,000 students, it will add all of $500 per pupil, or 2% to the annual budget. Add in matching funds promised and hoped for and you get double that. Sound revolutionary? Not if it ends up in the same places as the rest of the money. What would really be revolutionary would be to use funds from Booker’s celebrity backers to conduct a forensic audit of the waste, fraud and abuse that’s swallowed Newark’s education budget. Giving money to accountants, of course, doesn’t create the same warm-and-fuzzy PR as giving it to kids.

Weinberg has a point. From a social entrepreneurship perspective, simply writing a big check may not be the best strategy to spur innovation. I didn’t agree with several of the reform initiatives enshrined in Race to the Top, but it clearly demonstrated how the promise of a big payday can drive change, especially when budgets are tight.

So my advice for the next billionaire who decides to give away an eye-popping sum of money is not to force others to adopt your pet strategy. Avoid the temptation to back a high-profile, charismatic reformer, no matter how smart they are or how dazzling their vision. Pick a goal for education. Make it big. Make it audacious. And then put the money aside in an interest bearing account and wait for a knock on the door when some enterprising group of educators comes to claim it.

If history’s any guide — and it usually is — someone will come along sooner or later. And you’ll be buying more than hope and promises. You’ll be funding results.


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By Valerie Strauss  | September 29, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Tags:  Mark Zuckerberg, Newark, education funding, facebook, facebook founder, innovation, paul allen, philanthropy, school reform  
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Next: The strange media coverage of Obama's education policies


Several other interesting examples of the lure of prize money spurring technology:

Brunelleschi and the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore:


John Harrison and the Longitude problem:

Posted by: shadwell1 | September 29, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

re: above

The stories are available in children's books too:


Posted by: shadwell1 | September 29, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

Investing in results rather than ideology? What a revolutionary idea. Althougjh some inner-city school districts, Richmond VA and Brockton MA, for example, have achieved or nearly achieved the "lofty" goals you mention already.

Posted by: mcstowy | September 29, 2010 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Maybe this guy has a soft spot for Newark schools.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 29, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

I'm not crazy about this idea- too much chance for encouraging cheating to get the prize.

Too much like capital gains.

I'd prefer giving the money to do something we know is sensible - like providing comprehensive early childhood education, addressing the families' major needs.

Posted by: efavorite | September 29, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

I'd vote for an army of tutors that could give kids who are behind the one-on-one attention and strategies that they need.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 30, 2010 1:12 AM | Report abuse

It's no wonder that Zuckerberg has millions and the writer does not. Why should school systems have to 'win the prize' BEFORE someone will invest in them? Investment will allow the system to try new programs, and bring in new staffing. Everything is not about competing in some contest that most often only involves a small number of students from one school.

Posted by: 12345leavemealone | September 30, 2010 8:31 AM | Report abuse

How is it that someone who has yet to earn even a billion dollars feels comfortable telling a billionaire what he should do with his own money?

Posted by: forgetthis | September 30, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

"Offer it up in the form of a $100 million windfall to the first inner city school district that closes its 8th grade reading achievement gap on NAEP and keeps it closed for three years running?"

What a stupid, racist goal. Skin color has no effect on how well a child learns.

So, with no money, the easy way is to just put the smart kids of the wrong race in the corner and not teach them anything until the other kids get better. Saying that you want one race to improve their results more than other races is just insane. You can couch it in the language of the "achievement gap" all you want, but it means not letting kids go as fast as they can, because the gap exists before school starts.

Posted by: staticvars | September 30, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse

@mcstowy Just so. As a classroom teacher, I had no shortage of people who wanted to tell me how to do my job. A lot of education philanthropists tend to do the same – they fund particular approaches as a means to an end. It’s not what I would do, but hey, it’s their money.
@efavorite We already have a lot of cheating to meet existing accountability measures. That’s why I would insist on independent measures and administration.

@PLMichaels. And I’d insist on rigorous phonics, broad, rich content, and a big de-emphasis on reading strategies. Hence the beauty of the X Prize scenario. We’d both get to try out our ideas. One of us might be handsomely rewarded. And one of us might learn that we were wrong. That might spur more innovation than simply insisting that we open more charter schools, create data systems, etc.

@12345leavemealone @forgetthis I think you’re mistaking school funding with supplementary funding such as grants. The Zuckerbergs, Gates and Broads of the world are in not required to give a dime to anyone. I’m not thrilled with the idea of public programs like RTTT being competitions for many reasons. But for private dollars, it makes sense. If you don’t want the money, don’t play the game.

Posted by: rpondiscio | September 30, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Glad the author chimed in. Mr. Pondiscio, that was exactly my point. I think everyone has a right to chime in on how public money is spent. We all chipped in, so we should be able influence what happens. I'm not saying the idea didn't have merit, even though I see this as giving an advantage to rural and suburban school districts where everyone is pretty much in the same economic echelon and there's not really much of a gap to begin with. But this IS private money, and people make these personal decisions based on personal reasons that others can't decipher and probably can't influence (ooh, just thought of the movie, "Inception").

Posted by: forgetthis | September 30, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

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