Business & Tech

Zuckerberg hires education leader to run philanthropic effort

Jim Wilson/The New York Times/File 2016
Mark Zuckerberg said the education initiative he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are starting would focus on “personalized learning.”

Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, and his wife, Priscilla Chan, said Wednesday that they had hired James H. Shelton III, a former deputy secretary of the US Department of Education, to oversee their efforts in education, in the latest example of former federal officials who are taking up jobs in Silicon Valley.

Shelton will lead the education component of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which Zuckerberg and his wife announced they were creating last year for their philanthropic and social entrepreneurship endeavors.

The education work is focused on customizing learning for students and addressing disparities.

Advertisement

“When you think about philanthropy, the question is, ‘How can you be catalytic?’ ” Shelton said in a phone interview. “It’s a huge opportunity for transformational work.”

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Shelton’s hiring is part of a stream of Washington officials going to work for tech titans. Among them are Jay Carney, a former White House press secretary, who is now senior vice president for corporate affairs at Amazon, and David Plouffe, a former senior adviser to President Obama, who is now chief adviser and a board member at Uber.

The trend is more recent in education. Former federal education officials often used to enter politics or take up positions at universities and research firms.

But in March, the Emerson Collective, an organization set up by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple’s cofounder, Steve Jobs, said it had tapped Arne Duncan, the former education secretary, to lead an effort focused on young people in Chicago.

The advent of nontraditional philanthropic vehicles seems to be drawing new interest from veteran education officials. Both the Emerson Collective and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are limited liability companies, an organizational structure that enables investing and advocacy, as well as traditional philanthropy.

Advertisement

“Silicon Valley traditionally has not played a huge role in education reform,” said Richard Culatta, a former director of the Office of Education Technology at the Department of Education and now chief innovation officer of the state of Rhode Island.

He said the hiring of prominent education officials like Shelton, who is also a former executive at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Duncan could herald new approaches to learning.

“There could be huge impact from nontraditional organizations in really innovating in the field,” he said.

In a Facebook post Wednesday, Zuckerberg said that the couple’s education initiative would focus on “personalized learning” — the idea of using various technologies to help students customize their educational pathways — and on addressing barriers to education like poverty and illness.

“We set up the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative with the flexibility to support nonprofits, invest in companies and advocate for policies that will advance this mission,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We’ll build technology where it can help, and we believe in listening to and working closely with parents, teachers, and students to understand the specific needs of the communities we’re working in.”