Education Needs An X Prize

by Robert Pondiscio
September 28th, 2010

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 payday.  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 obvious 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 Forbes.com, 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.

“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 persepective, simply writing a big check may not be the best strategy to spur innovation.  I didn’t agree with several of the reform inititiatives 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 high-profile, charismatic reformers, no matter how smart they are or how dazzling their vision.   Pick a clear, simple 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 steps forward 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.