As schools have reopened and the challenges facing children remain as glaring as ever, education philanthropy has a significant role to play in how schools innovate and tackle many of these issues.

For several years, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) has been one of the most significant education philanthropies, but it doesn’t operate like a traditional foundation. Its focus isn’t just on grantmaking, but also on actively building.

Like other philanthropies, CZI has program officers who help make grants. These grants help build a body of research about student learning and development. And CZI works to change education systems themselves by connecting organizations and community leaders. Unlike other philanthropies, however, CZI also has a team of in-house engineers, learning scientists, and product developers who help build tools and services for educators and students.

Given this unique position in the education ecosystem, I was curious how CZI was framing the challenges of the present moment—and what, in their view, are the most important supports students and educators need right now.

“Our education system really is structured and designed and built to be a bit of one-size-fits-all,” Sandra Liu Huang, who has served as CZI’s head of education and vice president of product since 2018, told me recently. “But during these past couple years, I think we’ve seen really clearly that students aren’t just a brain that comes in, where they’re downloading content and that’s it, but students are developing adults and humans.”

Student wellbeing and teachers as the locus of change

In Huang’s view, one area where the role of philanthropy can make the biggest positive impact right now is in student wellbeing. Student wellbeing enables academic learning and achievement and sets students up to thrive as adults. Focusing on these connections is essential “because equipping students this way is going to strengthen the fabric of our country for years and generations to come.”

For students to do well in their learning journey, they must feel safe, confident, and engaged, Huang said. “Our vision and hope is that the school system can really acknowledge what students need as they think about how learning can happen better.”

In order for this vision to come to life, CZI is seeking to use novel tools and new interdisciplinary thinking, Huang told me. Her team is focusing on taking what they know from research about how students learn and develop, as well as the best conditions conducive to learning, and then applying that to “make it really practical and useful for teachers.”

This element of making new classroom innovations teacher-friendly is key for CZI, Huang said, “because teachers deserve better tools to make this really doable and possible. What conditions need to be true to help the leaders of schools be thinking about supporting teachers in this as the goal of education? Not just imparting the knowledge, but really equipping students holistically, thinking about their learning, and bringing what we know from learning science into classroom practice.”

That focus on teachers being the locus of change, Huang said, is buoyed by what they’ve seen over the past few years. “[We] have seen teachers be tremendous sources of innovation because they have had no choice but to innovate,” Huang said. “I think we’ve seen that innovation is possible, and that teachers really see the need to think about student wellbeing as part of their learning package.”

Software and products as philanthropic tools

Another major part of CZI’s work is leveraging its tool-building expertise, more specifically in thinking about how software and product development can be philanthropic tools, which is a relatively unique perspective.

“[CZI is] thinking about how do we take what we know about those practices that can work in the classroom, make them into usable, useful practical products that can help teachers do some of these research-based practices in their daily teaching and in their daily interactions with students,” Huang said.

This is one of the big reasons that CZI first invested in building the Summit Learning platform. They have subsequently built an app called “Along,” which “really takes building connection, a core piece of mentoring, and aims to make it a simpler practice for teachers to do effectively. We bring research-backed, student-tested questions and put them at teachers’ fingertips within a product experience that welcomes students in,” Huang said. “We are really excited to keep working and iterating on this product because we think that teacher-student connection is just an essential piece of the puzzle.”

Another program CZI has invested heavily in is an outside organization in Madison, Wisc. called “Healthy Minds Innovations.” The group developed the Healthy Minds app “that’s really thinking about teacher wellbeing, and really helps teachers go through podcasts and lessons to think about how do they grow in their awareness, connection, insight, and purpose,” Huang said.

Working with communities

Lastly, CZI is also working with communities in their research and application of innovation. For example, they have supported the Black Teacher Collaborative, the Character Lab, and Kingmakers of Oakland to get feedback from teachers and students about what works and what resonates so that it is easier for both students and teachers. Kingmakers, for example, is “really working very deeply with their local community to think about how do we support Black youth? How do we understand from the community and the caretakers and the families what they mean when they want their students to become leaders and develop well? So that’s an example of going local,” Huang said.

The sheer breadth and comprehensiveness of CZI’s philanthropy is striking, but this integrated process of building across the education spectrum may be just what is needed to tackle a set of challenges that are so interdependent and deep in nature.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.