Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan Illustration: Getty Images
[Correction: An earlier version of this story wrongly stated that Zuckerberg and Chan's $30 million gift was in addition to a $1.9 billion donation to the literacy program. The $1.9 billion went to the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation.]
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan earlier this week donated $30 million to fund a technology-driven literacy project being carried out by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Reach Every Reader is a five-year project that aims to address the “early literacy crisis” in the U.S. by implementing technologies and developing individualized instruction.
"This new program represents the type of bold, innovative thinking that we believe will help build a future for everyone and enable transformative learning experiences,” Chan said in a statement through the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, the couple’s philanthropic organization.
Only 36% of American fourth-graders are proficient or advanced in reading, according to the most recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally backed evaluation.
Elizabeth City, senior lecturer on education at Harvard and executive director of Reach Every Reader, says that the first trials of the program will take place this fall in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district. In the program, City said, kindergarteners will be administered a diagnostic test to determine their reading level and predict their progress.
Students will also have access to apps with educational games and activities—one for the school year and one for the summer.
There is a social media component to the program, as well. Parents will be able to connect through designated online communities, to trade advice and support. As of now, City says, the plan is to make that network separate from Facebook.
The technology involved in the project is supposed to be a means, rather than an end. “Technology is not the solution here,” City says. “Technology is the support for adults to be the solution.”
City says the goal for the five-year trial is to develop practices and technological tools that can be made widely accessible throughout the country.
While large-scale initiatives in education may traditionally emanate from the government, tackling this issue through private means allows for easier collaboration between researchers, teachers and parents, according to City.
“One of the things philanthropy does is it helps us get unstuck,” she says, “because it supports and incentivizes people to work across silos.”