US education can use a ton of rethinking


Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie last week announced the launch of their first serious philanthropic endeavor. Called The Bezos Day One Fund, the organization will start with a $2 billion commitment and will focus on two areas: homelessness and early-childhood education.

In his announcement, the Amazon chief explained that homelessness will be tackled by “funding existing nonprofits that help homeless families” while the fund will be much more hands-on in developing its approach to education. The plan is to create “a network of new, nonprofit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

But as always, the devil will be in the details.

Bezos isn’t the first billionaire to wade into the education system. Mark Zuckerberg famously poured $100 million into the Newark school system that ably mimicked pouring turned wine down a kitchen drain. Bezos’ focus on early education, however, will give him an easier path than trying to remake an already existing, and failing, system.

On the other hand, Bezos is setting expectations high by using his business success as a yardstick.

“We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon. Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession,” he writes. “The child will be the customer.”

Tech-bro-sounding buzzwords are usually a red flag. So it’s worth asking up front: What would a school that treated the kid as a customer really look like?

The Bezos schools will be “Montessori-inspired” — a famously “unstructured” method of teaching. But having a “method of teaching” at all for 4-year-olds might be foolhardy anyway.

Alina Adams, author of “Getting Into NYC Kindergarten,” told me that “when it comes to choosing a preschool, parents are overwhelmed. They not only have to wade through all the buzzwords — Montessori, Reggio, child-centered, play-based, progressive, traditional, teacher-directed, early literacy, number recognition, etc. — they have to figure out what the right educational setting might be for a child who is barely out of diapers.”

Fact is, much of “early-childhood education” is really about having somewhere engaging for the child to go while the parents work. The side benefits of socialization or better cognitive development can happen elsewhere.

A study of the Head Start program, “the large federally funded pre-kindergarten initiative that started in the 1960s,” found that one of the benefits of the program was “higher adult earnings and greater educational attainment” for mothers.

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