Updated 6:39 p.m.

This was written by Alexander Russo, a freelance blogger who runs This Week In Education and District 299.  His new book about the Gates-funded turnaround effort at Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles is called “Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors.”

By Alexander Russo

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was the biggest-name speaker at last week’s NewSchools Venture Fund summit, an exclusive gathering that some wags call the “Sundance of School Reform.”

Following on the heels of his $100 million commitment to revitalize Newark’s schools, Zuckerberg's appearance suggested that the young billionaire might eventually join Bill Gates and Eli Broad as prominent backers of school reform efforts nationwide.

However, some worrisome and ill-considered remarks about opening Facebook up to middle and elementary school children caused an Internet uproar and, a week later, a reversal by the 27 year old CEO — and raised questions about his motivations.

Up on stage wearing a T-shirt and jeans, Zuckerberg sat across from venture capitalist John Doerr, Oprah-style, for an hour-long conversation that included numerous softball questions about favorite teachers and the joys of going away to prep school. Though much more animated and sociable than his movie-version character, Zuckerberg still looked impossibly young and at times came across as flip during an hour-long session — telling one frustrated entrepreneur not to be “a victim” and admitting some surprise at not being able to learn to speak Chinese in a single year. 

But it was his response to a question about how he became interested in education reform where Zuckerberg really seemed to be winging it.

 After a couple of words about his girlfriend’s experience as a teacher, he explained that his interest in school reform was fueled in part by his frustrations with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA — he wasn’t sure how to spell it — the federal law that limits access by children younger than 13 to sites like Facebook.

 “In the future, software and technology will enable people to learn a lot from their fellow students,” said Zuckerberg according to a CNN write-up of the event.  ”My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age.”

 He said he wasn’t sure what the educational benefits of using Facebook would be, exactly, but that Facebook would explore them once COPPA was modified to allow younger users. “That will be a fight we take on at some point,” he said. 

He made mention of additional safeguards for kids, but otherwise seemed unconcerned.  Learning is social to Zuckerberg, and early learning is key. Making it hard for middle and elementary school kids to access social networks like Facebook made no sense to him.  

I’m not as worried about the role of private money in public schools as others — transparency and accountability are my main concerns, as well as smart policy choices — but the remarks seemed especially ill-timed.

Cyberbulling is a national concern.  Recent reports suggest that 7.5 million children under the age of 13 have already snuck onto Facebook. There are only about 100 monitors for Facebook’s 600 million active users.  Privacy and monopoly concerns continue to crop up surrounding Facebook’s business practices.  Most of all, the real-world educational benefits of commercial social media applications like Facebook and Twitter are unclear despite widespread speculation.  

Inside the room, most observers seemed unaware of just how controversial Zuckerberg’s remarks were.  The edupreneurs and think tankers were more focused on his ideas about innovation and teamwork, or simply basking in his presence.

Outside the conference, Zuckerberg's remarks caught immediate attention and -- in combination with hearings the next day back in Washington -- generated a flurry of coverage and concern (PCMagFortune TechInternational Business TimesThe Atlantic WireThe Huffington Post). The hullabaloo refused to die down over the next few days and, this week Zuckerberg clarified his intentions.  “We’re not trying to work on the ability for people under the age of 13 to sign up… That’s just not top of the list of things for us to figure out right now,” said Zuckerberg at a Paris conference (Mark Zuckerberg Changes His Tune on Kids Using Facebook).

Those of us focused on school reform are left with some new questions about Zuckerberg’s fledgling interest in improving education for American schoolchildren and the larger issue of private funding of education reform.

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