More Cartoons on Kids, Adults, and Technology

After nearly two years of once-monthly cartoons, readers and friends (and, yes, even family) send me their favorites. The eternal struggle of adjusting to each new technology gives cartoonists much to chew on. And they do as this month’s collection shows.

For all my U.S. viewers, chuckle, laugh, shake your head at these renderings about technology–particularly about smart phones–and, most of all, have a most happy Thanksgiving. For my international viewers, well, simply enjoy the cartoons.













cartoon 20130507




cells in kinder






'We     ... In class today.'





kids and high tech pen





Filed under technology use

The New History in the 1960s (Part 3)

This post is third and final one in series. See here and here.

Even before the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, university professors in math and science were building the New Math, New Biology, Chemistry, and Physics materials to transform traditional curricula. After Sputnik, public and private money flowed into the math and sciences to get more U.S. students to become mathematicians, engineers, and scientists to compete with its Cold War enemy. President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act in 1958.

As with math and science, a few years later, academic experts led the movement to revitalize the teaching of history and other social studies courses. They created “new” texts for high-achieving students and piloted the materials in schools where eager teachers would try out the experimental materials in their classrooms. The New Social Studies was a latecomer to the movement. But in the early 1960s, it made up for lost time.

Historians Edwin Fenton and Richard Brown along with cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, and other academics received federal, state, and private funding to develop new courses, instructional materials, and ways of introducing experienced and novice teachers to the discipline. And they were prolific.

By 1966, there were over 50 social studies projects (history, economics, political science, geography, sociology, and psychology) aimed at K-12 public schools’ “able” students funded by the federal government, National Science Foundation, corporations, professional associations, and private donors. Creating instructional materials, training teachers, piloting lessons in classrooms and entering agreements with publishers, these projects sought to transform traditional fact-after-fact history teaching through lectures and use of a textbook into new courses characterized by engaging materials where teachers used methods of inquiry to get students thinking, seeing, and writing about the past beyond reliance on the textbook. They wanted to get at the very structure of history and teach it in ways consistent with how historians approach the past.[1]

Fenton, for example, describes a lesson in the 10th grade European History course that he and colleagues developed in Pittsburgh in the mid-1960s.

For the third lesson, students read two accounts of the Hungarian Revolution. One is from Radio Moscow; the other from TIME. We tell them to pretend that these two pieces of evidence are all that remain after a nuclear holocaust and that they have just landed from a spaceship with the ability to read both Russian and English. What happened in Hungary?

We make two points with this lesson. First, we ask students to try to agree on three pieces of data from the two accounts which they will accept as facts. They quickly isolate three on which both accounts agree. This procedure leads to a discussion of the criteria which historians use to test the credibility of data…. We then list three facts about Russian and American society which we gleaned from the documents. This enables teachers to return to the point previous made [in prior lesson] about the way in which a person’s frame of reference determines how he classifies data.[ii]

Richard Brown, a historian in charge of the Amherst Project in American History, also caught up in the national mood among so many academics that their time—historians, that is—had arrived. The Amherst Project focused exclusively on history, Brown, a historian at the University of Massachusetts, pointed out the distinction that he and his colleagues made about what students need to learn from history:

We were committed to the idea that ‘history’ is primarily a way of learning and secondarily a body of knowledge…. To be sure, we agreed that history as a body of knowledge is also important—the more that one knows of the past the better one’s ability to ask good questions of it—but nonetheless, we viewed the body of knowledge as essentially a treasure trove to be used rather than ‘mastered’ as an end in itself….

And what students had to master was how to make sense of different sources, the use of evidence, and the asking of questions. Those questions would come out of their experiences.

The polestar of the Amherst Project was the idea that student learn best when they are acting as inquirers, pursuing into evidence questions that grow out of their own lives….We thus viewed history in the classroom as essentially utilitarian, not something to be ‘learned’ as an end in itself but as a body of experience to be delved into by students learning how to learn while growing in the process…. The focus of [our work] was on critical inquiry…. The teacher’s role was to pique the curiosity, to aid, abet, and guide, and to be a role model of inquiry rather than the answer-giver.

Brown gave as an example of the Amherst approach to history in a unit that I and hundreds of social studies teachers used in their classrooms in these exciting years of the New Social Studies, “What Happened on Lexington Green: An Inquiry into the Nature and Methods of History.”

…[T]he student is faced with conflicting eye-witness accounts of a dramatic modern confrontation [e.g. an urban riot] and asked how one knows what happened about anything in the past. Using the Battle of Lexington as a case study, he or she confronts eyewitness accounts of what happened, moves on to conflicting historical interpretations of the same evidence, analyzes several examples of how modern textbook writers recount what happened, and ends up with Plato in the cave reflecting on the nature of truth and reality. [iii]

The Amherst project completed 70 units for 11th grade U.S. history (most of which were aimed at college-bound students with a few slated for “slow learners”). They conducted workshops for hundreds of teachers in the writing and teaching of these units. Unlike Fenton, they did not create new textbooks. Their federal funding ended in 1972.

By that year, the entire New Social Studies was in decline. Except for the public turmoil generated by one of the projects led by Jerome Bruner and a team of academics and specialists. Called “Man: A Course of Study” (MACOS), the uproar over the anthropological content of the material about the life of Netsilik Eskimos triggered yet another social studies war over content. The flaming end of the New Social Studies was spectacular but it was the end nonetheless. The curtain fell on the third act of that drama.


[i] Edwin Fenton, “The New Social Studies: Implications for School Administration,” Bulletin of National Association of Secondary School Principals, March 1967, 51 (317), pp. 62-76; Edwin Fenton, Teaching the New Social Studies in Secondary Schools: An Inductive Approach (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966); John Haas, The Era of the New Social Studies, (Boulder, CO: Social Science Education Consortium, Inc., 1977).

[ii] Edwin Fenton, “Curricular Experiments in the Social Sciences,” Proceedings of the Regional Conference on the Social Sciences in College Education, University of California, Los Angeles, November 7, 1964, p. 7.

[iii] Richard Brown, “Learning How to Learn: The Amherst Project and History Education in the Schools,” The Social Studies, 1996, 87(6), pp. 267-273.


Filed under how teachers teach

Content vs. Skills Again and Again (Part 2)

The either/or conundrum pops up again. Across science, math, English, and social studies, classroom teachers weigh in on whether they are content-driven or skills-driven in teaching. The dichotomy afflicts all academic subjects and it is, of course, a false one but one that generates far more emotional heat than clear-sighted light, nonetheless.

The last post describing Will Colglazier’s lesson on the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 (and a previous lesson on the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression) seemingly focused on the skills historians use in examining a primary source for bias and close reading of a document. Yet both lessons were chock-full of content. Thus, content vs. skills offers a false choice. The more appropriate question about teaching an academic subject like history is: where on a continuum of content at one pole and skills at the other pole, would you place yourself?

Some teachers would be smack in the center, equally dividing their lessons into mixes of both depending on the topic they were teaching; other teachers would tilt toward the skills or content side. All teachers would have a center of gravity along that continuum. I, for one, would place myself on near the center but clearly on the skills side of the continuum.

In comments on the description of Will Colglazier’s lessons, a few illustrate the mix of both content and skill and how it differs among teachers. Here’s one comment from a teacher who teaches both math and  history.


… I’m a fan of primary sources. But I’m not so much a fan of the “what do you think” form of history…. I don’t think asking kids to decide “who is more believable” or “which side is responsible” is a useful way to teach history. I’m not creating historians. I’m teaching history and–hopefully–showing kids that history isn’t just a case of “what happened”.

Yesterday, I gave them a map of the states broken up by acquisition (original US, Louisiana Purchase, Mexican Session, Oregon Territory), and on the flip a list of states in order of joining (up through the Civil War. They were to simply put the date of statehood and “F” or “S” (free or slave) on each state. The point (which worked) see the pattern of joining–one slave, one free, and when that pattern broke.

So one kid, who is severely ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) to the point that I have to stand over him to convince him to work,  crinkled his brow, and asked “So what if a slave escapes to a free state? Is he then free?” .A couple minutes later, one of my top kids said “Hey, is this date for California a typo? It’s way out of whack. How did it become a state so much earlier than Nevada?”

Both great questions, unforced, solid lead-ins, and much more authentic than when given as part of an assignment to “think critically”. I’d rather teach a more authoritative version of history and let these arise naturally from genuine interest….

As you know, I believe strongly in teaching content while also teaching skills–particularly reading. And despite the occasional problems, the reading is going very well. I hope they remember the content, but I know they are spending more time actually reading.

A few weeks ago, I saw the above teacher teach four classes in a row, three of advanced math and one U.S. History. Recalling how she taught, I would guess that she would be close to the center of the above continuum but clearly tilting toward the skills side of the spectrum. I do not know where she would place herself.

Wherever she or I would place ourselves on that continuum, the stark and simplistic question of content vs. skills will arise again and again even though it ignores the obvious differences to where teachers are in managing both content and skills. Asking whether a teacher is content or skill-driven distorts the thinking process of those who  wrestle with how best to teach a subject. The false dichotomy is a simple-minded way of avoiding the complex decisions that knowledgeable and skilled history, science, English, and math teachers go through in planning the next day’s lesson.

Such decisions about teaching a subject are hardly new. Earlier generations of history teachers used primary sources, read documents carefully, found corroborating evidence for the source and worked their students as if they were historians. Will Colglazier’s lessons were preceded by a movement called The New Social Studies in the 1960s where much of what Colglazier was doing in his lessons happened a half-century ago.

The next post deals with that earlier movement to teach students how to read and think like a historian.



Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

History Lessons a Year Apart (Part 1)

Over a year ago, I posted a  journalist’s description of a history teacher at Aragon High School. She watched him teach a lesson on the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression in the 1930s that drove farmers off their Midwestern farms. Here are a few paragraphs of that journalist’s account.

In the 1986 comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ben Stein famously plays a high school teacher who drones on about the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act while his students slump at their desks in a collective stupor. For many kids, that’s history: an endless catalog of disconnected dates and names, passed down like scripture from the state textbook, seldom questioned and quickly forgotten.

 Now take a seat inside Will Colglazier’s classroom at Aragon High School in San Mateo. The student population here is fairly typical for the Bay Area: about 30 percent Latino, 30 percent Asian and 40 percent white. The subject matter is standard 11th grade stuff: What caused the Great American Dust Bowl?

 Tapping on his laptop, Colglazier shows the class striking black-and-white images of the choking storms that consumed the Plains states in the 1930s. Then he does something unusual. Instead of following a lesson plan out of the textbook, he passes out copies of a 1935 letter, written by one Caroline Henderson to the then-U.S. secretary of agriculture, poignantly describing the plight of her neighbors in the Oklahoma panhandle. He follows that with another compelling document: a confidential high-level government report, addressed to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, decrying the region’s misguided homesteading policies.

 Colglazier clearly is a gifted and well-trained educator, a history/economics major and 2006 graduate of the Stanford Teacher Education Program. But what sets this class apart from Ferris Bueller’s is more than the man; it’s his method—an approach developed at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education that’s rapidly gaining adherents across the country….

 Sitting back at his desk after the bell rings, Colglazier says he can’t imagine teaching history any other way. “It’s so powerful to give these skills to students at a young age,” he explains. “I easily could have told them in one minute that the Dust Bowl was the result of overgrazing and over-farming and World War I overproduction, combined with droughts that had been plaguing that area forever, but they wouldn’t remember it.” By reading these challenging documents and discovering history for themselves, he says, “not only will they remember the content, they’ll develop skills for life.”

The journalist had visited Colglazier’s class in early 2013. Last week, I sat in his college prep U.S. history class and watched him teach a lesson to 38 students on the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 (outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) using two primary source documents. The strike led to violence when private security hired by the company to permit strikebreakers safe entry to the plant clashed with striking workers causing ten deaths on both sides.

The first document was a memoir written thirty years after the strike by Emma Goldman, a a pro-union activist. She described what happened during the strike. The second document was a newspaper interview with Henry Frick, the chairman of U.S. Steel, describing what happened a few days after the violence.

Colglazier asked the class: “Whose fault was it that people died during the strike?

To answer the question, he began the lesson with two skills that students had learned  earlier in the  semester: sourcing and close reading of a  document. On a LCD projector, Colglazier went through Emma Goldman’s  account projected on a screen and marked it up as he did a Q & A with the class on each sentence to get at the credibility of the source and bias (e.g., a memoir written three decades after the event), and close reading—examining each sentence and underlining those words that were emotionally loaded, slanted, etc.–to get at the degree of confidence each student would have in what Goldman wrote.

After completing the Goldman document, he then asked students to closely read the  interview between Henry Frick and a reporter a few days after the ten men were killed. Colglazier asked students to work individually and then pair up with neighbor to go over each one’s analysis. As students worked at their desks, the teacher walked up and down the aisles checking to see how each pair was doing and answering student questions. I scanned the classroom and saw no students off-task

He then moved back to LCD projector and asked students to parse each sentence of the Frick interview. He called on students whose hands were not raised and called on students who waved their arms to answer.

With a few minutes left in the period, Colglazier asked: “Whose description of the strike is more believable?” Again the teacher mixed cold-calling with responding to arm-waving students. After each student answered he asked for evidence drawn from the documents. No consensus emerged from discussion other than both accounts were flawed for different reasons. The buzzer sounded ending the lesson.


When Colglazier first came to Aragon eight years ago (see video clips of his teaching here and here) he began used this approach to teaching history from lessons developed by the Stanford History Education Group on “Historical Thinking” and “Reading Like a Historian.” Watching Colglazier teach U.S. history raises questions—Has this way of teaching history occurred before? Should history be taught primarily for content or skills?–that I want to address in subsequent posts.


Filed under how teachers teach

Software Will Not ‘Eat’ Education (Ben Stern)

Ben Stern is “the Manager of Education Partnerships at TeachBoost and an advisor to Ponder. Formerly a history teacher and technology integrator….” This appeared in EdSurge September 11, 2014.


Marc Andreessen, with the support of long-time colleague and amateur rapper Ben Horowitz, famously leads Andreessen Horowitz with the thesis that software will “eat the world.” Naturally, I wonder whether it will “eat” education.

Most recently, Andreessen and Horowitz suggest healthcare, education, and government are poised to be eaten. They may be right about healthcare. Government, they admit, is a longer way off. Education may be more imminent. Andreessen explains,

Technology is not driving down costs in…education, but it should…[Access is] the critical thing. We need to get every kid on the planet access to what we consider today to be a top Ivy League education. The only way to do that is to apply technology.

Ostensibly supporting this thesis is the growing edtech industry, in which I work. $452 million of VC money in 2013 is no small potatoes. Andreessen and Horowitz must be on to something, right?
No – at least, not as they frame the issue.

The biggest problem in education is not, and never will be, that too few students have access to Harvard. Let’s ignore for a moment the discussion about the value of an Ivy League education. Instead, consider the myopia of this view of education. K-12, as opposed to higher ed, is more relevant to the vast majority of Americans. Rightfully, getting every kid into Harvard is far from the top concern of anyone involved in this space, whether as a student, parent, educator, policy-maker, or entrepreneur. Let’s get every kid into and through high school first.

The many issues in K-12 –the achievement gap, funding disparities, and teacher attrition rates, to name just a few –are not issues that can be resolved by instant access. In fact, they are not software problems. They are human issues, political issues. Software alone will not change ,  much less save ,  the world of education.

Software can help, under three conditions:

  1. Edtech should be designed to focus on a narrow set of problems. The complexity of the American education system can be frustrating for companies, but it exists for a reason: educating 77 million students isn’t simple. Certain parts of it must exist to manage so many people. Companies aiming to
    1. overhaul education with their product are DOA. Instead, they should be targeting inefficiencies in the system. Companies ought to recognize that there are certain confines within which they must operate.
    2. Related, edtech companies ought to make sure the problem they solve is a real problem, not a mere annoyance. Often, great edtech software never gets adopted because it’s solving a problem that doesn’t yet exist, or won’t exist until 20 years of innovation have transpired. Companies that believe that their software will help to usher in a whole new educational model, who will truly disrupt or “eat” education, probably won’t. Iterative –not radical – change is itself ambitious in education, an industry in which the most successful companies thus far reinforce the status quo.
    3. To focus on the right problem, companies must assume a purely Socratic approach  :  know that they “know nothing,” and be inquisitive, open-minded, and responsive . By asking rather than answering questions, companies can deliver software that helps humans improve teaching and learning.

    Using good software, humans begin to chip away at the big issues of the day: software might free up time to focus on the issues, surface data that elucidates the issue, and empower teachers and learners to grow in new ways But humans do the important work. Software must strike a delicate balance between innovating and meeting current, non-technological needs–a balance that’s harder to strike in education than anywhere else. But who said startups should be easy?


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

“Corporate Reformers” Again and Again

Two previous posts (here and here) on philanthropists pushing a school reform agenda were parts of a chapter I am drafting for two editors of their  forthcoming book  on the current generation of wealthy donors trying to alter the educational terrain. This post is also part of that draft chapter and deals with the phrase “corporate reformers.”

For those readers who want all of the sources I used and accompanying endnotes, they will be in the final version of the chapter; I can supply the information on request.


Much like an earlier business-driven school reform movement launched in the late 19th century, civic and corporate leaders allied with enthusiastic donors seek to build human capital essential to fostering economic growth and stronger competition for global markets. Their overall strategy was (and still is) to apply a business model of competitiveness, innovation, and efficiency to public schools that fixed attention on the bottom line of test scores and return-on-investment in high school graduates entering and completing college.[i]

These leaders and foundation officials over the past quarter-century have created beefy portfolios of reform ventures including changes in funding and structural innovations such as vouchers, charter schools, high academic standards, testing and accountability including using student scores to evaluate teachers. This cobbled together strategy emerged from ideas tossed up by entrepreneurial policymakers and cherry-picking anecdotal and statistical evidence from here and there to build strong schools, strong students, and a strong economy.

Critics of this jerry-built strategy argue that such ventures flung together helter-skelter add up to a movement to privatize public schools through expanded parental choice of public schools and instilling market competition into a quasi-monopolistic institution. For-profit companies taking over low-performing public schools (e.g. K-12 Inc., Edison Inc.), non-profit charter schools (e.g., KIPP, Aspire, Green Dot), and requiring districts with persistent low-performing schools to outsource tutoring and other educational services to private companies—a mandate in the No Child Left Behind law—provide substantial evidence to critics who say that such a strategy will not only reshape public schools into business-like, highly competitive enterprises but also end up privatizing them.

Critics have called those leading the privatization of public schools “corporate reformers.” From the center and left of the political spectrum denunciations have poured over “corporate reformers” for sending public schools down the path of destruction.

Listen to Diane Ravitch:

As a historian of American education, I have seen, studied, and written about waves of school reforms that came and went. But what is happening now is an astonishing development. It is not meant to reform public education but is a deliberate effort to replace public education with a privately managed, free-market system of schooling.

A veteran Louisiana English teacher in 2014 published A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education which, she said, analyzed current U.S. school reforms. To Mercedes Schneider, “’Corporate reform’ is not reform at all. Instead, it is the systematic destruction of the foundational American institution of public education. The primary motivation behind this destruction is greed. Public education in America is worth almost a trillion dollars a year.”

I have tried to avoid such terms because, in my opinion, they imply absolute certainty about reformers’ motives, smell of conspiratorial decision-making, ignore historical patterns of private-public collaboration, and the unvarnished embrace of market-driven capitalism and business practices that has swept across all U.S. institutions, including schools, in the past quarter-century. And so much of the back-and-forth about who is and who is not a “corporate reformer” is venomous personal attacks.  I am allergic to such implications, smells, and ad hominem language because both the acrimonious language neglects the obvious fact that close linkages with commerce have run through American society for decades, a society deeply anchored in democratic capitalism. [v]

My allergy is based on the following reasons:

*While the current generation of civic and business leaders, donors, and elected federal officials–policy elites– believe in the crucial importance of schooling spurring economic growth and believe in market forces advancing equal opportunity and democracy, similarities in beliefs hardly combine into a concerted effort to privatize public schools.

*Policy elites drawn from overlapping but distinct spheres of influence (e.g., CEOs, donors, elected officials, hedge fund managers, think tank writers, etc.) vary in their aims, strategies, and motives. They are seldom organized enough to maintain secrecy, control the flow of information, and follow through with decisions. But they can and do move in a certain direction even if at times they stumble badly.[vii]

*Policy elites are pragmatic decision-makers. Policies evolve out of practical decisions often made under political and economic conditions that require swift action to advance an overall agenda (e.g., top-down push for Common Core State Standards, abandoning small high schools as a reform strategy, embracing pay-for-performance plans).

*The charge that donors and policy elites are making profits and that money-making drives current efforts to privatize schools (e.g., Pearson, test-makers, technology companies for-profit charter schools) rings hollow given that much of the business done is made public and often draws negative publicity to the company, a result that gives CEOs the shakes. Also current critics have forgotten prior failures of private, for-profit companies running public schools. Few contemporaries remember the collapse of contracting-for-performance in Texarkana (ARK) or Gary (IN) the 1960s, or the belly-flop that Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI) took in Baltimore (MD) public schools in the 1990s or Edison Inc. fleeing Philadelphia schools a decade ago.

*Finally, critics paint the current “corporate” reform agenda as privatizing the entire nation’s public schools—almost 14,000 school districts, nearly 100,000 schools, over 3 million teachers, and about 50 million students (2012) yet the vast majority of current reform-driven programs are located not in rural, exurban, or suburban schools but in cities where low-income minority students attend school. The constantly repeated statement that all U.S. schools have failed the nation and need to be transformed trips over obvious facts that nearly all of the reforms focus on urban schools housing a fraction of the U.S. student population.

Some examples: Parental choice through charter schools, magnets, and vouchers are common in large and middle-sized cities enrolling about 13 percent of U.S. students. Even in first-ring suburbs that have become largely minority such as Prince George’s County (MD) outside of Washington, D.C. where 67 percent of the population is middle- and working class African American, out of 204 schools in 2014, eight are charters.

Charters are rare, however, in largely white, middle-class suburbs such as Marin County (CA) where 60 percent of the school population is white and located in 79 schools of which three are charters (2013).

One would expect, given the overblown rhetoric and enormous media attention to these alternatives from which parents across the nation could choose, that over the past quarter century the spread of vouchers and charter schools would have spilled over suburbs and taken a deep bite out of U.S. students enrolling in school. That has not been the case.

Yes, charter schools have, indeed, spread, mostly in cities. Some cities such as New Orleans and Detroit have most of their students attending charter not neighborhood schools. Most cities do not have majorities of their students enrolled in charters but this two-decade old innovation is urban-bound (90 percent of Illinois charter schools are in Chicago; 80 percent of charters in New York state are in New York City). With growth in numbers from about 2000 to 6000 schools over the past decade (or about six percent of all U.S. schools) yet they enroll only four percent of all U.S. students (2012).

As for vouchers (including tax credits), they have surely increased public expenditures for private education in cities (e.g., Milwaukee, Cleveland, Washington, D.C.). Moreover 18 states have laws permitting public monies through vouchers and tax credits to be used for private schools. But even with all of this support, about 310,000 students, or about six-tenths of one percent of U.S students (2012) use vouchers.

Frederick Hess made the point clearly of choice options largely occurring in cities, not in suburban school districts when he wrote: “Whether educational choice succeeds is ultimately in the hands of America’s suburban middle class. Choice advocates had better start talking straight to the soccer moms and NASCAR dads—with respect, reason, and rational incentives.”

Also one would expect from the bullish advocacy of vouchers and charters from donors (especially the Walton Foundation) and deep penetration into many cities that these ventures coupled with the use of business “best practices” in public schools would have shown clear-cut impact on student achievement. They have not.

In short, the high-pitched rhetoric and extensive media exposure including allegations about privatization of all U.S. public schools have yet to take hold in suburban districts for the obvious reason that these choice structures have joined libertarian and conservative champions to highly motivated minority parents stuck in segregated, poor areas of big cities. Rhetoric, media programs, and policies aimed at turning around all U.S. schools, then, are basically proxies for the failure of many urban schools to educate poor children and youth of color. Advocates of choice have yet to convince the majority of Americans that all U.S. schools are failing.

For all of these reasons, I have concluded that the common charge leveled by critics about a closely tied together coalition of CEOs, hedge fund managers, philanthropists, civic leaders, and similarly situated wealthy people called “corporate reformers” seeking to convert public schools into private ones is hyperbole. Surely, there are loose and shifting alliances—depending upon the issue–of policymakers, donors, business leaders, and elected officials who have mixed motives and fickle allegiances in setting the policy agenda for reform and deciding which policies to pursue. But these loose alliances are not tightly coupled by phone calls, emails, texts, and frequent closed meetings of top officials and donors who plot the demise of U.S. public schools.



[i] Not unlike the reform model of early 20th century reformers and donors where efficiency-minded “administrative progressives” sought to improve schools through “scientific management” or the application of business principles to schooling. They wanted to produce youth—native and immigrant–equipped with the essential skills to gain jobs in an expanding industrial economy. Raymond Callahan, Education and the Cult of Efficiency (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962); Merle Curti, “The School and the Triumph of Business Enterprise 1860-1914,” in Merle Curti, The Social Ideas of American Educators (Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1966), pp. 203-260; David Tyack, The One Best System (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974); David Labaree, Someone Has To Fail (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).


ii] I use the phrase “policy elites” interchangeably with “top policymakers,” “civic and business leader coalitions,” “policy entrepreneurs,” and “reformers.” By “policy elites” I mean loose networks of corporate and civic leaders, elected policy makers, foundation officials, and academics who circulate ideas consistent with their views of problems and solutions, champion particular reforms, use both public and private funds to run projects, and strongly influence decision-making. Not unlike policy elites in business and civic affairs who are involved in growing a stronger economy, improving health care, protecting national security, strengthening foreign policy, and safeguarding the environment, policy entrepreneurs and reformers have ready access to media, are capable of framing problems, and set a public agenda for discussion. Or as one member in good standing wrote: “In public policy, it matters less who has the best arguments and more who gets heard—and by whom” (Ralph Reed, cited in Dana Milbank, Homo Politicus: The Strange and Barbaric Tribes of the Beltway [New York: Doubleday, 2008], p. 68).

Political party labels do not define these elites, although there are clearly Republican and Democratic members who wear their affiliation on their sleeve and, when administrations change, move in and out of office. I do not use the phrase “policy elites” to suggest conspiratorial groups secretly meeting and designing action plans. Nor do I bash elites. I suggest only that these overlapping networks of like-minded individuals share values and tastes and seek school improvements aligned with those values and tastes. As “influentials,” they convene frequently in different forums, speak the same policy talk, and are connected closely to sources of public and private influence in governments, media, businesses, academia, and foundations. They help to create a climate of opinion that hovers around no more than a few hundred national policy leaders and smaller numbers at state and local levels. Familiar with the ways of the media, these policy elites extend and shape that climate of opinion by closely working with journalists who report what they say, write, think, and do. Few members of these loosely connected policy elites, however, have had direct or sustained experience with school principals or teachers, much less engaged in the teaching of children. Yet their recommended policies, their “common sense” about what the nation, state, district, and teachers should do, touch the daily lives of both educators and children. See John Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (Boston: Little, Brown, 1984); James Fallows, Breaking the News (New York: Random House, 1996); William Safire, “Elite Establishment Egghead Eupatrids,” New York Times Magazine, May 18, 1997, p. 16. For a survey of experts as to who are the “influentials” currently shaping school reform policy, see Christopher Swanson and Janelle Barlage, “Influence: A Study of the Factors Shaping Educational Policy,” (Washington, D.C.: Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, December 2006).









Filed under school reform policies

No Responsibility for Oops! Donors and School Reform

Critics of current donors often point to how philanthropists have supported centralizing school governance (e.g., mayoral control, state takeovers of districts and schools, No Child Left Behind). They note that the inevitable companion of consolidated authority is increased top-down regulation of schooling in cities and states. And that regulation, they claim, has seen the growth of explicit federal and state accountability mechanisms. The critics are correct.

Yet as venture philanthropists have advocated market-friendly ventures in public schools and approved of centralized local, state, and federal policymaking, donors themselves have escaped responsibility for errors they committed in grant-making. Like the Ebola virus, donors dread federal and state regulation of their publicly subsidized foundation activities. The fact is, however, that they have no accountability for their own “oops!” or dumb mistakes.

When foundation grants fail to achieve the objectives officials sought, philanthropists turn their backs, shrug, and walk away. They have no responsibility to districts, individual schools, teachers, students and parents for hopes raised and dashed. Donors are beyond the reach of being fired or voted out of office. Yet as anyone knows from personal experience, admitting error is crucial to insights into a problem and, ultimately invention of better ways to solve it.

For those who support philanthropic giving, this unaccountability is an exercise of personal liberty in taking actions for the public good and is in the best tradition of a democracy. Moreover, some have argued: “[S]uch virtual immunity represents foundations’ greatest strength: the freedom to take chances, to think big, to innovate, to be, in the words of the late Paul Ylvisaker of the Ford Foundation, ‘society’s passing gear.’ “ [i]

Being society’s “passing gear,” however, assumes that funders and their retinue of experts know best how to identify educational problems, sort out symptoms from fundamental causes, and adopt solutions that solve the problem. When donors bet foolishly or are simply wrong and projects and programs fail who are these funders answerable to for their errors in judgment? No one, as far as I can see.

That tension of donors exercising their individual liberty to make decisions that impact people’s lives yet are free to walk away unscathed from bad decisions, is the awkward position that tax-supported philanthropy holds in a democracy. Tension arise and can get nasty when foundations side-step responsibility for their failures.

Consider the Ford Foundation’s involvement in decentralization and community control in big city districts in the late-1960s. New York City Mayor John Lindsay appointed Ford Foundation President, McGeorge Bundy, to head a mayoral panel on school system decentralization. Bundy, a former adviser to both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, sought to steer the Ford Foundation toward improving U.S. race relations and an integrated society through rational analysis and institutional changes. He saw administrative decentralization giving power to minority parents to shape schools that would benefit their communities. He also possessed much certainty once he decided on a course of action. According to one source, Bundy ended a discussion at a foundation meeting by telling program officers: “Look, I’m settled about this. Let’s not talk about it any more. I may be wrong, but I’m not in doubt.” [ii]

Supporting district decentralization, Ford officials confidently forged ahead in the mid-1960s with grants for particular projects located in Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Lower East Side. Bundy picked a foundation program officer and former New York City teacher, Mario Fantini, to head up Ford’s entry into big city school politics. Ford officials believed that decentralizing power to clusters of schools where black parents sent their children would break the choke-hold that district bureaucracy had on schools thus unleashing innovation and changes that would benefit parents, teachers and students.

These three “demonstration districts” had school boards comprised of parents and community activists who made decisions (e.g., hiring and firing) for the schools they controlled. When when those projects subsequently appointed black principals and fired white teachers, union antagonism toward the experiments erupted leading to more than a month-long teacher strike in 1968. The strike ended the “demonstration districts” but there were no winners since racial hostility and antisemitism unleashed by the conflicts over community control wracked the district and city in subsequent years.[iii]

And the Ford Foundation? McBundy and Fantini metaphorically dusted off their hands and walked away from direct involvement in decentralizing big city bureaucracies and community control of schools. The involvement of the Foundation in its aggressive advocacy for these solutions to unclog urban bureaucracies, however, did contribute to the U.S. Congress’s rewriting the law and tax code governing philanthropy in 1969. Donor advocacy for certain policies became a red flag foundations had to observe since 1969.

There are other documented “oops” such as the Annenberg Challenge in the early 1990s that spread nearly a billion dollars among selected urban school districts (from Annenberg and other foundations who met the challenge grant). The Challenge produced little or lasting change in school structures and student outcomes. And what about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation advocacy for small high schools and suddenly cutting the flow of money for this initiative.[iv]

This lack of responsibility for errors in judgment in improving schooling has been a staple in critics’ arsenal in attacking foundations making education grants. I find much merit in this criticism.


[i] Edward Skloot, “The Gated Community,” Alliance Magazine, September 2011 at:

[ii] Tamar Jacoby, “McGeorge Bundy: How the Establishment’s Man Tackled America’s Problem with Race,” Alicia Patterson Foundation Magazine, 1991. At:

[iii] Bundy continued at the Ford Foundation until 1979 while Fantini left Ford to become dean at a university school of education in 1970. For a description of the 1969 law, see Thomas Troyer, “The 1969 Private Foundation Law: Historical Perspective on Its Origins and Underpinnings,” Paper presented October 28, 1999 at a roundtable sponsored by the New York University School of Law’s National Center on Philanthropy and the Law.

[iv] Mark Smylie and Stacy Wenzel, “The Chicago Annenberg Challenge: Successes, Failures, and Lessons for the Future,” Final technical Report, 2003, Consortium of Chicago School Research.



Filed under school reform policies