Tag Archives: reform policies

Another Educated Guess about Philanthropy and School Reform

Every reform movement leaves a residue in public schools. Consider the “best” elementary school in any U.S. city during the 1890s before the Progressive education reforms cascaded over public schools in the early 20th century.*

The “best” elementary school (often called “grammar” school) of the 1890s, situated in a middle-class part of the city, had at least eight large classrooms–one for each grade–where teachers taught all the subjects to groups of 40-50 children sitting in rows of bolted down desks.








The teacher’s task was to cover the entire prescribed curriculum during the school year, have students recite–often standing up–portions of the textbook, and repeat what has been learned on periodic tests. At the end of the semester, teachers would decide which students would get promoted and which ones would be held back. In immigrant neighborhoods of the same city, elementary school buildings, curriculum and pedagogy were the same but what differed was that not all immigrant children  attended school and those that did often dropped out by the end of the third grade and worked in sweatshops, peddled newspapers, picked up off jobs on the street, or worked in industrial jobs that needed quick and small hands and feet.






















Much of that “best” 1890 elementary school changed with the slow penetration of progressive education reforms over the next forty years. The reform movement looked to the “whole child” beyond absorbing what the teacher said and what was contained within textbooks. The physical, social, psychological, emotional, and general well being of the student was at the heart of the progressive ideology of reform in these decades. By 1940, the “best” elementary school building now had more than a dozen classrooms, a lunchroom, auditorium, outside playground, suites of rooms for a visiting doctor to examine students and a separate room for an on-site nurse, a social worker, and, if space permitted, a psychologist who would administer individual intelligence tests. The curriculum still contained reading, math, and science and a new subject called “social studies,” but the content itself and new textbooks were geared to real-world examples rather than traditional content taught in the late-19th century.

Trinity Lutheran School 03-14-2010








In progressive classrooms, movable chairs and desks replaced the rows of bolted down ones. Kindergartens where five year olds would work and play in large airy, furnished rooms with a reading area, sand box, artist corner, and blocks became part of the age- graded school. While textbooks still reigned supreme in the upper grades, additional books and materials appeared in classrooms. Many elementary school teachers began dividing up their entire class–still in the 30+ student range–into reading groups where a teacher would assign tasks to the rest of the class while she–by now teachers were mostly single women–would work with handful of students on a reading or math lesson. Instead of straight recitation from the text, often in unison, the “best” teachers in this “best” elementary school would guide a whole-group discussion of a topic calling on individual students who raised their hands to respond to teacher questions but no longer had to stand and recite memorized passages.








Since the early 1950s, when progressive schools came under political attack and a new wave of reforms swept across U.S. schools, deposits of these earlier reforms remained in elementary schools even after  the word “progressive” became a naughty word in the lexicon of school reformers. An informed observer walking into a “best” elementary school in 2014 would see vestiges of a much earlier progressive movement to improve schools.

Now fast forward to the first decade of the 21st century after thirty years of market-driven and donor-supported school reform. Vestiges of these decades of reform, like earlier progressive reforms, I am guessing, will be quietly incorporated into public schooling. Charter schools will survive, standardized testing will persist but be scaled back, a downsized version of a national curriculum standards will be in evidence, routine use of technologies will show up in classrooms, reduced  accountability regulations will be around but penalties will be fewer. While a high regard for student outcomes will persist, other outcomes of learning in the arts, humanities, and emotional growth will emerge.

Other current reforms such as evaluating teachers on the basis of test scores, ending tenure and seniority, calling principals CEOs, and children learning to code will be like tissue-paper reforms of the past (e.g., zero-based budgeting, right- and left-brain teaching) that have been crumpled up and tossed away.

Also the idée fixe of schools concentrating on producing human capital first and civic engagement second or third will persist but lose its potency slowly as popular pushback against too much standardized testing and a national curriculum grow in momentum.

I have seen many waves of school reform in my adult life as a teacher, administrator, and researcher. As a researcher, I have studied both 19th and 20th century school reform movements. In each movement then, bits and pieces of prior school reforms stuck. For contemporary policymakers and philanthropists who have invested much time, energy, and monies into these market-driven reforms and are alive, say 20 years from now, I would guess, will not break out the champagne for these remnants.



*Lawrence Cremin, The Transformation of the School (New York: Vintage Press, 1961); David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot, Managers of Virtue (New York: Basic Books, 1982)); Someone Has To Fail (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010). Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform (New York Simon & Schuster, 2000).



Filed under Uncategorized

An Educated Guess about Donor-Driven School Reform

Unintended outcomes haunt reform movements. Every school reform I have researched from improving curriculum, changing instruction, and redesigning organizations has had unanticipated results. Recall how the No Child Left Behind law (2002) has narrowed curriculum, led to extensive test preparation, and tagging some high-achieving suburban schools and most urban ones as failures. President George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress didn’t expect those outcomes. Unexpected results,  I am guessing, will occur following the victories of venture philanthropists in the past two decades in establishing market-driven reforms in U.S. public schools.



Even the smartest policymakers and their close donor allies have discovered to their surprise and chagrin, unforeseen consequences. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Foundation, for example, inadvertently helped shrink public involvement in school decisions while furthering distrust of professionals’ judgment through support for mayoral control, state laws expanding charter schools, and parental trigger laws. Keep in mind that some unintended outcomes, depending on where one stands, are considered positive, others negative, and a few, perverse.[i]

My educated guess is that donors may see that the crisis rhetoric they have used in past decades, the extensive media exposure, and their reform agenda will have had perverse outcomes in ending up not in privatization of public schools–as critics of venture philanthropists allege–but actually preserving the status quo they fought against. Such an outcome would, I imagine, startle this generation of donors. Let me unpack this educated guess.

The notion of institutions adopting reforms in order to maintain stability—sometimes called “dynamic conservatism”—captures how U.S. public schools, especially in big cities have embraced new policies (e.g., charter schools, Common Core standards, new technologies) signaling stakeholders that schools are, indeed, changing. Yet those districts and schools have left untouched essential structures that make U.S. schools the way they are (and have been for over a century) such as residential segregation, school revenue derived from property assessment, age-graded schools, self-contained classrooms, student promotion, and retention, textbooks, and state tests. [ii]

Without attending to these basic structures, entrepreneurial donors in their pursuit of particular reforms reinforce the stability of the very organizations they want to transform.  Not intended to be Machiavellian or even necessarily planned, school districts have learned to maintain overall stability in structures, cultures, and practices—the status quo–in the face of strong external pressures by selectively adopting reforms.

Consider the example of grant-giving strengthening the status quo that occurred in the early 20th century when Northern white donors gave money to improve what was then called “colored” or “Negro” education in the South. John D. Rockefeller, Julius Rosenwald, and others gave grants to improve black education by building schools, helping teachers gain more knowledge and learn pedagogy, and raising teacher salaries. In aiding black communities improve schooling for their children, however, these donors gave the money directly to white school boards who then dispersed funds sparingly to black principals, teachers, and communities. In effect, these grants maintained the Jim Crow system of separate schooling for blacks and whites. Positive, negative, and perverse outcomes were rolled into one. [iii]

Fast forward to the early 21st century. I see a similar phenomenon of high-profile reforms ending up keeping public schools stable unfolding in the next decade. For example, donor-supported reforms in urban districts such as opening new charter schools, closing “dropout factories,” distributing vouchers, deploying new technologies, and the like have proliferated. Yet these changes have offered a restricted number of motivated parents and students opportunities that were lacking in under-resourced, inequitably staffed, and highly bureaucratic urban districts. Those parents and students benefited. That was an intended and positive outcome.

However, for the vast majority of parents outside of a Harlem’s Children Zone or passed over in lotteries for charter schools, their children will continue to attend low-achieving schools, dropout in high school, and face dead-end jobs. Age-graded schools will persist. Segregated poor and minority schools will persist. Inequalities in who teaches in middle-class and poor schools will persist. The status quo in low-performing schools will remain.

And the primary reason for stability–an unexpected effect of all of the above changes–is that these donor-pushed reforms concentrated only on the school rather than outside economic and social structures that freeze institutional inequalities in place.

In making this educated guess about unanticipated effects, donors have erred in framing the problem of failed schools as a problem located solely in schools themselves. Yet the evidence is so strong that  academic failure of poor urban and rural children is located in multiple institutions and structures inside and outside schools. Battling low academic performance crosses institutional boundaries.

Because of their can-do and business-oriented ideology, venture philanthropists have largely restricted their grant making to funding changes aimed at the kind of schools that exist, what happens inside of them, and who staffs the schools. In doing so they have unwisely reinforced the myth that schooling alone, not in concert with other institutions, produces miracles ending economic and social inequalities.

And for that error, I believe, donors will receive a full measure of criticism now and in the next decade for preserving the status quo of schooling.


[i] Robert Merton, “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action”. American Sociological Review, 1936, 1(6), pp. 894-904; Albert Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, and Jeopardy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

[ii] Donald Schon, Beyond the Stable State: Public and Private Learning in a Changing Society (New York: Norton, 1973). Larry Cuban, Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009).

[iii] Historians writing about northern white philanthropy in the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have largely agreed on what donors have done in these decades but deeply divide over donor motives and the consequences of their actions (both planned and unplanned) in making grants to get black schools built, help for black teachers, and supplying services that white school boards had failed to provide. See James Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988); Mary Hoffschwelle, The Rosenwald Schools of the American South (Gainsville FLA:University Press of Florida, 2006); Eric Anderson and Alfred Moss, Jr., Dangerous Donations: Northern Philanthropy and Southern Black Education, 1902-1930 (Columbia MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999).




Filed under school reform policies

“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: http://www.hudson.org/content/researchattachments/attachment/1197/alliance_magazine_edward_skloot.pdf

[ii] Tamar Jacoby, “McGeorge Bundy: How the Establishment’s Man Tackled America’s Problem with Race,” Alicia Patterson Foundation Magazine, 1991. At: http://aliciapatterson.org/stories/mcgeorge-bundy-how-establishments-man-tackled-americas-problem-race

[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

Squelching Public and Professional Voices: Big Donors and School Reform

There have been many criticisms of big donors in the past decade (see here and here). They have been criticized for trying to privatize public schools and throwing their considerable weight around in advocating policies that will increase numbers of charter schools, spread vouchers, evaluate teachers on the basis of student test scores, and, in general, oppose teacher unions. I will take up each of these criticisms in a chapter I am now drafting for a book on educational philanthropy that will be published in 2015.

For this post, however, I want to describe another criticism that is often mentioned but seldom developed, one that, I believe, should be front-and-center in the debate over the role that big donors play in pushing a reform agenda. What follows is a first draft. I have excluded footnotes documenting statements in this post that will appear in next draft. Any comments would be appreciated.


One criticism I want to examine is that In centralizing governance of schools, policymakers, supported by major donors, have squelched public and professional voices.

The background to this criticism is that the Gates, Walton, Broad, and other foundations have advocated mayoral control in cities, state laws that expand choice of schools, and parent trigger laws that, in effect, strip local school boards of their authority to make decisions, shrink public participation in educational affairs, and diminish teacher and principal professional judgment.

Donors supported state laws expanding charter schools, urged adoption of Common Core standards, and endorsed mayoral control of city districts in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Chicago because it made grant-making for small high schools, charter schools, and changes in teacher evaluation easier when school authority was fixed in the appointed superintendent’s or chancellor’s office. Here is Bill Gates on mayoral control of schools:

The cities where our foundation has put the most money in, is where there’s a single person responsible – in New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, the mayor has responsibility for the school system, and so instead of having a committee of people, you have that one person. And that’s where we’ve seen the willingness to take on some of the older practices and try new things, and we’ve seen very good results in all three of those cities, so there are some lessons that have already been learned

No extended time going through messy public vetting of each proposal. No squabbling over school board members’ questions and community hearings when decisions could be reached in the mayoral appointed superintendent’s office.

I do not suggest that educational philanthropists have caused centralized policymaking or loss of faith in professional educators’ judgment since both had begun in the mid-1960s with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act underwriting federal and state actions and continued through the 1980s–A Nation at Risk called for states to act on their recommendations–and into the 1990s with the spread of mayoral control in big cities. And of course, No Child Left Behind (2002) has the U.S. Secretary of Education intervening into local schools as never before.

I do suggest, however, that “muscular philanthropy” has accelerated consolidation of authority at local, state, and federal levels with the consequence of even further shrinking citizen and school professional participation in governing schools.

Donors have also helped governors and state legislatures compete for federal funds offered through Race To The Top by bankrolling organizations helping officials negotiate federal eligibility rules to apply for funding. State legislation allowing more charter schools, evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores, and adopting Common Core State Standards and tests strengthened state applications for federal funds. Few local school boards were involved or practitioner voices heard as these state laws imposed top-down requirements on every district and school.

Centralized governing of schools over the past decades has been done not only in the name of increased efficiency in operations and developing excellence in schooling but also in seeking egalitarian outcomes: leave no child behind, college for all, and equipping minority and poor students with essential skills to enter a 21st century workforce. This deep concern for those who have been educationally disadvantaged over decades is part of the belief system of foundation and corporate executives who push for centralized governance, curriculum and testing mandates, and accountability rules.

The sum total of these public and private ventures has meant that large donors have not only set the reform agenda but gone way beyond agenda setting to promote state laws that eroded, no, a more precise word would be—diminished—local public participation and professionals’ judgment in significant decisions.

Although these donor-supported policies have inadvertently drowned the public voice in local decision-making and shifted power to technocrats who guide policy into schools, I doubt that foundation leaders intended to consolidate school decision-making higher up the authority ladder away from local policymakers, professionals, and citizens. Nonetheless, that is what has unintentionally happened over the past 30 years in identifying the problem as failing U.S. schools and the solution of getting schools to be efficient, effective, and excellent through a business-driven, technocratic model of governing schools.

I find much merit in this criticism.


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Technologies and School Reform: Kissing Cousins*

Over the years, I often get asked how I got interested in the uses of technology in schools and classrooms. I answer the same way each time. When I taught high school history and as a district administrator in two urban school system I was the target for a quarter-century of high-tech innovations and classroom reforms. Again and again.

I then add that I have been trained as an historian and studied many efforts of reformers to improve schooling over the past century in U.S. classrooms, schools, and districts. I looked at how teachers have taught since the 1890s. I analyzed policymakers’ frequent curricular changes since the 1880s. I even investigated the origins of the age-graded school and the spread of this innovation through the 19th century. I also parsed the utopian dreams of reformers who believed that new machine technologies (e.g., film, radio, instructional television, desktop computer) would alter how teachers teach and students learn. Almost out of words, I end my answer by pointing out that these electronic devices are in the DNA of all classroom-driven reforms aimed at altering how teachers teach and how students learn. That long answer usually squashes follow-up questions.

What surprises me is that these questioners had not viewed high-tech innovations as having either a history in schools or as blood relations to constant efforts to improve schools. Instead, they saw (and, sadly enough, still see) innovative high-tech devices as singular, even exceptional, ways of transforming teaching and learning completely divorced from previous efforts at improving classroom practice through curricular (e.g., math, social studies, science), instructional (e.g., project-based learning, direct instruction) and organizational (e.g., site-based management, charters, mayoral control) reforms.

And that is a big conceptual error. Why? Because, school and classroom reforms including technological ones, are part of the same genetic code.

Creating “blended learning” schools, introducing online learning, or deploying tablets to each and every student is an organizational and instructional reform. Teachers using Class Dojo, Chemix School and Lab, Algebrator, and other software programs are implementing classroom organizational and curricular reforms and shaping instruction.

Technological innovations, then, are kissing cousins to curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms. Consequently, they share similar components.

All reforms come bathed in rhetoric. Take the “21st Century Skills” effort, organized by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a coalition whose members include Verizon, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, and Dell. Their mission is to prepare the current generation of children and youth to compete in a globalized economy. Their words, like the rhetoric of so many other reformers—past and present—portray a economic, social, and political crisis for U.S. competition in world markets unless today’s youth leave school fully equipped with the skills of creating, innovating, problem-solving, collaborating, and critically thinking. And don’t forget: a repertoire of technological skills. The rhetoric must not only create a sense of crisis, it must portray existing institutions as woefully deficient.

Going from policy talk to classroom practice. Patterns can be observed in the journey from policy talk to an adopted program to ending up in classrooms. Designing the policy and program means frequent revisions as they go through the political vetting process to get adopted and funded (think of Los Angeles Unified School District’s iPad purchase and roll-out, and any brand-new math program for a district). Ditto for finding patterns in the degree to which those adopted policies get implemented and changed as the design wends its way into the school and eventually into the classroom (Common Core standards in reading, online instruction).

 Criteria to judge success of reform. If reform rhetoric, policy adoption, and putting innovations into practice can be examined for regularities so can the criteria used to assess the reform (e.g., test scores, satisfaction of teachers and students with innovation, rates of graduation, etc.). Once assessed, determining whether or not the reform should be incorporated—should the innovation be sustained–in school and classroom practices is a judgment call that authorities make on a mix of political interests, ideological fervor, available resources, and research evidence.

By now, you get my point. In viewing technological innovations as a sub-set of curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms, teachers, principals, and parents can identify patterns, determine consequences for the adoption of the innovation, track the journey as it goes from policy to classroom practice, and expect certain outcomes while being open to unanticipated ones as well.

Too many policymakers, practitioners, and parents see technological innovations as unique initiatives unrelated to the historic patterns in school reforms. They err. My experiences as a practitioner and historian have taught me to see technological devices as part of the river of reform that has flowed constantly through U.S. schools for nearly two centuries.


*This is an updated version of an earlier post.



Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Preparing Teachers for Urban Schools

“Please to God, if you are going to send … [new teachers] into urban schools, prepare them a bit better than I was prepared.” (quoted in Bethany Rogers, pp. 353-354)

If I asked you to guess when this novice teacher said the above words, a good guess might be last week, last month, or last year. Actually, it came from a new teacher who had graduated from a university-based teacher education program in 1967.

I am reminded of this nearly half-century ago quote after reading Dana Goldstein’s book, Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession . In one chapter, Goldstein does a balanced job of reporting on Teach for America, a quarter-century effort that has brought liberal arts graduates from top colleges and universities into teaching. She points out the negatives (five weeks of summer training before assuming a full-time post in an urban school; only a two-year commitment to teach; high attrition rates after two years are completed) and positives (TFA secondary school math teachers outperformed a matched group of regular teachers as measured by standardized test scores; the funneling of TFA graduates into policy posts since the early 1990s). She sums up her experiences as an education reporter by saying:

Teach for America recruits are neither the saviors nor the banes of public education. Rather, like novice educators I’ve observed and interviewed, they run the gamut from talented and passionate to lackluster and burned out. What corps members share is the experience of being introduced to teaching through a truncated training process that stresses strict discipline and quantifiable results (p.197).

I had reached a similar conclusion.

Goldstein then goes on to recommend residency programs where newcomers to the profession are supervised by experienced teachers equipped with the expertise to model effective teaching and skills and be both sandpaper and a pillow to novices. Immersion into full-time classrooms is measured and monitored each step of the way over one to two years. These residencies—Goldstein notes that there are now 18 such programs from Memphis to Boston—make a great deal of sense to her, given her rich reporting on teachers and teaching over the past two centuries. And I agree.*

I would like to add another to her list of sensible ways of preparing teachers for urban schools. Look at the largest charter organization in California, Aspire Public Schools. The first 18 highly selective Aspire Teacher Residents in 2012 completed their first year of a four year stint–sounds like medical residents– of a closely supervised internship that includes a stipend of $13,500 and health insurance.

Fifteen have been hired to work full-time in the schools in which they were trained. Aspire has a network of 34 schools. They now step into the classroom as the teacher-of-record with a preliminary credential from the University of the Pacific and a Masters degree while continuing to work closely with a mentor who is paid a stipend to coach. And this support continues in subsequent years with Aspire teacher-coaches working with them until the residency is completed. Here is a district-based teacher training program–as opposed to a university-based program–that is smart.

Why smart?

Because they ask for a four-year commitment from novices rather than two in Teach for America. No novice has a prayer of mastering the complexities of teaching in two years–four years is closer to the norm of becoming a competent teacher.

Because support from mentors and peers–they are part of a cohort that meets periodically –during those years they are sailing solo in their classroom– strengthens the chance that such teachers will master the intricacies of the craft and become mentors themselves. After completing the four year residency, they can consider other posts in Aspire network such as Lead Teachers, Model Teachers, or administrators.

Because Aspire trains and inducts teachers into their expectations (e.g. all poor and minority students will go to college) and standards of teaching and student learning (e.g. how to teach, motivate, and evaluate students) in 34 charter schools. They do not depend wholly on university-based teacher education programs that provide generic course work with a brief time in actual classrooms.

Because the residency program is geared to pay for itself once foundation funding ends unlike similar programs elsewhere in the nation.

There is another reason I resonate to district–based (with affiliation to local university) internships and residencies is my experience in Washington, D.C. a half-century ago.

Surely history does not repeat itself since contexts then and now differ, but it comes close sometimes. In the early 1960s, I was a Master Teacher of History in the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching that took returned Peace Corps Volunteers and trained them in one year to become urban teachers. Federally funded by the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, the model of a district-based program of teacher education located in a high school (and later in junior high schools and elementary schools) with second-year residencies created during the program attracted national attention for taking young, determined novices and helping them learn to teach in urban classrooms.

In 1966, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson sponsored the National Teacher Corps bill and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law. The NTC went through many changes in its life span of 15 years in 700 sites across the nation recruiting and inducting thousands of new teachers to work in low-income minority schools (see National Teacher Corps 1966-1981 ) Many of those NTC teachers went on to become master teachers, principals, superintendents, and academics. Many stayed in the classroom. The experience left them changed people.

And in Washington, D.C., the Cardozo Project morphed into the Urban Teacher Corps that between 1967-1971 recruited and inducted hundreds of college graduates into D.C. classrooms before it was shut down by a new superintendent (see “Personal Odyssey: Becoming a Teacher and Reformer in the 1950s and 1960s,” February 27, 2011).

The D.C. schools scarf up Teach for America novices–recall that Chancellor Michelle Rhee was a TFA-er before serving as head of the district between 2007-2010. To my knowledge, there is no residency program in the district now.

So even with a score of teacher residency programs available now across the country, they are but a drop in the bucket of novices entering urban schools in 2014. Most newcomers come from conventional teacher education programs. The plea of that new teacher in 1967 was not hollow then nor is it now.


*To be clear with readers, Goldstein interviewed me about my experiences with the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching and I provided a back-cover blurb for the book.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies