Billionaires’ Love Affair with School Reform

In 1969, when I was director of the office of staff development for the Washington, D.C. schools, I applied for a grant of $10,000 from the Meyer Foundation for innovation awards to classroom teachers. I met with the Foundation officer, explained the rationale for the application (many teachers had designed classroom innovations that cost a few hundred dollars and short of digging into their own pockets, could not find the money to execute their design), and the process (teachers and a few administrators review applications and determine which ones deserved support).

Within a few weeks, I received a letter granting the office of staff development the funds. I was exhilarated that a local foundation had seen the merit of awarding teachers’ who redesigned parts of their daily practice. For several years the Meyer Foundation funded the Teacher Innovation Fund and then stopped. End of program.

Yes, that grant was peanuts today but I still remember vividly the joy I felt and recall clearly the excitement and satisfaction hundreds of D.C. teachers experienced when selected for awards in the few years the program existed. Since then, as a superintendent and professor I have been fortunate to have received many grants and have, over the years, learned a great deal about how big and small foundations work, the mindset they project onto the world of education, and the dilemmas facing foundations eager to improve U.S. schooling.

Let me first deal with the prevailing beliefs that U.S. schools are in crisis—a mindset essential for foundation grant-giving. Primary among those beliefs is the myth that all U.S. schools are broken and have to be fixed.

Beginning in the late 1970s, followed by the Nation at Risk report and culminating in the No Child Left Behind law, the message that all U.S. schools are failing has become accepted truth among smart, well-intentioned policy elites including foundation officials. Even though it is clear that there are many schools in the U.S. that parents clamor to have their children attend, even though foreign students come in droves to U.S. universities often considered to be the best in the world where they attend undergraduate and graduate courses with U.S. students from supposedly failing high schools, the dominant belief remains that the entire K-12 system of schooling is broken. That belief is as commonplace as “smart” phones, television, and public utilities. It is a “truth” that goes largely unquestioned. (See one challenge of belief: Alan Krueger, reassessing schools are broken)

Ignored is the fact that there is a three-tiered system of schooling in the U.S. (see June 20, 2010 post). The top two tiers (which over half of U.S. students attend) are considered by most parents to be either good or good enough for their children. In the third tier, however, big city and rural schools enrolling mostly poor and minority students have largely failed to educate children and youth. Surely, the three tiered system is obvious for anyone with 20/20 vision living in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and other metropolitan areas, particularly to parents who shop around for schools to send their children.

What is also plain to see but is seldom mentioned by policy elites and 24/7 media is the constant conflating of urban and rural failing schools with all U.S. schools. Such a mindless mistake propagates misinformation and sustains a “crisis” mentality that continually bashes teachers and undermines trust in public schools. Large foundations, enamored by the romance of gritty urban schools, have profited and furthered the idea of a systemic “crisis” by failing to distinguish between urban low-performing schools and those many schools in the top two tiers that meet parental demands, have low dropout rates, and send over 90 percent of their graduates to college.

No, I do not want these “Billionaires” to halt their funding of programs in big cities. Although charter schools, teacher pay-for-performance schemes, and turning around chronically low-performing schools are on Gates, Walton, and Broad Foundation policy agendas and indistinguishable from the agenda of the Obama administration (a convergence that is worrisome), let the money continue to flow into big cities.

My allergic reaction to conflating failing urban schools with all U.S. schools stems from the simple fact that foundation leaders err from time to time in their investments and skip accountability. Occasionally, they may say”oops!” as Bill Gates did in 2009 after investing nearly $2 billion in small high schools. But beyond the occasional admission of a mistake, foundation officials are accountable to no one for their errors. Which I cover in the next post.

“You’d be surprised. Dysfunctional family foundations are not uncommon.”

(Carole Cable, 2009)

2 Comments

Filed under Reforming schools

2 responses to “Billionaires’ Love Affair with School Reform

  1. In the media, the best charter schools have come to represent all charter schools, while the most troubled traditional public schools tend to represent all traditional public schools. That distorts important conversations about school reform.

    Even top tier schools can do better, sometimes much better, but I don’t think it serves us well to paint all schools with the same broad brush.

  2. I had experience with a few foundations during my career. It was obvious they had radically different characters. During the first few years of operation, a foundation will reflect the character of the funder. Noble or base. I’ll leave it at that.

    Unfortunately, people find it hard to draw boundaries.

    Larry I find it interesting that you address the end of life issues for projects. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed more frequently.

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