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).