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

12 responses to “An Educated Guess about Donor-Driven School Reform

  1. jeffrey bowen

    All living organisms seek homeostasis. You document this well. And your observation about the resisting influence of outside social and economic factors is right on point for schools. An underlying idea might be that reformers and their big donors need to cease traditional strategic planning with its top down directives and fixed goals and instead focus on adaptive planning where navigational tools are provided but the destinations may change as conditions evolve. Test solutions. If they fail, then adapt and try again. After all you learn far more from failures than from perfection.

  2. Couldn’t agree with this assessment more. So then, is an alignment of all the institutions necessary to bring about systemic change quixotic? I think it will strike many people as being so, especially in a world of massive inequality, but also – and perhaps more to the point – given how “insiders” (think: readers of this blog, for instance) “work the [existing] system” to the advantage of our own children, all the while with “good intentions” but with the same “unintended consequences” you describe. And hence the status quo, which often amounts to little more than enacting the garden variety of middle-class behaviors familiar to so many (e.g. caring about which teachers our kids have, which classes they take, which peers they group with, etc.) will remain, exactly as you say. And we haven’t even broached the matter of teacher and principal distribution! So the critique is spot-on accurate where institutions, and donor-driven reforms, are concerned, but even when the institutions are better aligned (and more equitable, as they generally are in northwestern Europe where I live), massive inequalities / segregation / tracking-discrimination / lack of quality teachers, etc. unfailingly persist owing to the inability to prevent the implicit biases that drive status quo behaviors and their concomitant outcomes. And this brings us to another unintended consequence of a core democratic value, viz., liberty. Expressions of liberty lead to concentrated privilege and hence more spatial (and social) injustice. But since none of us wishes to give up our freedoms of conscience and association, where does that leave us once we recognize the unintended consequences of these many institutional reforms?

    • larrycuban

      Your comment, Michael, brought a few thoughts to mind. Over the years in writing about ”quixotic” efforts to improve U.S. schools, I have been accused of being pessimistic, even depressing in pointing out the faddish, foolish, and failed reforms imposed by policymakers who have full and untested confidence in their judgments. When I respond that I do what I do because I am a realist (a tempered optimist is a phrase I have used in the past) who wants to help parents, teachers, and students do well in school while becoming whole human being–readers and listeners either turn off or roll their eyes. The fact is that institutions such as schools, but not only schools, contain inherent dilemmas that create unavoidable tensions, ones that have to be discussed and debated openly when policies are made. You raise some of those inexorable tensions in your comment, Michael as I do when I write about policymakers and teachers need to be aware of “dynanmic conservatism” and unanticipated consequences that often turn into perverse ones, opposite of what was intended. These are organizational phenomena that turn up repeatedly in schools and other social and political institutions. Oops! Add economic institutions as well. You nicely point to one of those tensions–I call them dilemmas–in your few lines. So thank you, Michael, for the comment.

  3. Sandy

    Thanks for an insightful look at this topic. I learned something new about the philanthropy of the early 20th century. Fascinating really as I had no idea that philanthropists sent money south. A few nights ago, I saw a PBS retrospective on DC in the ’60s. As I watched, I was dumbfounded by the control the Congress had over the schools and funding – all those good ole white segragationist southerners. The parallels to your description of maintaining status quo by our new handlers, donors, is disturbing. DC has now tipped into majority charter schools.

    Alas, as you frequently note, we don’t have the political will to really address what needs to be done. But please continue to be this special voice that points to mis-guided thinking on school reforms, teaching and learning.

  4. Gary Ravani

    In general I am in agreement with this post. There are a few points I take issue with, but I think the concept of “dynamic conservatism” or “institutional homeostasis” is a worthy one. Almost 30 years ago I attended a conference where I had the opportunity over the course of 3 days to sit at a lunch table with the keynote speakers: Joseph Cambell (Hero with a Thousand Faces); Bruno Bettelheim (before, I think, he became controversial, on “fairytales”); and Neil Postman (Teaching as Subversive/Conserving Activity). These were not intimate conversations, as it was the typical conference style lunch, but I remember the conversations and speeches rather well. Postman, who had kind of upended the philosophy of education for many young teachers with Teaching as a Subversive Activity, quipped about the idea of writing a second book “repudiating your first book allowing you to sell more books.” (Diane Ravitch seems to have taken this “advice” to heart.) In his speech as well as at the table he talked about the “lessons learned.” Though not using the term ‘institutional homeostasis,” looking back i can see that that was what he was talking about. Schools were institutions of social cohesiveness, because society needed a force for cohesiveness. Schools tended to maintain their structures because that’s the way they worked “best,” and evolutionary forces actually brought them back time and again to those structures which acted to stabilize or conserve. Some will suggest this a is a mere argument for the dreaded “status quo.” In some ways, yes. There are certainly tweaks to the system that would likely make it more effective, but this is far from the “disruption” or “creative destruction” advocated by some who bow at the alter of “market forces.”

  5. As Seymour Sarason reminded us, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” So sad we have not heeded his call to look at the cultural factors and conditions of schooling that contribute to what he calls “the predictable failure.”

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