Some Donors Give Up Too Soon: Patience and School Reform

The path to successful school reform–moving from an adopted policy to classroom practice–is long, twisted, and filled with sinkholes. The journey requires thoughtful attention, persistence and, most of all, patience. Two instances of impatient, fickle, and inattentive donors is on full display in the two headlines below that you might have missed in the sea of media we swim in:

Broad Foundation Suspends $1 Million Prize for Urban School Districts

Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2015

City Students at Small Public High Schools Likely to Graduate, Study Says

New York Times, January 25, 2012


The Gates Foundation and small high schools.  Beginning in 2000, Bill and Melinda Gates spent nearly $2 billion to transform U.S. high schools. Many grants went to creating  a few thousand small high schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia to improve student academic achievement, rates of high school graduation, and college attendance.  In 2009, in his Annual Letter, Bill Gates said that “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.” No more money to spur small high schools; the Foundation turned to assessing teacher effectiveness. In less than a decade the deep-pocket Foundation walked away from what began as a promising initiative to turn around urban high schools.

Now here is the punch line. A number of studies since the Gates Foundation turned off the money faucet (see here, here, and here) have established that these small high schools have, indeed, improved student achievement, rates of high school graduation, and college attendance.

Patience, persistence, thoughtful attention and time are crucial ingredients for baking school reforms in the oven; pulling out the cake too soon, as happened in this instance, is a recipe for disappointing those who have worked hard, invested themselves into the effort, and were there for the long haul.

What the Foundation has done in the past few years, while continuing to invest in teacher effectiveness and other improvements, is to shift more of its funding to organizations advocating policies that advance its school reform agenda. Of course, adopting policies is a media-friendly way of giving the illusion that schools are, indeed, changing but ignores the baking time and careful attention it takes for an adopted policy to reshape what happens in first grade classrooms and Advanced Placement history courses.

$1 million Broad Prize for urban school districts.  After 13 years, Eli Broad said enough. According to the President of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Bruce Reed, “Eli has kept a close watch over the prize throughout its existence and over the past year he has become more concerned than ever about the slow pace of progress.” Reed went on to say that “we’ve seen some of that, but not enough and not fast enough.” The Broad Foundation, however, continues to offer $500,000 prize to charter schools.

In an interview for Forbes magazine, Broad said: “we don’t give money away. We invest it, and we expect a return. What do I mean by that? We want to see a return in the form of student achievement and the closure of income and ethnic gaps among students.”

Impatient donors are well within their rights to give up on solving educational problems. After all, it is their money and they can say “oops!” whenever they feel like it.

Under the law, donors have no accountability for mistakes. They are beyond the reach of being fired or voted out of office, so they have no responsibility to district leaders, individual principals, teachers, students and parents for hopes raised and dashed. If their grants fail to achieve desired objectives, philanthropists can shrug and walk away.[i]

For venture philanthropists and their supporters, this unaccountability provides valuable flexibility in taking actions for the public good and is in the best tradition of a democracy.[ii] As 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.’”[iii]

Being society’s “passing gear” assumes that funders and their retinue of experts  identify educational problems correctly, sort out symptoms from fundamental causes, and adopt solutions that target those causes. Yet as one observer noted: “Just because you were great at making software or shorting stocks doesn’t mean that you will be good at … ensuring that kids can read by the third grade. If you’re worth billions, though, nobody may tell you that.”[iv]

And few do.


[i] Walking away from a grant—usually three years in length—was common among donors when early returns appeared unpromising. See Gary Lichtenstein report on what happened at Denver’s Manual High School in the early 2000s when the high school was reorganized to become three small schools. See Gary Lichtenstein, “What Went Wrong at Manual High: The Role of Intermediaries in the Quest for Smaller Schools, “ Education Week, May 16, 2006

[ii] Rob Reich, “What Are Foundations For?” Boston Review, March 1, 2013 at: Retrieved October 17, 2014.

[iii] Edward Skloot, “The Gated Community,” Alliance Magazine, September 2011 at: Retrieved October 17, 2014.

[iv]David Callahan, “Be Afraid: The Five Scariest Trends in Philanthropy,” Inside Philanthropy, October 31, 2014 at: Retrieved December 2, 2014.





Filed under leadership, school reform policies

8 responses to “Some Donors Give Up Too Soon: Patience and School Reform

  1. I would contrast the Broad’s need for immediate return and short-sightedness with the likes of Bob Taylor of Taylor guitars and other progressive guitar manufacturers. These individuals recognize that their need for desirable and specific tone woods is putting pressure on forests in various parts of the world. They advocate for smarter harvesting of existing lumber for production of guitars, but more importantly, and more related to your post, have invested real “seed money” to reforest areas that have been stripped of existing trees or otherwise threatened by selective logging.

    These folks understand that the benefits of their investment in the forests of the future will not be recognized within their lifetimes, given the obviously long time needed to produce mature trees capable of supplying the wood required for a musical instrument. Nevertheless, they have the necessary foresight and commitment to implement a plan for a truly long-term and “slow-growing” process that does not yield an immediate return on investment, but rather one that will benefit future generations.

    Would that the current wave of education reformers have the same insight of these truly progressive musical instrument visionaries, for in many ways, to grow a tree to supply the wood necessary for a musical instrument, requires the same patience, wisdom and hope for the future as that required to grow a child.

    • larrycuban

      Now that is an analogy that makes plain a point often ignored. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      • Thanks, but perhaps my analogy is flawed. It would seem that a crucial difference is that the guitar manufacturers are acting, appropriately, as businessmen, whereas the Broads, Kochs and Gates are portraying themselves as philanthropists. But when I looked up the definition of philanthropy (below), it seemed that they were in fact behaving as businessmen rather than philanthropists. So my question to you is:

        Has philanthropy always been characterized by having strings attached in terms of how the “giving” is used, or does what is happening now represent something new: the application of business principles, such as “return on investment”, to philanthropy?

        I’m not sure I’m feeling the “love of humanity” in their actions.

        Philanthropy (from Greek φιλανθρωπία) etymologically means “love of humanity” in the sense of caring, nourishing, developing and enhancing “what it is to be human” on both the benefactors’ (by identifying and exercising their values in giving and volunteering) and beneficiaries’ (by benefiting) parts.

      • larrycuban

        If you consider businessmen Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller as prototypes of 19th and 20th century philanthropists, their “doing good” did indeed have “strings attached,” as you say. But their attached strings differ from the current business-driven donors (Gates, Broad, Walton, Arnold, Fisher) in the clear reform agenda they have for improving schools. Drafts of chapters in a new book on edu-giving can be found at:
        If you have the time, you may want to take a look. Thanks for comment.

  2. bgaudette

    I agree with the need of patience. I am an education minor at UNC Chapel Hill, in all of my education classes my classmates have deep unrest for the education system. I totally understand that, things are messed up, but change does happen over night. Often when we discuss policies quick fixes are suggested like-“just change policy” or “just give teachers more money.” As for the first what does that even mean, changing policy is too broad of an answer. Also policy takes time to change the system. For teacher pay that would be great if that happened but it is an idealistic answer that would take a lot of time and patience to happen.

  3. Growth and innovation takes time and patience, definitely. Thanks Larry.

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