Education Policy

Is This New Wave of Educational Philanthropy Really Helping Anything?

For as long as there has been a public education system, there have been wealthy families that have ignored it, opting instead for expensive private schools. But lately, wealthy Americans have stopped turning their noses up at public education and are doing something that is pretty remarkable: They’re investing in it.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates blazed the trail in 1994 when he launched the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has recently become more aggressive in its efforts to improve education in America.

One of their biggest reform attempts was the “small-schools movement.” This aptly named effort looked to break up the nation’s largest high schools into smaller learning communities that would result in a more connected and engaged student body. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am currently enrolled in a class that is working for the Texas High School Project, a public-private partnership that gets a large portion of its funding from the Gates Foundation. As a result, they have also been the foot soldiers of the Gates-led small schools movement here in Texas.)

However, despite the fact that Gates spent about $2 billion from 2000 to 2009, this effort has largely been a failure, even according to Gates himself. Nothing changed in the classroom and big failing schools just turned into smaller, equally failing schools.

Another example of this trend in misplaced educational philanthropy is Mark Zuckerberg’s donation to the school district in Newark, New Jersey, a notoriously troubled district that was taken over by the state due to a tragically low graduation rate, among other reasons.

However, it’s not money that Newark needs. The district spends almost $23,000 per student. The national average is about $10,000 and Texas recently topped $11,000. To be fair, it is much more expensive to do anything in New Jersey than in Texas, even run a school.  By no measure, however, is it more than twice as expensive. Teachers, one of the biggest cost-drivers of a school district, are only paid a few thousand dollars more in New Jersey than the national average.

Additionally, the timing of this announcement has Zuckerberg (who has been accused of buying good PR following the release of “The Social Network”) and New Jersey officials (who are facing re-election) busy explaining their motivations instead of articulating their goals.

But my point is not to vilify Gates or Zuckerberg or other education-minded philanthropists. I think they should be recognized for acting as best they can. We should be glad they aren’t just ignoring the problem as they drop their young heirs and heiresses off at their private schools.

I recently saw the wildly popular documentary Waiting for Superman (which Gates spent $2 million to promote). While I am not going to launch into a critique of the film, there is one scene that I find particularly relevant to this discussion.

In an effort to highlight the bureaucracy through which educational administrators must maneuver, director David Guggenheim shows large, official looking buildings sprouting up all around a school house, like so many weeds.

To extend his analogy, these educational philanthropists are simply another weed, trying to entice schools to adopt their agenda by dangling one helluva carrot above them. And with many states – especially Texas – having inadequate funding systems, schools are becoming increasingly willing to get cozy with these big spenders.

Too often, schools get overwhelmed by all the carrots and lose themselves in the strings that are attached to them. A recent book on urban school reform found that in the 1980s there were over 3,000 separate reforms across the nation. That number has only increased since, with many schools juggling four to five major initiatives at a time. Now with another player entering the fray, will schools end up biting of more than they can chew? With all these balls in the air, can we really expect our educators to make progress on all these efforts at once? Something, it seems, would have to give, and with the government budgets shrinking across the country, it will probably end up being the public’s control over public schools.

My suggestion to these well-intentioned philanthropists is first to get out of the business of influencing specific policy decisions. Given the fact that they are not experts, it seems the only way they can succeed in this is by sheer luck.

Rather, concerned businessmen and women should look to influence outcomes by holding Race-to-the-Top styled contests, which could award hefty grants to, say, the first school district to improve reading and math scores by 15 percent or to reduce the achievement gap.

This system leaves the educating to the educators and the grant allocating to those that have vast sums of money to dispense. Also, it will encourage efforts in many districts and schools, effectively multiplying the power of every dollar of reward money.

Many have criticized this approach as favoring those who have the most resources at their disposal, but I don’t see it that way. As is the case in Newark and many districts across the country, there are ways to improve student performance that don’t cost a dime. For example, how much would you have to pay to create a college-going culture? Could that be purchased even if you had Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg cutting the checks?

That requires, instead, a strong, non-monetary commitment from teachers and administrators to instill in their students the value of pursuing a higher education. You simply can’t buy off a student’s self-esteem or motivation.

Most importantly, these efforts must be coordinated on a larger level. Reform goals should be in line with larger state efforts like reducing dropout rates or boosting scores on standardized tests or improving teacher quality.

Only by presenting educators with a coherent network of incentives can we truly expect systematic and meaningful progress. We should undoubtedly be appreciative of these billionaires’ civic-mindedness, but we need them to quit funding their own pet projects, and become part of a movement that funds results.

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