The New Education Philanthropy

By 12/10/2015

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Last week, Harvard Education Press officially released The New Education Philanthropy, a volume edited by Rick Hess and Jeff Henig. The book is a follow-up to one Rick edited a decade earlier, With the Best of Intentions.

Empirical analysis and constructive criticism of the role of foundations in education is hard to come by. There are few professional rewards and significant risks in trying to analyze foundations and offer suggestions for improvement. Foundations are accustomed to criticism, but much of it comes from people opposed to the idea that foundations should influence the education system, so foundations tend to classify all criticism as hostile and tune it out. Folks not opposed to the mission of foundations tend to want funding from them and so tend to censor themselves when they might have analysis and criticism to offer. In addition, foundations generally limit channels of communication from their friends for fear of being unduly lobbied by them for funding.

The ironic result is that foundations seeking to improve learning have virtually no mechanisms for learning about themselves and making their own improvements. They generally don’t want to know. They don’t want to hear the rantings of those who hate them and they don’t want to be influenced by the flattery and manipulations of those who love them. But there is a third type of person that they have difficulty recognizing — someone who wants to help them by offering independent analysis and criticism.

This is why books like The New Education Philanthropy and With the Best of Intentions only come along every decade or so. Few foundations will provide any support for independent empirical and critical examination of their efforts and few scholars are willing to engage in this type of work. Even if someone else pays, few foundations are willing to engage in conferences, panel discussions, and written exchanges about their own efforts. They tend to be as defensive and insular as presidential campaigns and are often operated as if that is what they are rather than learning organizations.

This is why books like The New Education Philanthropy and With the Best of Intentions are so important. There is much that education philanthropies and others could learn from these volumes. My chapter in the first book, “Buckets into the Sea,” examined the extent of philanthropic activity in education relative to public funding. I found that all private giving to public K-12 schools, from the bake sale to the Gates Foundation, amounted to less than one-third of 1% of annual spending. It’s basically rounding error. A billion dollars feels like a lot of money to you, me, and the folks at foundations, but to a public school system spending over $600 billion annually it is not nearly enough to get them to do things that they don’t already want to do nor enough to purchase things that they can’t already buy.

So, foundations lack the resources to purchase education reform through the sheer force of their money. In the chapter I wrote a decade ago, I suggested that if foundations wanted to change the education system they would have to engage in policy change to re-direct how the much larger pool of public resources is spent.

Around the same time that my chapter was published in With the Best of Intentions, many large foundations started to change their strategy to focus on policy advocacy. Unfortunately, just as foundations failed to grasp the limitations of their fiscal resources, they also failed to understand how limited their political resources are as well. This prompted my new chapter, “Buckets into Another Sea,” in The New Education Philanthropy.

Foundations have enough money to dominate the conversation of a few hundred people engaged in policy research and advocacy, but they don’t have enough resources to achieve enduring policy change without backing policies that generate their own constituency.

If expanding school choice creates tens of thousands of beneficiaries who are willing to rally on the steps of the capitol, they can create self-sustaining policy change. But if foundations back policies that generate few natural constituents, then those policies are difficult to get adopted and even harder to keep over time. There are no rallies for using test scores to evaluate teachers. There are no rallies for common standards, assessments, and the “instructional shifts” they require. Whatever the merit of these policies, foundations lack the political resources to achieve them without genuine constituents who will fight for them independent of foundation funding.

Check out The New Education Philanthropy and With the Best of Intentions to see what other insights folks have to offer. We may not be right, but an honest and open discussion about effective strategies for foundations is sorely needed.

— Jay P. Greene

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