“Trying to reshape education with private philanthropy is like trying to reshape the ocean with buckets of water,” laments Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute in a recent essay. “If philanthropists want to reshape the ocean,” he argues, “they need to put down the buckets” and start investing in high-leverage institutions that shape policy debates through research and advocacy.
A group of leading philanthropic foundations is attempting to do just that by investing in an innovative start-up in the education world called Education Sector. This national education think tank brings together policy analysts, seasoned education reporters, and academic researchers. It was officially launched in January 2006, with support from a diverse group of donors: the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation. Though not uniform in their missions, these donors are unified in their desire to invest in the proven track records of forward-thinking innovators.
A Dynamic Pairing of Minds and Talent
“We see a grant to an organization like Education Sector as a high-leverage grant,” explains Margo Quiriconi of the Kauffman Foundation. Known for its emphasis on entrepreneurial approaches to social issues, Kauffman was first attracted to Education Sector because the group’s staff “were the type of people with entrepreneurial spirit who would approach old education problems in innovative ways.”
Education Sector’s co-founders and co-directors are Andrew J. Rotherham, formerly of the Public Policy Institute (PPI) and author of the cheeky education blog Eduwonk.com; and Thomas Toch, a prominent education commentator who most recently ran the Policy Forum’s program at the National Center on Education and the Economy. “What you have with Education Sector is the unique pairing of a top-flight policy mind with an accomplished education writer,” says Stefanie Sanford of the Gates Foundation. “I’ve known Thomas Toch going back to his days as a journalist,” says Bruno V. Manno of the Casey Foundation. Manno, who serves on Education Sector’s board, was attracted by Rotherham and Toch’s “proven track record of innovative ideas and successful ways of getting those ideas into the forefront of public policy debates on education.” Others who have joined the team are EdTrust’s Kevin Carey as research and policy director, and Sara Mead, formerly of Rotherham’s team at PPI.
“We’re interested in ways to improve recruiting, hiring, and support systems for teachers,” says Gretchen Sims of the Joyce Foundation. Specifically, the funds given by Joyce are intended to help advance new ideas in collective bargaining reform. Sims hopes Rotherham and Toch’s work will “highlight the challenges” involved in efforts to place strong teachers into high-need schools, and “more importantly, to shine a light on some of the creative solutions being developed.”
Dan Fallon of the Carnegie Corporation supports Education Sector because of its emphasis on empirical analysis of teaching and learning. Most arguments about educational reform are “heavily freighted with logical or normative positions,” says Fallon, but “we have a very weak empirical understanding of, for example, what a good teacher looks like.”
Education Sector aims to produce transparent and objective analysis on education issues because, as its mission statement puts it, “We believe that public officials, journalists, business leaders, and the public at large will embrace education reform if they believe such reform is justified by solid, independent evidence.”
Rotherham recently teamed up with the Urban Institute’s Jane Hannaway to publish Collective Bargaining in Education, an exploration of the impact of teachers’ unions and collective bargaining on school reform. In early March, Education Sector’s research and policy manager, Kevin Carey, moderated a bipartisan debate on the merits of national standards for education. Meanwhile, Toch’s latest report, Margins of Error, explores the testing industry in the wake of No Child Left Behind legislation.
Other notable strides have included the unveiling of a comprehensive and user-friendly website (www.EducationSector.org) and the gathering of a critical mass of non-resident fellows, staff, and board of directors who encompass a virtual who’s who of movers and shakers in the education world. “You’d be hardpressed to find a more ecumenical group of people,” Rotherham says.
Another priority during these early months has been to produce a body of high-quality work that speaks to both insiders and lay readers: “We see an opportunity to make the debate about public education more public,” Toch explains, emphasizing that Education Sector is a “think tank with journalistic instincts.”
The Education Sector team prides itself on being an “honest broker” of education reform, which earns it points from donors. “We appreciate their mission to find common ground on various ideological divides that have polarized so much education thinking,” says Gretchen Sims of the Joyce Foundation. “We like the fact that Education Sector is solution-oriented,” she adds, and “that they’re committed to using data to inform and drive policy debates.”
Donors also praise Rotherham and Toch’s willingness to think outside the traditional pool of education thinkers. After all, as Stefanie Sanford remarks, “education is too central to our democracy to be left to a small group of insiders.”
Even as Education Sector strives to be nonpartisan and even-handed in a world traditionally governed by ideology and partisanship, Rotherham quickly adds that “being independent does not mean we are going to be a group that does the ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ waffling. We’re not going to shy from planting a flag, but it’s going to be grounded in independent analysis that’s not governed by political or institutional constraints.”
In this vein, Manno cites Rotherham’s prior work on charter schooling as particularly emblematic: “It’s no secret he sees chartering as a positive force for school improvement. But he’s not entirely uncritical of chartering. In fact he’s fairly critical of some of the practices that have emerged when it comes to the way authorizers do business, for example.”
Rotherham is quick to underscore Education Sector’s market-driven attitude towards its own expansion: “To the extent we can add value to the debate, we’ll continue to expand,” he says. “Anyone can get his name and cause in the paper. That’s not what we’re about. We want to get ideas out there and improve public policy on education as best we can.”
It remains to be seen whether an education policy think tank can achieve the coveted status of nonpartisan expert for reporters and policymakers. Greg Forster’s recent Education Next story on the partisan tendencies of the Center for Education Policy paints a cautionary tale about claims to independence. Toch and Rotherham have their work cut out for them.
Still, Stefanie Sanford is optimistic: “They’re strong communicators, fresh young thinkers, and people who will deliver on their projects.” Margo Quiriconi adds, “It’s about the presence they have, the quality of their information, the networks they bring, the kinds of tools and products that they make accessible.”
In a world where philanthropic dollars constitute a tiny percentage of the overall expenditure on education, meaningful reform isn’t a function of more money. Education Sector’s six sponsoring foundations have each made modest investments in this fledgling think tank, hopeful that their small buckets of funding can, in the long run, make sizable progress in turning the vast tide of public education.