In the September/October 2004 issue, we published a critique of education philanthropy by Frederick Hess entitled, “Re-tooling K-12 Giving: New Funders with New Strategies Seek Success Where Others Have Failed.” Several of the funders profiled have been kind enough to continue the discussion. Their responses follow, along with a final comment by Hess.
The Walton Family Foundation Responds
Frederick Hess concludes his article with a provocative statement to education reform funders:
The “new” education philanthropy’s influence will ultimately turn on its ability to change politics and policyC9. The new philanthropists have a choice as to what message they wish to send. In the short term, they may find it politically advantageous to play down the degree to which their efforts imply a radical rethinking of the status quo or threaten comfortable routines. In the long term, however, rhetoric matters.
Because rhetoric matters, we’ll use this forum to restate and re-emphasize three fundamental principles that have long been fought for in the public discourse on American schooling. We are one of a growing number of foundations committed to realizing these principles throughout public education. We believe these principles are essential to extending good schooling to children whose chances for prosperity are severely hindered by a lack of educational opportunities.
Fortunately, all three principles are alive and well in charter schools and a small number of school choice initiatives around the nation. Unfortunately, their presence in such initiatives is only a small and politically fragile beachhead: all three principles are still quite radical compared to the prevailing conventions of American public schooling.
1. Let all parents choose schools
To quote the Black Alliance for Educational Options, “school choice is widespread in America unless you’re poor.” Families with sufficient financial resources attend the public or private schools of their choice, either by purchasing homes in a preferred public school system or by paying private school tuition. With few exceptions, low-income families can’t afford to do either. It’s time to extend the fundamental right to direct the course of a child’s education, whether in public or private schools, to all parents.
By extending choice to low-income parents, public policy will help to eradicate the false and offensive notion, implicit in our current system, that poor families do not have the capacity to exercise good judgment about their children’s education. In fact, most low-income families have never had the chance to exercise any judgment about where their children attend school. Charter schools and a handful of school choice initiatives have begun to extend school choice to more low-income families, but the work has just begun.
2. Let the choices of parents determine who provides public education
“Public” K-12 education ought to be defined simply as the public’s funding of an individual’s right to choose and attend a good school, public or private. This definition of “public education” already holds true at the college level and in several states’ publicly funded preschool programs. In Boston, for example, a college student, not the school or the government, determines whether he takes his publicly funded Pell Grant to the University of Massachusetts, Harvard, Boston College, or Brandeis. The purpose of the Pell Grant is simply to help that student attain a good college education. At the college level, a diverse array of public, private, and religious colleges evolves and improves in response to the choices of students.
By contrast, the current approach to K-12 public education reverses this dynamic: a government-run school system, in many cases the exclusive public education provider, assigns students on the basis of its own capacity and needs. In rare cases, students have the chance to choose among the system’s schools or opt out of that system to an independent charter school. In far rarer cases, students have the chance to take publicly funded scholarships to private schools. But in most cases the system assigns, and students go where they’re told. Let’s treat public education at the K-12 level the same way we do at the college level: let parents and students determine who provides it.
3. Fund students, not schools or school systems
The intended beneficiaries of public education’s tax dollars are students, not schools or school systems. Yet our current approach to funding K-12 public education addresses the costs of maintaining school systems rather than the cost of a student’s education. Consider the common complaint of charter school opponents: “We’ve got no problem with charter schools; we just don’t think it’s fair that they take money from the system.” Such rhetoric represents the disturbing protectionist notion that the “system” has an inherent right to a set level of funding, regardless of the loss of students and the loss of responsibility for educating those students to schools outside the system.
Instead of focusing on what it costs to support public school systems, let’s determine the cost of educating a student to a good standard, allow variability in that cost for students with special needs and special circumstances, and provide funding to students in the form of a portable scholarship that can be used at any traditional public school, public charter school, or private school.
Helping these principles gain ground across all of American K-12 education will require far greater philanthropic investment than is now committed. And, given the constraints on foundations when it comes to advancing public policy in the political realm, the fight for these principles will also require generous commitment from donors who are willing to invest, without benefit of tax-exemption, in lobbying and political action efforts.
As Rick Hess suggests, winning good public policy will require effective models and strong political push. We must push much harder and much more strategically in the coming years to dramatically expand and improve educational options for American families that don’t yet have them.
Ed Kirby manages the Walton Family Foundation’s work in the school choice movement.
The Broad Foundation Responds
Frederick Hess provides an intriguing analysis of the changing scope and impact of philanthropic investment in K-12 education. As one of the “new” foundations mentioned in the article, we wanted to respond in greater depth about the work and philosophy of the Broad Foundation, while at the same time recognizing the important contributions of established education funders.
Our founder, Eli Broad, is often quoted as saying, “Education is the key civil rights and economic issue of our time. There is nothing more important to the long-term growth of our economy and to the success of our democracy and society than making sure that the United States has a highly skilled, well-educated workforce.”
If we fail to give every child the education and skills needed in our new knowledge-based economy, we will starve our country of the workforce it needs. If we do not close the achievement gap between students in the cities and in the suburbs, in wealthy homes and poorer homes, and in minority communities and in the majority, we risk the future health of our economy and our society.
As readers of this magazine know, philanthropy in America has a longstanding role in strengthening our public schools by investing in ideas, people, and policies that seek to improve outcomes for children. At the Broad Foundation, founded six years ago, we identified four areas of education philanthropy we thought were likely to yield the greatest impact and address the greatest needs. Our mission is to dramatically improve urban public education through better governance, management, labor relations, and competition.
We focus on urban public education because the needs in these areas are especially great. One of every four children in America is educated in a central city school district. Yet the schools in these districts are among the most underperforming in our entire education system.
We focus on the school district as the unit of change because we believe that a strong and competent governing body, combined with a talented CEO and senior management team, can make a profound difference in turning our public school systems from lackluster bureaucracies into high-performing enterprises.
We focus on the system’s leadership: its board of directors (school board members), senior management (superintendents and central office staff), labor force (teachers’ union leaders), front-line managers (principals), and city, state, and federal policy leaders (such as mayors and governors). We deliberately invest in raising the level of excellence of school system leaders because we believe these individuals have the power to lead the bold, large-scale change required to ensure that every American child receives a world-class education that prepares him or her for post-secondary education, the workforce, and productive citizenship.
While the majority of our investments focus on improving and reinventing the current system, we also believe in healthy competition for K-12 education. Competition among our nation’s great private and public universities raises the bar of excellence for post-secondary education. Similarly, we believe that investing in high-quality charter schools and other forms of parental choice will accelerate excellence and innovation inside America’s public schools.
Hess’s article generated considerable discussion and debate here at the Broad Foundation. These discussions led us to consider how education philanthropists (both “new” and established) can accelerate our impact. If education philanthropy is going to continue to make a difference in the lives of minority and poor children in urban communities, we believe that foundations (and individual philanthropists) need to pay better attention to the following issues: (1) selecting the unit of change; (2) helping effective practices travel; (3) sticking to a strategic focus; and (4) focusing on results.
1. The Unit of Change
Historically, philanthropy has made significant contributions with many individual schools. We can point to thousands of schools in urban communities with low-income and high-minority populations that are achieving high levels of academic performance because of private donations: laboratory schools, schools with special programs, charter schools, and so on. Investments that focus on the school as the unit of change have provided a series of lessons about effective practices that other schools can learn from. However, philanthropy hasn’t been as successful in scaling these schools of excellence system-wide. Systems excellence is the next frontier of education philanthropy.
2. Helping Effective Practices Travel
Unfortunately, models of excellence rarely travel well in K-12 education. Other industries in America have learned to beg, borrow, and replicate good ideas. In education, however, we hear “that would never work here,” and a litany of reasons why practices proven effective elsewhere cannot be locally adopted. Philanthropy has had mixed results in trying to counter education’s not-invented-here culture. Interestingly, the national network of reform-minded schools created and supported by the Annenberg Challenge provides one model for philanthropists to consider.
Philanthropy has also had mixed results with (and limited interest in) bringing talent and ideas successful in other sectors to the education sector. In education, we need more cross fertilization of good ideas among the business, nonprofit, and government sectors. The Baldrige management method has crossed the sector barrier and has demonstrated success in many schools and districts. Surely there are many such ideas worth investing in.
3. Sticking to a Strategic Focus
Philanthropy is often good at getting great ideas off the ground, yet too many education philanthropists do not stay the course. Teach For America is one of the few national funder-supported organizations that has been able to garner philanthropic capital for continuous growth. This problem is not unique to education. Nonprofit organizations in other sectors often find that early-stage donors are not willing to fund at the same or higher levels once the “sexy” start-up period is over.
Similarly, foundations that ping-pong from one five- or ten-year strategic focus to the next do a disservice to effective programs and organizations seeking to have broader and deeper impact in the communities they serve. Foundations, of course, should have the option to shift gears and disinvest as they see fit, but it is equally important for philanthropists to choose a strategic focus and stick with it. Today, we see many examples of foundations remaining engaged in a focused strategy for reform: for example, the Carnegie Corporation’s Teachers for a New Era, the Gates Foundation’s work with high schools, and the Walton Foundation’s steadfast dedication to school choice. K-12 public education did not decline over five to ten years. We should not expect our ideas to spur a turnaround that quickly either.
4. The Fourth “R”—Results
In talking to foundations that have switched strategic focus, many say that the results they sought were not evident in their investments. Yet, when asked what up-front goals they set and what indicators of success they measured, many are unable to give specifics. When we began our work in 1999, we took nine months to visit with educators, civic and political leaders, and foundations across the country. We asked them how they knew their investments were making a measurable difference in students’ academic performance. More often than not, foundation directors told us they weren’t sure and didn’t have the “return on investment” systems in place to know. In our view, this is a significant problem in education philanthropy, and one we must work together to solve.
At the Broad Foundation, we too struggle with choosing the right indicators of success. Our mission states that, through our investments, we ex pect dramatic gains in student achievement. We therefore tie about 75 percent of our evaluation to student performance indicators such as standards-based academic assessments, graduation rates, and the like. Typically, the other 25 percent of our evaluation focuses on organizational effectiveness and program implementation.
As Hess suggests, the challenge of providing an excellent K-12 education to all requires more widespread public and political attention. This growing interest presents an opportunity for the philanthropic community to work together. By focusing our efforts on systems-level improvement, helping effective practices travel, sticking to a strategic focus, and committing to high-impact results, philanthropists of all stripes can honor our nation’s promise to give all of America’s children the education they deserve.
Dan Katzir is managing director of the Broad Foundation in Los Angeles.
The Milken Family Foundation Responds
We agree with Frederick Hess that education philanthropists must “understand the difference between focused, sustained efforts that fundamentally challenge or overhaul a lethargic, outdated system and those that merely represent one more attempt to help the status quo limp along.” It is clear that simply pumping money into the current system or tinkering at its margins will not produce adequate results. What we need is focused, systemic reform that is comprehensive, effective, and lasting.
Yet anyone who has worked in school reform knows all too well that changing the current system is a challenge. Literally hundreds of reforms have been attempted, in every shape and size, ranging from national initiatives to state, district, school, and classroom reforms—but none has achieved a significant, sustained impact on the quality of American education.
In studying hundreds of such reforms over the past two decades, the Milken Family Foundation has learned a great deal about why even the most promising reforms have not succeeded. Most have been isolated efforts, not school- centered; they have been poorly de signed and/or poorly im plemented; and they have failed to be comprehensive, often solving one problem only to create another. Too often these reforms have been imposed on teachers without explaining the merits to them, or getting their input and buy-in. Frequently, these reforms have not taken account of the education system’s political realities, including the goals of special interest groups, the priorities of changing leadership, and the lack of a scientific research base. And all too often, these reforms have been implemented without an obvious source of continued funding.
Our extensive research of school reform has led us to a clear conclusion: no reform will result in sustained gains in student achievement without a high-quality teacher in the classroom. Research confirms that teacher quality is the single most important school-related factor driving student performance. That is why we developed the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP), a scientifically based, comprehensive school reform strategy to attract, develop, retain, and motivate the best talent to the American teaching profession.
We realized that in order for the teaching profession to attract and retain high-quality human capital in competition with other professions, certain structural changes must be made. Teachers must be offered powerful opportunities for career advancement, professional growth, and competitive compensation. Until the teaching profession offers these, it will be hard pressed to attract top talent, let alone retain talented teachers who are already in the profession and motivate them to excel.
TAP provides these opportunities through its four essential elements: multiple career paths, ongoing applied professional growth, instructionally focused accountability, and performance-based compensation. These elements provide teachers with the ability to move along a career path and, when qualified, take on more responsibilities for increased compensation without leaving the classroom where they are needed most. Under TAP, teachers no longer work in isolation but collaborate on a weekly basis, using student data and classroom evaluations to guide their professional development. This enables teachers to improve the skills, behaviors, and knowledge that affect their students’ learning. TAP teachers are also evaluated within a fair, transparent system focused on clearly defined instructional standards. Finally, a portion of TAP teachers’ compensation is based on the skills, behaviors, and knowledge of the teachers as exhibited through their classroom evaluations, their responsibilities, and the achievement growth of their students. This system ensures greater teacher accountability, a focus on student achievement, and rewards for performance.
TAP honors the essence of our public education system while changing its structure to appeal to a broader group of high-quality professionals. It is not a program that has “compromised” reform due to teacher demands, but rather one that has sensibly adapted to their needs, positively affecting teachers and students in dozens of schools in 10 states in just four years. And though we continue to make refinements in the program as it expands, we have steadfastly maintained the core principles of TAP, which we have found essential to effective school reform.
Our early results have been very encouraging. In particular, we have found resistance to change—a major obstacle to any reform—lower than anticipated, partly because we are implementing TAP in a climate in which government officials, parents, and students are demanding higher levels of performance from our schools. This shifting paradigm provides fertile ground within forward-thinking schools and districts to adopt and implement TAP.
Perhaps most surprisingly, we have found that teachers and administrators in TAP schools are welcoming the opportunity to change their ways of doing business—even in the area of performance pay. We have learned that for a performance pay plan to succeed, certain conditions must exist: all teachers must understand both the standards by which they are being judged as well as the scoring rubrics used to measure those standards; every teacher must be evaluated multiple times by trained and certified evaluators (both master teachers and the principal); and most importantly, high-quality, ongoing professional development opportunities must be made available so that teachers are prepared to meet these rigorous professional standards. Furthermore, schools must be confident money is available, so that the efforts of their most effective teachers can be rewarded. When these elements are in place, we have found that teachers accept the idea of rewarding their performance based on their behavior in the classroom and the learning gains they help their students achieve.
In more than two decades of work, we have learned that school improvement requires focused programs, adequate resources, and a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances, while remaining committed to the basic principles on which our programs are built. We have also recognized that comprehensive school reform, because of its complexity and cost, requires strong partnerships among those who share a common vision. TAP has already gained the support of the U.S. Department of Education, as well as numerous private foundations that have established partnerships with us to help TAP grow in the states on which they focus. By working together with our partners—and others who will join us in the future—TAP is an outstanding example of how philanthropy can be translated into effective school reform, helping to ensure a high-quality education for all our nation’s children.
Lowell Milken is chairman and co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation in Santa Monica, California. Lewis C. Solmon is executive vice president, education, at the Milken Family Foundation and director of its Teacher Advancement Program. He is the former dean of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education.
Vartan Gregorian Responds on Behalf of the Annenberg Challenge
Much of the criticism leveled by Frederick Hess against the Annenberg Challenge is based on a serious misrepresentation of the intent and a limited understanding of the purpose of the Challenge. This is regrettable, and even more so because the author failed to follow the customary practice in journalism of interviewing the principal actors involved. Indeed, while Mr. Hess quoted me in the text, I was surprised that he chose not to interview me—or Gail Levin, executive director of the Annenberg Foundation—but instead selected from the thousands of words I have written and spoken about the Annenberg Challenge and focused on those that he felt would support his argument. If he had asked me to comment on the thesis he builds throughout the article—that the Annenberg Challenge did not accomplish its mission and goals—I would have said that he is wrong: If there are any shortcomings, and certainly there are some (as well as outstanding successes), the responsibility, as well as any credit, belongs to those Annenberg invested in with trust, high hopes, and a committed belief that those who received Annenberg grants would continue to contribute to the field and fulfill the late ambassador’s expectation that they would meet the challenge of reforming American education in a meaningful way.
Let me be specific about some of those who received Annenberg fund ing. They range from the Manhattan Institute, with its focus on free-market solutions to urban problems; to organizations of business executives like Philadelphia First; to grassroots activist organizations such as ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) with its membership of low- and moderate-income families; to New American Schools, led by David Kearns, which was created in 1991 when President George Bush urged the nation’s business leaders to bring their entrepreneurial skills to bear upon school reform; to the Coalition for Essential Schools, founded by Ted Sizer; to the Central Park East Secondary School founded by Deborah Meier; to the Modern Red School House, a program designed in part by Bill Bennett.
Just look at that list, which includes only a few of the many Annenberg grant recipients. Clearly, the Challenge reached out to groups with established reputations and respected programs working across an extraordinarily diverse spectrum, and in that connection, it is critical to note that Annenberg did not treat these organizations as contractors for any particular philosophy of reform, but instead invested in the best educational thinkers and policymakers to support their programs. In other words, the Annenberg Challenge did not launch school reform: it empowered and reinvigorated skilled and visionary school reformers who were already active in the field—and did so without ideological or political bias of any kind—reformers who were working on strategies to improve K-12 education that had been underway since the early 1980s with the support of local and state governments, national agencies, private philanthropies, public institutions, and even federal interventions. The Annenberg effort was a “challenge” in the truest sense of the word—not merely financial, but a moral and political challenge as well—because its intent was to galvanize the nation, to energize and empower educators, administrators, parents, school district personnel, teachers, policymakers, and concerned citizens from every walk of life and from all corners of the nation—from West Baltimore to Chattanooga, from New York City to Los Angeles, from the Ozarks to the Rockies to the hills of Appalachia—to work in and with their local schools in order to make them better places for children to learn. In short, the goal of the Challenge was to focus the nation’s attention on the urgency of reforming our K-12 educational system.
In that respect—raising expectations for educational excellence, promoting the idea that communities do not have to tolerate failing schools, that dogma could be replaced with solutions and that America’s children deserve the highest quality public education to prepare them for full participation in both a complex, knowledge-based economy and an evolving democracy—the Annenberg Challenge absolutely succeeded. Indeed, I would go as far as to say there would not be a No Child Left Behind Act if the Challenge had not paved the way for a national bipartisan alliance to focus on creating a massive, nationwide school-reform effort that demands excellence from everyone and offers the opportunity for achieving it to all.
Hess writes that “a decade later, this ambitious effort had produced dismal results.” Of course the Challenge did not work miracles and had disappointments—neither I nor any other advisor of the late Ambassador Walter Annenberg promised a panacea for schools and districts that had languished for decades; no one was na95ve enough to believe that $100 million a year from the Challenge was going to bring about a sea change in a $340 billion-a-year enterprise such as American K-12 public education. Indeed, those of us involved in the Annenberg effort warned, from the outset, of major challenges facing the initiative, and I am on record as stating that if only 50 percent of the sites succeeded, it would be revolutionary. All that said, there is unmistakable evidence that the Annenberg Challenge breathed new life into the educational system. The Challenge, a bipartisan undertaking created by a conservative Republican who had no problem working with reform-minded Democrats when it came to ensuring the educational future of all our children, helped to convince a generation of corporate and foundation leaders, including Bill Gates and later, Eli Broad, not to sit out this effort or leave it to government alone. In truth, the Challenge’s most important contribution was the signal it sent that public schools were every bit as worthy of private and corporate philanthropy as higher education or the country’s greatest symphonies, ballets, and museums. It is one reason why school improvement remains high on the list of national priorities 20 years after A Nation at Risk, and as I have stated before, that alone is an indelible mark of success.
Certainly, without the inspiration of the Annenberg Challenge I would not have recommended to the board, as president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, that the foundation invest an average of $20 million a year focused on reform of K-12 education—including teacher education, because it is clear that teacher quality is a critical component of student success—if I had not seen what was accomplished by the Challenge. And the Corporation is hardly alone in this commitment, as Hess’s article points out. Ten years after the Challenge, there are Annenberg, Gates, and Broad investments all over the country.
Today, the Corporation, along with the Gates and Broad foundations, are using information and lessons learned from the Challenge to identify their own priorities, set their goals, and implement their grant programs in education. That is because the Annenberg Challenge sought to create among its 18 sites a “research and development laboratory,” not only for America’s educators but also for the philanthropists and other investors who would follow in its footsteps. The Challenge invested heavily in research and evaluation to ensure the availability of extensive data and analysis and published its data without bias or prejudice. In fact, data provided by Annenberg is now used to criticize the effort, often without noting that the Challenge was among the first to embrace the concept of complete transparency in educational philanthropy: built in from the beginning was the commitment to report on results, both good and bad. This was a hallmark of the Annenberg Challenge: It was one of the rare foundations that made public its entire system of operations, grantmaking, and lessons learned.
Hess also includes comments from Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools—without informing readers that his request for funding from the Challenge was not approved—to bolster his contention that the Challenge was ineffective in influencing “broader policy changes,” but there is much evidence to the contrary. The Annenberg Challenge resulted in a remarkable success story in New York City, for instance, where it championed both small schools and the restoration of arts to the basic curriculum. New York Networks for School Reform (NYNSR) created 60 new small public schools during the Annenberg Challenge, and New Visions for Public Schools, NYNSR’s successor organization, has established 76 more since 2002. Fifty thousand students are now attending smaller schools, thanks in large part to a significant Annenberg investment made in 1994. “What Annenberg has done is to enable us to create an initial wedge of innovation in New York City that we’ve been able subsequently to build upon. The true fruit of that grant is only now coming to the fore,” wrote Robert Hughes, president of New Visions for Public Schools, in a letter to the Annenberg Foundation. Similarly, Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote that “The [Annenberg] Foundation’s early support of small schools has laid the groundwork for a major public-private initiative to improve secondary education in New York City.” The Manhattan Institute, Chester Finn, and Bill Gates all will confirm that stunning graduation and college-admission rates have been posted by small schools among the 140 public schools that participated in the New York Networks Challenge.
The Annenberg Challenge also convinced New York school authorities to restore funding for classes in music, art, drama, and dance that had been stripped from the curriculum during the city’s fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s. The Center for Arts Education, begun in New York in 1996 with Annenberg Challenge funding, has secured more than $28 million in public and private funding and sparked an arts revival in schools in all five boroughs, becoming a national model for how to integrate the arts in wider school reform efforts. The program is now reaching more than 60,000 students and nearly 100 schools in New York City. This is an incredible record.
In Boston, a group of partners in the Annenberg work prepared a citywide plan for whole-school change. Boston School Superintendent Tom Payzant approved the plan and recommended its adoption to the School Committee. That plan has served as the blueprint for reform in Boston Public Schools for the past six years, and the Challenge counts Boston (which has posted a substantial gain in the passing rate of students taking the rigorous state-mandated tests for high school graduation) as another site in its group of real success stories. In a letter to the Annenberg Foundation, Dr. Payzant wrote, “The past decade has seen significant changes in the Boston Public Schools, much of which have been the result of a systemic commitment to instructional improvement through professional development. Virtually all of this work and the benefits that have resulted are a direct outcome ofC9support from the Annenberg Foundation.”
The Rural School and Community Trust, which grew out of an Annenberg Challenge grant, remains a strong national advocate for the millions of children and teenagers who attend schools in small-town and rural America. The Trust was named one of America’s top 100 charities by Worth magazine in 2002 and has drawn support from a dozen major foundations.
A host of other Annenberg Challenge entities, along with a number of successor organizations, continue to work toward improving teaching and learning throughout the country—among them, the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, the Council for Educational Change (formerly the South Florida Challenge), and the Houston A+ Challenge (formerly the Houston Annenberg Challenge). This is an extraordinary legacy for a grant from a single foundation.
I hope Hess agrees that improving schools was slow and painstaking work before the Annenberg Challenge, and the work of reform continues to be challenging years later. But the Challenge united parents and teachers, from Minneapolis to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, with corporate leaders nationwide, around a single belief: that we must change public attitudes about what is possible in public schools.
Hess’s comments do a disservice to the many long-time reformers who put their best efforts into bringing about real change in America’s K-12 public education, as well as to the late Ambassador Walter Annenberg who supported them. They may also have the unfortunate effect of dissuading new philanthropic efforts aimed at improving American education, which would be a tragedy. After all, there is room for all of us at the “reform inn”—Bill Gates’ work with small schools and school districts, Eli Broad’s work on the management level, and the Annenberg Foundation’s work in the classroom, and the research and analytical work of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, which focuses on improving the outcomes of schooling in America. Only when our major philanthropists value the work of one another, and then add to that value, can we begin to develop “smart” districts, create quality schools, prepare excellent teachers, and produce high-performing students.
Walter Annenberg’s Challenge program ultimately benefited 1.5 million children and 80,000 teachers in 2,400 schools in 300 school districts in 35 states. He demonstrated how one individual, and one foundation, can make improving public schools an abiding national priority, and he pointed out ways for others to build on this progress in the future.
Vartan Gregorian is president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Frederick M. Hess Responds
I’d like to thank Ed Kirby, Dan Katzir, Lowell Milken, Lew Solmon, and Vartan Gregorian for their thoughtful comments. I am particularly grateful to Dr. Gregorian for raising issues I had little opportunity to address in the initial article, and I empathize with his concerns. Those of us who research and debate education, much like foundation staff, are subject to critiques that sometimes seem incomplete, uncharitable, or unfair. Although we protest we’re doing our best to work through difficult questions and explore promising possibilities, others sometimes accuse us of promoting personal agendas or misrepresenting the factual record.
The truth is that almost anything done in the realm of social reform can be depicted in sharply contrasting ways. Naturally, all of us stand behind the choices we make. Philanthropists, reformers, researchers—we all believe we have thought through the alternatives and potential consequences, and we hope our efforts will be lauded.
Nonetheless, good intentions shouldn’t insulate education scholars, reformers, or philanthropists from criticism. Even when we regard critiques as wrong-headed or inadequate, we should recognize that such scrutiny keeps us honest, helps others assess our arguments, and helps protect us from hubris. In a democracy, the hurly-burly of rough public discourse is essential.
One may honor the noble intentions of philanthropists, including Ambassador Annenberg, Dr. Gregorian, and the entire Annenberg team, and recognize that they have supported a bipartisan collection of groups and done positive things, and still discuss the limitations of their efforts.
This does not mean that a critic’s view is the “right” one; only that such a perspective is crucial to the democratic process and the spirit of public accountability. Unfortunately, respect for the nobility of philanthropy and fear of offending philanthropists make such hard looks rare.
Just how rare such critiques are has rarely been documented. In light of the controversy stirred by my article, I thought it appropriate to explore the media coverage bestowed upon the foundations discussed in the article. They appear to routinely receive kid-glove treatment from the press and the education community; even obliquely critical accounts are hard to find.
My research assistants and I examined how the educational activities of the Annenberg Challenge, Broad Foundation, Gates Foundation, Milken Family Foundation, and Walton Family Foundation were depicted in major national media from 1995 to 2005. Using Lexis-Nexis, we searched the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, and Associated Press. We examined all 46 articles available on the Annenberg Challenge and the first 25 on the educational activities of the other four foundations (in the case of the Walton Family Foundation, where just nine articles were located, we also examined articles on the Children’s Scholarship Fund that mentioned the Walton Foundation). We coded each article as primarily positive, primarily negative, balanced, or primarily factual.
Of 146 national media articles, editorials, and op-eds examined, just five were largely critical of the activities discussed. The remaining pieces were positive, neutral, or factual, with 65 positive, 67 simply relaying facts, and the remainder balanced. In other words, there were 13 positive articles for every critical account. The stories and editorials were often accompanied by glowing headlines like “Grant Helps Principals Get Plugged In,” “The Gift Sends a Powerful Message,” or “Two Teachers Go to Head of the Class with Awards for Excellence.”
Now, I recognize that those who steer leading foundations often make concerted efforts at disciplined self-appraisal. They evaluate the effectiveness of grants, engage in self-criticism, and convene working groups to assess their giving. This is sensible and desirable. It is not, however, what I mean when I talk about the benefits of public criticism. These conversations take place privately and away from public scrutiny, allowing foundation officials to reassure themselves that they’ve heard the array of arguments, sorted through options, and made the best decision they can. I’m happy to concede that they probably have.
These sessions, however, have a limited impact. It is hard-hitting public exchanges that can most effectively change the way options are weighed, alter the attractiveness of certain courses of action, or even reframe the context in which decisions are made. The groups convened by foundations tend to include, naturally enough, their friends, allies, and grantees. Such groups are less likely than outsiders to offer a radically different take on strategy or thinking—especially given the sensible disinclination of grantees to offend their benefactor or reformers to offend the engine funding their cause.
Total K-12 philanthropy contributed by the 50 largest givers amounts to only a fraction of 1 percent of what the nation spends on public K-12 schooling each year. The fact that taxpayers provide the overwhelming majority of school funding means that foundation efforts to change systems must influence or redirect the public’s investment. If the new, muscular philanthropies intend to change the way public dollars are spent, which I have argued is an appropriate and even necessary mission, then these philanthropies can no longer imagine that their giving is a purely private enterprise. In seeking to affect public policy, they wade into the public debate. In democratic society, it is altogether proper that private interests who hope to reshape public institutions—even for the most beneficent of purposes—be subjected to the same grilling as any other advocate. As the scope of ambition widens, so does one’s obligation to court public scrutiny.
Because negative publicity can rile boards of trustees or disrupt relationships, one readily understands why foundation leaders are sensitive to suggestions that their efforts may be ineffective or wasteful. Foundation staff feel subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) pressure from their boards and benefactors to support projects that will demonstrate results and earn acclaim in a window that matches their grant-giving cycle.
If, as we have seen, the disinterested media go easy on foundations, leaders in the education and policy worlds are even more hesitant to turn their piercing gaze on foundations for at least three reasons. First, philanthropists are, almost by definition, worthy of praise. After all, they are giving money away in an effort to help others. Second, academics, activists, and the policy community live in a world where philanthropists are royalty—where philanthropic support is often the ticket to tackling big projects, making a difference, and maintaining one’s livelihood. Even individuals and organizations who also receive financial support from government grants, tuition, endowment, or interest groups are eager to be on good terms with the philanthropic community.
Third, even if scholars themselves are insulated enough to risk being impolitic, they routinely collaborate with school districts, policymakers, and colleagues who desire philanthropic support. Incurring the wrath of a major giver may make it harder for otherwise blunt scholars to collaborate with skittish colleagues, public officials, or educators. The irony is that leading experts on high schools, school choice, or urban school reform, for instance, tend to avoid commenting starkly on funders like Gates, Walton, or Annenberg.
All of this results in an amiable conspiracy of silence. The usual scolds remain in the good graces of the foundations by training their fire on other, less sympathetic targets. Even if foundation personnel choose to turn a blind eye towards this phenomenon, they should be aware of how the chill of a heavy-handed response to criticism can make an already skittish education community even more reticent.
I suggest, then, that foundations need to make it conscious policy to welcome—and even encourage—criticism. I’m not talking about hired evaluations or strategic assessments conducted by friendly critics but about rigorous debate over objectives, strategies, and performance. Given that even tart-tongued observers will be unusually reluctant to share their thoughts, foundations need to make it extravagantly clear that they will not blacklist critics—or look kindly upon those who do. Of course, such debate inevitably entails critiques that may seem incomplete, wrong-headed, or unfair—especially compared to the warm bubble in which foundations have long resided.
Only this kind of scrutiny, however, will flag blind spots, wishful thinking, or ineffective spending. The point is not that skeptics are always right, but that most efforts to change policy or organizations enjoy mixed results. The value of skeptics is that they raise unpleasant issues. Whether or not the foundation personnel agree with such assessments, engaging with them is essential to forestalling the plagues of hubris and groupthink that are so much a part of human nature.
The harsh cultural change I’m suggesting will not be easy. It will require foundation boards to become more accepting of negative publicity and foundation staff to acknowledge themselves as fair game for public criticism, rather than unsoiled stewards of noblesse oblige. This may seem like a lousy deal. But I think one of the lessons of the education philanthropy I discussed is that universal approbation is incompatible with fundamentally changing troubled social institutions.
What the new breed of muscular philanthropists have spent recent years learning is that mixed reviews just may be the painful price of relevance.
Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, executive editor of Education Next, and a research associate of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance.