Annenberg Challenge

  • Education
  • 1993

In the early 1990s it was easier for well-meaning observers to assume that the failures in American public education might be undone with just a little more effort and spending within established educational channels. Publisher Walter Annenberg had an interest in national service, but little appetite for philosophical or political boat-rocking. When he offered a large sum of money and a challenge to the nation from the White House with President Clinton at his side in 1993, he assumed his $500 million plus a bit of goodwill and social engineering could nudge American public schooling into new effectiveness. At the time, and to this day, his grant was the largest ever to public education. After being matched by partner contributions the Annenberg Challenge came to $1.1 billion of special spending for the recipient public schools.

The challenge operated through 18 entities touching a total of 35 states. At each site, leadership groups distributed grants ranging from $1 million to $53 million, with additional public support often supplementing these funds. The Chicago program (which was run by Barack Obama, following a plan written by Bill Ayers) put $49 million into pet projects. The Boston program spent $10 million on a Boston Plan for Excellence that promised vaguely to improve educational practices in classrooms.

A lack of critical perspective and an unwillingness to take on the educational establishment’s sacred cows, however, ultimately prevented the huge effort from yielding any measurable progress. The assessment study on the Chicago program, for instance, reported that “findings from large-scale survey analyses, longitudinal field research, and student achievement test score analyses reveal that…there is little evidence of an overall Annenberg school improvement effect. Any improvements were much like those occurring in demographically similar non-Annenberg schools.” Indeed, classroom behavior and other measures were actually worse after the Annenberg experiments.

This costly disappointment motivated subsequent education-reform donors to be more demanding of hard measures on student progress, instead of simple tallies of inputs like additional spending and teachers. And it encouraged donors to focus on system change, rather than just pouring funds into more of the same in conventional public schools.