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Chapter 8: Caveats and Questions & Conclusion: Is This Time Really Different?

Grantmaking is seldom an exact science, and funders who’ve supported blended learning in the past mention several lessons they’ve learned in the process.

Don’t force blended learning on anyone. If a school leader is reticent, the experiment has a high chance of failing. Well-designed pilots are at least partially opt-in: the teachers choose to participate, and parents can move children to different classes in the case of objections. Likewise, don’t force your choice of software on a school. You can advise, but schools need to own the process.

Don’t expect site visits alone to sell blended learning. Site visits raise awareness and answer many questions, but seeing 40 kids in a classroom staring into their MacBooks will not immediately cause an educator to go out and launch a blended-learning school. Site visits are best used as part of a multi-pronged strategy for getting people excited about blended learning.

When in doubt, try a contest. A well-thought-through request for proposals helps you clarify the aims of your giving. A contest creates a whole cohort of organizations going through creative rethinking. They can support and learn from each other and build regional momentum, even outside the institutions that actually win. Plus, the competitive dynamic of a contest is a motivation in its own right. “Race to the Top has been a really brilliant construct,” says Deb Quazzo of GSV Advisors. “It’s created progressive behaviors in districts because they really want the money.” Race to the Top shows that “peer pressure really works and incentives really work.”

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Before launching a new school, see if an existing model could be adapted with tweaking. While funding a completely new institution can be a worthy endeavor, there’s no point creating a new Carpe Diem without benefiting from the lessons Carpe Diem has learned. This is one good reason not to skimp on the planning phase of any project.

Be brave. Many philanthropists say they want to fund “proven strategies” but in a brand new field, there aren’t many proven strategies. You could, instead, fund “proven people” who’ve launched other education programs and have shown how they learn from the experience. “Starting schools is inherently complicated,” says Scott Benson of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “My advice is to be diligent that the person you’re backing has the capacity to manage through the complexity that’s inherent to this process. Starting a charter that’s innovating on an instructional model requires a degree of leadership that extends beyond what it requires to start up a traditional charter school.”

Be entrepreneurial. Even donors who were previously intrepid businessmen often turn timid, risk-averse, and bureaucratic in their philanthropy. “I would ask the foundations of this world, the donors, to adopt a 21st-century, entrepreneurial mindset,” says donor Dan Peters. Many slow-moving foundations tell potential grantees, “Send us a great big proposal. We meet four times per year. And we need three copies.” Instead, funders ought to share “a sense of urgency” with potential problem solvers, and be “flexible in giving.” When Peters funded the planning of Carpe Diem’s expansion to Indianapolis, “I didn’t ask them for an end-of-year report. Their end-of-year report is that they opened Indianapolis. They either did it or they didn’t. Eight months later the guy has a fully functioning classroom open in Indiana. If that’s not success, I don’t know what is.”

Focus your support on places where new thinking can be walled off from old thinking. In any bureaucracy, innovators can easily be distracted or obstructed. The authors of The Innovator’s Dilemma suggest these practical measures to make sure fresh thinking doesn’t get suffocated: Keep the innovation teams small and protected from the rest of the organization. Support experimentation. Don’t wait for perfect ideas, just find starting points that can be improved rapidly. Make sure you find grantees who understand the importance of trying new things.

Don’t accept trivial improvements. At least initially, seek and expect big gains like one and a half years of measured math or literacy growth in a single school year. New-form schools should greatly improve upon low-quality alternatives, or they won’t be worth the effort required to push them through.

Think a lot about think about measurement and evaluation. Demonstrated improvements in academic achievement are the goal. But also factor in economics. Scott Benson of the Gates Foundation urges funders to consider “learning growth per dollar invested. And that dollar invested needs to include amortized costs and upfront costs as well as the ongoing expenses of implementation.”

Stay informed. Keep in close contact with other funders to avoid duplicating each other’s efforts. That said, don’t be too worried if there are others operating in the same field. “The more funding opportunities that we have nationally and in individual states and individual districts or communities, the better,” says John Fisher, head of the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund, which has invested in the Silicon Schools Fund and also replication vehicles like the Charter School Growth Fund. “Education reform needs a thousand flowers to bloom, not three.”

Details matter. Expect your grant recipients to be able to explain and justify nitty-gritty operations, and how they will serve the new model. “Ask any school leaders you’re considering funding to explain details of the school day in plain language,” urges Brian Greenberg of the Silicon Schools Fund. “It’s literally about bell schedules and teacher assignments, it’s that level of fine-tuning. And if they can’t explain it to you in a way that makes sense, then they don’t understand it well enough to be betting on them right now.”

Picture your exit strategy. If a blended-learning school or program can’t support itself on regular operating funds after five years, it’s probably not replicable.

Don’t just buy machines. While plenty of schools would love (and perhaps need) better computers or iPads, “so often, you give a bunch of computers to a school and nothing happens,” says former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. “Every school that comes after us for money is doing ‘blended learning,’ but they’re really not. They have no idea what it is.” So before making grants, “we actually go in and get a feel, a good intelligent feel, to see if they’re actually going to do what they say.” Investigate. Just because a school calls its program “blended learning” doesn’t mean it will be transformative.

Don’t underinvest in IT support. If the software doesn’t work on the first day of a blended-learning pilot, there may not be a second day.

Talent matters. The skill level of companies you work with to provide technology-related products or services matters enormously—and differs widely. “We’ve learned that technical talent is scarce and the difference between top technical talent and mediocre is maybe 20 times,” explains Jennifer Carolan of the NewSchools Venture Fund, who was paraphrasing a quote from Steve Jobs. “It can mean all the difference.” And quite apart from the technology issues, it’s important to work with partners who know what they’re doing. Public relations, for instance, can be done poorly or done well, depending on the knowledge and relationships of the firm engaged. Policy wisdom is also important. Make sure your grantees understand the differences between operating in places like California versus Massachusetts—where rules differ widely, and per pupil annual financial allotments can vary by as much as two to one.

Expect a mess. Creating something new is often complicated. It’s okay to experience failures if you learn from those experiences. Knowing what not to do—and making sure other people know it—is valuable in its own right. “I don’t think we’re getting the rapid innovation we could have if there was a little bit more support to try something that might not be perfect the first time. If you are not immediately successful, or don’t do something off the charts, it may still have been worth the investment,” suggests Christopher Rush of New Classrooms.

Have fun. “Most effective philanthropy starts with philanthropists doing something that they love,” says Fisher. If you love technology, funding accelerators and incubators might make you happier than funding schools. On the other hand, if you love visiting with kids and teachers in a cafeteria, a school is the way to go. And be sure to leave room for serendipity. Khan Academy didn’t necessarily fit in the planned Gates Foundation education giving strategy, but Bill Gates used it for his own kids. You never know when you’ll stumble across something you love and will want to fund it—even if it doesn’t strictly stick with the plan.

Bold philanthropy funds “proven people,” rather than just funding proven strategies.

On three broader questions that funders must consider—getting involved in politics, paying for content, and funding experiments within traditional school districts—philanthropists have pronounced differences of opinion. We will look at each of these sticky issues in turn.

Should Philanthropists Fund Political Action?

Some donors and educational entrepreneurs argue that foundations should not shy away from funding policy changes—which often means lobbying and working through the political process. “Public education is very political,” says John Danner of Rocketship Education. “We can’t just build good companies and products and operations and expect the thing to solve itself.” Many people at foundations feel that “politics is dirty and messy and they don’t want anything to do with it.” But if you feel that way, “then you probably shouldn’t give too much in public education.”

One approach: “When you get these cities or states that are currently forward-leaning, you need to try to keep the forward-leaning people in office. We need to keep in office incumbents who take political risks to accomplish things.” Former Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty “is the worst example for us,” bemoans Danner. “He staked his political career on taking educational risks, and the union put a million dollars against him. Our side put up a couple hundred thousand.” Fenty lost his campaign for re-election. “That needs to not happen. Elected officials are pretty rational.”

Individual donors interested in education reform could, in theory, work toward getting Republican majorities in state houses, because Republicans have generally been more aligned with the cause of education reform than Democrats. But in terms of passing broad, bipartisan legislation, encouraging Democrats to support, or at least accept, school reform will sometimes be the more consequential achievement. That’s what makes organizations like Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) intriguing. Its mission is to champion Democratic legislators who are willing to promote reform despite deep resistance in their party. As executive director Joe Williams puts it, it tries to make education reform a neutral issue for Democrats, rather than one that’s “all risk and no reward at this point.”

“What we try to do is get it to a draw, so Democrats can decide for themselves if it’s a good idea or not, and feel something other than just pain” if they support reform, or at least don’t block it. Inertia may be the biggest enemy of all, according to Williams. Opponents of education reform can be “extremely powerful when convincing people not to do anything.”

Most effective philanthropy starts with philanthropists doing something that they love.

There are of course legal strictures that block nonprofit 501(c)(3) foundations from engaging heavily in direct lobbying. And political advocacy, political endorsements or opposition, and donating time or money to campaigns are forbidden. If you’re willing to think a little differently, though, philanthropists aren’t completely blocked from political action.

In addition to donating to groups such as DFER that take on the political blocking and tackling, living donors who are passionate about this topic and recognize the importance of politics can make taxable political donations as individuals. They also can set up parallel 501(c)(4) organizations, which are not tax-deductible, but can engage in unlimited lobbying related to their mission, as well as being free to engage in political activity, endorsements, and campaign donations.

Donors often don’t have to give that much. As Danner points out, “the difference between a progressive school district and a recalcitrant one can be a couple of board members.” If your foundation is focused locally, and a few school board members are closed-minded about reform, even modest spending can have a big impact on local elections. It’s important to do this in smart ways, for instance by rallying parents to the cause of reform as well as making targeted donations. While a local politician might run successfully against a meddling millionaire who’s trying to “buy” an election, it’s harder to run against hundreds of organized families.

Parents whose children attend Rocketship schools formed a political action committee (PAC) and in 2010 ran four candidates for the local school board. Three of these four candidates won with help from the parents who staffed phone banks and got out and talked to their neighbors. “These elections are won or lost by 1,000 votes,” says Danner. “Ten thousand dollars matters. That probably will not always be the case. But right now it’s an easy opportunity.”

Should Philanthropists Fund Specific Content Like Software Programs?

Another big question is whether foundations should fund the creation of software or educational content. Given how many school leaders complain about the mediocre quality of content that’s currently available, and the paucity of useable dashboards that unify results from different programs, this seems like an area where philanthropists could make a difference.

Perhaps it could be—and some foundations are indeed making investments here. The Gates Foundation has given money to Khan Academy, Rocketship, and other schools to build electronic platforms that allow multiple content sources to work together. Some school leaders like Rick Ogston at Carpe Diem have encouraged foundations to think about working directly with software companies to create more interchangeability, so blended-learning schools could plug many varieties of content into their computerized curricula and get useful results in a standard format.

There are reasons to believe that market incentives aren’t functioning perfectly in the area of educational software. In theory, the educational market should be swimming with eager entrants, all competing with each other to offer excellent products to schools. After all, it’s a huge market: 50 million kids in grades K–12. These consumers are young and impressionable, so garnering their loyalty could have lifelong ramifications.

As GSV Advisors discovered from their market survey, there’s no shortage of capital available to fund ed-tech companies. There are, however, other blockages in the system. A major problem is that the purchasing process for educational software is often difficult for both program-writing companies and new schools to navigate. It can take years to conclude a major sale. The buyers aren’t the end users. In many school districts, dozens of people are empowered to say “no” to a given deal, but few are empowered to say “yes.” These and other obstacles poison entrepreneurial decisiveness. And because school bureaucracies can be so cumbersome to work with, tech companies may not consult with educators in advance as deeply as would be ideal, or beta-test with them as much once a program has been written. That can result in quality problems.

Because of the difficulties of working with school districts, ed-tech companies are increasingly reaching out directly to final consumers. They are selling to students, parents, and teachers, aiming to get them hooked on their productivity-enhancing tools so that there is grassroots-user pressure to bring them in the front door of the school. Engrade, a suite of grading, attendance, calendar, and reporting tools, has been adopted virally by a large percentage of New York City teachers, for instance. It received initial funding through a philanthropic investment by the NewSchools Venture Fund.

The Ed-Tech Market Map, funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and created by Anthony Kim and Michael Horn for the NewSchools Venture Fund, found in 2011 that private capital and companies serve some segments of the educational software market better than others. Plenty of products cover elementary school math. Fewer products are good at training teachers or making them more productive.

A number of ed-tech experts argue that there is a need to expand the whole ecosystem by making it easier for experienced educators to become entrepreneurs. “The real hole is in early-stage stuff,” says Heather Gilchrist of Socratic Labs. Since content will generally be better if educators are involved, the work of firms like 4.0 Schools is particularly important, she says. “What they’re doing—taking educators who are maybe Teach For America alums, and already kind of entrepreneurial by nature, and helping them now segue from educator to education entrepreneur—that’s the really important first step.”

Deb Quazzo of GSV Advisors argues that philanthropists might help encourage a handful of the right kind of educational professionals to migrate into commercial product development. More generally, donors might make efforts to increase the flow of ideas, technology, and people across the divides now separating the educational and business worlds. Improved matchmaking and creating forums for sharing technology among the separate worlds of research, business, and classroom practice could strengthen education technology without the dangers of distorting the market that could arise from, for instance, philanthropists bankrolling specific technologies or companies.

Because of the difficulties of working with school districts, ed-tech companies are increasingly reaching out directly to final consumers.

Another way foundation money could improve content options is to keep content free wherever possible—as happened with Khan Academy products after a few philanthropies stepped in. Because Khan Academy is available today at no cost, schools or teachers can experiment with it while avoiding all the purchasing headaches associated with fee-based products. Sidestepping the need to get official approval is often crucial to working innovations quickly into classrooms, as teachers adopt new products in a viral fashion, much like they integrated Facebook into their personal lives.

On the other hand, a product doesn’t have to be supported by philanthropy to be free to the end consumer. There is no reason to be harshly hostile to advertising. Google is in schools and used heavily, and Google relies principally on paid ads. “There are alternative business models where the end user is not necessarily the payer,” says Alan Louie.

Philanthropists should also keep in mind that free content can sometimes crowd other things out of the market in ways that are unfortunate. Not everyone will want to use Khan Academy—which doesn’t cover all subjects, or at the particular level that teachers might desire, and which requires bandwidth-hogging video streaming. The educational market, like others, is best served by having lots of options and competition. The last thing a donor would want to do is prevent other Sal Khans who have great ideas for helping kids from starting new companies because they have to compete with an entrenched, philanthropy-subsidized entity that is free.

For these sorts of reasons, many observers caution that investing in software is the sort of thing that venture capitalists, or established publishers, may do better than donors. Jim Blew of the Walton Family Foundation says that “philanthropy does not have a great history of choosing technological winners. People who do that—like venture capitalists—do it for a living. They take a lot of risks and suffer the consequences. None of that happens in philanthropy.” In fact, misguided philanthropy can keep alive programs that otherwise wouldn’t survive, which greatly confuses the market.

In addition, it’s usually best not to anoint a single solution, because different content will work for different kids. Teacher Wendy Chaves reports that her Los Angeles students at ATAMS reacted poorly to the Sal Khan videos, for instance, for a variety of cultural reasons.

Philanthropy may also lack the speed and nimbleness to churn out timely products. John Danner, who knows something about making money in software from his Silicon Valley career prior to co-founding Rocketship, notes that “the thing about technology is that once the market incentives start to work,” and once investors start seeing people make money, “they’ll move a hundred times faster” than anyone in the traditional education world would.

Gisèle Huff of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation agrees that while much current content is sub-par, “the content is going to improve, exponentially, day by day, independently of any donor’s money.” The market, she says, “will shake this out. There’s no way philanthropy can make good bets.”

The general consensus is that what philanthropy can most usefully do is build a big market for intelligent products. If there are enough schools demanding good blended-learning programs, entrepreneurs will appear to serve them. Boost demand, the argument goes, and supply will appear.

One can do this by creating new schools and programs, and also by supplementing the technology budgets of schools that already exist (as long as software is purchased as part of a well-thought-through blended-learning strategy). “Education does not work as a normal marketplace,” states Jim Blew, because of the government monopoly in most places. The “solution isn’t investing in technology,” though. “It’s investing in making our education system work more like every other aspect of the American economy.”

One alternative for donors with an interest in improving the quality of educational software might be fund groups that evaluate and rate software. In New York City, for instance, a group called CFY helps teachers, parents, and students assess and understand different programs. They are partially funded by the Broad Foundation and others. Some groups are working on easily understood ratings systems like the reviews on Amazon. Donors could help encourage this.

Another way for philanthropists to help schools make sense of content options is to support hand-holding groups like Education Elements. These organizations not only advise schools on how to choose great content, but can also provide a single-login structure that allows students and teachers to access all the programs and data through one system, even smoothing certain incompatibilities between content providers. Many donors have chosen to pay Education Elements or some similar consultancy to help schools set up their blended-learning computer systems.

One massive philanthropy-driven project is aimed at establishing a technical base that will ease the transition toward digital learning. An organization called inBloom is now rolling out nationwide the computer infrastructure needed to make data on individual student achievement consistent and comparable across the country, and able to be matched with information on what content and curricula the pupils were using before they got those results. Currently that information exists in wildly different formats and locations that don’t integrate with one another. This huge technological undertaking, which should ease many of the operational hitches that now slow the adoption of blended learning, was funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the Gates Foundation.

Observers caution that investing in software is the sort of thing that venture capitalists may do better than donors.

The inBloom infrastructure will make it possible to read the “story” of how real children progress or languish in digital-learning programs. The technology includes middleware that helps different networks talk to each other, a secure cloud repository where all records can be stored, dashboards that translate student data into manageable and easily understood forms, maps that graphically represent results to help educators see student achievements and needs, and software tools that will enable ed-tech vendors and developers to create programs that can talk with each other. With these tools now being released, it will soon be possible for states, districts, and individual schools to match up inputs and outcomes and be much more systematic about how they pursue blended learning.

Should Foundations Work with Traditional School Districts?

Much of the innovation happening in blended learning is taking place in charter schools—mostly because they’re often smaller and more responsive, and more open to doing different things. Scott Benson from the Gates Foundation warns that “change is hard” and “trying to eliminate the notion of courses and grades and traditional class-size ratios” within a school with traditional governance structures is triply hard. “What we’re struggling with is that if you want to create a lot of innovative models, the best place to start is where you’re not constrained by legacy systems.”

That either means working in complete turnaround schools—places that have been shut down and reopened by regulators because they were performing so miserably—or else creating new schools, which in general means a charter school. Yet boutique innovators like “KIPP alone are not going to solve the educational crisis in this country,” notes Benson. The biggest reason to consider working with traditional school districts is the simplest one: that’s where most of the kids are.

This is precisely why ed-tech companies focus on traditional schools. EdModo, a sort of Facebook for students, serves more than 11 million teachers and students globally, most of whom are not in charter schools. Knewton COO David Liu reports that the major customers for his adaptive-learning software are the McGraw-Hills and Pearsons of the world—content publishers with deep reach into traditional schools. From the commercial ed-tech side, digital learning is not particularly a charter-school phenomenon, and probably never will be.

As a new generation of students and teachers view technology as normal and obvious, technology-enhanced practices are already infiltrating regular classrooms. While working with old-line school boards and district leaders can be frustrating, the way things are now is not necessarily the way things will always be. Philanthropists can nudge districts to try something new.

“A small family foundation—let’s say in Tennessee, or Ohio—could fund a one-day summit and give an overview of blended learning, some examples, some best practices, and give out $10,000 to $20,000” in grants, suggests Susan Patrick, the president of iNACOL. “School districts want to do this. They just need a little incentive as political cover. A small grant like that is perfect.”

About a third of the recipients of Next Generation Learning Challenges grants (funded by Hewlett, Gates, and other foundations) were district schools. The Silicon Schools Fund grantee criteria leave open the possibility of district schools receiving funds, with John Fisher calling himself cautiously optimistic on that idea. “I think much of it depends on the sort of governance structures that exist and whether Silicon Schools Fund can get comfortable that there’s going to be enough independence and autonomy resting with the school leader that he or she will be able to implement the right strategy for the school unencumbered by red tape and bureaucracy,” says Fisher.

“I guess my feeling about that,” he continues, “is that we have a lot of districts, large and small, in the Bay Area. And I think we have certain mayors and superintendents who would be excited to be a place that was known as a center for the next generation of learning and the next generation of schools.” So there is at least some possibility of finding partners within the ranks of traditional school districts. From the Rogers Family Foundation–funded blended-learning pilots in Oakland to Rhode Island’s statewide initiatives, there are clearly traditional schools willing to entertain the possibility of innovation. Smart philanthropists will find these willing partners, and find ways to encourage them.

Conclusion: Is This Time Really Different?

Education reformers have scars from years of lurching from one trendy idea to the next. Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp writes in her book, A Chance to Make History, that there are neither silver-bullet solutions nor “silver scapegoats” in education. As her husband, Richard Barth of KIPP, puts it, “There’s a desire for people to think they’ve found a pixie dust that’s going to work for kids.” Yet education is too big, messy, and human for magical solutions.

Nothing can solve all of America’s educational woes in a single stroke. Simply creating charter schools didn’t do it. Recruiting young and energetic teachers alone won’t do it. Smaller class sizes disappointed. So did small schools, the Gates Foundation’s heavily funded experiment. High-stakes testing hasn’t banished failure and mediocrity either.

Donors must likewise recognize that technology in general, and blended learning in particular, won’t solve all problems. Instituting an effective blended-learning school requires a strong school leader, so most of the early examples are charter schools where principals have more control over hiring teachers and the construction of a potent school mission than leaders in traditional schools generally do. The district schools that have experimented with blended learning have likewise so far been early adopting types. Would blended learning work well in an environment where a principal is just biding her time, and where teachers are resistant? Likely not. As Ethan Gray of the education-reform network CEE-Trust puts it, “People still matter. I feel like that should be the tagline of blended learning.”

But even in mediocre schools, children may be better off if they get a few hours per week in a learning lab. Two hours a day of practice in basic skills—with adaptive software and content presented in an intriguing way—would be better than the warehousing that many children experience in malfunctioning classrooms now. And for children who are more advanced, such technology may offer two hours a day of actual challenge—as opposed to now, when America’s underperforming schools, and plenty of middle-of-the-road ones too, seem perfectly willing to let their high-potential brains idle.

In the best-case scenario, digital learning options “provide teachers with the ability to offer a level of individualization never seen before,” says Barth. That adds rigor to education’s starting point, which is to offer children some confidence that “a believing adult stands behind them—one who has faith in them and their future.”

This combination of the advantages of technology and human touch is what has many people excited about blended learning. While it can’t solve all problems, says Shantanu Sinha of Khan Academy, “we’re seeing glimpses of amazing things. I wouldn’t go so far to say this is a panacea that’s going to work with every student, but certain students are getting results they never would have imagined before.” Even when blended learning isn’t implemented perfectly, and isn’t all that different from current educational models, a little innovation seems to go a long way.

Would blended learning work well in an environment where a principal is just biding her time, and where teachers are resistant? Likely not.

So that’s raising hopes that some deeper innovation can take children even further. It’s an exciting time to be investing in education, with many of the nation’s biggest foundations coalescing around blended learning as a reform that may actually work. “Technology is inexorable,” insists blended-learning pioneer Frank Baxter. Thus “technology-enabled education is inevitable,” so we’ll experience it “this generation rather than the next.”

“Within five years it will be really a huge element of all schools—well, not all, but 90 percent of schools,” says former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan. “I predict that with total confidence. Normally, I don’t predict things with total confidence.”

Certainly technology continues to improve at a pace that boggles the imagination. It’s possible that within a few years “we’ll just call it learning,” says Alex Hernandez of the Charter School Growth Fund, not blended learning. “I’m pretty sure it’s going to happen whether people want it to or not.”

For the first time in a while, there’s a sense within the education-reform movement that we’re about to have tools that will enable good teachers to become great. Philanthropy can play a big role in making that happen—in identifying promising ideas, nurturing their growth with smart investments, and spreading them as broadly as possible. If it does, America will come closer than it ever has to a schooling system where all children get the education they deserve.

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