Good Intentions: Making High-Profile Education Donations More Effective – Conclusion!

Introduction is here. Part 1 is here, followed by Part 2, and Part 3, and Part 4. Thanks for reading everyone. I will be back with more original content in the New Year. Happy 2019!

These high-profile donations will continue. Trying to stop billionaires from spending their money is a fool’s errand. If the neoliberal adherence to capitalist free market ideology doesn’t diminish, the population of billionaires is going to grow exponentially, until we reach a point where Bezos’s $2 billion pledge looks minuscule, especially for a large urban district. In fact, if Bezos had promised the same amount to the New York City Department of Education, it would represent a significant infusion of capital, but, with an annual budget of $24 billion (Council of the City of New York, 2018), it would be a relatively small increase. Accordingly, if these donations remain prevalent, it is vital that the funds be used to serve the communities in question and not just to facilitate charter expansion and the success of the education management industry. From what we have analyzed thus far, and with supporting evidence from existing research findings, I believe I can offer three steps for present and future donors who claim to want to help students in urban public schools. I will reiterate once more that all of this is moot if their public concern is merely a show designed to mask private indifference and/or cruelty, but if we take them at their word, and if Bezos’s more innovative plan is any indication, they have the capacity and the willingness to listen and learn.

  1. Start From the Bottom

The interventions that have failed to move the needle for public schools have all started by convening experts and public figures across the fields of education, business, and politics, and then coalesced around a free market, accountability plan that ultimately upset many of the community members it was designed to serve. Look to Newark, where Zuckerberg was courted by Booker at a tech conference in California, and where the lion’s share of the money was eventually spent on fighting the extant district system  (Russakoff, 2015). Looking on from outside of the Newark public school system, a donor might say that the district needed to be pushed to change, and they would have been correct in this assessment, but their approach to doing so was so poorly chosen that they expended considerable time and energy on this contract dispute that could have been used for tangible district reform. Facebook’s original motto was “move fast and break things,” and no matter one’s opinion of the company, they are certainly successful at living up to that (since-updated) phrase, perhaps to the detriment of our very democracy. But when they tried to apply it to the Newark school district, the system in place was ready to fight back.

Any systemic change should start from the front lines. As we saw in White Plains, educators and administrators, if given support, can and will find innovative solutions to internal crises. If the hiring of consultants is inevitable – and it probably is – why not send them to district schools to research what teachers and principals would do if they were given time and money to create? Why not ask what stressors are preventing teachers from performing at their very best? There will inevitably be a small number of teachers that are fundamentally not equipped to lead classrooms, but it would be significantly cheaper to spend money and time (and of course, with consultants, time is money) on this than the $21 million spent on buying out scores of teachers in Newark. Donors could also, presumably, spend less than the $21 million spent on consultants’ time if they were used more judiciously (Russakoff, 2015). Ultimately, the goal should be to help district employees find the solutions that will work for their students and families rather than imposing flawed solutions upon them, as they are likely to resist, as well they should.


  1. Read the Research

Several studies (Gershenson, Hart, Lindsay, & Papageorge, 2017; Egalite, Kisida, & Winters, 2015) show that having just one black teacher significantly improves outcomes for black students (specifically boys).  In New York, the district has responded by taking pains to recruit and support new black male teachers through NYC Men Teach, which has a budget of $16 million over three years (Fink, 2016). Is that a significant amount of money? Yes, though it’s very little in the context of these donations. Why not expand such programs in districts where “achievement gaps” exist for black students? Or find out what might help the students in a given district if the demographics are significantly different?

It’s not as simple as hiring more black male teachers, though, as part of the reason for the paucity of this group in the teaching corps is that they leave the field at extremely high rates, mostly due to being forced into dual roles as disciplinarians for so-called “unruly” black students (Barnum, 2018). These teachers need to be supported more than they need to be simply hired and thrown into the fire, so programs like NYC Men Teach need to be given much more financial support than they currently receive, even before their long-term results are measurable.

This is hardly the only empirically-supported intervention that could improve public school systems. I admittedly chose this as an example as a black male teacher myself, but the point is merely that donors should use their financial ability to have their employees pore over every inch of available research and decide on a handful of district-specific systemic changes supported by empirical findings. Is it increasing pay? If so, to what level? Is it changing the seniority structure? It might actually be the case that peer-reviewed research supports an intervention that aligns with free market ideology in some instances. But they won’t know if they don’t actually read all the research to see what is the best and most feasible option for a given district.

  1. Everything is Connected

Whoever convinced Jeff Bezos that education was not best served by its usual placement inside a silo where it can be isolated from other societal issues deserves considerable credit. In many cities, homelessness has an impact on a substantial percentage of public school students and their families, not only those without permanent housing, but those who share classrooms with boys and girls grappling with the resultant anxiety and trauma.

Education is also closely tied to employment, with low-income parents often forced to work time-consuming and physically demanding jobs that prevent them from supporting their children by remaining involved in school events, even if they otherwise would. Education is related to healthcare, both physical and mental, with many families unable to afford appropriate treatment for their children, treatment that is of particular need in communities with less healthful air, water, and food. And, as much as we often prefer to ignore it, education is inextricable from the racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination that are persistently prominent in our society. To pretend, as we often do, that we can save an education system by focusing only on instruction – or only on the results of standardized tests – is to consign ourselves the sort of failure we have seen from even these most talented and successful donors.

When I say we ought to look at the research, I don’t want to imply that findings from a district in Florida should be grafted onto Brooklyn without taking into account the latter’s particular context. When I say we need to speak to the educators on the ground, I mean we should do so to learn what is unique and specific to a particular district or school. I fear, with these recommendations, that the adherence to a goal of a national model will supersede the need for contextualization, and I want to be clear that my first two recommendations are of little use without the third. We need to consider each of these societal issues in turn if we hope to improve outcomes for students and families in our schools, and we will improve nothing if we don’t. A portion of any future education donation should be reserved for the creation of school-based responses to a city’s specific structural issues, even if they are unlikely to be solved quickly.


The main question I cannot answer – that no one can really answer – is what is in the heart of high-profile education donors. Surely, there is some ego and vanity involved in the process of making such donations publicly, but on the other hand, these districts are usually so large that one really does need to give tens or hundreds of millions to make a dent on the budget, and any donation of that size is not going to go unnoticed. Districts budgets are tight, and so my recommendations might not be possible as donors are unlikely to make these changes unless pushed, and districts are under considerable financial pressure to accept the donors’ terms. After all, who wants to be the chancellor or mayor who turns down a ten-digit donation on principle?

Nevertheless, I believe these changes would appeal to the capitalistic side of these wealthy men, especially if they want both a return on their investment and the public relations boost a successful donation might provide. If a future donor were to engage deeply with the community (or hire consultants to do so), incorporate the findings of peer-reviewed research, and contextualize their reform efforts, students and families could see great benefits. Instead of attempting to create a rubber-stamped national model to save people, they would serve as examples for other reformers, who could in turn learn to help more effectively.

I can’t claim to know how to solve the many problems in American public education, but, at least to this point, neither can most of these donors. What I do know is that they have enough money to find the right answers, but only if they ask the right people the right questions.


Barnum, M. (2018, March 16). ‘Disciplinarians first and teachers second’: Black male teachers say they face an extra burden. Retrieved from Chalkbeat:

Bhattaria, A., & Davenport, C. (2018, September 13). Bezos pledges $2 billion to help homeless families and launch a network of preschools. Retrieved from Washington Post:

Broad Foundation. (2002). Showcasing Success. National Center for Education Accountability.

Broad Foundation. (2014). Broad Foundation for Urban Education. Retrieved from

Bruder, J. (2017). Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. New York: W.W. Norton.

Chin, M. (2017). Assessing the Impact of The Newark Education Reforms. Cambridge: Center for Education Policy Research.

Council of the City of New York. (2018). Report of the Finance Division on the Fiscal 2019 Preliminary Budget and the Fiscal 2018 Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report for the Department of Education. New York.

Egalite, A. J., Kisida, B., & Winters, M. A. (2015). Representation in the classroom: The effect of own-race teachers on student achievement. Economics of Education Review, 44-52.

Fink, J. (2016, August 29). NYC will spend $16M to diversify teaching corps. Retrieved from District Administration:

Gates, B. (2009). 2009 Annual Letter. Gates Foundation.

Gershenson, S., Hart, C. M., Lindsay, C. A., & Papageorge, N. W. (2017). The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers. Bonn, Germany: Institute for Labor Economics.

Heckman, J., Garcia, J. L., Leaf, D. E., & Prados, M. J. (2017). Quantifying the Life-cycle Benefits of a Prototypical Early Childhood Program. Chicago: Heckman Equation.

Henry J Kaiser Foundation. (2016). Population Distribution by Race/Ethnicity. Retrieved from,%22sort%22:%22asc%22%7D

Picciano, A., & Spring, J. (2013). The Great American Education-Industrial Complex. New York: Routledge.

Prothero, A. (2017, October 13). Retrieved from Education Week:

Rand Corporation. (2018). Improving Teacher Effectiveness. Santa Monica.

Russakoff, D. (2015). The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools? Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Shapiro, E. (2018, October 15). Homelessness in New York Public Schools Is at a Record High: 114,659 Students. Retrieved from The New York Times:

Strauss, V. (2018, June 29). Answer Sheet. Retrieved from Washington Post:

Vengattil, M., & Dastin, J. (2018, September 13). Amazon’s Jeff Bezos commits $2 billion to help homeless, pre-schools. Retrieved from Reuters:

Wieder, B. (2014, September 22). Retrieved from FiveThirtyEight:

Wilson, C. (2018, April 3). White Plains schools focus on increasing diversity in advanced courses after fed investigation. Retrieved from Lower Hudson Valley Journal News:


Good Intentions: Making High-Profile Education Donations More Effective – Part 4

The series continues. The introduction is here. Part 1 is here, followed by Part 2, and Part 3, and today is Part 4. There is one part remaining, followed by a conclusion.

Now it’s Jeff Bezos’s turn to try and be the savior, but there are some differences in his approach from the ones we have discussed to this point.  In early September, months after soliciting advice and commentary via his public Twitter account, the Amazon founder announced that he would pledge at least $2 billion to create what he is calling the “Day One Fund,” which will center on pre-school education for low-income families. The money will also be used to help homeless families access permanent residences. Notably, Bezos has long faced criticism for his business practices leaving many of Amazon’s frontline workers eligible for public assistance, with Senator Bernie Sanders even proposing a bill designed to force corporations to better compensate their employees, which he called the “Stop BEZOS Act” (Vengattil & Dastin, 2018).  He was also singled out for his choice not to join Warren Buffett’s “Giving Pledge,” where many of the world’s wealthiest individuals promised to donate the majority of their amassed wealth to charity (Bhattaria & Davenport, 2018). Bezos clearly refuses to follow the crowd, even the rarefied billionaire philanthropist crowd, but in this case, that might actually be a good idea.

The Day One Fund will create new pre-schools in underserved areas, yet instead of building new networks of charter schools that inevitably draw resources away from district schools, this addresses a real need, as many districts do not guarantee educational services for children younger than kindergarten age, and by this point, many students are already significantly behind their peers. Among other studies, James Heckman et al. (2017) found that district investment in early-childhood programs had a strongly positive rate of return, and the value of expanding pre-K is one of the few topics in educational policy often agreed upon by people on the left and the right, even though many states have yet to prioritize such initiatives.  This early discrepancy was part of the justification for New York’s continually expanding Universal Pre-K program. I cite the research here to demonstrate that Bezos’s idea to expand pre-K is based on proven results. He may be donating this money to look better in the public or to avoid having more bills passed against his business practices in Congress, but unlike the prevailing theory in “accountability” movements that tying teacher pay and/or district financial support to test scores will lead to improved results his fund will begin with a direction that is based on what the research has shown to be true.

More importantly, though, is the fact that the donation will be split between the expansion of pre-K and the creation of affordable housing. With even progressive cities like New York suffering through a crisis in which more than 10% of its public school students lack permanent residences (Shapiro, 2018), any intervention that attempts to improve outcomes in education without addressing housing is almost doomed to failure. What will Bezos actually do to address homelessness? It’s not yet clear, since at this point it’s a press release, a speech, and some tweets to interpret. The money, if used carefully, might be enough to simply provide housing to a certain number of families in need, or to improve deplorable shelter conditions. I’m not sure how Bezos and his team came to the decision to focus on housing in conjunction with education when the other major education donors have largely stuck to the same playbook, and, again, at the moment, it’s all talk. Bezos claims that the communities will be driving the way the money is spent, but he also runs a company that barely pays its frontline workers a living wage. In fact, the book “Nomadland” follows several seasonal Amazon employees who themselves have no permanent address. “Some call them homeless,” Bruder (2017) wrote. “The new nomads reject that label. Equipped with both shelter and transportation, they’ve adopted a new word. They refer to themselves, quite simply, as ‘houseless’” (p. xiii). Critics could easily say that the best thing Bezos could do to combat homelessness would be to pay his employees enough that they didn’t have to create neologisms for their unsecured housing status.

Nevertheless, there are enough good ideas in Bezos’s plan that, whether or not they actually come to fruition, there is a road map there for future donors to follow. These are very smart and successful people, and their goal is to help students who need extra support, then there are ways to avoid the missteps of many education philanthropists and serve the members of these communities.

Good Intentions: Making High-Profile Education Donations Better – Part 3

Part of an ongoing series from a much longer essay I wrote for school. Introduction is here. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Today is Part 3. Don’t steal it, obviously.

The Broad Prize for Urban Education was designed to be seen as equivalent to “Nobel or Pulitzer Prizes for education” (Prothero, 2017). It awarded up to $1 million to major American urban school districts that succeeded at closing the achievement gap for low-income minority students, and existed from 2002 to 2014, until it was suspended.

The prize was awarded based on a series of metrics including reading and math scores, standardized tests, graduation rates, and Advanced Placement. It specifically targeted the 75 largest urban areas in the country, with the stated goal to improve public school performance. The prize sought to “restore the American public’s confidence in public schools by spotlighting districts making significant gains in student achievement” (Broad Foundation, 2002, p.3). In any given year of its existence, the selection committee and review board could count among its members former US Secretaries of Education, university presidents, chief executives of high-profile non-profit organizations, and even several state governors. Unlike some of the other examples cited here, the Broad Foundation sought what anyone might consider verifiable educational expertise. Some have criticized the Broad family for their personal donations to school choice and charter expansion movements, but the director of the prize counters this by saying the foundation’s ideology is kept entirely separate (Wieder, 2014). Whether or not one chooses to believe this assertion, it is clear that the Broad prize was not without guidance from accomplished leaders in education.

As we saw in Newark, however, seeking counsel from leaders and chief executives is not the same as seeking input from community members, students or even classroom teachers. Governors, for example, have outsized impact on school funding in their states, but don’t exactly have experience working with struggling learners. University presidents are usually experts in their field, but unless and until our education system truly transitions to a more P-20 structure, their field is separate from that of public elementary and secondary schools. In other words, the Broad prize sought counsel from prominent figures who were affiliated with education to varying degrees, but not from people directly connected to the public schools they wanted to save.

It strikes me, when looking at said results, that 70% of the awardees were from the Southeast. In researching student performance over the past several years, much of the publicly available data has come from this region. The Broad prize was clear that it sought out to close the so-called “achievement gap” between students of different demographics, and saw even their recipient districts show only incremental progress year over year. I mention the region because the American Southeast has a particularly high black population, relative to other parts of the country (Henry J Kaiser Foundation, 2016). There are certainly different student outcomes based on race in almost every state, but in the Southeast, it is a particularly salient problem because of how many students are affected. I use the word “problem” purposefully here, because I believe that is the obstacle preventing many of these donations from the level of success they would like to reach. Black students do, factually, have structural disadvantages. But these donations, by seeking guidance only from the top and not from the communities themselves, see these students as part of a collective problem to be solved instead of as learners who need to be treated as individuals with idiosyncratic challenges, even if those challenges might recur within a community. In other words, it brings prestige and attention to have the governor of Kentucky on the selection committee (as was the case in its first year) (Broad Foundation, 2002), but I’m not sure he really had anything to say that would have made things better for these students.

The idea behind the prize is an incentive: if this $1 million could possibly be awarded to a district, they should be particularly motivated to improve outcomes for their students. The money was awarded via scholarships to college-bound seniors, and, although the prize is “taking a break” (Broad Foundation, 2014), they continue to fund the scholarships that were promised; it cannot be said that no one has benefitted from these donations. Unfortunately, offering an entire school district a financial incentive is a flawed idea in the first place, as it assumes that what these districts lacked was enough motivation to help their students. If the prize was intended to rival a Nobel or Pulitzer, it should assume, like those prizes do, that great work is being done and truly exceptional outcomes will be rewarded.

There is a persistent insistence on creating a so-called “national model,” as we have seen in previous sections. A national model is scalable, transferable, and adaptable. And if a national model is found, then experts can be imported from any urban area and expected to improve the outcomes for students in a given city. But are the issues in Newark or Nashville the same as those in New York? According to Ben Wieder of the Center for Public Integrity, “Although some of the curriculum is transferable between schools, …varying socioeconomic characteristics of different school districts — and the challenges they might present — require a tailored approach to school management” (Wieder, 2014). And even within a district, schools in adjoining neighborhoods will require different approaches from one another. Considerable effort and substantial sums of money have been directed towards nationalizing student achievement, when, as has long been the case in American education, the most viable solutions are local and specific.

As an example, in White Plains, New York, the Federal government found that black students were underrepresented in Advanced Placement classes, which is a common issue across the country. At one middle school, they noticed that minority students were not aware of how to access these programs. “At Highlands Middle School, for the district’s seventh- and eighth-graders, Principal Ernest Spatafore said there used to be no clear explanation of what advanced courses were offered and what grades and scores were needed to be eligible for them. So, they developed a handbook in English and Spanish that is distributed to every student. The schools also hold curriculum nights for parents to discuss class options and engage families in the course-selection process” (Wilson, 2018). The district was commended for their progress in 2015, and although they still struggle to enroll English Language Learners in AP courses, I suspect they will find a tailored, district-appropriate solution to this challenge, even without the promise of a financial windfall.

Of course, small tweaks that help an individual school population don’t make national news and they certainly don’t help the bottom line of consultants and education management companies, so donors continue to throw money at the “education problem” and wonder why this sort of top-down education reform doesn’t lead to more than incremental progress. In a way, this is a sort of trickle-down education reform, and it’s just as effective as trickle-down economics, which is to say that it helps the executives but not the teachers, the students, or the families.

Good Intentions: Making High-Profile Education Donations Better – Part 2

This is the next installment of a paper I wrote this fall. It’s 20 pages long so I’m posting it in pieces for anyone who would like to read it (though credit this site if you find it compelling and want to use it). The introduction is here. Part 1 is here. Below you’ll find part 2.

Bill and Melinda Gates have operated differently from Zuckerberg, over a much longer period, and on a larger scale. Among numerous other grants, the Gates Foundation made two particularly notable reform efforts. The first of these two high-profile donations, the Small Schools Initiative, is generally seen as a $2 billion failure, although there are contrasting opinions on this. The concept of creating smaller schools is not a bad idea, just as some of the reforms pushed in Newark were admirable in intent if not execution. Nevertheless, Gates himself acknowledges disappointment.

In the Gates Foundation’s 2009 annual letter, Gates admits, “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way” (Gates, 2009, p. 11). It is unusual for successful individuals to acknowledge what seems like failure, but the letter is written in a way that shifts the blame to an interesting place. The letter continues:

These tended to be the schools that did not take radical steps to change the culture, such as allowing the principal to pick the team of teachers or change the curriculum. We had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school. Even so, many schools had higher attendance and graduation rates than their peers. While we were pleased with these improvements, we are trying to raise college-ready graduation rates, and in most cases, we fell short.

But a few of the schools that we funded achieved something amazing. They replaced schools with low expectations and low results with ones that have high expectations and high results. These schools are not selective in whom they admit, and they are overwhelmingly serving kids in poor areas, most of whose parents did not go to college. Almost all of these schools are charter schools that have significantly longer school days than other schools. (Gates, 2009, p. 11)

Here we can see similar themes to what transpired a few years later in Newark. The Gates Foundation attempted to take admittedly “radical” steps to change existing public schools, and when they were met with resistance, they created new charter schools under their control and were able to improve student outcomes.

The only real difference between Zuckerberg and Gates here is that Zuckerberg had state leaders on hand to force a significant change in district teachers’ contracts and buy out underperforming teachers, but the process was quite similar: decide to save a community’s public school students without seeking leadership from within said community; watch as community resists reform; create new charter schools and point to relatively positive results therein while district schools continue to falter. Gates goes on to write, “I have had a chance to spend time at a number of these schools, including High Tech High in San Diego and the Knowledge Is Power Program, or ‘KIPP,’ in Houston. There is a wonderful new book out about KIPP called Work Hard. Be Nice., by the education reporter Jay Mathews. It’s an inspiring look at how KIPP has accomplished these amazing results and the barriers they faced” (Gates, 2009, p. 11). KIPP’s results are indeed very positive, but as a particularly prominent member of the education-industrial complex (Picciano & Spring, 2013), it is fair to wonder if the true beneficiaries of KIPP’s success are the students or the corporate entities involved.

Gates’s letter suggests he was surprised that his interventions were not welcomed with open arms. I can only speculate as to how authentic this surprise is, but perhaps transcendent corporate success does not adqueately prepare someone for educational leadership. No matter how smart these men are, they seem to lack the foresight to anticipate that their prior and concurrent success is not an automatically transferable skill for instructional leadership. A cynical part of me wonders if these individuals not only expect but want the resistance they receive from these communities so they can give up and move onto their real plan of proliferating charters, but I continue to insist upon believing in the goodwill of these high-profile donors, for if they are focused solely on profit, the recommendations that will conclude this essay will be for nought, and so will much of our work.

A second notable Gates Foundation reform effort was the $215 million dollars they gave to three separate school districts, in Hillsborough County, FL, Memphis, TN, and Pittsburgh, PA. Their goal with this initiative was to measure teacher effectiveness through test scores and peer evaluation. More specifically, they sought out to uplift what they referred to as “low-income minority (LIM)” students, as they considered these to be the most vulnerable groups. As the Washington Post noted, “Four charter management organizations also were involved: Alliance College-Ready Public Schools; Aspire Public Schools; Green Dot Public Schools; and Partnerships to Uplift Communities Schools” (Strauss, 2018). Again, not all charters are damaging, but charter management organizations subsist on the expansion of their school networks (Picciano & Spring, 2013), and it is reasonable to speculate on whether their true goal is enriching themselves or their students. Nevertheless, their marketing is dependent on actual student achievement, and if their results were positive, they would be hard to dispute.

According to a RAND corporation report, however, the results were, like those in Newark, neutral at best.

Overall, the initiative did not achieve its stated goals for students, particularly LIM [low-income minority] students. By the end of 2014-2015, student outcomes were not dramatically better than outcomes in similar sites that did not participate in the IP [Intensive Partnerships] initiative. Furthermore, in the sites where these analyses could be conducted, we did not find improvement in the effectiveness of newly hired teachers relative to experienced teachers; we found very few instances of improvement in the effectiveness of the teaching force overall; we found no evidence that LIM students had greater access than non-LIM students to effective teaching; and we found no increase in the retention of effective teachers, although we did find declines in the retention of ineffective teachers in most sites. (Rand Corporation, 2018)

The lengthy report chronicles a series of interventions and innovations that did little to improve the prospects of the very students the Gates Foundation was targeting. And these reforms cost more in aggregate than those in Newark, with the $215 million supplemented by $360 million in matching funds from outside groups. Unlike Zuckerberg, the Gates Foundation would not be able to say they were novice education philanthropists, yet their results were hardly more impressive. And yes, the Gates Foundation has made plenty of other small- and large-scale investments in education – these represent just a few examples – but it is clear to me that, despite their relative experience and expertise, they made many of the same mistakes that Zuckerberg did.

These megadonors based their intervention on an unproven theory – that students would be unequivocally better off in new situations – and relied on external stakeholders whose interests may have been compromised, or even at odds with their own. I continue to believe, perhaps against my better judgment, that Gates and Zuckerberg really did and do want to help these children. And I believe that the best marketing tool for such donations would be marked and sustained improvement in student and family outcomes, which has yet to occur. In my view, the problem remains that they continue to approach these issues from the wrong direction: they try to save the children and families of these districts by shielding them from their own environments rather than helping those environments grow and thrive. As we read about more of these donations and their success or lack thereof, I suspect this theme will recur.

Good Intentions: Making High-Profile Education Donations More Effective – Part 1

Excerpts from a longer piece. Introduction is here.

Mark Zuckerberg probably wasn’t wrong to think that all policy is ultimately political. No decisions that impact the lives of public school students are devoid of political impact and import. His chief mistake, in my opinion, is that he sought the support of politicians first, and the ambitions of a handful of people became more important than the children and families in question. I won’t recount the entire story from inception, but suffice it to say that former Newark Mayor (and current New Jersey Senator) Cory Booker and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and their teams pushed around Zuckerberg, an inexperienced philanthropist and public figure, in order to accelerate their political trajectories, which worked better for Booker than it did for Christie. The saga is chronicled in detail in “The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools?” by Dale Russakoff, a former writer for The Washington Post, a newspaper now owned by a different tech billionaire.

The largest portion of the aforementioned $200 million has been spent on labor and contract costs (Russakoff, 2015). $48 million went to a new contract for district teachers – they had been without one – of which $31 million was apportioned for back pay. An additional $21 was spent on buying out “unwanted” employees, negotiations for which occupied months of time. I feel that this is inevitable, even if the scale might change in a different district. If a future tech titan wants to save a district, the infrastructure of the extant system is going to be very expensive to update and/or discard. No such district, even if desperate for aid, is going to roll over without fighting to take care of its current employees. Whereas Zuckerberg might have wanted a blank slate on which to innovate and create, future donors might look this expenditure as a lesson for what will be required to make lasting changes in any district.

According to Russakoff (2015), Zuckerberg “was looking for a city poised to upend the forces impeding urban education, where his money could make the difference and create a national model” (p. 24). We will discuss later what differences his money did and didn’t make, but the fact that almost half of the pledged donation ended up satisfying contract costs suggests that trying to change the direction of a massive system is never going to be as simple as handing out money. Russakoff (2015) wrote of Zuckerberg, “his goal, in addition to helping the Newark schools, was to learn from his experience and become a better philanthropist” (p. 25). Ultimately, it’s fair to wonder who learned more from the money that was spent – the children of Newark or Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg’s then-girlfriend, Priscilla, saw the problem differently than he did. “He saw the problem as systemic and economic, while she viewed it from the ground level, through the needs of individual children” (Russakoff, 2015, p. 27). Zuckerberg sought top-down change through Booker, Christie and others perched above rather than within the Newark school system, and accordingly found strong resistance from day one. Future donors might conclude that they could avoid spending half of their money on, essentially, fighting the district if they worked with the district in the first place.

Nearly $60 million went to the expansion of charter schools (Russakoff, 2015). Charter schools can be beneficial to their students and families if a true investment is made in the community. As with many of the changes made or attempted, the problem isn’t so much with what was done but with how, and especially with the implication that district schools were something of a lost cause. Russakoff’s book spends a detailed section following a child named Alif at a district school with severe behavioral issues who shows marked improvement when receiving concentrated attention. Not every child at district school can be given the level of attention Alif received, and charters were pitched to district families as an escape rather than a compliment. Booker, Christie and Zuckerberg envisioned a Newark in which there “would be no more Alifs” (Russakoff, 2015, p. 53), a message they thought would resonate, yet for which they chose the wrong messengers.

The last major component of the financial outlay was the $21 million spent on consultants (Russakoff, 2015). One such consultant was hired to manage the community outreach, which is a smart, prudent plan, yet the person they chose had zero experience within the city of Newark. Future donors will absolutely make use of consultants in some fashion. but the consultants chosen should not be people who are seen as complete outsiders. A straightforward fix would be to source community liaisons from local educational institutions, or those with ties to the district. Outsiders can prove effective and be of service, but their perspective must only be part of the story rather than the primary focus.

The issue of consultants and their provenance is an important factor in any future nine- or ten-digit donations. If we assume they will be employed – and they will – then they can be beneficial or detrimental to the district, like charter schools. If the consultants are seen as imposed on the community, then the community is likely to fight them on principle. And sometimes their intentions are viewed negatively because there is little to no transparency in the process.  If the consultants are profiteers or “flexians” like Christopher Cerf, who bounced from one massive corporation to another on his path to and through Newark schools, they are unlikely to be greeted warmly by the constituents.  Unfortunately, many of the decisions regarding the expenditure of the Zuckerberg money were made behind closed doors, which left no room for accountability. “The merging of public and private business only progressed from there,” Russakoff (2015) wrote (p. 64), and constituents were left to watch with no input into the process.

Ultimately, though, the goal was to help Newark’s students, and even if they poured money into places that one wouldn’t expect to have helped, if the students improved in learning, then it would potentially be worth the mistakes and the surprising expenditures. And the students did marginally improve in learning, with a few caveats. “On net, by the 2015–2016 academic year, Newark students had seen a significant improvement in the rate of growth in English and no significant change in math” (Chin, 2017, p. 1), according to a Harvard report on the reform. “Much of the net change in achievement growth in Newark was driven by shifts in enrollment due to school closures, new school openings, and student choice, as opposed to improvements in achievement growth within existing schools” (Chin, 2017, p. 1). In other words, some students really did have better outcomes after all of the changes that were made to Newark, but the district itself was not strengthened. Newark students had a higher change of improving in English, but only because they were likelier to attend new schools. The students at traditional district schools were not better off in English, and overall there was no improvement in math, as noted above. The report also specified that none of this improvement would have occurred had parents of children attending closed schools not moved them to charters or other high-performing schools, and noted that student achievement plummetted initially before rebounding in the years directly before the study was conducted.

So was this a success? By the most basic definition, yes, Newark students had a marginally higher chance of academic achievement – in English – after the reform than they did beforehand. But if Zuckerberg wanted to, as mentioned above, “create a national model,” then a meager improvement in English achieved only by closing the worst schools and opening charters is hardly revolutionary. Education reformers have promoted school choice and charter expansion in districts around the nation for two decades now, and the goal of Zuckerberg’s donation was to prove something new and different. As it stands, he offered more proof for what was already known, that, yes, forcing a district to close its worst schools and fire its worst teachers does improve outcomes for students. But they utterly failed to address systematic issues across Newark, issues that will leave the community vulnerable whenever the funding is depleted. The people who gained the most were the consultants and the politicians – more so than Zuckerberg himself and his rapidly deteriorating public image – and I doubt a parent would feel more confident sending their child to a Newark public school now than they would have before Mark and Cory visited Oprah.

Good Intentions: Making High-Profile Education Donations More Effective – Introduction

The following several posts are, basically, a paper I wrote this fall. It was graded very highly (I got 50/50!), but more importantly I hope you find it interesting. Will post in several parts. Today is just the introduction.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg went on The Oprah Winfrey Show to tell the world he was going to save Newark, and he largely failed. More recently, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced, through the Washington Post (which he owns), his own attempt to save vulnerable children and families, but his donation might stand a better chance at success than Zuckerberg’s did, for reasons I will discuss. Plenty of other high-net-worth individuals have donated to public education, either individually or through foundations of their own creation, but I want to focus my concluding argument on Zuckerberg, Bezos and other individual investors because I believe this trend will not only continue but accelerate. Why would a billionaire take the time to give piecemeal to various causes when they could publicly declare their philanthropy and, if successful, be seen as an unimpeachable savior to thousands of children and families?

I will discuss what did and didn’t work in Newark, with a case study drawn from Dale Russakoff’s “The Prize” and other sources within. I will look ahead to what Bezos has promised, I will discuss the work of education foundations, particularly those of Bill Gates and Eli Broad, to examine what has and hasn’t led to positive outcomes for vulnerable students. Ultimately, I will return to the individual investors and offer an argument for what organizations and localities can do to ensure that their donations lift the fortunes of their children and families. These individual donations are going to continue, and if the money is going to come, the recipients might as well make sure it goes to the right place. I intend to offer a road map for how true and sustainable success can be achieved. In other words, if a billionaire wants to save the day, you are unlikely to stop them from doing what they want, so why not make it so they have a better chance to make the changes a community really needs?

Reflection on Guns and Schools

In my class last night, all nine of us gave 15ish minute presentations based on papers we are writing or have written. We were allowed freedom to select a topic of our choice. I wrote about making the high-profile education donations we all hear about (e.g., Gates, Broad, Zuckerberg) and how they’ve failed, with some ideas for how they can improve in the future. I plan to share sections of my paper here sometime in the next month or so.

One of my classmates, Andrew, wrote and thus spoke about the epidemic of mass school shootings, addressing their causes and some possible solutions. I won’t steal the man’s ideas but just offer my own.

Essentially, the major conflict I have is that we have militarized urban public schools to the point of absurdity. Another of my classmates, Garrett, spoke about the disproportionate rates of suspension for black male students, and the metal detector strip search TSA atmosphere goes hand-in-hand with the push to turn schools into prison.

In a way, public schools in major cities have, broadly speaking, become a large, damaging prison experiment, with the justification that gang violence needs to be stamped out. Now, gang and drug violence is surely an issue for some areas and should be addressed, but you and I both know that that is not at all what’s happening when these lone gunmen (and it’s always men, or boys) enter these schools and ruin or end dozens or lives, because these are schools in low-crime, suburban or exurban areas.

(The cynical part of me thinks that if there was a wave of such shootings in black and brown public schools, a significant portion of the country wouldn’t care that much. They cared about Dylann Roof committing racist violence, yes, but if a black or brown boy returned to his own school to do the same, I expect there would be a whiff of “that’s what those folks do.” Purely speculating though, and I hope I never have occasion to be proven right or wrong.)

Simply put, these shooters are domestic terrorists, seeking to shatter bucolic communities and succeeding at doing so. “Mass shootings” is a phrase that’s too broad to be of much use (a father killing his own family can be called a “mass shooting” if three people are shot, but it’s really not the same kind of horror; not that it’s better, just that it’s different), and the label of terrorism is more apt, in my view, because the perpetrators have the same profile as the people who are susceptible to recruitment by the Middle Eastern organizations we fear. They’re isolated, disconnected, scared (though would never admit it), and easily influenced.

The solution isn’t to just fill a school with guns, though, which is unsurprisingly the remedy espoused by the right, but also, sadly, something even people in my own circle think is necessary, since people have seen too many action movies and are, understandably, panicked.

The solution is to look for parents to look for signs at home that their boy might be disconnected and isolated. Will all isolated children harm others? No. I didn’t. But an isolated child in a home with guns? This is how we get to where we are.

The fact is, it starts at home. Teachers can be heroes, but we’re not superheroes, and to expect us to save everyone from problems that have been ignored by those who spend the most time with these boys is folly. No one thinks their boy is capable, but every human is eminently capable of cruelty in the right circumstances.

More importantly, though, to me, we need to stop criminalizing black and brown boys for minor offenses or transgressions. Yes, those who commit violent acts should be punished (though no more harshly than an analogous white students), but the assumption that everyone is a criminal when they enter a school surely doesn’t help them see themselves as anything else.

By focusing on the wrong people, we hurt everyone. And more and more children in formerly safe areas will have their lives shattered, or ended, because we just can’t believe that our boys would do such a thing.

Student Reflections Vol. 1

I plan to occasionally comment on what I’ve discovered during my time as a doctoral student.

  1. I think it’s a shame when a published article (or book!) is ungrammatical or poorly composed, but I don’t find it any better when a piece is so stuffed with jargon that only the author (and the editors) can read it easily. I am not advocating for dumbing down anything – I remember my friends in Korea saying they spoke in broken English to their students – but the Venn diagram of “accessible writing” and “sophisticated writing” does indeed have an intersection. And to me my work will fall short if it doesn’t satisfy both requirements.
  2. I will someday become a researcher who cites his own previous work in his writing, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.
  3. I am gratified that my program not only allows but encourages self-examination, and especially so that it seeks out students with an interest in equity.
  4. I think academia certainly does have a “liberal” bias, if only because, almost by definition, being conservative (not even just politically but in the denotation of the adjective itself) implies satisfaction with less change. That’s just what the word means. And being a doctoral student requires a ceaseless desire to grow. Those who don’t want to grow or just want to reinforce their own worldview are less likely to be accepted into such programs. Part of me would find it interesting to be in class with a more conservative group, though in a way I’m probably one of the more conservative people in my own cohort, and I’m really not very conservative at all.
  5. I expected it to be more conceptually complex, even out of my reach in some ways. That’s not an insult. I was always fearful of applying because I thought I’d be exposed as some sort of intellectual fraud. I think, now, that most people who have the energy and commitment to work nonstop for however many years can probably handle it if it makes sense for their lives, finances and careers.
  6. I am torn between focusing on qualitative studies, which I find, if done well, can be rich explorations of a small group of stories, and mixed methods. I doubt I’ll focus on purely quantitative studies as they haven’t grabbed me as strongly from what I’ve read, but it’s still early. And I know that numerical data gets the most funding.
  7. Academia is both more and less interesting than I thought. There are some really fascinating people and studies, and there are some of both that are extremely banal. I guess I was expecting X and have found it’s both 2x and .5x.
  8. I have no comment on the future job market. But there is always room for new voices, and I intend to be one. I am glad that my program is grading our writing on a strong (but coherent) voice in our work. I want my writing to always sound like me (or like me and a partner if the work is a collaboration).
  9. I’m glad to finally be a student at a public school, and a school where the student body is much more diverse than anywhere I’ve ever studied. I didn’t realize until I got my current job and then entered this program, but I have spent my entire life being the “only,” and it’s absolutely and utterly exhausting.
  10. I have learned enough about myself as a student now to say that, when I’m compelled by a topic, I need initial guidance, some scaffolding, and some support, and then I can hit the ground running. And without the immense weight that has always trailed me (re point #9), I can run faster than I ever have. The journey is just beginning but I can’t wait to see where it goes.

Targeted Re-Skilling

Google is doing something interesting. And doing it through partnership with schools and an undervalued population.

Just as MotherCoders participants want to improve their career prospects by re-skilling, so do most prospective college students over the age of 25 when weighing whether to pursue a degree or certificate, according to a May 2018 report from the nonprofit Public Agenda research group. Because they often balance commitments such as families, jobs and expenses in addition to their education, features such as childcare and financial aid programs are draws for them.

Some colleges are actively reaching out to this group. For example, Maryville University, a nonprofit institution near St. Louis, offers resources on its website for caregivers returning to the workforce. Online degree programs also are targeting parents reentering the job market by offering flexible schedules and credentials tailored to career-knowledge needs. And private companies, too, are seeing the need to help caregivers re-skill in order to return to work, with some like Walmart developing their own programs.

Of course, if they re-skill and then end up without benefits at Wal-Mart it won’t have been a good investment, but I suspect that this sort of thing, this targeted, group-tailored effort instead of a broad, vague college push is going to be valuable and commonplace very soon.

I am keeping my eye on this, and expect it to recur in my work. Ultimately, it will take considerable time to see how these initiatives pay off, but on the surface, it seems to be savvy and smart, and beneficial to both the companies and the learners.


A Temporary Reprieve for ACICS

Full disclosure: The for-profit school I once worked for was “accredited” by ACICS, and it really hit their enrollment hard when ACICS was targeted by the previous administration’s crackdown. But here’s Betsy to the rescue.

Even with the Ed Department’s seal of approval and the critical access to federal student loans it brings, ACICS still faces threats to its survival. For one, it remains unclear whether the accreditor will be able to attract new for-profit colleges. In 2016, the agency oversaw around 250 colleges, a figure that has since fallen by roughly two-thirds as many institutions under its umbrella shuttered or found a new accreditor, according to a recent analysis by the Center for American Progress.

I’m pretty confident that ACICS is still in deep trouble as soon as the power in DC changes hands in the next decade. But it’s a shame that so many students will continue to be swindled mostly because DeVos appears to be under orders to undo anything Obama did due to her boss’s ceaseless spite.