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.

Ripples from the Blue Wave

No matter what TV tells you, it really was a “blue wave” last week. Betsy DeVos is still in charge and transparently trying to help her friends make money, but the states have decided they want no part of her management, and the power is changing hands.

But what’s actually going to happen?

“A lot of people were saying nice things about public education, but you actually didn’t see much success by people who were putting forth specific agendas,” he said. “The real test is going to be whether all these folks … are going to follow through.”

It seems likely that public education will finally see some political support, after decades as an afterthought. But it’s going to take a while for dollars to end up in the hands of educators, and we should expect to operate under current constraints for longer than we might want.

A small portion of those who placed campaign bids won in the general election, but this year’s wave of activism — which, in turn, led to greater support for public school teachers — led to more candidates, Republicans and Democrats, discussing how to better serve their public schools, García said.

So, regardless of the small number of winners, the NEA president said “educators had a good night on election night.”

“They see this as their moment,” she said. “And I believe it is.”

Nevertheless, it’s been a good week for education, even if the impact will only be clear years down the road.