Philanthropic Support for Education Reform: Balancing Innovation and Opportunity

Philanthropic Support for Education Reform: Balancing Innovation and Opportunity

Now more than ever, the philanthropic community's strategic engagement in education reform is needed to ensure that all students have an opportunity to learn. President Obama has said the United States will need to be a global leader in postsecondary education attainment by 2020 to remain globally competitive. Our colleagues at the Lumina Foundation for Education have calculated that to achieve this goal even by 2025, we will need over 23 million more college graduates than we expect at the present rate. To do this, we will need to graduate more Latino, African American, Native American, and Hmong students. And yet, those are the very groups with whom we've had the least success in systematically extending educational opportunities.

More than 1.2 million students in the U.S. drop out each year. On average, less than 15 percent of black and brown eighth-graders are proficient at or reading above their grade level. While most states can identify a few high-poverty, high-minority schools achieving encouraging outcomes for hundreds of students, in only a few cases in states like New Jersey and Maryland and in Defense Department schools can we identify high-poverty, high-minority districts or states succeeding with tens of thousands of students. Because the U.S. must achieve this level of systemic educational reform to remain globally competitive, a school-by-school approach won't work. A systemic challenge requires a systemic solution.

Such a solution will require greater collaboration and leveraging within the philanthropic community. Indeed, the federal government has called on us for assistance. On August 5, 2010, the U.S. Department of Education committed $650 million through a competitive process to forty-nine Innovations grantees, awarding up to $5 million in Small Development Grants for promising ideas; up to $30 million in Validation Grants for growing programs with emerging evidence of success; and up to $50 million in Scale-Up Grants to help take strong programs to scale. But to receive these resources, awardees must secure commitments for a 20 percent private-sector match by September 8, 2010. In other words, a more than $100 million addition to the Innovations pool will be needed from foundations to support the grantees the Education Department has identified, necessitating tough choices around funding priorities.

In good times, corporate managers find it difficult to strike a balance between support for proven success versus innovative approaches. In hard times, finding this balance in the service of social change is critical. As management guru Peter Drucker noted, "What you decide not to do is just as important as what you decide to do." As philanthropists ponder the shift of resources toward innovation, to enhance educational opportunities for historically disadvantaged children, and to give the U.S. the chance to be globally competitive in the twenty-first century, we must embrace three core values:

Continue to Aggressively Support Proven Systemic Success. In trying to fund innovation, we risk sacrificing support for proven success. For example, the nonprofit Teach for America was awarded a $50 million Scale-Up Innovations grant. TFA's proposal highlights the goal of "training and supporting the majority of teachers to earn the rating of 'highly effective' during their first or second year of teaching." While TFA has done a good job bringing new talent into classrooms, the average tenure of a TFA teacher is only two years, with outcomes that are no more statistically significant than those of non-TFA teachers. Thus, significant funds for high-quality professional development and support for existing teachers are still needed. Likewise, for years we've known that access to high-quality early education is one of the highest returns on investment in education, but we've not yet provided it to all students in need. Our colleagues at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts have been national leaders in working to ensure that young people are literate by the third grade. Yet the federal Innovation grants portfolio is alarmingly thin in early education, and there has been very little federal action to significantly expand access. The philanthropic community must take care that innovation does not come at the expense of deep investments in increasing access to these proven approaches.

Seek High Returns on Investments by Ensuring Systemic Scalability. In this economic climate, major philanthropic and public partnerships must appropriately leverage their resources to support education reforms that produce high returns on investments. We must not only fund what works, but what is systemically scalable. Not every innovation can be taken to scale to meet a systemic challenge, either because it was never meant to be or its integrity is lost in scaling up. For example, charter schools are necessary players in the education landscape. But as most charter school operators would admit, charters are not options for the massive challenge of educating millions of underperforming youth. KIPP Academy and Foundation, which received a $50 million Scale-Up federal Innovations grant, projected "at least 50 percent growth in annual KIPP school openings." Even if KIPP could grow its 99 academies by 50 percent, that would still yield only 148. Nationally, there are over 5,000 low-performing schools and another several thousand that don't prepare students to enter college without remediation. The rate of charter scale-ups in large cities does not address the systemic student need or the dropout rate.

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in 2009 the fastest-growing charter system was in New York City, with 22 percent growth. Yet charters in New York City only educate 2 percent (21,000) of New York City's one million-plus students. Furthermore, beyond New York City, where only 9 percent of black male eighth-graders are proficient or above grade level in reading, districts with the highest proportion of charters New Orleans (57%), Washington, D.C. (36%), Detroit (32%) and Gary, Indiana (23%), to name a few have some of the poorest performing schools.

We must balance our philanthropic investments in models with smaller systemic returns such as charters with investments in models with higher returns. Missing from the innovations discussion thus far is an alternative to states' reliance on property taxes to finance education, which inherently produces systemically inequitable results. Also missing are the supports to build state education departments' capacity to provide accountability and assistance and to streamline inter-agency resources to provide students and communities with wrap-around services to replace "school to prison" pipelines with "opportunity to learn" pipelines.

Keep Supporting Community Voices. Not all innovations benefit the people they are intended to benefit in the way intended. We must ensure that the people most affected by education reforms are at the table. In May, a faith community of 36 Christian communions with 45 million members in more than 100,000 congregations across the U.S. issued "An Alternative Vision for Public Education: An Ecumenical, Pastoral Letter" calling for a more comprehensive, equity-focused federal education plan that provides all students an opportunity to learn. On July 23, several civil rights organizations - the NAACP, National Urban League, National Council for Educating Black Children, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and Rainbow PUSH Coalitionrepresenting over 1 million members in all fifty states and urban centers issued a similar call in the document "Framework for Providing All Students an Opportunity to Learn Through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act." On July 28, parents and community leaders from over twenty-four grassroots organizations from low-income rural and urban centers issued two reports: "Our Communities Left Behind: An Analysis of the Administration's School Turn Around Policies" and "A Proposal for Sustainable School Transformation." Like the faith and civil rights communities, they called for a new "turn-around model" and a more comprehensive, equity-focused plan. All highlighted the need for access to early education, recruiting and retaining highly-effective teachers, and having college-bound curricula.

Since the Schott Foundation for Public Education signed the civil rights document as a philanthropic partner, we received countless supportive e-mails from grassroots organizations, parents, and philanthropic colleagues. But embedded in the gratitude were messages about how we, as a funding community, often leverage millions of dollars for plans that impact communities without ensuring that voices in those communities are heard.

Research shows that organized communities have better educational outcomes. As we make funding decisions, we must therefore adequately support parental, family, youth, and community engagement to empower communities to push for greater accountability and impact from their school systems.

To help our nation achieve the president's goal, our philanthropic community must ensure that our investments are supported by evidence of success, are scalable, and include the voices of affected communities. We must support a movement to institutionalize equitable, sustainable solutions that give all America's kids an opportunity to learn.

John Jackson is the President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, whose recent report "Yes We Can: The 2010 Schott 50 State Report on Black Males in Public Education" documents the alarming educational achievement gap for black male students in U.S. public schools, highlights the inequities in the U.S. education system that create conditions for failure, and recommends systemic solutions to address this crisis. More information is also available at the Opportunity to Learn Web site.