Edu-Philanthropists’ Dangerous Zero-Sum Game

I don’t think education philanthropies like the Gates Foundation are conspiring to “buy schools,” as some critics think. Nor am I against school choice. For that matter, I don’t care for bloated teachers unions, either. But, as an education researcher, I am wary of their increasing interest in K-12 education over the past ten years.

Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies for the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, defends assertive philanthropy on the grounds that it is, in fact, not new, and that critics who endorsed the Ford Foundation agenda in the 1970s and 1980s are simply hypocrites who dislike Gates’ motive. Yes, policy focus and funding strategies may be similar, but what Hess fails to understand is that, unlike traditional ones, these new, reform-minded foundations can leave lasting debilitating effects on schools.

Enrichment vs. Zero-Sum

Philanthropies of old focused on institution building (or as Hess called it, building programs and practices). It was low-risk and had little downside—if a donor and his program reached many students, they were considered effective. In the 1970s, the Ford Foundation funded women’s and African-American studies, which, if successful, promoted a greater understanding of marginalized groups. Failure merely meant a return to the status quo—one that never had gender and race studies to begin with. No harm, no foul.

American Honda Motor Company still follows this enrichment model. By creating the Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colorado, Honda committed to changing the future for high school dropouts by providing a supplemental program to re-engage young people in becoming productive citizens. At-risk students would be no worse off if they hadn’t taken part in this program. Other traditional foundations bolstered local school reform efforts, redressed inequality, or supported community-based organizations’ work around educational issues, without much public outcry.

On the other hand, the lasting effects for newer, market-based philanthropies tend to have more dramatic effects. Edu-funders like The Broad Foundation, The Walton Foundation, and the Gates Foundation are not concerned with enrichment or institution building per se; they are accountability-driven and advocate for game-changing reforms such as charter school growth, standardized testing, and performance-based teacher evaluations. As a result of their influence, initiatives like Teach for America and the Black Alliance for Educational Options, originally supported with philanthropic funds, now receive significant funding with federal dollars. New York State has also recently adopted performance-based teacher evaluations for all 700 school districts, an initiative that the Gates foundation financed significantly. Its own annual report highlights its role in the development and promotion of the common core standards, which 45 states have adopted.

When the federal government starts to fund philanthropic-led initiatives, we are treading into dangerous territory. It no longer is about low-risk enrichment or building programs and practices; rather, it leads to a high-risk, zero-sum effect for beneficiaries. Consider what happens if:

  • Charter schools turns out to be no better than traditional public schools?
  • Value-added teacher evaluations turn out to be unreliable?
  • Students in voucher programs do no better in their new schools?
  • Merit pay doesn’t actually improve teaching?

With about 50 million public school children in America, the price of failure is much greater. Simply put, money that goes into charter schools, value-added evaluations, voucher programs, and merit pay is money taken away from the arts & humanities, physical education, teacher development, social services, gifted & talented programs, special education, technology, bilingual programs, and other school resources. Instead, we will have a generation of students who may be great test-takers, but don’t know how to collaborate, lead, innovate, or think. We don’t have to wait to see how it plays out, because it’s a scenario China is going through right now.

The warning signs

Despite its recent top ranking in the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), China is reaping the undesirable effects of a rote learning and standardized-testing culture; an effect they call gao-fen dineng: high scores with low ability. These are graduates whose academic skills are incompatible with the aforementioned real-world skills managers need for global competitiveness. While the Chinese government is racing to embrace the western ideals of diversity, creativity, and innovation, the American government (backed by conservative philanthropists) is scrambling towards the regimented, uniform, standards-based, and test-driven education model of China, according to University of Oregon Dean of Global Education Yong Zhao. Its educators are now struggling to “undo” thousands of years of regimented thinking that is preventing them from overtaking America outright. Is this what Hess wants to happen here?

There are more warning signs for America. Recent reports are beginning to document the impact of the philanthropic-led accountability movement:

What would happen if the current Gates-supported New York teacher evaluations, set to go into effect in 2013, were found to be invalid and unreliable? Money will have been wasted while teacher morale and retention plummet. Generations of students will suffer. Will Hess then urge foundations to pay for more teachers, more arts programs, and more public schools? Educated critics know its not about money or motives, as Hess claims. Its simply about not playing a high-risk, zero-sum game with our children’s future.

4 thoughts on “Edu-Philanthropists’ Dangerous Zero-Sum Game

  1. While I agree that every charter school is not a success story we cannot dismiss the need for reform or the role of charter schools in this reform. What we currently have is not working and we need to change the landscape for the way we teach our students and pull it out from the old 1950s factory style of schooling. It’s no longer a one-size fits all solution, we need to try different approaches (school, environment, focus, etc) to teach our children and include parents in determining what the right choice is for their little one. We are past institutionalized reform.

    1. I do agree that we shouldn’t dismiss reforms and the role of charter schools. However, I’m not necessarily sure I agree with the last statement about being past institutionalized reform. Though the new de-regulated, entrepreneurial, market-based approaches are much faster, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for federal reforms. NCLB, Race to the Top, and Common Core are all forms of institutionalized reform that are going strong, though I’m not a big fan. I only caution that anytime we have private interests influencing the public good, we need to be very sure–through rigorous, collaborative research–that it will not make us worse off. Like I said in the article, look at others like China who have followed this accountability model.

  2. Educational decision makers should never grant philanthropists power-access like Gates has been granted…and he is not the only billionaire that has unwarranted power-access.

    1. Yes, but as Hess mentioned — private philanthropy is not a new concept. Because of limited resources, public institutions will always welcome private funding, and all private interests comes with strings attached and implied power. The key is to develop built-in mechanisms that keep these interests in check. That of course is the challenge.

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