When the discussion turns to children and schooling, you can usually count on the people who work at philanthropic foundations to see the big picture. That's because the mission of foundations has been, and continues to be, to support innovation with an aim toward improving society. Not surprisingly, a number of graduates of the Stanford University School of Education (SUSE) have gone on to work at foundations, especially those concerned with education. In most cases, their entry into philanthropic work followed careers that involved them deeply in multiple aspects of educational research and practice. Picking those to interview for a feature article in the Educator was itself a challenge. Among those who were finally selected, all seemed motivated by a strong commitment to education reform efforts. They were candid in their appraisal of what's right and wrong with today's educational landscape and of the challenges foundations face in promoting educational change.
Two education concerns were mentioned more frequently than any others. The first was the issue of equity-giving all students an equal opportunity to receive a high-quality education. The second was finding a way of bringing "best practices" to the attention of practitioners everywhere.
Cyrus Driver (PhD candidate), program officer with the Ford Foundation in New York, calls equity the overarching challenge for foundations today. "Over the past 15-20 years, the field of education reform has been primarily concerned with accountability and standards, as the mantra of education reform has become 'excellence.' Equity has been placed on the back burner."
It is no secret that students from low-income homes, language minority students, and African-American and Latino students are among those most likely to receive an inferior education. There are many ways in which institutional barriers continue to limit educational opportunities for these students. For instance, tracking is one practice that inhibits equity, said Driver. Another is the articulation agreements between community colleges and four-year colleges.
"Often what ends up happening is that when community college students bring their transcripts to a four-year college counselor, they are told, 'Of the 20 courses you've taken, we can only accept four (or six, or eight) that meet our requirements.' What we need are agreements so most, if not all, of their courses will count towards the BA," says Driver, "and students need to know ahead of time which ones will count. Otherwise, many current agreements will continue to be barriers to equity."
A third aspect of the equity problem involves standards, says Ray Bacchetti (PhD, '68), education program officer with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, based in Menlo Park, CA. "Too often we can predict where young people rank academically by their zip code or skin color. We have variable standards across California. What we need are standards by which all districts can aspire so there are no excuses for poor performance."
Another problem that has long eluded educators is figuring out how to take best practices and disseminate them in such a way that they become widely used. This is sometimes referred to as bringing good educational practices "to scale" or generalizing them. For example, Driver explains, "Suppose one school has a great reading program that we know works. How do we get schools across the country to use it?"
According to Driver, over 20 years ago, Harvard University researcher Ron Edmonds, who inspired the "effective schools" movement, went out looking for good schools in poor communities. In the same neighborhood he found, for example, one school where kids were happy and performing well, and another where they were not doing well and were suspended frequently. One question his study raises is this: how can all schools become good schools? Related to this issue, says Bacchetti, is the responsibility of foundations to make sure that good ideas do travel, and travel far afield. "Schools don't have the time or resources to do this. It's not unusual for a school to do a particularly good job at something and yet no one else knows it. Foundations can help to fill this gap."
One of the underlying, and often unacknowledged frustrations that so many people have with public education is how slow it is to change. That's the opinion of Kimberly Ford Gilboy (EdD, '93), executive director of the Walter S. Johnson Foundation in Menlo Park. "Schools are better than they've ever been, but not good enough in terms of what this economy is demanding of individuals and workers to be successful." And even when positive changes occur, says Ford Gilboy, usually they are too dependent upon key players in a school or district, which leaves them vulnerable to backsliding when those people move on.
By its very nature, spending money on untried innovations is a risky business, says Paul Goren (PhD, '91), director of child and youth development at the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. Traditionally, he explains, foundations have approached their job by spreading that risk around. In practical terms, that means that foundations tend to award a large number of small grants. According to Ford Gilboy, it is not unusual for one staff person to handle anywhere from 40 to 100 grants. "Of course this limits how much you can do to advise and support the organizations you are funding," she adds.
In recent years, that trend has begun to change, says Goren, whose MacArthur Foundation is currently evaluating the effectiveness of how it distributes education funds. "More than ever, foundations are asking, 'To what extent have our investments had an impact? What lessons can we learn from projects that have not succeeded?' " Part of the impetus for this new agenda, sometimes referred to as "venture philanthropy," has been inspired by the work of Christine Letts and Allen Grossman, faculty members at the Harvard Business School, and William Ryan, a consultant to foundations and nonprofits. They advocate that foundations create a greater return on their investments by operating more like venture capital firms. (See "Virtuous Capital: What Foundations Can Learn from Venture Capitalists," Harvard Business Review, March 1, 1997.) In a more recent article that is based on this approach ("Philanthropy's New Agenda: Creating Value," Harvard Business Review, November/December 1999), Michael E. Porter of the Harvard Business School, and Mark Kramer, a founder of the new Center for Effective Philanthropy, criticize foundations for:
- attempting to fund too many unrelated fields;
- failing to create a unique, competitive position for themselves in the world of giving;
- focusing on the short-term by working with most clients for only one or two years; and
- rarely funding studies that explore the effectiveness of different approaches to a given problem.
Foundation officials acknowledge the validity of some of these points. However, they say, a number of foundations have already begun moving in this direction. For example, says Goren, foundations are beginning to award larger grants over longer periods of time to fewer clients, are getting more involved in the projects they fund, and are seeking more effective ways to measure the success of programs. SUSE alumni also take exception to certain aspects of the business-education analogy.
"This notion of competition is exaggerated as a tool to improve schooling," maintains Bacchetti. "We don't need a marketplace environment to do that. Compared to running an education system, rocket science is incredibly simple."
Driver echoes Bacchetti's sentiments, and says the comparison oversimplifies the problem. "The real challenge in business models is that they attempt to measure success in terms of products with a clearly defined technology for production. Toyota controls all the factors of production, whereas educational institutions don't. Children's development and educational achievement are influenced by many individuals and groups outside of schools. So holding schools accountable is important, but it's definitely not the same thing as holding Toyota accountable for making a good car."
Indeed, the complexities involved in trying to provide all children with a quality education are what create such challenges for foundations that fund educational initiatives. One central policy issue is the question of education finance.
Professor Milbrey McLaughlin at a local Boy's and Girl's Club.
"Funding equity was the starting point," explains Driver. "It ensured that all schools would receive the same amount of funding so that things such as pupil-teacher ratios, book allotments, and so forth were equal. But this formula fails to address the fact that students in East Palo Alto may need more funding in order to receive the same quality education as students in Palo Alto."
Educators and economists have partnered in an effort to come up with a funding adequacy formula that takes into account various factors or qualities that contribute to high quality schooling, and which then assigns values to them. For example, for a student to receive a quality education, he/she needs to have a skilled teacher. But how much should a high-quality teacher be paid? What makes a teacher high-quality? What keeps a high-quality teacher working in East Oakland rather than transferring to Kensington?
"It takes months to begin to compute these things," says Driver. "In the meantime, we also have to build support among constituencies and politicians. To solve this problem will likely take years and years."
Another trend among foundations-that of making larger commitments to grantees-is exemplified by the New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Funded by the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, it was originally one of a number of state-funded pilot projects to help new teachers through their first few years by offering various forms of teacher support.
"When state funding ended nine years ago, we became involved," says Ford Gilboy. "We thought the teacher support model at Santa Cruz was a lot stronger than any of the others, which is why we decided to support the project. Today nearly 20 percent of our budget, or almost $1 million, goes to the center. For a mid-size foundation, giving this much to one client is noteworthy. Part of that money, along with some technical support from the foundation itself, is intended to help build the capacity of the organization to grow and serve a larger area." Helping organizations build capacity is something many foundations are now paying greater attention to when considering funding proposals.
One foundation that has devoted significant resources toward another education concern, that of disseminating research and best practices, is the MacArthur Foundation as part of its ten-year commitment to Chicago school reform. According to Goren, two projects provide information and analysis on reform in the Chicago schools-the Consortium on Chicago School Research and Catalyst, a newsmagazine. The consortium, a federation of academics and practitioners, tackle a wide range of practice issues from the impact of social promotion to the implementation of standards-based curricula in schools. Catalyst, written specifically for practitioners, the general public, and the media, provides investigative reporting on local school reforms. One issue, for example, focused on standardized testing. Other issues have looked at places where school reform is and is not working, attempting to cull lessons from successes and failures. Both Catalyst and the consortium help to influence policy debates on education in Chicago, says Goren.
Like Goren, Bacchetti believes that foundation-supported efforts need to tackle reform on a meaningful scale. In 1995, Hewlett linked with the Annenberg Foundation to sponsor a $50 million, five-year matching grant to the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, and recently renewed its commitment for another five years. The collaborative's goal is to make whole-school change reform strategies widely available among the 1,200 Bay Area public schools.
Site-based partnerships are also central to the work of many foundations today, such as the Ford Foundation. In this approach, foundations bring together a diverse set of educational stakeholders including educators, business and other community leaders, and policymakers. When more segments of the community are involved in education reform efforts, those reforms tend to permeate large institutions more readily. The process is neither easy nor rapid, says Driver, which is why foundations must remain committed to these types of initiatives for many years.
Possibly one of the most ambitious initiatives ever launched by a foundation was funded recently by The James Irvine Foundation. Over a seven-to-ten-year period, it plans on investing $60 million divided equally among six California cities, four of which have already been selected: North West Pasadena, Long Beach, East San Jose, and Fresno. Called CORAL, Communities Organizing Resources to Advance Learning, the program symbolizes how foundations are changing their approach to school reform philanthropy, observes Dennis Collins (MA, '63), foundation president.
"The program is based on the proposition that it takes a village to educate a child," explains Collins, "and draws from the work of SUSE Professor Milbrey McLaughlin. The education of young people in our communities is the responsibility of the entire community-not the sole responsibility of the schools. A major reason education reform has been only incrementally successful despite all of the resources we've invested in it is that we tend to ignore a whole set of other issues that impact children and learning. I'm referring to the social pathologies in our communities that we're asking our schools to sweep up. We're forcing schools to work in an environment where serious social and economic problems are not being addressed. This project is attacking those other issues head-on," says Collins.
CORAL aims to mobilize all segments of each community in a coalition to advance the education of its children. By doing this, it expects to create significantly greater learning opportunities for all kids. "This is classic community organizing," says Collins. "Very little will take place in the schools, but everything will be aligned with them. We're trying to complicate people's thinking-get them away from the bumper sticker understanding of what's wrong with schools to an understanding of what's right with communities that will help the schools do their job."
The innovative work that foundations make possible often belies the fact that the amount of money they distribute is a drop in the bucket (compared to the state education budgets or the federal government). Equally small are the numbers of staff positions at foundations, although they are increasing as the number of foundations increases. Nevertheless, the field remains extremely competitive. It is not unusual for a foundation to receive 100-200 applicants for one job opening. The experience of applicants-whether in schools, research, or policy-counts a lot, according to Ford Gilboy, since the positions at mid-sized and larger foundations tend to be very specialized. Occasionally an internship becomes available, but any opportunity to work with foundation staff helps, and recommendations also weigh heavily in the selection process.
One of the reasons individuals choose to work at foundations is that they are in a unique position to help make a difference on a large scale in the lives of kids. "Our goal should be to help young people see themselves as responsible for their world and their time, and capable of affecting it positively," says Bacchetti. "It is an awesome responsibility but one well worth the challenge." SUSE.
By BOB HASS