How not to blow $100 million on schools

June 18

In a recent New Yorker piece, my former Washington Post colleague Dale Russakoff exposed the realities of big-money school reform. She described, in depressing detail, how the $100 million donated by Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg to transform public education in Newark was sucked into the vortex of that troubled school system, leaving few traces of improvement.

This is nothing new to veteran teachers. Many of them assume that if they see big headlines about huge cash gifts that will revolutionize their classrooms, disappointment is near. As happened in Newark, consultants charging $1,000 a day swarm into town to grab the first new dollars. Much of the money is used to honor much-delayed teacher raises, which is not a bad thing but is unlikely to improve what’s happening in classrooms.

Education policymakers are haunted by the $500 million grant provided by billionaire Walter Annenberg in 1993 — the largest single private gift to public education — that passed through their systems without discernible effect.

Some schools and school districts do change for the better, but usually not because of big-money injections. The genuine improvements that I have witnessed in the past 30 years have stemmed from cultural and political changes, not financial windfalls.

Those reforms were hard to achieve. Sometimes they were the result of nothing but luck, such as former Boston mayor Thomas Menino managing to stay in office 21 years — long enough to keep smart school board members and superintendents in place — so that intelligent reforms could evolve without interruption.

The best thing that could happen to D.C. schools right now is not a big check from some celebrity billionaire, but public promises from the two main mayoral candidates, Muriel Bowser (D) and David Catania (I), to reappoint D.C. schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. I have complained about some of her decisions, but she is a smart former teacher who has pushed efforts to improve teaching and expand learning time. She has established relationships that are vital to raising achievement. Replacing her would create an unholy mess, a sadly frequent occurrence in the District.

I have followed closely two examples of productive reform in public schools. One was the growth in the use of college-level courses and tests to raise the level of high school instruction. The other was the growth of charter schools capable of raising the achievement of low-income students. (Most charter schools do not do this, but the ones that do represent a significant improvement in urban and rural public education.)

The rise of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and tests in high schools was inspired by East Los Angeles math teacher Jaime Escalante and the 1988 film about him, “Stand and Deliver.” He and his colleague Ben Jimenez in 1987 produced 26 percent of all Mexican American students nationally passing AP calculus. This caused other schools to experiment with letting average kids take AP and IB, usually reserved for top students. Schools found money to support it because they had good results, the opposite of what happened in Newark.

The rise of successful charters followed a similar pattern. KIPP, the largest and one of the highest-performing charter networks, began with two teachers, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, who started middle schools in Houston and the South Bronx, respectively. When their-low income students outperformed similar students in regular schools, they won political support from both Democratic and Republican mayors and governors. To this day, the leaders of both parties support charters, making it easier for the best charters to get funds.

These schools are happy to take rich people’s money, but they are the rare educators who know exactly what to do with it to raise achievement. That happens too infrequently in schools full of dashed hopes.

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Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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