Why are billionaire philanthropists at the forefront of school reform? Here’s a primer, from Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross and the author of “Excellence For All: How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America’s Public Schools.”
By Jack Schneider
Educational reform was once the unromantic province of government bureaucrats and community organizers. Today it is the cause célèbre of billionaire philanthropists.
On the one hand, this is a major triumph for school improvement efforts. Deep-pocketed donors have brought unprecedented resources to the table and, with those resources, extraordinary public attention.
On the other hand, the rise of the billionaire reformer has made school improvement an outsider’s game. Making a case for “disruptive” change, philanthropies with names like Broad, Dell, Gates, Fisher, and Walton—working either directly, or through an infrastructure of nonprofit organizations and political action committees—have won unprecedented influence in the world of education. And in so doing, they have stigmatized state and district leadership, shown a surprising indifference to educational research, and framed school improvement as a process best pursued through common sense.
How did we get here?
School reformers in the first half of the twentieth century pursued educational “excellence” for a privileged minority. Accordingly, they crafted policies that would raise the height of the nation’s educational pyramid without any particular concern for the effects of such radical stratification on the less advantaged. This approach, though contested, was dominant until the mid-century mark. In the wake of the Civil Rights movement, however, a new corps of reformers began to make the case that schools could no longer ignore the particular needs of low-income and minority students. Schools, they argued, needed to focus on providing compensatory support in service of the equity aim.
These two approaches would remain separate and often in conflict with one another until they were bound together in the early 1980s at the dawn of the “excellence for all” era.
In part, the impetus for such hybridization was pragmatism—scaffolding a larger tent for coalition building. But it was also the product of a new political context: a globalizing world economy that seemed to threaten the aims of both excellence and equity. Unless direct action was taken, critics contended, globalization would undermine national competitiveness and increase the disparity between the privileged and the less advantaged. Only greater educational achievement and attainment, for all students, could ward off this fate.
The goal of universal educational excellence, regardless of students’ socioeconomic circumstances, soon took root in American school reform. Consequently, the most ambitious educational improvement efforts from coast to coast began to reflect a common desire to transform urban public schools into high-performing college preparatory academies. To be clear, education reform was no less diverse than in previous eras. But despite a variety of different visions, the most ambitious reformers were in agreement that the highest aim in American education was simple: excellence for all. Yet while motivated reformers were united by a common aim, no consensus existed about how it might be achieved.
As entrepreneurship and the free market were increasingly fetishized in the 1980s and 90s, however, a core of policy elites began to drive the reform movement in a new and very specific direction. Believing that teachers and bureaucrats were incapable of thinking systemically about educational improvement, they sought to disrupt the status quo from the outside. Generally opposed to redistributing resources, they advocated a strategy of identifying “what works” and replicating it. The success of some schools, they reasoned, was evidence of effective practices. And if those effective practices could be instituted everywhere, then all schools could be transformed into high-performers.
This vision was accelerated to its logical extreme by an ambitious group of entrepreneurial philanthropists who went far beyond cutting checks. Like earlier reform-minded funders, who generally stayed out of the decision-making process, big donors in the late twentieth century had little experience in urban and rural educational contexts. But if the aim was to transform the nation’s lowest-performing schools into high-flying college preparatory academies by identifying “what works,” that unfamiliarity no longer mattered. What counted, instead, was insight about the kinds of practices that would turn schools around. In that sense, being positioned as an outsider could be pitched as a strength rather than a weakness—promoting outside-the-box thinking and real change. Further, as highly successful entrepreneurs, many of these billionaire philanthropists saw themselves as uniquely qualified to challenge the status quo.
Convinced by their experiences in the private sector that organizations could be revolutionized through innovation and “high leverage” solutions, a new generation of reformers pushed a new brand of reform. Identifying what they saw as “models of excellence,” they used common sense to derive lessons—often from private schools, since context mattered less than replicability—about educational success, and sought to apply those in urban and rural settings.
By the dawn of the 21st Century, philanthropic work increasingly reflected the idea that key levers for educational change could be identified, and that they would be found by insightful outsiders. Such thinking was even further magnified by a growing obsession with scale, which demanded universally-applicable strategies. Thus, whereas earlier philanthropically funded efforts had been characterized by piecemeal accomplishments, the entrepreneurial billionaires leading school reform efforts in the new century were focused on systemic impact and replicable models. Thus, if prominent philanthropists were already inclined to take a common sense approach to school reform, the mandate of scalability pushed them even further toward simple, high-leverage ideas that could be applied in any context.
Viewed in this light, the philanthropic thrust behind efforts like the small schools movement makes perfect sense. Unlike low-performing public schools, “models of excellence” like small private schools, as well as a number of small Catholic and charter schools, sent their students on to college, retained their talented and engaged faculties, and often attracted alumni back as teachers. Size reduction, then, was a solution so obvious that only an outsider could see it. And it was totally scalable, requiring only an infusion of capital. Bill Gates—graduate of a small private school that “made a huge difference” in his life—poured $2 billion into small schools efforts led by Tom Vander Ark, another private school graduate who frequently cited his own personal experience as an influence. And school leaders did whatever they needed to in order to get their share of Gates money.
But the small schools movement was not an isolated phenomenon. Consider the popularity of an organization like Teach For America, which won the support of major philanthropies like the Doris and Donald Fisher Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation by playing up the fact that fixing schools is, in Wendy Kopp’s words, “not rocket science.” Urban and rural schools, the theory goes, would be better off if their teachers had degrees from places like Harvard—the kinds of diplomas possessed by those teaching at top places like Andover and Exeter.
Or take the example of the Advanced Placement Program. For the first 40 years of its history, AP was the exclusive domain of tony private schools and wealthy suburban districts. In the excellence for all era, however, entrepreneurial reformers began to make the case that AP was a scalable solution that, with the right funding, could be dropped down in every school virtually overnight. The idea gained traction with the big hitters, including Michael Dell and Eli Broad, who believed that the work of successful schools offered lessons for their lower-performing counterparts.
Such thinking, of course, isn’t exclusive to philanthropies. Reform efforts like creating smaller schools, growing Teach For America, or expanding the AP Program were supported with federal funding, as well. But philanthropic organizations work with fewer constraints and shorter timelines than government does, they have little public accountability, and they are traditionally more open to risk-taking. As such, they have more thoroughly dismissed research and local context, more hastily pursued scale, and more aggressively ratcheted up the rhetoric. Consequently, they have played an out-sized role in shaping the climate in which all policymakers—in and out of government—think about educational change. It should come as no surprise, then, that state and federal reform plans have increasingly come to resemble the exploits and adventures of philanthropic foundations.
It is now almost an accepted truism that successful schools offer lessons about “what works” and that those lessons can, in turn, be taken to scale. It’s a nice, simple idea, and a particularly attractive notion for those put off by the tentative nature of educational research and the often lethargic pace of grassroots reform. But despite the triumph of this vision, its expression in policy has produced only mixed results. The small schools movement, for instance, failed to substantially increase student achievement. TFA corps members, for all the good work they do, are hardly the kind of life-long expert teachers found at top-flight independent schools, and most studies find them roughly equivalent to other novices. And the AP Program, having expanded into low-income urban and rural schools, is now being dumped by elite schools and branded as outdated. Their latest obsessions—“value added” evaluations of teachers, charter schools, and technology—have been no more impressive in terms of outcomes.
Whatever the wishes of scale-obsessed educational entrepreneurs, schools still appear to improve slowly. There are no easy solutions and no quick fixes. But this cohort of reformers, led by a posse of assertive billionaires and their allies, is united in its faith and unprecedented in its influence. As such, setbacks alone are hardly enough to challenge the way they approach school reform. And that’s a problem. Not just because they are so frequently wrong, but because each time they make the case for a new reform, they blast public school leaders, disrespect what teachers know about classrooms, disregard most of the research on school improvement, and frame our schools as failures. That isn’t common sense; that’s arrogance.