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Rick Hess: The New Educational Philanthropy

Dec 16, 2015 by

An Interview with Rick Hess: The New Educational Philanthropy

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Rick, you and Jeff Henig have just edited a book on “The New Education Philanthropy.” What brought this about?

Just fifteen years ago, there were concerns that the nation’s philanthropic community was retreating from K-12, frustrated with what they regarded as school districts’ stubborn resistance to change. In March 2002, the $500 million Annenberg Challenge, which had been unveiled in 1994 at a joyous White House ceremony, petered out on a disappointing note. In the early 2000s, some traditional major funders redirected their efforts away from K-12 to pre-K or to other sectors. Education philanthropy has since roared back with a vengeance. The new giving is often targeted and policy-focused. As a result, philanthropy has taken on a shape that once would have been astonishing. This new approach, with its emphasis on metrics and advocacy, has proven hugely controversial.

Where it was once rare to hear attacks on education philanthropy, today many education funders are subject to furious backlash. Yet you don’t find a whole lot of measured assessment or scholarly looks at all this. The subject is a tough one because, all else equal, it’s not all that appealing for edu-scholars to write anything that might annoy those giving large sums to edu-scholars. The result is that we see remarkably little substantive examination of education philanthropy (though there are a few happy exceptions, like Dale Russakoff’s The Prize and Sarah Reckhow’s Follow the Money). I’d tackled all this a decade ago in the volume With the Best of Intentions, and Jeff and I agreed that it was time to revisit the topic.

2) Why now? Why a book on this topic?

Some of this touches on what I just said. To dig a bit deeper, in 2005, With the Best of Intentions examined the role of philanthropy in K-12, using the disappointing example of the Annenberg Challenge as a jumping-off point. At that point, Gates foundation officials were, for the first time, seriously considering whether to play an active role in shaping public policy. No one regarded New Orleans, Washington, D.C., or Newark as hotbeds of school reform. In short, it was a different educational world ten or fifteen years ago. This book is framed by our sense that what foundations do has changed in notable ways and that these changes matter. Our experience suggests that funders have become more intentional in their strategy, attentive to politics, focused on metrics of success, and aggressive about changing policy. These changes can be both good and bad, and the contributions to this volume try to help readers think about why that is and what it all means.

3) Who were some of the contributors to this text and what did they tackle?

Jay Greene, who had authored a seminal chapter on the limits of philanthropy in With the Best of Intentions, explores why big foundations overestimate their ability to drive policy change. Researchers Sarah Reckhow, Megan Tompkins-Stange, and Jeff Snyder document the extent of giving by a number of major foundations, their funding strategies, what gets funded, and some of the resulting dynamics. Andrew Kelly and Kevin James offer a pioneering look at how edu-philanthropy is playing out in higher education. Alexander Russo interviews a raft of current and former foundation officials to see what lessons they think they’ve learned over the past decade. Dana Goldstein dives deep into the history and lessons of the Gates Foundation’s wildly influential Measures of Effective Teaching project. Michael Q. McShane and Jenn Hatfield examine the extent, nature, and dynamics of anti-foundation backlash. And the inimitable Larry Cuban delves into the role teachers play as “classroom gatekeepers” and how it explains the disappointing track record of so much philanthropy.

4) What are a few of the key findings reported in the book?

Let’s see. There are a bunch, so let me flag a few interesting ones that come to mind. Jay Greene finds that more than two-thirds of philanthropic giving is non-self-sustaining; that is, it goes to efforts that don’t generate supporters who can advocate for those efforts politically. Jeff Snyder finds that charter schools more than doubled their share of foundation dollars between 2000 and 2010. Mike McShane and Jenn Hatfield report that media coverage has gotten significantly tougher when it comes to foundations; they find that there were fifteen times more “extremely negative” articles about the Gates, Broad, Walton, and Arnold Foundations in 2013 than in 2000. At the same time, they find the share of critical articles is still well under ten percent, so critical accounts are more common but still a small share of the total coverage. In higher education, Andrew Kelly and Kevin James report that the Gates and Lumina Foundations pursue a higher-leverage, more policy-oriented strategy than other top funders. For instance, they find that Gates and Lumina devoted between ten and twenty percent of their higher education giving to research on readiness, access, and success, compared to barely two percent at other major higher ed givers.

5) Why are critics concerned about the new philanthropy?

Critics charge the newer foundations with backing the wrong reforms, undermining democratic control, and even pursuing malign agendas. Meanwhile, even those who generally support the means and ends of the philanthropic resurgence see things that give them pause. Critics span the whole political spectrum—from left-leaning progressives opposed to testing and what they perceive as a creeping privatization of schooling to Tea Party critics of the Common Core and new data collection initiatives. Historian Diane Ravitch, perhaps the most influential of these voices, charged in 2014, “[Those in] the philanthropic sector . . . [are] work[ing] in tandem with the U.S. Department of Education . . . Big money—accountable to no one—and big government have embarked on an experiment in mass privatization.”

While your readers likely know that Ravitch and I generally disagree on these questions, Ravitch is correct in noting the extraordinarily close working relationship between major funders and the federal government. Programs like Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund are the clearest examples, but philanthropy has worked very closely with the Obama administration Department of Education, with many state leaders, and with advocates for efforts like the Common Core. Especially in an era of unprecedented federal involvement in schooling, this poses serious questions about the philanthropic sector’s inclination and ability to support competing visions and strategies. It even threatens to make some independent observers hesitant to criticize federally-supported efforts for fear of getting crosswise with influential funders.

6) Do you think that the new philanthropy is a good thing for education, or are you more sympathetic to arguments that it is dangerous?

The new philanthropy, or what we call “muscular philanthropy,” can play an enormously healthy role. Amid the fragmentation, bureaucracy, and deep-set routines of American education, this kind of giving can prove a valuable catalyst. Muscular philanthropy provides a vehicle for identifying and supporting promising individuals and ideas that may be an uncomfortable fit for education bureaucracies and routines. Such giving can light the way forward, especially as long as other donors provide a balancing wheel that can counter fads and the groupthink of the moment.

At the same time, muscular philanthropy also poses important questions about who gets to influence public decisions and how they should do so. As exasperating as it might seem to foundations, especially in the face of ad hominem attacks, foundations that wade into policy have a responsibility to embrace criticism more proactively. After all, choosing to give funds in a way that changes policies for millions of children and communities is different from underwriting a mentoring program. High-leverage giving can be appropriate and may be enormously healthy for students and schools, but it brings with it a new level of civic responsibility.

Approached this way, it seems to me that the relative virtue of the “new” philanthropy doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it depends on what donors do and the context in which they do it. What matters is not just what individual foundations may choose to do, but also whether on the whole foundations provide that balancing wheel and whether philanthropy enriches or short-circuits the messy process of democratic decision making. Clearly, determining whether donors are sufficiently diverse or independent of government are judgment calls—but they’re crucial ones. A primary goal of the book is to help clarify what foundations are doing and how they’re going about it, precisely so that readers will be better equipped to make these determinations for themselves.

7) How good of a job do you think foundations do responding to criticism?

Most of the leading donors make a pretty sincere effort at self-appraisal. They evaluate grants, engage in self-criticism, and convene groups to offer feedback on their giving— and they deserve kudos on this front. However, the groups and individuals tapped by foundations for their insight and feedback tend to include, naturally enough, friends, allies, and grantees. These aren’t the people most likely to challenge comfortable assumptions—especially given the sensible disinclination of grantees to offend benefactors. Robust public discussion, not private conversations, is the most effective forum for surfacing overlooked challenges, forcing difficult issues to the fore, and understanding how others may see an issue through an entirely different lens.

Embracing public debate requires foundation boards to become more accepting of negative publicity than is the norm. It asks foundation staff to view themselves as fair game for public criticism rather than stewards of noblesse oblige. This may seem like a lousy deal. But one lesson the new edu-philanthropists have learned is that mixed reviews are the painful price of relevance. (Foundations would find it easier to do this if the more vehement critics exercised a little more restraint and spent more time focused on substance and less time attacking the motives of donors.)

In the absence of robust public discussion, a vacuum emerges that gets filled by incendiary voices and marginal figures with ideological agendas and nothing to lose. I hope that this book provokes more discussion and suggests some opportunities for foundations, analysts, and critics to find more constructive ways both to listen and to speak up.

8) How different is the “new” philanthropy from the “old” philanthropy?

The phenomenon of muscular education philanthropy is not unprecedented. Critics seem to forget that the Ford Foundation was aggressive and unapologetic about its push to radically restructure New York City’s schools in the 1960s. And in the 1970s and 1980s, Ford and other donors spent heavily to bankroll litigation and policy advocacy that sought to boost and revamp education spending. The Bradley and Olin Foundations played critical roles in supporting the research, advocacy, and policy experimentation that helped bring school choice to the national stage. Active engagement by individuals, associations, communities, businesses, and nonprofits has long been part of America’s pluralist tale. We’ve always been a Tocquevillian nation, where progress springs not from the genius of central planners but from the pushing and shoving of a hearty scrum of self-interested actors.

That said, it’s clear that some things about today’s education philanthropy are distinctive. While some foundations have always taken an active interest in policy and reform, the shared priorities, prescriptive metrics, emphasis on advocacy, and coordination of several of today’s most prominent and deep-pocketed education donors are noteworthy developments. Whereas an earlier generation of donors chalked such failures up to problems of implementation or program design, the new philanthropists tend to blame policy, system inertia, and a lack of political willpower.

9) We are now looking back on about 7 years of Obama’s presidency. Has this “New Education Philanthropy” impacted things in any way?

It sure has. Much of the Obama-Duncan reform agenda has mirrored or been fueled by the new philanthropy. This is most obvious when it comes to Common Core and test-based teacher evaluation, but it is evident everywhere from pre-K to the administration’s higher education agenda. The impact of all this has been evident in at least two ways. One, it’s given prominence to ideas that the administration might otherwise not have entertained, to the point where the administration found it easy to push them through Race to the Top or ESEA “waivers.” Two, it may have created a false confidence about how ready these proposals were for primetime or about the breadth and depth of their support. This, it seems to me, led to miscalculations, overreach, and, ultimately, ferocious backlash that was not foreordained.

10) Who really needs to read this book?

First and foremost, I think Jeff and I hope that foundation staff will read the contributions, discuss them, and critique them. I can’t think of any more useful way to stir fruitful conversation at foundations than to have their staff talking about these analyses, what they get right or wrong, and why. Second, we hope it will find an audience with advocates, public officials, potential grantees, policymakers, educational leaders, researchers, and journalists. The new philanthropy is a huge part of today’s educational world, but it can be tough for leaders or advocates to step back and really think about the role it’s playing and how to ensure that it is productive—and what might be done when it’s not. These thoughts seem particularly relevant for reporters trying to cover the edu-landscape and philanthropy’s role in it. Finally, we also obviously hope that parents and community leaders will find the volume helpful in thinking about the role of philanthropy when it comes to schools and school systems.

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