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how many billionaires does it take to fix a school system? June 23, 2008

Posted by KG in education.
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great discussion on education reform from nytimes magazine:

Hess: I think these two camps tend to make the same analytic mistake. Ten or 20 years ago, the dominant givers in education were trying to work through districts. There was the Kellogg Foundation, the Packard Foundation, the Ford Foundation, all working from the inside. The biggest example was the Annenberg Foundation. In 1993, former Ambassador Walter Annenberg went to the White House and announced a $500 million gift to education. He said, essentially, “We need to drop a bomb on American urban education to shake things up.” Local foundations made matching gifts, so Annenberg’s $500 million was leveraged into more than $1 billion, invested in more than a dozen communities. And generally speaking, it was a substantial disappointment. There was very little change in an ongoing, meaningful way. You know, there’s a reason that Univac wasn’t able just to become I.B.M., and there’s a reason I.B.M. couldn’t just become Microsoft and Microsoft couldn’t just become Google. Organizations bake in the assumptions and the processes that made them successful. The way you hire your people, the way you reward your people, the internal practices you devise — they are all built around a certain set of assumptions and operations. When that larger world changes, it’s tough to retool. So when these reform-minded superintendents come in, like Alan Bersin when he arrived in San Diego or Paul Vallas when he got to Philadelphia or Joel Klein here in New York, they face enormous challenges. A school system is not an agile, nimble organization where if you can just hire the right people and start the right programs, you can turn things around quickly. You’ve got to work your way around outdated staffing processes, inadequate and bulky information-technology systems, abysmal and poorly conceived data-management systems. Alan Bersin was five years into his tenure in San Diego before teachers stopped putting transfer requests into a wooden box.

Tough: O.K., that’s the problem on the fix-the-system side. What is the mistake that the replace-the-system people make?

Hess: Those folks take the wrong lesson from successful programs like Green Dot and Achievement First and KIPP. They say, “Look, let’s just create options, and more good alternatives will emerge.” It’s a little bit like the mistake we made in planning for the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003: if we create a vacuum, good stuff will happen. Well, you know, effective markets aren’t created by vacuums. Markets are ways to channel human energy and ingenuity, but only when they’re transparent, when they’re structured, when you’re building on human social capital, when you’ve got talent and investment capital. If we really want to think about new solutions, it’s not just identifying the right people and the right programs; we need to create an environment where these people and solutions are able to thrive. So for me, if you’re going to do a locale-based strategy — whether it’s L.A. or New York or D.C. — the most important strategy is not putting money into the system and it’s not funding the five best charter operators. It’s attracting aggressive human-resource operations like New Leaders for New Schools or the New Teacher Project. It’s providing the kind of legal and business support that those programs need in order to expand and grow. These are things that philanthropists tend not to invest in because they’re not sexy but that are actually going to determine whether we’re able to make reforms work or not.

Klein: It’s the hardest money to raise. When I go to a lot of businesses looking for donations, they say, “Well, I’ll build a new school library,” or, “I’ll build a gym.” And that’s cool. I mean, we need all the libraries and gyms they can build for us. But it’s not strategic. We’ve got lots of schools with great gyms and libraries that are not doing anything for their kids. I mean, maybe they’re playing basketball. But smart philanthropists will invest in just the kind of things that Rick is talking about. In order to make real change, you have to understand human resources, you have to understand technology and the transparency of data and the ability to actually reward people for things other than showing up. These are fundamental game-changing strategies. And you need money from philanthropists to get that off the ground.

Hess: It’s not sexy money.

Klein: It’s not. But it’s exactly where philanthropy has been very effective in New York. The Broad Foundation and the Gates Foundation and the Tiger Foundation gave us money to totally retool our H.R. system. If I had tried to get that money from the existing budget for that kind of overhaul, it would have been next to impossible. But outside money is much more flexible than government money. So with philanthropic support, we were able to create a pilot program, get it off the ground, tinker with it, prove it worked — and only then expand it with city funds.

III. Inputs vs. Outcomes

Tough: Vanessa, is it hard to get potential philanthropists to think about these more systemic investments? Do they all start off wanting to donate gymnasiums and libraries?

Kirsch: In the past, I think that was true. But we’re seeing a new kind of philanthropist. They don’t want to put their name on a gym; they don’t want to put their name on a building. They want to see change. My company is a venture-philanthropy firm. We work with about 50 wealthy donors, and we bundle their money and invest it strategically in a variety of nonprofits. And when these donors are starting out, I tell each of them that as they turn to philanthropy, it is important for them to keep their business hat on. They should spend their money the way they made their money, which means investing in great people, testing out new ideas, being tough-minded in evaluating what’s working and what isn’t.

Tough: Your approach sounds a little different from what Joel was describing. Instead of creating a single national strategy where all the parts fit together, you’re looking to support lots of different people who have a variety of different ideas.

Kirsch: I think those two approaches can reinforce each other. One of the things that makes America great is its entrepreneurial system. We have entrepreneurs in every corner of the private sector, and we have capital markets to support them. If you’re a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with a brilliant idea, there is a whole system in place to help you turn that into a successful enterprise: angel investors, consultants, seed capital, incubators. There are many talented entrepreneurs in the social sector too, but for those social entrepreneurs, there are no organized capital markets or support systems to give them the help they need to be the disruptions and innovators — and, just as important, to get their innovations to scale.

Klein: In the last few years, there has been a paradigm shift in the philanthropic community. Increasingly, what matters to donors is outcomes. When Tom was with the Gates Foundation, the first big plan we developed together was a project to take large high schools that weren’t working and break them up into a series of small schools under a single roof. And from our very first meeting, Tom wanted to know about outcomes. He said, O.K., how many more kids will these new schools graduate, compared with the schools they are replacing? And that is a very different approach than you would have seen 10 years ago, when most of the philanthropy that went to education was about inputs.



1. madelyn - August 21, 2008

good day to all!
hope you could help also in my country{philippines}
mostly who lived in very far provinced who was very behind of new technology now..

thank you..

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