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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 You’ve got to work your way around outdated staffing processes, inadequate and bulky information-technology systems, abysmal and poorly conceived data-management systems.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.

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the neuroscience of philanthropy March 11, 2008

Posted by AP in neuroscience.
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new york times magazine:

Charity, do-gooding, philanthropy it’s all just selfishness masquerading as virtue. So says the cynic. In modern times, the theory that each of us, despite occasional appearances of self-sacrificial nobility, is ultimately and invariably looking out for No. 1 got a big boost from Darwin’s theory of evolution. By the logic of natural selection, any tendency to act selflessly ought to be snuffed out in the struggle to survive and propagate. So if someone seems to be behaving as an altruist — say, by giving away a fortune to relieve the sufferings of others — that person is really following the selfish dictates of his own genes. The evolutionary psychologist Randolph Nesse confessed that he slept badly for many nights after absorbing this supposed discovery, which he called “one of the most disturbing in the history of science.”

Before resigning ourselves to a similar spell of disillusioned sleeplessness, it might be instructive to test this theory against a particular case of philanthropy. In recent years, Bill Gates has channeled billions of his dollars to a foundation devoted to fighting disease and poverty. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation may today be the single-most-powerful force in the world for the relief of suffering. But what, one might ask, is in it for Bill?