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Philanthropy and Systemic Reform

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Every decade new phrases are added to the lexicon of school reform. From the 1990's comes "systemic education reform.'' Popular with elected officials, policymakers, and some practitioners, systemic education reform has also caught the eye of a growing number of foundations. Not surprisingly, however, effectively supporting all-encompassing reform efforts is a major challenge for private philanthropy.

With this challenge in mind, 20 foundation executives met during last year's annual meeting of the Education Commission of the States to explore the meaning of systemic reform and discuss how it can best be supported. These executives represented corporate, independent, family, and community foundations, with wide-ranging grantmaking priorities.

As the meeting's observer and facilitator, respectively, we gained a keen sense of the dominant issues that these grantmakers confront when funding systemic education reform. The meeting gave us a window, not only into their thinking, but also into the nature of efforts to make comprehensive changes in public education. We want to share some of what we learned about persistent reform challenges and promising philanthropic approaches to resolving them. "Persistent'' is the operative word; few of the challenges are new to the process of educational change, nor are they easily overcome. Four of the issues the grantmakers discussed provide fundamental challenges for private philanthropy.

  • Concept definition. Systemic education reform is stymied by unclear and inconsistent definitions. Even when the concept is clearly defined, there is little understanding and even less agreement among policymakers, researchers, and practitioners about its relation to daily operations in districts or schools. Grantmakers struggle to advance a concept that is variously described as "curriculum frameworks with aligned state policy systems,'' "school-level flexibility and responsibility,'' "personnel professionalization,'' "many policies pointed toward student achievement,'' or "restructuring districts and schools.''

These definitions dramatize another aspect of the challenge: Systemic reform tends to be defined differently, depending on whether the policy conversation is focused on national, state, district, or school levels. For example, people concentrating on systemic interventions in districts and schools appear to pay little attention to the growing national movement for content-driven standards and measures, suggesting a troubling gap between the national dialogue on systemic reform and the reality of local reform.

  • Risk-taking. Whatever the definition, systemic reform requires risk-taking. It requires states, districts, or schools to adopt far-reaching policies and practices, often before final data have been collected. Naturally, many grantmakers, not to mention school and district professionals whose jobs are on the line, are concerned about such steps. For example, assuming systemic reform provides more local autonomy, some grantmakers worry about what schools and teachers might do when "set free,'' especially by private funds. Frustrated by not knowing the direction risk-taking schools will take, they wonder what it will mean for students. Many funders ask, "Whose risk is it [when reforms are attempted]?'' Risk-taking is a persistent challenge because it affects all reform participants, even relatively insulated funders.
  • Public and political will. Grantmakers, especially those working on local reform efforts, find a remarkable lack of public interest in reform. Until a broad local constituency for reform is developed, these grantmakers believe that systemic change, as well as their investments, will be hindered by weak public will and, in turn, weak political will. These funders echo the oft-cited surveys that Americans worry about the general quality of public education, but not about that of their particular school. This lack of public voice limits the constituency for the complex policy and practice changes systemic reform requires at the local, state, and federal levels.
  • Depth of reform. Private grantmakers struggle to help schools, districts, and states change core policies and practices. Most privately funded changes seem to remain on the margin of standard operations. Schools, districts, or state agencies adopt externally supported initiatives which are proudly displayed but have little effect on core practices and frequently do not lead to a coherent learning environment. Worse, these initiatives enable education leaders to claim, "We don't need to reform, we already have X, Y, or Z program.''

Grantmakers admit that foundations and nonprofit program providers are partially responsible for this situation. Philanthropic entities' basic tendency to operate independently, even with resources that are insufficient to a task, fosters scenarios that lead to marginal reform effects. Nonetheless, the roots of this situation reach well beyond philanthropic behavior. Much larger barriers to deep change include the inherent complexity of systemic reform, as well as the limited incentives and assistance that educators and other local officials receive for redesigning core practices.

Several funders offered promising strategies to meet these challenges. Weaving these with historical knowledge of the philanthropic role in school reform, we suggest two interrelated approaches for how foundations can help advance systemic education reform: by enabling local reform conversations, and by promoting multisector collaboration. Several guiding principles underlie the two approaches:

(1) Systemic reform is slow and difficult, requiring broad and lasting public and political support at state and local levels.

(2) Systemic reform is a process, not an outcome, that must be led and managed strategically. When handled correctly, it is a means toward the end of improved student learning.

(3) Support for this process requires a solid institutional base made up of complementary governmental, nonprofit, and philanthropic entities and initiatives.

(4) External resources--largely philanthropic--need to activate and maintain the change process. Ideally, external resources will be a catalyst for the process, not the backbone.

  • Enabling local reform conversations. The idea here is simple--involve as many stakeholders as possible in the reform of a community's public schools. Implementing the idea, however, is complex. At the heart of the approach is the need to foster local ownership for reform, which is vital for overcoming many of the challenges facing educational change. These barriers are best overcome with a long-range movement to improve particular public school systems. School reform is fundamentally a democratic process, requiring public discourse and debate, as well as public support and sacrifice.

Cleveland presents an excellent example of a strategic effort by the philanthropic sector to enable a local reform conversation. Between 1984 and 1989, Cleveland's corporate and foundation community invested significant money and time in two public-school-improvement programs. The Cleveland Education Fund, established in 1984, provided small grants to school professionals for innovative school-based programs. In 1987, the Scholarship-in-Escrow and School-to-Work programs were created, raising more than $16 million from private sources to guarantee high school graduates college-scholarship assistance or employment in a Cleveland firm.

Despite significant philanthropic commitment, these programs did not generate much improvement in the public schools, although individual teachers and students benefited. Independent evaluators advised Cleveland's philanthropic leaders to shift their energies to systemic education reform. Subsequent discussions among philanthropic, nonprofit, and elected officials led the city to pursue systemic change through an ongoing, citywide summit.

The first summit was convened in 1989 by Mayor Michael White and attended by 500 Cleveland residents. Following the summit, task forces began work on a far-reaching reform agenda, guided by the Cleveland Initiative for Education (a nonprofit strategic-planning organization). At the spring 1993 summit, more than 2,000 Cleveland residents endorsed "Vision 21,'' a systemic-reform plan developed by 26 task forces.

While it is too early to gauge the effect on student learning, Cleveland's philanthropic sector has made possible a constructive local reform conversation, producing broad ownership for systemic change. According to David Bergholz of the George Gund Foundation, the stage is set for systemic reform: Mayor White continues to exert educational leadership; the new school superintendent is a respected leader who understands the importance of the summit process; the business community is focused on the systemic-reform agenda; and the foundation community continues to work to keep the conversation going. In a city long divided over its schools, this is a unique time.

  • Promoting multisector collaboration. Clearly, systemic education reform is too demanding to be effectively advanced by any one sector, entity, or group of individuals. Collaboration within and across sectors is vital, whether these are governmental, for-profit, nonprofit, or philanthropic. Indeed, as demonstrated in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and other locales during the late 1980's and early 1990's, progress on reform is likely when foundation personnel have collaborated with elected officials, business leaders, educators, community representatives, and parents.

The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation's work over the past several years in five different districts underscores the importance of collaboration to systemic reform. The foundation's Hayes Mizell believes Clark has had its greatest success in Kentucky, where the foundation has operated "at the nexus of state policy, local reform movements, and third-party action.'' That is, the foundation's success might largely be due to its interests converging with state reforms and local educators' priorities.

Policy collaboration--as much as institutional, program, or individual collaboration--was central to Edna McConnell Clark's success in Kentucky. Several sectors' policies, not just institutions or people, came together to further reform. Philanthropic policy complemented local administrative and community policies, which were closely tied to Kentucky's path-breaking 1990 legislation.

Considered together, the reform efforts of Edna McConnell Clark and the Cleveland philanthropic community offer a useful lesson: Systemic reforms based on a convergence of policy sectors--governmental, for-profit, nonprofit, and philanthropic--will have more success than systemic reforms based on a single policy sector. This lesson is enduring. America, from its earliest days, has dealt most effectively with social challenges by intermingling public and private initiative.

Bill McKersie, formerly a senior program officer for the Joyce Foundation, is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago. Robert Palaich is the director of policy studies and information systems for the Education Commission of the States.

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