Education Opinion

Looking the Gift Horses in the Mouth

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — April 18, 2001 7 min read
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Relative to others, Annenberg’s grant was huge, and its purpose ambitious: to turn around public education.

From the very first, there were mutterings in the philanthropic community about whether the publishing magnate and former U.S. ambassador Walter H. Annenberg’s $500 million gift to public education was a “good grant.” Relative to others, the grant was huge, and its purpose ambitious: to turn around public education. Both the size of the grant and its ambitions, however, make evaluation exceedingly difficult.

All of us evaluate grants as projects, looking to see if a specific planned intervention took place, and to gauge its effect on the performance of the target school district. But examining the Annenberg grants this way misses the underlying story. The question to ask of the Annenberg grants, or others aimed at system changing, is not what happened to the project or short-term performance but what kind of an educational reform infrastructure did the project leave behind?

Thus, in addition to asking whether New York City’s public schools created small high schools, as the Annenberg grant in that city intended, we should inquire about the condition of the civic coalition involved in reform. In addition to trying to puzzle through what part of Chicago’s or Philadelphia’s rising test scores can be attributed to Annenberg’s intervention, we should inquire into who is propelling reform now, as the project’s reforms have drawn to a close and the superintendent who embraced them has left the job. In sum, the Annenberg grants raise the question of creating social capital for reform.

The case of the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, known as LAAMP, provides an interesting illustration.

To be sure, LAAMP sponsored projects. The majority of its funds underwrote the development of School Families: network-style organizations designed to connect elementary, middle, and high schools so that children are not lost in the transitions, and that communication about students and learning travels between levels. Some 28 clusters of schools, called “families,” received support. The 247 participating schools enrolled nearly 210,000 students and employed 8,576 teachers. LAAMP also sponsored several other initiatives: parent engagement, educational technology, and data- driven reform among them. The projects themselves will have their own legacy. Many will continue; some will wither when the watering can of external funds is removed.

But my colleagues and I, who had the opportunity to take a retrospective look at LAAMP, found the organization’s legacy much more in its contribution to the city’s social-capital infrastructure than in its discrete programs. LAAMP increased the circle of reformers by racially and ethnically broadening its board, and also broadening the agenda beyond school restructuring. It established a political coalition of sorts that, as we shall see, proved to be potent. It created new information channels and ways to engage the public in discussing education. And it sought ways to leverage reform by starting organizations that will continue its work.

Unlike the case in many Eastern cities, Los Angeles’ civic leaders had paid scant attention to public education. Beginning in the 1960s, the politics of school change largely concerned desegregation and the location of categorical programs.

The question to ask of the Annenberg grants, is not what happened to the project or short-term performance but what kind of an educational reform infrastructure did the project leave behind?

Until the late 1980s, the city government, its elected officials, and business leaders were largely uninvolved.

That changed rapidly. Groups aligned with the Industrial Areas Foundation began to organize families. Businessman (and now Mayor) Richard Riordan sought to put together a large coalition. Civil rights attorney and record-company executive Virgil Roberts led the effort to establish an entity called Los Angeles Educational Progress, to support teacher and program development. Then, the business community and the teachers’ union, United Teachers Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Unified School District entered into an ambitious school restructuring project called LEARN. All these were under way when the Annenberg gift was announced in 1993, and a group led by University of Southern California President Steven Sample sought to make Los Angeles an Annenberg Challenge city.

As one looks back on the five years of the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, it is easy to see that the organization propelled and strengthened the civic infrastructure that attends to education reform in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. When LAAMP closes its doors later this year, it will leave three organizations with continuing missions for educational reform:

• The Los Angeles Educational Partnership, whose founding preceded LAAMP’s, will continue a teacher-quality initiative that has forged linkages between the California State University campuses and school districts in a time of great undersupply of qualified teachers.

• A new organization, Families in Schools, will take over a parent initiative started by LAAMP. Simultaneously, the Industrial Areas Foundation, an important part of the birth of a civic coalition in the late 1980s, is stepping up its community organizing using the “alliance school” idea that demonstrated marked success in Texas.

• An education policy and advocacy organization, called the Los Angeles County Alliance for Student Achievement, “the Alliance” for short, has picked a president, Sonia Hernandez, who brings a history of advocacy and activism.

LAAMP also leaves behind new rules of civic engagement for education reform. Where earlier efforts sought to work quietly with the Los Angeles Unified district or with a grand coalition of educational interests, LAAMP board members began to engage in direct political action. A significant part of the political coalition that supported LAAMP and other school reform initiatives formed the nucleus of electoral campaigns to unseat three incumbents from the district’s school board. After a tough electoral battle, all three challengers were seated. Shortly thereafter, the superintendent was replaced, and the district was structurally divided into 10 somewhat autonomous units. The glove of philanthropy contains the fist of a political haymaker.

At the same time, school politics and city politics have merged, as they have in other big cities. Mr. Riordan, whose tenure as mayor ends this spring, emerged as an education mayor who has announced his intent to work with the school district on technology issues after he leaves office. (This would make Los Angeles the only city whose schools have both a mayor and a governor on staff, with former Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado now the superintendent.) All of the contenders in last week’s mayoral election scrambled to create educational platforms, even though the city and school district are fiscally and operationally independent, and education is largely a “bully pulpit” issue for the mayor. Still, education is no longer a topic that a mayoral candidate can ignore.

LAAMP was also part of changing the criteria of education reform. As an educational reform program, LAAMP represents at least a start to explicitly connecting educational reforms to outcomes, to measurable student results. As such, LAAMP is helping break a long tradition of measuring educational reforms according to process criteria.

The Annenberg project has changed the questions being asked of reform efforts. The typical questions used to be: Was the reform plan implemented faithfully? How many children did the reform effort serve? Now, in part because of LAAMP, the questions being asked are: What are the results for students? What was actually implemented? What is the connection between program and results? These are vastly different questions. By emphasizing the importance of outcomes, the Los Angeles Annenberg project is helping emphasize the centrality of classroom, school, and district data in designing and monitoring success. If done thoughtfully, such monitoring will also help the schools and public recognize the limitations and inequalities built into the existing testing system. Our interviews with project participants and with school reformers in Los Angeles suggest that focusing on student achievement will continue.

Thus, whatever the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project’s program effect, it has had a substantial impact on the city by building a civic infrastructure around reform, creating a new political culture, and putting a focus on results. The Annenberg gift will keep on giving because it has created social capital that will attend to school reform long after LAAMP closes its doors. In one sense, philanthropists can’t save schools by buying reform, but they can set the conditions that allow others to settle in for the long fight. This appears to have happened in Los Angeles. And for this, the people of Los Angeles are in the ambassador’s debt.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is the Hollis P. Allen professor of education at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif. He is currently developing an institute for the redesign of urban schools. The analysis of the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project’s board and staff activities is available online at www.laamp.org.

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2001 edition of Education Week as Looking the Gift Horses in the Mouth

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