Education Opinion

Philanthropy and The Restructuring Of Schools

By Dennis P. Doyle — June 20, 1990 7 min read

Philanthropy has developed in this country as nowhere else on earth. Alexis de Tocqueville knew us well: “Americans combine to give fetes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the antipodes. ... Where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association.” But even he would be surprised by the sheer size and scope of the enterprise today.

The biggest and best-known philanthropies are virtually household words--Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller--not just because they bear the names of famous industrialists, but because of their extraordinary largess. They have changed the face of the nation in education as well as every other conceivable area, from plant genetics to art museums.

This kind of involvement was not always the case. In the mid-19th century, one of the nation’s earliest efforts at corporate philanthropy was nearly derailed by irate railroad-company shareholders. The aggrieved parties argued that the transcontinental railroads were improperly providing gifts to the YMCA (which provided subsidized room and board for railroad workers); the shareholders, in a not unfamiliar story, wanted the money for themselves.

At the same time, angry taxpayers in Michigan were suing the public sector for its profligate use of tax revenues. Which wretched excess did these citizens attack? Using public funds for a public high school.

In both suits, reason prevailed. Private philanthropy--corporate as well as individual--was permitted, and public expenditures for secondary schooling were deemed both appropriate and legal.

Today, we take both practices for granted, in large part because the scale is so vast. Such corporations as RJR Nabisco, General Electric, IBM, Apple, Burger King, American Express, Xerox, and dozens of others are heavily involved in education.

How do corporate foundations work? While I can speak only to one such endeavor--for the past nine months, I’ve had the opportunity to work with the RJR Nabisco Foundation--this sample offers lessons that should be of interest to all educators.

There are two sides to the story: the foundation process itself and the response from more than 1,000 applicants to the corporation’s Next Century Schools grants competition for schools committed to bold restructuring plans.

Created in the mid-1980’s, the RJR Nabisco Foundation is a “charitable and educational” organization that supports education across the country. Its chairman is Louis V. Gerstner Jr., who is also chief executive officer of RJR Nabisco Inc. Mr. Gerstner, who previously oversaw the American Express Academy program, has been cited by Fortune and Business Week for his business and education interests. Impatient with delay, he is convinced that we know enough to act--that no more studies are needed. “No prizes for predicting rain; prizes only for building arks,” he has said.

He is also persuaded that lasting change percolates from the bottom up. Restructuring is “enabled” by a creative CEO, but he believes that, finally, the front-line troops make it work. Built on the assumption that restructuring will proceed one building at a time, organized by teachers and principals, the Next Century Schools program reflects Mr. Gerstner’s view that serious change requires “house to house” combat.

The foundation’s president, Roger Semerad, formerly an assistant secretary in the Labor Department, is very much aware of the problem of institutional lethargy: He began his Washington career nearly 25 years ago as a fellow in the U.S. Office of Education. While in the Labor Department, he was the prime mover behind Workforce 2000, a Hudson Institute study of emerging workforce needs. This report reinforced Mr. Semerad’s conviction that an educated workforce is central to a healthy economy; it also convinced him that business-as-usual invites failure.

Although the process established by the foundation mirrors these views, it also reflects the observation of T.S. Eliot: “Between the idea ... and the act falls the shadow.” From conception to program development to program announcement, the road is smooth; even the application process is smooth. But reading the applications and deciding among many worthy ideas are more challenging.

One thousand proposals at 20 minutes each is 333 reader hours, or 8.3 reader weeks; the several hundred proposals that advance to the finals require more time and more readers--at least two each--and the final round demands still more.

Perhaps the most difficult part for readers is captured by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s phrase, “backwards reels the mind.” As proposals begin to blur one into another, it is not the blurring per se that is disconcerting, but the nagging suspicion that you may be overlooking a diamond in the rough or overestimating an ordinary proposal because you are gaga from having read 87 applications in the last week.

In the abstract, developing objective measures for judging proposals is straightforward. But putting them into practice is arduous because the stakes are high. Winning schools can receive as much as $250,000 per year for three years--a princely sum by most standards.

In the final analysis, of course, there is no uncertainty about the 15 winners--they are outstanding.

The hundreds of proposals created a distinct overall impression. We readers have shared notes, and our views, while not unanimous, are strongly convergent.

Almost without exception, the proposals expressed a deep conviction that American values have changed--for the worse. The family is an endangered institution. The broken home is no longer the exception, even if it is not yet the norm, and this reality places severe burdens on the school--burdens no one is well equipped to deal with. Indeed, most of the applications contained direct responses to the problem: Plans to extend the school day and year, for example, were common.

All of the ideas advanced were humane, and some were wonderfully practical. My favorite was a simple plan to stagger school hours so that older siblings who walked younger ones to class wouldn’t be tardy every day as a consequence of their good efforts.

Most, but not all, of the proposals offered schemes to put technology in the classroom, and some were straight out of Buck Rogers. But in almost all cases, the technology “fix” was just an add-on, not part of a plan to enhance productivity. In other sectors of the economy, technology is designed to increase output, whether the field is agriculture, manufacturing, extraction, or service. Educators, however, seem not to have grasped a fundamental truth: Technology is supposed to more than pay for itself by the gains in productivty it creates.

Other ideas, happily, ran the gamut, from outdoor schools with the community as teacher, to a “shepherding” program for at-risk youngsters, to boarding schools for inner-city children. Some were funny: a boat for fishing and sightseeing expeditions; a trip for teachers to the “Magic Kingdom” at Walt Disney World to put some magic back into the school. Some were outrageously expensive: a two-hour-per-day after-school program staffed by full-time teachers with a 5-to-1 student-teacher ratio; an early-childhood program in an affluent community that would have cost $20,000 a year per student.

But all were serious and carefully thought out. And don’t believe any horror stories you may have heard about how demoralized American teachers and principals are. This sample, at least, would restore your faith in their enthusiasm, energy, and professionalism.

But don’t believe any rumors you might have heard that wholesale restructuring is just around the corner, either. It isn’t. These nonrepresentative teachers and principals--presumably among the nation’s most ambitious and aggressive--are not revolutionaries. They are playing their cards close to their vests.

Indeed, they remind me of Elsa the lion. Remember the movie Born Free? Handlers try to return a lion born in captivity to the wild. Elsa is taken to the savanna, her cage door is opened--and there she sits. A gorgeous creature, strong and lithe, she is unwilling to take the plunge. That image is the most powerful conjured up by the first round of the Next Century Schools competition.

As a nation, we are fortunate to have a highly capable teaching force ready--in theory--for a bit of entrepreneurship. That is the good news. The bad news is that it has been trained--conditioned may not be too strong a word--by experience to be careful and circumspect.

John F. Kennedy had a favorite quote: “Unless it is necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” Until now, that approach has served our schools well. But today we need perestroika for our schools as badly as the Soviets need it for their economy. Perhaps as other foundations emphasize the need to take risks, teachers will begin to see entrepreneurship as an opportunity, not just a danger.

A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 1990 edition of Education Week as Philanthropy and The Restructuring Of Schools