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Education Opinion

‘There’s an App for That': Philanthropy’s Billion Dollar Bets

By Guest Blogger — May 25, 2016 7 min read
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Note: Our guest-blogger this week will be Megan Tompkins-Stange, an Assistant Professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. Her first book, Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence, will be released June 1 by Harvard Education Press.

My last post struck a chord with many readers, and sparked some fantastic dialogue.* As I delve deeper into some of the ideas raised in the post, let me make one very important caveat. At the Ford School, I start my classes with a quote from Wendy Kopp’s Dartmouth graduation speech in 2012:

There are a lot of haters out there...[but] the people who make a difference, the people who shape history, are not the haters. We have to check ourselves every day and ask, “Is the net force of what I’m doing building or tearing down?” Before we shoot down an idea, we should pause and ask ourselves, “Is there any way I can help to make it work?”

My goal is for my students to become critical thinkers that push beyond the trappings of ideology and deeply held assumptions, and to do so respectfully and constructively—to not be “haters.” Thoughtful critical analysis is not the same as “hating,” although it’s often received that way in the fields of education reform and philanthropy. I hope this post will be received as an attempt towards incisive, constructive analysis rather than tearing down others’ hard work and passion.

With that said, let’s delve deeper into the question of “silver bullets” and technical approaches in education. Two days ago, in a Stanford Social Innovation Review blog post, Debby Bialak and Devin Murphy of Bridgespan expanded on their work on “Billion Dollar Bets” (recently featured in the Atlantic). They sought to illustrate how $1 billion in philanthropic investment would produce returns on 15 dimensions of social inequality, including job preparation, unintended pregnancy, social mobility, and early childhood education.

In the last example, the Bridgespan group proposed the following investment, focused on early childhood mobility:

Create and scale a suite of tech-enabled tools (such as mobile applications that deliver “tips by text” to parents and other caregivers) that support the healthy development of very young children and prepare them for academic success.

In proposing this intervention, the Bridgespan group cited studies of existing apps that prepared children for kindergarten readiness, which have shown promising results and, in one case, significant effects in emergent literacy. They calculated that a “big bet” of $1 billion in these apps would create a $5 to $11 billion social return on investment in terms of academic achievement and overall lifetime earnings.

Yesterday, I shared how a Gates official, tongue in cheek, said “We wish there were an app” for deeply entrenched social and political problems. Now Bridgespan has actually proposed an app as a technical solution—an idea that is backed by evidence, as a number of rigorous studies have shown that “nudges” delivered through technological means such as apps can have positive effects, in areas as diverse as college persistence, academic coaching or preschool literacy preparation. As my colleague Susan Dynarski recently wrote in the New York Times, “These light nudges can’t solve every problem, by a long shot. But at a low cost, they can help many students.” At a billion-dollar bet level, however, are apps the best solution for philanthropists to pursue in early childhood education?

Herein lies the challenge. Outcome-oriented philanthropists, seeking quantifiable impact (and, often, results that can be causally attributed to their grant dollars), are interested in technical solutions of this nature, which can be tracked, observed, compared and evaluated. At scale, a billion-dollar investment might create aggregate effects to such an extent that many students would indeed be positively impacted. But does providing millions of parents with apps address the social, political and cultural roots of the gap in early childhood education?

Ellen Key, an early 20th century education activist, wrote that philanthropy “is only a savory fumigation burning at the mouth of a sewer. This incense offering makes the air more endurable to passers-by, but it does not hinder the infection in the sewer from spreading.” The metaphor, while unappetizing, is in fact apt. Investing in early childhood apps might create impact on the margins by preparing students to succeed in school, but what about the deeper, systemic issues that actually cause social disparities and educational achievement gaps to exist and perpetuate? What, instead, would a billion dollar bet on mental health programs for marginalized parents living in poverty yield, targeted towards remedying multi-generational cycles of abuse, racism and violence? What about a billion dollar bet on providing quality child care programs for infants in poverty, staffed by professional educators and enabling parents to work while their children are cared for in the type of enriching environment that upper class families regard as a birthright? In short, should billion-dollar bets be made on technical solutions or on tapping into the ores of racism, institutional inequality and generational cycles of poverty—the truly risky bets that, if successful over the long run, might have the greatest effect on society?

Current philanthropic trends are stacked against these types of bets. Unlike technical interventions, they won’t yield the quantifiable data on impact that philanthropists seek. As opposed an intervention wherein X leads to Y (a child receives the treatment of the app and emergent literacy goes up), systemic investments are much more difficult to measure and attribute results to. $1 billion spent on apps will give more tangible “bang for the buck” than $1 billion spent on mental health—another intuitively appealing component of a technical approach. These preferences for technical approaches reflect how the philanthropic game has changed in the last five decades. Traditionally, foundations would act in an R&D capacity for the government, incubating promising innovations through demonstration projects and then transferring the most successful ones to the government to implement at scale. In this way, foundations could experiment with risky bets in a way that the government, constrained by the median voter and the public dollar, could not. But foundations weren’t expected to solve an entire problem as much as to spark a promising solution. Today, as both state and federal governments face budget deficits and unprecedented failures like we’ve recently seen in my home state of Michigan, foundations can no longer rely on the scaling mechanism of the state, and instead are looking for wholesale ways to produce outsize impact outside of government bureaucracies and through technology.

This is problematic on multiple levels, however. Philanthropic capital still pales in comparison to government coffers; a colleague at the Mott Foundation recently calculated that the combined endowments of all Michigan foundations would pay for a total of only 46 days of running state programs. And foundations do not have the accountability mechanisms that governments do—if a foundation wants to make a billion dollar bet on something that citizens don’t agree with, it’s free to do so with little avenue for feedback. Perhaps no one would object to apps that facilitate early childhood literacy. But again returning to Sean Parker and “hacker philanthropy,” what if foundations start funding private militias?

I’d urge groups like Bridgespan and their foundation clients and colleagues to twist their conceptual lens beyond the outcome-oriented approach, and instead also consider a multifaceted early childhood investment that involves systemic interventions at its core, despite the complexity of cultural, social and political factors inherent in this strategy. Ultimately, solutions to child poverty cannot follow the same trajectory as scaling an immutable currency or technological innovation.

On Monday, Ford Foundation president Darren Walker spoke at an event titled “Fairness by Design,” on how big data and technological initiatives could be managed to protect vulnerable populations. He described a changed landscape wherein philanthropy presidents must be “fully informed by and infused with technology,” including bringing technology experts into foundation boardrooms. Ford is the archetype of a field-oriented foundation in my book Policy Patrons, and so I’d caution President Walker to remain committed to its existing institutional values as it defines its next decade of work in addressing inequality, despite philanthropic trends toward technical approaches.

(To wit, one of my favorite on-point tweets of the past year:)

Thanks again for reading, and please keep the comments and emails coming. You can reach me at mtompkin @ umich dot edu, or @tompkinsstange on Twitter. Thanks for the thoughtful feedback and engaged conversation!

*Including a great piece of trivia: “silver bullets” belonged to the Lone Ranger, whereas the first antibiotic drugs were termed “magic bullets.” Somewhere along the way, the terms got confused, perhaps in part thanks to Sam Seaborn.

--Megan Tompkins-Stange

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.