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Funders Get Advice on Achievement Gap

Grantmakers got mixed advice last week about what their role should be in reducing disparities in achievement between minority and white students and in promoting the goals of the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001.

Philanthropies can do more to help increase the test scores of minority students by focusing on programs that may not relate specifically to academics, Richard Rothstein, an author and an education columnist for The New York Times, told foundation representatives gathered here for the annual Grantmakers for Education conference.

Introducing the conference theme of "Closing the Achievement Gap" at the opening plenary session, Mr. Rothstein said that such services as school-based breakfast programs and dental clinics "could very well get a bigger test-score bump than all of the pedagogy and teacher-quality initiatives you can think up."

Factors outside of school, such as a child's culture and home environment, or whether a student is distracted from schoolwork because of an untreated toothache, play a large part in determining academic success, Mr. Rothstein said.

"We blindly assume that school reform can be responsible for 100 percent of student achievement," he said.

Mr. Rothstein went on to caution grantmakers away from thinking they can subsidize programs that will close gaps in achievement because of all the external factors involved. Instead, grantmakers should focus on narrowing achievement differences. "It is an enormous mistake" to do otherwise, he said.

Mr. Rothstein also expressed concern that education philanthropists would put too many resources into meeting a central goal of the No Child Left Behind Act: to get all children to reach a mandated bar. "I fear [the law] is leading us to a train wreck," he said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, however, touted the goals of the federal law in his keynote address the next day.

He stressed the significance of the legislation's intent to improve the achievement of disadvantaged students.

"We understand the link between poverty and achievement," Mr. Paige said. But, he added, failure is not "part of a child's DNA."

The secretary also asked grantmakers to keep the goals and requirements of the law in mind as they decide what programs to underwrite.

"We would ask that as you go forward, you take real careful aim at the soundness of the programs you fund," Mr. Paige said. The closer grantmakers can get to being in line with the goals of the law, he said, "the more [the Bush administration] will appreciate it."

At the Oct. 6-9 conference, grantmakers also heard about the impact their dollars could have on education overseas, along with the challenges and rewards of trying to support educational programs abroad.

The two biggest hurdles grantmakers must clear when they consider expanding to other countries are language and cultural differences, according to the panelists.

Communicating with grantees can be difficult if program officers and grantees do not speak the same language. Likewise, cultural differences can pose problems.

For example, Maya Ajmera, the founder and executive director of the Washington-based Global Fund for Children, said her group used e-mail to offer a grant to a small African orphanage for children whose parents had died of AIDS.

The philanthropy expected an immediate response to its offer, but had to wait six weeks to hear back. The director of the orphanage had to travel so far to check his e-mail that he could manage the trip only once a month, Ms. Ajmera said.

Collaborating with organizations and funders with a record of success overseas can solve some of the problems with subsidizing programs in other countries, especially in the Third World, panelists said.

Regardless of the challenges, working in needy areas of the world has greater payoffs than in more affluent countries, because even small amounts of money can go much further, argued Narciso Matos, the chairman of international development for the Carnegie Corporation of New York."The reward is always much bigger than what you could get in more developed countries."

—Michelle Galley

Vol. 22, Issue 7, Page 11

Published in Print: October 16, 2002, as Reporter's Notebook
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