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School & District Management Commentary

Philanthropy and Schools: An Insider’s View

By Heather Zavadsky — November 15, 2011 5 min read
Administrators cheer at an assembly in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 20 upon hearing that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools won the Broad Prize for the district's work on student achievement.

The logic of partnering with business, higher education, legislators, and community organizations to create pivotal support and pressure points for school improvement is well understood. However, the role of philanthropy in such partnerships is less clear and sometimes misunderstood and, I believe, undervalued.

Because foundations have dedicated unprecedented amounts of money to education over the past eight-plus years, some negative assumptions have grown up around their work, and critics have argued that foundations are funding politically driven self-interest projects in education.

But consider this: In times when public education is scarce on funding, districts and schools greatly benefit from the ability of philanthropy to support field-tested research on innovative and promising education practices.

Foundations make good educational partners because their current work is strategic, inclusive, and aligned with the same goals and approaches that individual organizations cannot easily leverage on their own to create real change.

Foundations make good educational partners because their current work is strategic, inclusive, and aligned with the same goals and approaches that individual organizations cannot easily leverage on their own to create real change."

There is plenty of evidence that those in the philanthropic sector are helping districts build coherent systems, improve staff management, better utilize data, and try innovative approaches to capture the attention of students while feeding new demands from businesses for different types of graduates. Foundations are able to accomplish this work through their ability to fund research and development, convene multiple stakeholder groups, and take innovative risks—tasks that public education cannot as easily undertake, particularly in tight times.

I have been directly involved with philanthropy partnerships in education reform for roughly 11 years. While it’s easy to sit on the outside and speculate about the motivations and potential outcomes of foundation dollars, I’d like to provide my perspective gained from direct work with foundations and the practitioners that benefit from their work.

My main area of expertise involves systemic reform of eduction systems. I’ve always believed that alignment is crucial for ensuring that students, regardless of where they live, have a coherent K-12—or better yet, K-16—educational experience. Scaling up reform is important and difficult; the many resources and skills it takes to explain the surge of interest in “collective impact” to maximize community, political, fiscal, and educational expertise.

One can find a great example of how philanthropy has provided important and positive support for education in the Broad Prize for Urban Education, a project I helped manage for five years while working at the National Center for Educational Achievement. The Broad Prize, as it’s now formally known, aims to reward districts that improve the achievement of disadvantaged students; restore public confidence in public education; create competition and incentives for districts to improve; and share best practices of successful districts. (“Broad Prize: Elite Club or Catalyst for Change?,” October 19, 2011.)

Today, districts are learning from Broad winners, and superintendents are adding the prize as a goal in their contracts. Better yet, winners and finalists have told me that the recognition gave them a huge shot in the arm, thanks to the national attention they gained from the prize, which helped them attract great teachers while also highlighting where to focus future improvement efforts.

This prize has far exceeded the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation’s four goals for it, and managing the prize process is how I first learned about the power of philanthropy to help fund research and shine a spotlight on education systems that are working. The prize process is rigorous and has provided 10 years of empirical data and documentation about how urban districts moved from unacceptable to laudable student achievement through thoughtful and coherent reform strategies.

For me, taking part in the prize process provided the learning opportunity of a lifetime. Being able to visit a district such as Boston for four consecutive years to examine how its infrastructure, practices, and instructional core have changed for the better was fascinating. In our visits, we held interesting and tough conversations about how to combat achievement gaps and political pressures that make urban education such a challenging field. We also conducted a “retro study” to better understand how a district like Long Beach, Calif., can win, sit out for the required three years (a rule for all winners), and then resurface as a finalist the first year it is eligible again. It is crucial to understand sustainability in urban systems—the levers that can or need to be pushed or pulled to keep student achievement moving up, even when budgets are decreasing.

In my book Bringing School Reform to Scale: Five Award-Winning Urban Districts, I took four years of achievement and interview data, with additional new information to capture lessons from Broad Prize recipients Aldine, Texas; Boston; Long Beach and Garden Grove (both in California); and Norfolk, Va., on moving from deplorable to award-winning performance. Their wins are genuine. There were no political discussions or biases involved, just steady, intense focus on teaching and learning and on building a strong system to support a high-quality instructional core for all students. I’ve been questioned on how political the process is, e.g., “Did districts cheat to yield the scores?” or “Did the Broad Foundation fund your book?” And, I can say to both questions: No, they did not.

Isn’t it possible that these districts just rolled up their sleeves, brought in incredible talent, and gradually chipped away at the achievement gap?

There is a new trend in education philanthropy: Foundations are working more in tandem with each other and with educators and policymakers to align their skills and interests around important educational goals. The advantage is what foundations describe as “collective intellectual capital,” which connects the right stakeholders to create greater collective impact. In my experience, given fiscal scarcity and the need to be efficient yet innovative, practitioners are finding great partnerships with foundations, which have the freedom to innovate and help strategically scale what works.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as Philanthropy and Schools: An Insider’s View

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