Education Funding

Annenberg Challenge Yields Lessons for Those Hoping to Change Schools

By Caroline Hendrie — June 12, 2002 9 min read
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From the beginning, many people had a hand in deciding how to spend the half- billion-dollar bequest to American public education that former U.S. ambassador and publishing magnate Walter H. Annenberg put forward as “a challenge to the nation” in 1993.

“The Annenberg Challenge: Lessons and Reflections on Public School Reform” is available from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform . (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.) An overview of the report is also available.

Like a mound of clay split among many potters, the landmark donation was used to mold an eclectic mix of locally developed projects that took disparate approaches to improving schools. Now that most of those largely five-year projects have been completed, education scholars and other observers are casting about for a way to assess an initiative that was literally and figuratively all over the map.

“The beauty of Annenberg is that it did not assume from the beginning that there was a silver bullet that would apply in all these places,” said Joseph P. McDonald, a professor of teaching and learning at New York University’s school of education. “Now our job as an American educational community is to take a look at what has been learned.”

That question will be on the table this week as Annenberg Challenge leaders from around the country convene in Washington for the release of a report reflecting on just what Mr. Annenberg got for his $500 million.

As expected from a document issued by the two organizations most closely associated with the challenge—the St. David’s, Pa.-based Annenberg Foundation and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform—the report paints a generally upbeat portrait of the initiative’s contributions. Targeted at a general audience rather than education experts, the report does not pretend to lay out an empirical case for success.

Instead, it offers a list of nine lessons learned during the course of the project—ranging from “Every child benefits from high expectations and standards” to “Public education in America is better than its image"—that are unlikely to strike readers as groundbreaking. It also identifies the professional development of teachers as the best use of Mr. Annenberg’s money and cites accomplishments ranging from resuscitating arts education in New York City to bringing a renewed sense of purpose to rural schools.

Yet between the lines of the report are hints of a consensus shared by some of those closest to the Annenberg Challenge, as well as many outside observers: The challenge’s record is at best a mixed bag.

“We learned the hard way that if you seek to change the public schools, you must be prepared to deal with repeated setbacks, rapid turnover in leadership, and sudden changes in direction,” says the report, which was scheduled for release June 12.

Such troubles were particularly pronounced in some of the nine urban challenge sites that were collectively awarded grants totaling $285.6 million, a sum that the local projects were required to match with a total of more than $500 million in new money from other sources. While some challenge sites such as the San Francisco Bay area, Boston, and New York City are seen as yielding promising results, efforts in Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and South Florida are being regarded by even some strong supporters of the overall initiative as less encouraging and, in some cases, downright disappointing.

Hard to Generalize

Among the conclusions to be drawn from those mixed results is that philanthropists focusing on urban education must pay more attention to improving not just individual schools and networks of schools, but also the districts and states they operate in, said Warren Simmons, the executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

“One of the lessons that the challenge has taught the various projects around the nation is that this undertaking is larger than changing schools,” he said.

Another key lesson is that many urban districts are underfunded—even after accounting for waste and inefficiency—and that philanthropy is “no substitute for adequate, equitable, and reliable funding,” the report says.

In addition to the nine large-scale urban grants, the challenge made outright grants totaling $113 million to three organizations devoted to spreading school improvement ideas, set aside $50 million for a rural education initiative, awarded $19.5 million to three arts education projects, and awarded smaller grants totaling $12.5 million for targeted reform efforts in five cities.

The report being released this week does not aim to offer the last word on the challenge’s impact. Some of the projects, including those in Detroit, Houston, and South Florida, have yet to run their course. And the Annenberg Institute, which was established with a $50 million grant from the Annenberg Challenge, intends to issue a more scholarly report this coming fall on the results of the research evaluations that the challenge commissioned of its individual sites, including the urban projects.

If the challenge could be done over, it’s clear from the report that some things would have been approached differently. In discussing the project in Greater Los Angeles, for instance, the report points out that “the $53 million challenge grant was stretched to reach 200,000 students in 247 schools across 14 large districts.” It goes on to quote a member of the board of the local Annenberg Challenge as saying, “We spread ourselves too thin.”

Still, the report stakes claims to significant accomplishments. Chief among them, the report argues, was helping tens of thousands of teachers improve their classroom performance.

In New York City, for example, the four small-schools groups that managed the challenge grant there worked with the local teachers’ union and the 1.1 million-student district to form a mentoring program for new teachers.

Upgrading teachers’ skills was particularly emphasized in the Boston and Bay Area projects—the only two urban challenge sites to receive second five-year grants from the Annenberg Foundation once their initial grants ran out; the only other project to receive such a second round of funding was the Center for Arts Education in New York City.

“The challenge work that delivered the best return was the money invested in giving teachers sustained opportunities to improve their classroom skills,” the report says. “It was the largest activity that challenge projects engaged in—and the most productive.”

Impact on Achievement

Whether the Annenberg Challenge raised student achievement in urban districts is a question that many view as central to any assessment of its legacy.

In many of the sites, researchers have yet to issue final evaluations. In others, including the multidistrict Bay Area School Reform Collaborative in California and New York City, researchers have compared schools in the projects with other, similar schools and found a positive impact on student performance. (“N.Y.C. Students at Annenberg Sites Were ‘Well Served,’ Report Finds,” March 6, 2002.)

But especially in places where the challenge supported systemwide policy changes, such as Boston and Philadelphia, teasing out its impact is hard.

“These are large, complicated systems, and we don’t pretend that the challenge work alone was what made the difference in their success,” the report acknowledges. “We can offer this observation: We saw enough evidence of improvement to reaffirm our faith in children’s ability to meet higher standards.”

Some observers doubt that modest claim will change much once all the site evaluations are done.

“In all of the places that the Annenberg money went to work, there were no dramatic improvements in student performance that one could say were directly catalyzed by the Annenberg Challenge and that were sustained over time,” said Joseph A. Aguerrebere, who has followed the challenge as the deputy director of the education, knowledge, and religion unit at the Ford Foundation, based in New York City. “We still don’t have a large urban school system that we can point to and say they know how to do it right.”

One way in which the Annenberg Challenge tried to “do it right” was by funneling its urban education grants through intermediary organizations rather than school districts themselves. This approach helped strengthen the hand of civic groups bent on better schools and in some cases left a lasting imprint, the report argues. In Chicago, for example, a new public education fund grew out of the challenge, and in Los Angeles, the initiative spawned three successor organizations.

But some question whether building up such groups was an optimal use of resources. Among them are Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington- based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which issued a report in 2000 that portrayed the Annenberg Challenge as a well-meaning but essentially failed effort.

“In retrospect, it may be that the legacy of Annenberg was professional development for the education reformers in these communities,” Mr. Finn said in a recent interview. “It’s a question of whether you believe this is a plausible enough and direct enough effect on kids.”

Encouraging or requiring the formation of networks of schools to support change efforts was another common feature of the large-scale urban sites, and some analysts see that as the challenge’s most worthwhile contribution.

“The network premise is that collective action will be stronger than individual action,” noted Priscilla Wohlstetter, a professor of education at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and the principal investigator for that city’s challenge project. “That’s where they seemed to make the biggest mark: this new approach to school reform.”

Passing the Baton

Others see a new generation of philanthropic efforts as testimony to the Annenberg Challenge’s value. In New York, for instance, two foundations based in the city, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Institute, have joined with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to commit a total of $30 million over five years to break up large high schools and create new small schools. Those involved in that ongoing project, which was announced in 2000, say it is building on the work done in the Annenberg era to strengthen the city’s small schools.

But the Annenberg experience has also offered some cautionary lessons, said Tom Vander Ark, the executive director of education for the Seattle-based Gates Foundation. In the foundation’s $350 million national initiative to support small schools, he said, “we’ve tried to invest with a much narrower focus so that we can better evaluate the effectiveness of our grants.”

Barbara Cervone, who was the national coordinator of the Annenberg Challenge from its inception until two years ago, said she always viewed the initiative as the middle leg of a marathon relay race: “The idea was to pick up a baton, build on things that already had traction, and then pass the baton on.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2002 edition of Education Week as Annenberg Challenge Yields Lessons for Those Hoping to Change Schools


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