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Education Funding Opinion

Education Funders Need to Ditch the Savior Complex

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 21, 2023 12 min read
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Today’s post continues an ongoing series on private foundations’ role in public education.

‘Out of Touch With Reality’

Holly Spinelli is an advocate for equality in classrooms with specific focuses on anti-racism, anti-bias, and anti-oppression facilitation. She continues to cultivate community-inspired work as an adjunct instructor at SUNY Orange County Community College and as a teacher at Monroe-Woodbury High School in Central Valley, N.Y.:

It’s not unusual for private foundations to want to fund “moonshot” education projects and initiatives that they believe will dramatically change schools for the better. While these foundations and funds make great headlines, most are out of touch with reality—with what educators and other community members know will work best for their students and educational spaces. One of the most famous examples is the Gates Foundation’s miserable failure. In some instances, the program, and others like it, caused more harm to the schools it promised to help.

Our students’ education is not a guinea pig for wealthy investors’ shortsighted educational experiments. Instead of imposing corporate visions of what success in schools could be, private foundations should use their money to support down-to-earth, realistic changes that could genuinely help students and schools thrive. Here are places where these private foundations can start:

1.Lose the Savior Complex. Invest in Partnership.

If private foundations take interest in helping students and schools succeed, then they need to get serious about why they are choosing to “partner” with the communities they select for their funding, especially if the community members are predominantly folks from historically marginalized groups. If the reason for the foundation’s partnership is to be the hero who envisions “saving” the community, or to feel good about helping those in need, then the foundation has to reevaluate its purpose for partnering with these schools.

It is no secret that schools are underfunded, but just because a company has large sums of money to offer to a school does not mean that students, teachers, or other school community members need or want pity or someone else to come in with little to no knowledge of our community and impose their ideas of how things should be done.

Yes, financial support is imperative to helping schools provide excellent support and programming for students, but we need a true partnership from private foundations, not a top-down business model with ideas imposed upon our learning communities. We know our students. Our students know themselves. Our community members know what has worked in the past, and they have ideas about what educational success can look like now and in the future.

Our schools need money properly allocated to the student-, teacher-, and school- identified programs that we know will work best for our communities. A lack of funding does not equal a lack of vision. We dream of the possibilities for our students. We are intelligent beings. Schools’ shortcomings are not because our communities are incapable of envisioning and implementing better opportunities for our students; there is simply a lack of funds in the appropriate places to provide the proper support we need to help everyone flourish.

These foundations can easily talk with students and teachers to learn where financial support is needed. They can include this information as they work with school administrators to review budget reports and directly fund the areas that teachers and community members clearly identify as in need of financial support. We do not want to be the face of your charity to bolster your foundation’s reputation. Respect our intelligence and our humanity.

2.Trust Teachers. Trust Students. Trust Communities.

Private foundations need to trust that teachers, students, and school community members can identify the school’s financial needs and where funds can best support educational endeavors. How many educators, students, and community members are involved in the partnership and planning for the otherworldly projects that these foundations wish to support? Whose input and vision are considered? Whose voices are included? Whose are excluded and why?

These private foundations must be open to amending plans if the students, teachers, and community members identify modifications that will work best for the students’ learning. If private foundations don’t trust the teachers, students, and community members to know what will work best for them, then the initiative is doomed to fail before it begins. Teachers are professionals. Students are experts in their learning experiences. Community members are invested in their schools’ success. Trust them.

Imagine the impact that positive changes in schools could have if private foundations removed their corporate ladder-climbing focus and truly partnered with educators, students, and larger school communities. The possibilities are out of this world.


‘Make School Buildings Nice’

Michael Pershan is a math teacher and writer in N.Y.C. He is the author of the book Teaching Math With Examples:

A “moonshot” is an undertaking that, though unlikely to succeed, has a huge upside if it does. Shouldn’t we think a bit more seriously at the outset, then, about what happens when moonshots fail, as they often inevitably will?

Take teacher evaluation. I understand why the Gates Foundation found the idea appealing: Fire bad teachers, reward good ones, scores will surely rise. As it happens, that didn’t work out. And, now that their effort has failed, what are we left with? Nothing. Less than that, really, as many were left feeling embattled and disillusioned at the cost of some $575 million dollars, a colossal wager that did not pay off.

Here’s an idea for a safer bet: air-conditioning. It’s basically impossible to teach in a hot classroom, and (increasingly, it seems) the start and end of the school year are impacted by scorching heat. There is an amount of money that could fix this.

Don’t stop there. Many of our buildings are in terrible shape, impacting learning in all sorts of ways. I once had to stop a lesson because we discovered a dead mouse under a student’s desk. I scooped it up and tried to get back to teaching, but, believe it or not, I no longer had everyone’s total attention.

The Government Accountability Office recently issued official confirmation that America’s school buildings badly need investment. Flip through the report and you’ll see the issue: water-damaged floors, leaky roofs, century-old boilers, broken floorboards, busted pipes, standing water, poor lighting, and the presence of mold and asbestos. In 27.7 percent of school districts, the GAO estimates, more than half the schools need new roofing. In 40.9 percent, more than half have insufficient HVAC systems.

So, here’s my $575 million idea: Make school buildings nice. Make them cool, pleasant, and safe places for learning. If any single large investment is likely to improve test scores, I’d bet on this one, as research is beginning to pile up that all this makes measurable impacts on achievement. True, we don’t know how much of a difference all this would make, but that’s what makes it a moonshot, right?

And, it is critical to ask, what if learning fails to materialize? What will we be left with? The answer: We’ll all be stuck with a bunch of nice schools. Which is not bad at all.

To generalize, private foundations should adopt a “do some good” restriction on their pursuits. By all means, continue to make big bets on ideas that may prove transformational for students. But only do so if their inevitable failures will still improve the lives of students in material ways.


‘Long-Term Projects’

Ann Stiltner is a high school special education teacher in Connecticut. She writes the blog from Room A212(annstiltner.com/blog). Follow her on Twitter @fromrooma212:

Past educational reform has been criticized for “tossing money at the problem” and not showing any improvement in student achievement. Critics will use this history as evidence that money is not an effective way to improve education. They dismiss money as a “been there, done that” approach and they argue that this past experience supports their position against increased spending on education. Private foundations are sometimes the source of this money and share in some of this criticism as well.

However, I would argue that money is crucial to improving public education. We should not be too quick to reject money as a way to improve education. Let us look at the errors that have been made in the past when we have used private foundation money to improve education to highlight changes these foundations can make so their contributions are more impactful.

First, let me be clear. I am talking about money invested in U.S. public school education. Reform efforts in the past have included money from private foundations that involved support for charter schools, purchase of educational materials and technology from major companies, consultants and vouchers, etc. Money is what will help, but it needs to be given to our underfunded public schools to directly benefit all students.

Criticism of this approach usually focuses on the idea that private foundation money is used inappropriately when given to public schools. I believe this is due to the ways this money has been used and restrictions or prescriptions on how the money has to be used. Here are some suggestions to make sure the investment from these private foundations is effective and leads to change and results.

One way to make sure foundation donations to public schools are effective is that the money and support needs to be part of a long-term commitment spread out over many years. The idea of a quick and easy fix to public education is not realistic and is one reason efforts in the past have failed. Once this support is gone, schools are left making the hard decisions of what needs and resources to drop.

If a private foundation wants to help, they should understand that their commitment needs to be in terms of decades not years. Grant programs have shown that when a grant ends, the interventions and supports are lost often before they have been given enough time to cause long-term success. Private foundations should want systemic, substantial change which requires a long time frame.

Another important consideration is these interventions have to be decided on based on input from the community, parents, staff, and educators. Listen to people directly involved and those who will directly benefit. Trust they can tell you what is most important and realistic. Don’t listen to corporate interests, politicians, or high-priced consultants. They often have other motives and agendas.

In addition, the donations need to be used as part of a proactive plan to institute research-based educational interventions. The plan should include a variety of proven best practices that are well thought-out and detailed. One important practice to consider is to use the money to increase staffing and reduce class size. At the same time, donations could be used to provide wraparound supports for families. Things such as medical care (such as school-based health clinics), parenting-support centers, food and nutrition assistance, pre-K schooling, and child care will all contribute to improving educational outcomes. These are the main aspects of a multifaceted and targeted intervention system that the community and educators should be consulted on.

Finally, these long-term projects need to be regularly reassessed and measured to see if expected gains and benchmarks are being made. If not, plans need to be reexamined. A growth mindset should apply to educational reform as much as to student learning.


Thanks to Holly, Michael, and Ann for contributing their thoughts!

This is the second post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here.

The new question of the week is:

It’s not unusual for private foundations to want to fund education projects that they believe to be “moonshots” —something they want to dramatically change schools. Most haven’t had much luck with that. What are ways you think they could use their money to support realistic incremental change that could genuinely help our students?

Part One included responses from Mary Rice-Boothe, Ed.D., Yvette Rosario-Pérez, Diana Laufenberg, and Ruth Okoye, Ed. D.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.


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