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Education Funding Opinion

Education Philanthropists Should Walk the Walk on Accountability

By Rick Hess — October 10, 2017 6 min read
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I revisited Dale Russakoff’s terrific The Prize over the long weekend. As readers will likely recall, this was Russakoff’s inside, edgy, hugely readable take on Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to Newark and the messy, controversial reforms that followed. It all got me reflecting on my own experiences chronicling the “new” education philanthropy and its consequences, as new funders have emerged and evolved—with more than a little pinwheeling from one strategy to the next.

Russakoff notes that Zuckerberg and then-Newark mayor (now-U.S. Senator) Cory Booker expected to transform Newark’s troubled schools into a national model of excellence—in just five years. Indeed, Russakoff quoted Booker’s approach to school reform efforts with Zuckerberg: “I’m thinking, ‘Do everything you can right now, instead of worrying what tomorrow will be like or the next day . . . People allow their inability to control everything to undermine their determination to do something.” Meanwhile, Zuckerberg would tell reporters of Booker, “I just thought, this is the guy I want to invest in. This is the person who can create change.”

That’s all fair. It’s a big, messy world and it’s tough to know what’s going to work. That’s why it makes sense to bet on individuals who win our trust. But I found myself thinking that some of the “anti-reform” backlash against philanthropy that puzzles would-be benefactors makes more sense if one grasps how smug and removed such talk sounds to those on the outside.

A lot of it, as I note in Letters to a Young Education Reformer, is the sense that accountability is a one-way street. Funders, their staff, and their grantees talk a lot about accountability for schools and teachers, but find it easy to walk away from their own missteps or miscalculations. After all, Zuckerberg has now moved on to launch a massive education foundation, informed by some of the stumbles in Newark. Booker moved on to Washington. And all of the consequences of their frenetic push—good, bad, and ugly—are now the property of the families and educators who couldn’t move on. The other week, I called out teachers unions for failing to “walk the walk”; I think the same admonition can be applied to education funders, big time.

Ultimately, donors and foundation staff don’t have to answer to anybody besides themselves. They’re free to interpret their experiences however they like. This is why they can come across as unaccountable and smitten with their own wisdom. But it’s also good to keep things in perspective. If you’re bitterly angry at someone who’s voluntarily giving away large sums of money, you probably need to take a deep breath.

Foundation officials simultaneously manage to acknowledge and dismiss concerns about all this. They tell you that they know people are sucking up to them and, to demonstrate that they get it, they all tell the same self-deprecating jokes. (The most common one, which I’ve heard countless times, is, “When I took this job, X told me, you’ll never again have a bad meal or a bad idea. And X was right!”)

Of course, because the joke-teller might be giving away big chunks of cash, everyone roars as if it’s the funniest thing we’ve ever heard. That’s the problem. Foundation staff get treated with kid gloves. They’re always welcome. Everyone nods in appreciation when they speak. Even their dumbest statements are greeted with, “That’s really insightful and important. Let me just add . . .” Smart, accomplished people jump through hoops to meet with them or respond to their requests. When foundation staff fail to honor commitments or promises, hardly anyone is inclined to call them on it. Could you live like that and not wind up with an inflated sense of your place in the world? I sure couldn’t.

Most foundation staff spend a lot of time talking to people they fund, people they might fund, or people trying to woo them. They spend every day talking about their mission, how to refine it, and how to execute it, and they do this mostly with people who want their money. Given all that, it’s easy to wind up in a self-assured, mission-driven bubble. After enough of this, almost any unsolicited critique can seem misinformed, unfair, and as proof that the critic “just doesn’t get it.”

Now, in my experience, most funders do take self-appraisal seriously. They evaluate grants, interview grantees, and convene groups to offer feedback. This is all swell, up until funders feel like they’ve heard all the arguments and sorted through all the options. The thing is: they haven’t. Even the toughest-minded, thickest-skinned friend tends to tread gently when they’re disagreeing with a funder or they fear they may be saying something the funder doesn’t want to hear.

Foundation staff can be hard of hearing, but plenty of educators, scholars, and reformers are also guilty of failing to speak up. After all, funders play a big role in making projects, programs, and research possible—impacting job security and career prospects. Nowadays, this even extends to a huge swath of education journalism. So why risk alienating a funder if you don’t have to? Even when in a position to be impolitic, policy wonks, scholars, consultants, and would-be reformers still work with districts, researchers, and colleagues who want foundation dollars. Incurring the wrath of a donor can make one less attractive to skittish partners. All of this fosters an amiable conspiracy of silence.

All of us who work in education or policy can also think of plenty of times when foundations have felt uncomfortably pushy, and when all the talk of “mission alignment” and “strategic focus” seems to mean, “It’s time to get with the program, if you know what’s good for you.”

I wish I knew what to do about any of this, other than encourage funders to approach their own work with more humility and with more emphasis on rethinking and less on the agenda of the moment. Lacking good answers, I’ll instead offer a couple of reflections.

One thing that critics resent is a foundation’s ability to jauntily move on when things don’t work out. Funders get excited about things like small high schools, education technology, or a local teacher-pay initiative and they dive in. Later, when they conclude the strategy isn’t working or just decide to change direction, it’s easy for donors to move on while educators and communities deal with the aftermath. That’s natural and probably inevitable, but funders would do well to think and talk more explicitly about how their decisions affect the people left behind. This takes on special resonance when funders choose to get involved in policy or governance and not just the giving away of school supplies.

Critics also have a point when they complain about the lack of accountability for funders and staff. When foundations aggressively push their agendas, it can feel to those in schools and systems like outsiders are foisting change upon them. If programs or policies disappoint, it’s not clear whether those outsiders are ever held accountable or if they ever face any consequences. This feels especially off to observers who routinely hear funders champion test-based metrics and teacher evaluation systems, and who consistently tout the import of holding schools and educators accountable for their performance.

It takes money to do things. Programs, staff, research, advocacy, and pretty much everything else that happens in school reform requires funding. This gives funders oceans of influence. Yet this influence is accompanied by a sea of quirks that rarely get examined or discussed. Reformers should change that. They should talk openly about the influence of funders and expect that foundations be at least as answerable for their actions as they’d like educators to be.

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