Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Funding Opinion

Education Philanthropists Should Walk the Walk on Accountability

By Rick Hess — October 10, 2017 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Funding Interactive Look Up How Much COVID Relief Aid Your School District is Getting
The federal government gave schools more than $190 billion to help them recover from the pandemic. But the money was not distributed evenly.
2 min read
Education Funding Explainer Everything You Need to Know About Schools and COVID Relief Funds
How much did your district get in pandemic emergency aid? When must the money be spent? Is there more on the way? EdWeek has the answers.
11 min read
090221 Stimulus Masks AP BS
Dezirae Espinoza wears a face mask while holding a tube of cleaning wipes as she waits to enter Garden Place Elementary School in Denver for the first day of in-class learning since the start of the pandemic.
David Zalubowski/AP
Education Funding Why Dems' $82 Billion Proposal for School Buildings Still Isn't Enough
Two new reports highlight the severe disrepair the nation's school infrastructure is in and the crushing district debt the lack of federal and state investment has caused.
4 min read
Founded 55 years ago, Foust Elementary received its latest update 12-25 years ago for their HVAC units. If the school receives funds from the Guilford County Schools bond allocation, they will expand classrooms from the back of the building.
Community members in Guilford, N.C. last week protested the lack of new funding to improve the district's crumbling school facilities.
Abby Gibbs/News & Record via AP
Education Funding Can Governors Really Take Money From Schools Over Masks?
State leaders are using the threat of funding cuts as a weapon in the mask debate—but it's not clear if they can or will follow through.
7 min read
Conceptual image of hundred dollar bills with some of the images of Benjamin Franklin masked.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and iStock