Education Funding Commentary

Foundations for Change

By Richard H. Hersh — February 09, 2000 9 min read
American philanthropies can and must work together to improve our schools.

School reform heads the list of national priorities as we enter a new century, partake in another presidential- election process, and publicly acknowledge the increasing disparity between rich and poor in the midst of the longest peacetime economic boom in our history. So important is the issue of school reform that corporate and private foundations are, individually and separately, now investing hundreds of millions of dollars to accomplish what federal, state, and local governments have failed to do in the latter half of the 20th century. But these foundation efforts and considerable dollars will be wasted if they continue to follow a strategy of each foundation’s going its separate way.

America’s concern about its public schools is not new. The 1957 launch of Sputnik I catalyzed attempts at education reform in the 1960s. The national report A Nation at Risk, more than two decades later, responded to an inadequate schooling system that trailed miserably in international educational achievement. Today, we lament failed family life, permit an inordinate amount of television viewing by children, and ignore the powerful and often corrosive influence of the student peer group. We witness increasing childhood and adolescent pathologies of violence, depression, alcohol and other drug abuse, as well as the abject failure of millions of youngsters to gain even basic literacy.

As we enter this new century, we are a nation at greater risk because we understand that schooling excellence is a necessary condition for democratic citizenship, social justice, and individual as well as collective economic security in a global and technologically sophisticated world. Individuals who cannot read or write well, who have no sense of the major human questions, who cannot think critically or act morally, and who show little interest in continuing to learn will be the severely disadvantaged of the future, as will the larger community. The consensus is that systemic school reform is needed, but that has proven resistant to government and academic efforts. In response, politicians claim education as their platform while putting forward myriad solutions under the ubiquitous “school reform” mantra, most with the promise of no new taxes.

National school reform has always been politically difficult because of the distrust of federal and state authority and our tradition of local control and funding. Moreover, there has never been a shared understanding of the knowledge base that informs effective teaching, learning, and schooling. Recognizing the importance of this challenge, and sensitive to issues of local control, more dollars are now being invested in local school reform efforts by private and corporate foundations than ever before. This effort is significant and has real potential to catalyze the needed systemic change, because foundations are trusted and agile. For the moment, however, such foundation efforts are impotent for lack of a sound research base and coordinated effort. At a recent national conference of foundation “grantmakers for education,” for example, a number of excellent school change projects were described. As worthy as these projects are of funding, few, if any, were linked to the research that best informs system reform.

School reform efforts would be substantially enhanced by linking two kinds of “foundations": a shared foundation of knowledge about effective schooling, and coalitions of private and corporate foundations able and willing to leverage their wealth and expertise in cooperation with federal, state, and local entities.

FOUNDATION OF EFFECTIVE SCHOOL RESEARCH. Schooling capable of helping students achieve a “world class” education is the result of the intersection of demanding cultures outside and inside schools necessary for educational excellence. One of the fundamental differences between the United States and educationally higher-achieving countries is that those cultures have a bias toward schools reflected in the amount of effective time, energy, and effort required of their schools and young people. The culture surrounding these schools impels them to succeed. They have clear national standards and require far more homework, for example, than we do. Also, and this is vital, many cultures believe that student effort makes the difference in achievement and create the conditions for such effort, whereas American parents increasingly have come to believe inborn talent is what primarily determines success.

While the larger culture’s support of schooling is necessary, it is insufficient, for what goes on within schools is equally crucial. When one looks at the most effective schools in America and in high-achieving countries, whether public or private, elementary or secondary, urban or rural, one finds common ingredients. The cumulative effect of those ingredients creates a “culture of excellence” within the school that both insists on and promotes high student achievement.

Attributes of high- achieving schools verified by research include the following:

  • Clear goals, high expectations, and standards. The higher the expectations and standards, the higher the achievement. Teachers, administrators, and the school board reach a consensus on these issues.
  • Tightly coupled curriculum. Learning objectives, curriculum materials, teaching strategies, evaluation, and rewards are purposefully linked as a whole, each component connected to and reinforcing the others.
  • Community support. Parents must affirm a culture of excellence in each school and classroom--by supporting it at home and expecting the same high standards as the school board, teachers, and administrators--as well as actively participate in the life of the schools.
  • Respectful and orderly environment. Learning in school requires a safe, orderly, and equitable environment. Disruption and disrespect of other individuals or property is not tolerated.
  • Academic learning time. The more time students are actively engaged in appropriate learning tasks, the greater and deeper the learning.
  • Frequent and monitored homework. Homework connected to school lessons, reinforced by teacher attention to that homework, increases academic-learning time and promotes independent and cooperative learning.
  • Teacher competence. Teachers who possess an extensive and rich repertoire of skills and knowledge do, in fact, promote greater learning than those of marginal competence.
  • Pervasive caring. High-achieving schools are rigorous and caring places. Teachers and staff members genuinely care about each student and care enough to demand students’ best efforts.
  • Frequent assessment of student achievement. Student learning is constantly assessed, both formally and informally, to provide timely feedback to students and to help teachers and the school revise curriculum and pedagogy.
  • Public rewards and incentives. Student achievement is publicly held as the highest value and is publicly celebrated through the use of oral and written comments, honors assemblies, display of student work, media attention, and communication to parents.
  • Administrative leadership. The most effective schools have administrators in the school and at the district level possessing the skills and courage to demand and help create the conditions above.

It is important to note that simply creating one, two, or three of the above attributes will not necessarily result in a more effective school. Increasing homework and generating higher expectations by administrative edict, for example, without support from parents, often causes serious community disruption. The research clearly shows that it is the cumulative effect of all the conditions, together, that has real payoff. But experience tells us that creating and nurturing such conditions takes far more time, energy, and commitment on the part of many people in and out of schools than most communities have been willing to provide. Hence the appeal of simple solutions with promises of quick results made by politicians and for-profit companies.

FOUNDATION SUPPORT. We are at an important moment. The national presidential campaigns, recent school violence tragedies, the “baby boom echo” wending its way through school systems, the large number of impending teacher retirements, the universal call for substantially more- rigorous teacher training, and the national debate about vouchers and charter schools converge, strengthening the consensus that we confront the issue of school reform as a matter of national priority. While money alone has not and will not solve our schooling problems, it is nonetheless the case that additional money used wisely can have a major impact on helping to create models for systemic school reform.

Foundations can play a unique and pivotal role in shaping school reform efforts, but only if they cooperate with one another in ways that can multiply the effects of their dollars.

Foundations can play a unique and pivotal role in shaping school reform efforts, but only if they cooperate with one another in ways that can multiply the effects of their dollars. Two foundation initiatives would make a difference: (1) the convening of a national summit of foundations supporting education to uncover common ground and construct a shared school reform agenda to guide grantmaking; and (2) the creation of a national foundation clearinghouse to disseminate the best school system reform knowledge possible and share evaluation results of foundation-sponsored projects. Such data would be used to inform future grants.

These two recommendations are, of course, not mutually exclusive. Foundations sharing common cause and information would be more efficient in dealing with the multiple dimensions required for systemic school reform, and thus able to help stop the waste of the one-shot reforms that eventually disappear, like roads in a jungle, as the untouched elements grow back over and swallow up the isolated “good ideas.”

Foundations possess the flexibility, efficiency, and trust no longer associated with government that can help initiate and sustain large-scale school reform. If the results of foundation initiatives were shared widely, if research and evaluation components were built into each sponsored project, and if government and school boards at all levels would listen, learn, and support what is gleaned from these lessons, then school reform has a chance.

Hundreds of foundations together could make a great difference. Separately, they will fail.

Richard H. Hersh, formerly the president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., is now the director of grants programs at the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation in New York City. His books include Promoting Moral Growth: From Piaget to Kohlberg (1979), Models of Values and Moral Education (1980), and The Structure of School Reform (1983).

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A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2000 edition of Education Week as Foundations for Change


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