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Education Funding Opinion

Foundations Have Given Money to Schools for a Long Time. What’s Actually Working?

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 04, 2023 14 min read
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This is the final post in a series offering advice to private foundations about their education-related funding priorities.

Many of us educators hope they are listening.

Take It Slow

Karin Chenoweth is the author of Districts That Succeed: Breaking the Correlation Between Race, Poverty, and Achievement (Harvard Education Press, 2021). She is writer-in-residence for The Education Trust, which (full disclosure) receives a grant from The Wallace Foundation and the Joyce Foundation:

Remember the Annenberg Challenge? The basic idea was that if public school educators had an extra half-billion dollars, they’d know how to improve schools.

Apparently, they didn’t.

Then came an era of foundations tying grants to very specific actions—breaking up large high schools into small ones; using particular computer devices or curricula; instituting particular kinds of teacher evaluations or bonus programs.

Not much to show for that, either.

So, can foundations point to a time when their money actually helped?


Let me tell you about Chicago.

Back in 1988, not long after U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett declared it the “worst” district in the country, the Illinois legislature passed the Chicago School Reform Act. The bill created elected school boards for every school in the system.

It seemed like a good idea to break the patronage control of the central office, but would extreme decentralization improve schools? And if it did, how would anyone ever know? Remember, this was before No Child Left Behind, which began the era of publicly available student-achievement data.

A wide consortium of Chicago-based foundations, led by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Joyce Foundation, funded two sets of intense observers:

· A non-profit magazine, Catalyst, founded by experienced education reporter Linda Lenz; and

· The UChicago Consortium on School Research, founded by Penny Sebring and Anthony Bryk.

Both Catalyst (which has since been folded into the Chicago Reporter) and the consortium provided information to the field and the public that was brutally honest and at odds with the happy-talk press release language of City Hall. Low graduation rates. High absenteeism. Low proficiency rates. High teacher and principal turnover. Dirty buildings. Angry parents. Angry teachers. Angry students.

But when they did report good news, it was believable.

As it turned out, local school councils were a mixed bag, but over the years, folks in the city’s more than 500 (growing to more than 600) schools tried all kinds of different things—mentoring programs, reading programs, math programs, tutoring programs, professional development programs.

All through that, the consortium studied schools that improved their achievement and schools that didn’t.

The insight that emerged after 20 years of observation was in some ways very simple but challenged most other reform efforts. School improvement, the consortium found, was not a question of individual effort or individual programs but of collective school efforts, which were highly dependent on the principals who marshaled those efforts.

Acting on that insight and a whole lot of other research findings that go beneath it, Chicago has improved—graduation rates are now almost at the national rate and college-going exceeds the national rate. State assessment scores rose steadily until 2019, and so did the city’s NAEP scores. (The stagnation and decline since 2019 are concerning, but they haven’t undone previous improvement.) That’s not to say Chicago is where it should be. But its improvement has well exceeded that of many other large urban districts that have been the object of much more attention.

Of course, the lion share of the credit for improvement goes to Chicago’s educators. But, as the Annenberg Challenge demonstrated, educators don’t always know what to do absent the kind of good, solid information the consortium provided.

Funding intense, professional district watchers—journalists and researchers—who are committed to improvement and trained to tell the truth—seems to be one really good way for foundations to spend money.

Want another example of helpful foundation funding?

Twenty years ago, The Wallace Foundation funded research to find out whether there was one key lever of school improvement. Top researchers, led by Ken Leithwood from the University of Washington, found that school improvement never happens “in the absence of talented leaders.” Since then, Wallace has systematically built on that insight. Could districts develop effective pipelines of school leaders? Yup. Would they actually make a difference for student achievement? Yup. Could multiple universities revamp their programs to develop more effective principals? Stay tuned.

Both approaches are slow—sometimes painfully slow—approaches to building knowledge. They certainly lack the flair and excitement of disruptive innovation embraced by some foundations.

But helping educators get smarter and better able to make increasingly better decisions seems to be a rather effective way to improve schools.


‘Focus on Nourishing Teachers’

Shane Safir has worked at every level of the education system, from the classroom to the boardroom, for 25 years. She is the author of The Listening Leader: Creating the Conditions for Equitable School Transformation (Jossey-Bass: 2017) and co-author of Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation (Corwin, 2021):

There are no quick fixes for complex challenges, and teacher attrition is one of the most complex challenges facing the field. Complexity theory teaches us that small differences in so-called “initial conditions” can have deep and lasting effects. How can foundations capitalize on this idea by making strategic investments that support teachers and, in turn, hold the possibility of helping students?

Several intersecting crises face American schools right now. One, teachers (and principals) are leaving the profession in record numbers. Two, many students remain in the grips of a shattering mental health crisis that predates, but was accelerated by, the pandemic. And three, school boards and districts across the country have become battlegrounds for divisive politics as many states aim to eradicate teaching about the legacy of systemic racism while eliminating inclusive language and curriculum that supports the most vulnerable learners. All of this is making the teaching profession an increasingly stressful and unviable place to stay.

Here are a few concrete ways that foundations could address the exodus of teachers and the mental health stressors facing both teachers and students:

Statewide Teacher-Leadership Centers:

I just returned from the annual convening of the Arizona K12 Center. Founded in 1999, the center is rooted in the belief that when teachers learn, kids learn, and it has a rich history of supporting teachers throughout Arizona through innovative and relevant learning opportunities. I had the chance to interact with over 200 teacher leaders, many of whom attested to the fact that the professional learning and support they receive from the center is keeping them in the profession. Centers like this can create a safe haven for educators struggling to stay afloat as well as a pathway to develop leadership skills. At a reasonable cost, foundations could provide seed funding for similarly designed centers in other states—particularly battleground states like Texas and Florida where the pressures on teachers are intense.

Teacher-Restoration Retreats:

As a principal, I took my incredible team of teachers on retreat at least once a year. Early on, we would rent a big house and cook together as we worked, built community, and rejuvenated. Later, we reserved multiple rooms or cabins in retreat centers designed to host organizational teams. In my work as a coach with districts and schools across the country, I have seen the power of carving out time and space to really care for our people—the most important resources in the school building—and help them return to their own values as educators.

Facilitated Affinity Groups for BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ Educators:

Teachers of color have borne the brunt of the divisive political battles in school districts. One powerful way foundations can support the goal of retaining teachers of color is to fund ongoing, professionally facilitated affinity spaces for Black, Indigenous, educators of color, and LGBTQIA+ educators. Racial affinity groups, or racial caucuses, provide separate spaces for people who share a racial identity to gather, share experiences, and explore how racism may manifest in their organizations. They are a critical component of supporting and retaining teachers of color.

Passion Weeks and Post-Sessions:

Finally, I offer an idea that will energize both teachers and students directly—Passion Weeks and/or Post-Sessions. In a Passion Week, “regular” school stops while teachers teach a course around an area of personal passion. Similarly, the school I led built an annual Post-Session into the last three weeks of school. Teachers co-designed and co-taught courses like Aztec Dancing, Bay Area Biking, and Go Wild Backpacking, and even content courses like Maker Physics or Math Through Magic. These semi-off-the-grid learning opportunities allow students and teachers to develop deep and meaningful relationships, getting to know each other outside of a traditional classroom setting. They also allow teachers to tap into areas of expertise that may not “fit” their content. This type of experience is a game changer.

It’s time to focus on nourishing teachers so that we can staff our classrooms and stabilize our schools. With these modest investments, foundations can begin to transform an era of grieving and distress into an era of healing and rejuvenation.


The Basics

Ryan Estrellado is a writer, educator, and data scientist. He is the author of the book The K–12 Educator’s Data Guidebook: Reimagining Practical Data Use in Schools and a co-author of Data Science in Education Using R:

When I’m not writing, I create professional development at a county office of education in California. Most of the time, these events are well-attended. Other times … Well, let’s just say I’ve gotten good at filling awkward silences.

I once brainstormed with a teammate about how to raise attendance at our workshops. We pulled all the greatest hits from the innovation playlist: fancier presentation slides, alternative formats, and online learning solutions.

Then we asked educators in the field what they thought was missing from our workshops. You know what some of them said?

Substitute teachers to cover them while they’re attending.

There’s likely no problem in public education that can be solved with a silver bullet. And if there were, they were solved a long time ago. But if a foundation asked me where they should allocate resources, I’d point them to two things.

Invest in the Basics

All students should have a shot at fulfilling their academic and social potential. That includes having basic needs met across schools, districts, and counties. It doesn’t make sense to analyze how much student achievement a dollar gets on average if the basic needs, like supplies and adequate facilities, aren’t in place.

Consider the sad story of a public school in Chicago, where an aging ceiling beam fell, injuring a staff member and exposing dangerous wires. Making schools a safe place for students to learn seems like a minimum requirement and a great place to start.

Here’s the Big Idea: Equitable opportunities for all students.

And here’s an Example of Incremental Change: Distribution of basic supplies, building upgrades, and technology.

Invest in Networks

For a group of people to create interesting and effective solutions, they need an environment that encourages trust and collaboration. That goes for trust between colleagues, but it also goes for trust between leaders and those they lead.

I’ve seen educators get understandably nervous when district leaders announce a new project at the start of the year. With every new software product, curriculum, or technology adoption comes the fear that this year’s efforts will inevitably make way for next year’s new initiative.

Investing in time and activities that empower educators to collaborate, build solutions together, and share them widely is a great way to build trust and goodwill within organizations. And when that shiny new initiative gets announced the following year, folks just might feel like they’re moving toward something together, not following the latest trend.

The Big Idea: Involving all in a trust-building and collaborative work environment.

Example of Incremental Change? Fund teacher substitutes for collaboration time and training in collaborative practices.


We can think of improving schools on two axes. The first axis tells us how exciting an idea is. Concepts on this axis range from newsworthy to boring. The second axis tells us if an idea improves the lives of students. Concepts on this axis range from helpful to not helpful.

That gives us four categories of ways to spend: newsworthy helpful ones, boring helpful ones, newsworthy but not helpful ones, and boring and not helpful ones.

The most obvious categories need little discussion. If you have the rare chance at a big attention-grabbing idea that makes a big difference for students, seize it. And run far away from ideas that are not only mundane but, even worse, don’t help students.

It’s the remaining two that demand the most of our integrity and professional judgment. Are we brave enough to politely decline big splashy initiatives that do little for students? And are we humble enough to make the small changes that matter to students in the long run, but will largely go unnoticed by the general public?


Thanks to Karen, Shane, and Ryan for contributing their thoughts!

This is the third post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here and Part Two 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..

Part Two shared answers by Holly Spinelli, Michael Pershan, and Ann Stiltner.

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.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

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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