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Education Funding Opinion

How Education Philanthropy Can Accidentally Promote Groupthink and Bandwagonism

By Rick Hess — July 02, 2018 5 min read
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One of the nice things about summer is that it’s a good time for reflection. One thing I found myself thinking about is the role philanthropy plays in the work we do, especially in the aftermath of RAND’s harsh evaluation of Gates’ Effective Teacher Initiative. This brought back memories from a couple decades ago, when I was at the University of Virginia studying how school systems in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Edgewood, Texas, responded to school vouchers. This research was possible because a foundation generously provided funds to cover air travel, rental cars, motel rooms, loads of fast food, transcription, and research assistants. Given my generally positive view of school choice, the foundation’s staff hoped and expected that I’d find that choice was driving systemic improvement.

After two years of analysis and hundreds of interviews, I wrote a book concluding that the story was much more complicated than that. (If you’re curious, the book is Revolution at the Margins.) Because this take was at odds with the funder’s vision, it was a real loser for me. Don’t get me wrong: They never threatened me or tried to tell me what to find, and I’d hoped they might find my take to be instructive. But they judged the work a disappointment, with the less said about it the better.

I eventually learned that foundations operate a lot like Santa Claus, with goodies to give away and an attentive eye as to who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. I wound up on the naughty list, I fear, and never heard from that foundation again. On one level, that’s no big deal. It’s their money and they have every right to fund whomever and whatever they like. On another level, though, it illustrates how well-meaning philanthropy can encourage groupthink and faddish bandwagonism—even when nobody intends it to.

As I observed last year in Letters to a Young Education Reformer, the knowledge that certain stances and sentiments will prompt wallets to open and that others will cause them to close, makes it easy to reflexively trim one’s sails, soften one’s words, and get with the program. Over time, we’ve seen this play out all over the place in education, from school choice to pre-K, from teacher evaluation to social and emotional learning.

It’s funny how 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 famous of these 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 funder telling the joke might be giving away big chunks of cash, we all roar as if it’s the funniest thing we’ve ever heard—even as we hear it for the twenty-fifth time. And that’s a big part of the problem. Foundation staff get loads of TLC; everywhere they’d like to go, 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 they fail to honor commitments or promises, hardly anyone calls them on it.

Insulated by that cocoon of niceness, funders fall into some unfortunate habits (no matter how many self-deprecating jokes they tell). They steer conversations toward their current strategy, because that’s what’s relevant and useful. When conversation strays too far from their agenda, their eyes glaze over and they tune out things they ought to hear.

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 vision and 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.”

If it sounds like I’m being hard on foundation staff, I don’t mean it that way. Their roles can be exhausting and rife with personal politics: They need to stay in tune with colleagues, the foundation’s strategy, and the preferences of the donor or the board. At any large foundation, they need to keep pushing large sums out the door just to comply with tax regulations. They have to spend long days traveling, sitting in meetings, and writing and reading reports about their grantees. They have to speak cautiously, as off-hand remarks might be taken as official statements of foundation policy. I think of the friend who told me, “I always thought foundation jobs were a pretty sweet deal. Then I took this one. It’s frustrating, it’s tedious, and it’s kicking my [butt].”

And most funders do take self-appraisal seriously. They evaluate grants, interview grantees, and convene groups to offer feedback. This is all swell, up until they feel like they’ve heard all the arguments and sorted through all the options. The thing is: They haven’t. Even the toughest-minded friend tends to tread gently when they know they may be saying something that a funder doesn’t want to hear. The result is an amiable conspiracy of silence.

That’s why prickly scrutiny is so healthy. Skeptics can raise the unpleasant issues and ask the annoying questions that friends typically won’t. But most of the critics tend to be nasty, conspiratorial, and ad hominem—which doesn’t do much to promote serious discourse. Instead, it makes funders defensive, which further irritates critics—leading some to turn increasingly nasty, prompting funders to tune them out even more firmly. And around and around we go.

I wish I knew what to do about any of this. But I don’t.

So, I’ll just observe that critics have a point when they complain about the lack of accountability for funders and staff. When ambitious foundation efforts go south in ways that cause headaches and problems for the rest of us, it can be hard to tell if anyone is ever held accountable. This feels especially off to observers who routinely hear funders talk about the importance 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 the examination or attention they merit. After all, it seems like we should expect foundations be at least as answerable for their actions as they’d like educators to be.

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