Education Funding Opinion

Making More of Less

By Chester E. Finn Jr. & Kelly Amis — January 09, 2002 9 min read
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The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States will be felt in many ways for many years. One likely, if indirect, impact of those horrific events on elementary and secondary education will be to decrease philanthropic support for school reform.

Absent a coherent, convincing 'theory of change,' giving becomes a random act with no clear tie to the desired outcome.

It’s not that donors are losing interest in education; they’re simply redirecting some of their resources toward domestic relief efforts, fighting terrorism, and other concerns. Their resources are also shrinking as the stock market falls, unemployment rises, and recession spreads.

Yet this dark cloud could have a bright lining, if it motivates education reformers and philanthropists to concentrate their efforts on high-yield strategies and high-impact projects, the kind with maximum prospects for transforming the K-12 system, not just “helping” it.

Many forces will push the other way: to augment state and local education budgets by engaging in various system-aiding ventures that sound good but achieve little (assisting such familiar activities as professional development and after-school programs, for instance). For philanthropists to resist these temptations, they will need an iron will, a steely conviction that major transformation of the system is needed, and a coherent, convincing “theory of change.” Absent such a theory, giving becomes a random act with no clear tie to the desired outcome.

It’s as important for reform-minded education philanthropists to work from a cogent theory of change as for teachers to base their lessons on clear academic goals. In each case, one starts by being clear about the intended result, then selects a strategy that is most apt to attain it.

As we have studied—and practiced—education reform philanthropy, we have identified four primary theories of change. Two of them, we find, rarely work (if, by “work,” we mean help to transform the public school system). The third and fourth are more promising. That’s where reform-minded education philanthropists should place their bets.

The first theory assumes that the existing public education system wants and knows how to improve but lacks the wherewithal. If philanthropists would just give enough, it follows, the system would finally do what it has always yearned to do and ensure that every student achieves and every school succeeds. Philanthropists following this theory typically write their checks to public schools or districts to support special programs of various sorts. Such giving may well benefit individual students, schools, or teachers while it lasts, but it does not require the system to change. Indeed, it assumes that no such change is needed.

The second theory is a cousin of the first: It assumes that the education system wants to improve but lacks the necessary know-how and expertise. Those following this theory will typically pay for outside experts or community groups to help the system. A prominent example was the Annenberg Challenge grants, mostly bestowed upon groups of experts to assist with the solution of big cities’ education problems. Wanting to know how well this worked, we asked researchers to see what actually happened in three of those cities (New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia). In each case, we found that, while some students’ and schools’ achievement levels improved (and some, reportedly, worsened), for the most part Walter H. Annenberg’s generous millions vanished without leaving much of a trace, certainly without transforming the cities’ school systems into models of excellence. (For the complete study, surf to www.edexcellence.net/philanthropy.)

It's as important for reform-minded education philanthropists to work from a cogent theory of change as for teachers to base their lessons on clear academic goals.

Change theories three and four are different. They don’t trust the system. Rather, they seek to alter how it operates by pressing it from outside—by, in effect, creating conditions that force it to change out of necessity. Theory three, commonly known as standards-based reform, involves setting academic standards, checking to see whether children and schools are meeting those standards, and holding everyone involved accountable via an array of incentives and interventions. It still amazes education-policy neophytes to discover how recently school systems began to be expected to spell out what their students are supposed to learn. That’s normal behavior in most other enterprises, and helps explain why business leaders have provided much of the political and financial support for standards-based education reform.

Theory four, usually referred to as “school choice” reform, hinges on the conviction that competition among education providers will result in more schools’ reaching higher levels of academic achievement. Like theory three, it’s a “pressure from outside” strategy. But instead of pushing from above, this approach tugs at the public education system from the grassroots. It assumes that loss of “market share” will get the attention of system leaders and make them change their ways. It also assumes that, while this is occurring, many needy children will benefit directly from the opportunity to attend better schools than those they’re now trapped in. Philanthropists who embrace theory four typically support such things as private voucher programs, charter schools, and tuition tax credits.

Theories one and two occasionally work. But the circumstances within a particular school system must be exactly right, major-league reforms must already be under way, and the stars must be aligned such that infusions of money and/or expertise can make a real difference. Such circumstances are rare. Most of the time, we conclude from research, observation, and direct experience, theories three and four have a lot more to offer from a philanthropist’s standpoint. That can mean advancing either strategy alone or— better—working at their intersection, where standards-based reforms pull schools and systems toward high achievement (and give parents the means to monitor their performance), while the marketplace creates options, unleashes entrepreneurs, and allows more education providers to show that they can meet the standards.

How do these theories work in practice? Tom Luce exemplifies an astute theory-three philanthropist-reformer. As a Texas lawyer in the early 1980s, he was recruited by a client, none other than Ross Perot, to get involved in trying to pass standards-based legislation for the Lone Star State. Mr. Luce played an integral role in that battle, and along the way became hooked on the promise of standards-based reform to revitalize Texas schools.

But once the state had developed academic standards and tests, Mr. Luce realized that the public (and educators) lacked easy access to vital information about how well students and schools were doing. So he provided his own money and time to launch Just for the Kids, a Web site project that tracks schools’ academic progress and makes it easy for the typical parent (and policymaker) to investigate and compare schools. Schools in Texas now know that their performance will be measured and shared with the public, and that awareness, according to Mr. Luce, is serving to motivate schools to do better. (Visit www.Just4Kids.org to see how well conceived and implemented this site is.)

Another philanthropist infected by the education reform bug, this time a devotee of theory four, is Wal-mart heir John Walton. Because of his deep commitment to providing poor and minority students with educational opportunities (and eventually changing the entire K-12 delivery system), the Walton Family Foundation has helped launch and develop dozens of charter schools, aided charter-support organizations, underwritten an annual school choice symposium run by the Black Alliance for Educational Options (which Walton philanthropy also supports), assisted private schools serving students from low-income families, and stimulated scholarship programs to get them there. This list goes on and on. While John Walton may be best known for the initial $50 million donation he made to the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which he co-founded with Theodore Forstmann in 1998, his philanthropic endeavors in behalf of education reform are diverse and many.

Smaller donors can follow these change theories, too, of course. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is tiny, but half of what we do involves on-the-ground education reforms in Dayton, Ohio, where Mr. Fordham lived and worked. Our own experience in that modest-size but educationally troubled Midwestern city has deepened our belief that theories three and four are more likely to effect change.

Instead of bewailing a reduction in K-12 education philanthropy, we should be asking donors to push for greater reform leverage from their gifts.

In Dayton, theory four has had a notable impact. We (and other donors) have helped widen education opportunities for youngsters from low-income families by supporting a scholarship program (the Dayton counterpart of the Forstmann- Walton effort) that now assists nearly 1,000 youngsters to attend the private schools of their choice, and by supporting a burgeoning charter school movement that now serves some 4,000 youngsters, nearly all of them poor and black.

In a city with barely 20,000 students enrolled in the regular public school system, these numbers are significant. And while more low-income families now enjoy school choice in Dayton, the community seems eager for yet more: In a survey last August that we helped fund and design, Daytonians overwhelmingly voiced support for school choice via vouchers and for continuing or growing the charter school program. Residents also embraced strong standards-based reforms, saying that students should be required to meet higher academic standards in order to graduate, and that teachers should be paid more if their students make strong academic gains.

Dayton residents also showed much enthusiasm for revitalizing their public school system, including giving principals greater say over school staffs and budgets, making it easier to dismiss teachers whose students aren’t learning enough, and opening the classroom doors to professionals from other fields. Respondents also said unequivocally that the system’s current leadership and administration should be doing “a lot better.”

That this is more than “survey talk” was revealed on Nov. 6, 2001, when, for the first time in memory, Dayton voters ushered on to the school board a slate of four independent-minded education reformers (the “Kids First” team). If this new school board majority forges ahead with reforms that these members have indicated they believe in—and that their constituents clearly believe in—an education renaissance may yet occur. If that begins to happen, it would make sense for us and other reform-minded philanthropists to get reacquainted with change theories one and two.

Philanthropists need to be strategic in their giving if they want serious education reform to happen. This was always important, but is doubly so as charitable resources shrink.

Instead of bewailing a reduction in K-12 education philanthropy, we should be asking donors to push for greater reform leverage from their gifts, toward the kinds of reforms that stand a chance of transforming “the system,” not just augmenting it.

We’d like to think that the only thing lost in this arena in the aftermath of Sept. 11 may be philanthropy’s traditional role of propping up the system and compensating for failure.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2002 edition of Education Week as Making More of Less


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