Education Funding Opinion

Walter Annenberg’s Dream

By Merrill Vargo & Nicolette Toussaint — November 06, 2002 8 min read
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Walter Annenberg grasped the power of ‘a few big ideas.’

Walter Annenberg, the publishing magnate, former U.S. ambassador, and educational philanthropist extraordinaire who died last month, lived a life that was an “American dream” writ large. Its plot is an old one: An immigrant family works hard, becomes rich, and produces a child who befriends presidents. Although this modern fable grates against contemporary cynicism, teachers work every day to make sure the story remains a possibility. Now, just as when Mr. Annenberg’s father first set foot on our shores, public schools remain the last, best hope for millions of immigrant children.

Ambassador Annenberg will be remembered for his fortune, his public service, and his philanthropy. Pledging half a billion dollars to support public school reform, he touched the lives of 1.5 million students and 80,000 teachers scattered across 35 states. To understand the motivation behind a gift this vast, it helps to understand the details of his personal story.

Walter Annenberg was a shy child with a deaf, deformed ear and a stutter. As an adult, he drew strength from adversity, parlaying his father’s bankrupt business into a publishing fortune and serving as ambassador to Britain. But the Annenberg fortune was built on publications that serve ordinary people; it is hard to imagine a broader reader base than that of TV Guide.

These circumstances reinforced Mr. Annenberg’s belief in the power of a few big ideas. He believed in the promise and possibility of democracy. He believed that democracy depended on strong public schools. And when he felt that this foundation of democracy was at risk, he believed that it was the responsibility of “people of means” to come to its aid. Although his death will neither close the debate over how to evaluate the Annenberg Challenge nor make it irrelevant, it does prompt us to reflect on its benefactor’s legacy.

When educators and citizens from the San Francisco Bay area first inquired about the Annenberg Challenge, we discovered that, in this reform initiative, it was ideas that mattered. Although the challenge had no application form, it was nonetheless clear about purposes: The Annenberg Challenge sought to catalyze a national effort to shore up public schools, particularly in urban areas. It also had clear notions about how to do this: Envisioning a partnership between public-sector institutions and private-sector resources, it called for nonprofits with strong local roots to carry the work forward. And it saw schools, rather than just individual classrooms or teachers, as an important unit of change. Today these ideas get less press than tests and high- stakes accountability programs, but it’s still essential to focus on new, flexible organizational structures and on schools.

The rise of a generation of ‘hybrid’ public-private organizations may offer a fresh way to get the work of democracy done.

The importance of the hybrid organizations the Annenberg Challenge formed may be obscured by the unimpressive label they have acquired. They are called “intermediary organizations.” Americans understand that the public and private sectors operate by different rules, and we have a love-hate relationship with both. We love the private sector’s individualism, entrepreneurship, competition, and rewards for hard work, but are troubled by its disregard for people, for the environment, and by its rampant materialism. Although America’s public sector has been peopled by generation after generation of young people who believe in working for the greater good, government leaves something to be desired in the way of efficiency and effectiveness.

An intermediary, by contrast, is entrepreneurial and nonbureaucratic, but also public-spirited. Operating with private-sector rules, it marshals private-sector resources on behalf of public-sector goals and institutions. At a time when we are increasingly skeptical of government but also oddly willing to centralize power in it, civic deadlock often results. The rise of a generation of “hybrid” organizations may offer us a fresh way to get the work of our democracy done.

The second idea the Annenberg Challenge leaves as a legacy is the notion that the individual school is an important unit of change. Most organizational- change literature focuses on the private sector and takes for granted that the capacity for improvement resides not just in individuals but also in organizations. Education is unusual in that it most often sees capacity as residing almost exclusively in individuals. This has led to innumerable “one teacher at a time” professional-development efforts and to an emphasis on improving the quality of both in-service and preservice teacher training. But in creating more effective teacher workshops, institutes, and networks, we have failed to create schools in which learning and improvement are just part of the job.

This failure has consequences, especially for poor children and children of color, because the schools that serve them are those that most often lack the organizational capacity for change. Despite many skilled, hardworking teachers, they fall further and further behind when faced by the demands of today’s high-stakes accountability systems. Schools fail as organizations when they lack values that tell teachers they are collectively responsible for student learning, a culture that supports teachers’ ongoing learning, structures for shared deliberation and decisionmaking, and processes that reinforce connections among program, personnel allocations, and budget. These schools have caused the Harvard University scholar Richard Elmore to exclaim, “It would be difficult to invent a more dysfunctional organization for a performance-based accountability system.”

Schools fail as organizations when they lack holistic vision and processes.

Policymakers today focus increasingly on testing and data to drive change. Sometimes it works, as a school we’ll call “Evergreen Elementary” illustrates. When Evergreen receives its test scores, everybody is waiting, hoping that the data will answer certain questions. Their questions are tied to a focused improvement effort and a professional-development program in which most teachers participate. Since most norm-referenced tests do a better job of identifying which students are struggling than of diagnosing what they need to learn, Evergreen also gathers data from more-diagnostic measures that will help them learn more. If it’s a tough budget year, the data analysis prompts anxiety because programs or positions will have to be eliminated. But everyone knows how and when decisions will be made, and who will make them. They understand that actions will be informed by data.

At a school we’ll call “Willow Elementary,” the picture is different. Here, only the principal remembered that test results were coming. Since the leadership team is preoccupied with day-to-day crises, the principal spent a late night poring over the data to answer the only question anyone asks: Did the scores go up or down? If the scores are down, the hallway grumblings concern flaws in the test and how the student population has changed. The principal may propose an add- on, test-prep program, but no focused improvement effort is under way. Despite pockets of excellence, a culture of teacher autonomy guarantees that no collective action can be taken. Beyond the mandated standardized test, teachers have no common assessments, so they can’t delve deeper into gaps in student learning. Although the school operates a host of programs, their fate will be determined by politics rather than data.

Over the past six years, the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative—the Hewlett-Annenberg Challenge—has given grants to 189 different schools and worked to help transform them from Willows into Evergreens. The immediate benefits can be measured in test-score gains, but these gains grow from deeper, more lasting changes. The collaborative helps schools work toward a shared vision of what public schools could and should be by engaging them in a continuous-improvement process called “the cycle of inquiry.” Through this rational, step-by-step, data- driven process, the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative aims to change the ethereal but evergreen manifestation of collective belief we call “school culture.”

In their five-year evaluation of BASRC, Milbrey McLaughlin and Joan Talbert from Stanford University’s Center for Research on the Context of Teaching observe that “evidence shows that when Leadership Schools gained competence and confidence with the Cycle of Inquiry, their professional culture changed. Where inquiry became an accepted dimension of teachers’ professional community, new forms of leadership, accountability for all students, problem-solving skills, and expectations about teachers’ learning came about.”

Ambassador Annenberg believed in public schools and in our shared responsibility to educate the next generation of Americans.

After examining the standardized-test scores of the collaborative’s grant- funded “leadership schools,” the Stanford research center also found that BASRC “successfully promoted most of its leadership schools’ progress on inquiry-based reform and, on the whole, these schools made greater gains on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition basic-skills assessments than comparable Bay area schools.”

Because it reaffirms the possibilities of schools as democratic entities and learning organizations, this is important news for educators, funders, and policymakers across the nation.

Ambassador Annenberg offered his gift because he believed in public schools and in our shared responsibility to educate the next generation of Americans. This combination of faith in both public institutions and in individual action marked Walter Annenberg as unusual. He was not a man who worried about being “politically correct.” He was not afraid to start something that was manifestly too big to finish. And he was willing to trust others.

The most fitting legacy to education’s great benefactor is the continued effort of the many thousands of teachers, administrators, parents, students, and citizens who are still working hard to preserve a public school system—a system that for many remains the cornerstone of democracy.

Merrill Vargo is the executive director and Nicolette Toussaint is the communications director of the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, a nonprofit group in the San Francisco Bay area of California that has drawn inspiration and support from the Annenberg Challenge.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Walter Annenberg’s Dream


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