Education Funding

Reporter’s Notebook

November 15, 2000 4 min read

Foundations Ponder Their Impact on Schools

As the philanthropic world continues its involvement in the national effort to improve public schools, the major players are wrestling with how best to use their largess to bring about meaningful and lasting change.

Gathering here last week for the conference of the Grantmakers For Education, a San Diego-based group whose members focus their work on schools, they were reminded again and again just how humbling and complex that task can be.

Prominent educators and officials of the foundations that have funded their work shared their experiences grappling with issues at the forefront of the nationwide debate on raising student achievement: better teacher preparation, the need for stronger leadership, closing the achievement gap between minority and white students, and the impact of accountability systems such as high-stakes testing.

They posed questions that still lack definitive answers: How can they better understand the systems they are trying to improve? Is it possible to coordinate their efforts for greater impact? How can they determine what is best for children and target their resources to obtain it?

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, an education historian and the president of the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation, opened the conference on a sobering note, telling the 200-plus attendees that philanthropists have poured untold millions into education for decades.

But Ms. Lagemann contends that those demonstration projects, new curriculum materials, and commissions established to study the problems have produced little of lasting effect. “When one looks at the history of philanthropy in education, one is hard pressed to come up with projects that have had enduring success,” she said.

Foundations rarely consider the profound organizational change needed to produce school improvement, she said. Too often, they concentrate on the technical, “how to” aspects of helping schools change, rather than asking larger questions, such as what society should seek in educating its young people, she contended. Even innovations that take root in schools or districts are impossible to sustain over time, she argued, because education systems lack mechanisms to keep those ideas fresh and evolving.

Ms. Lagemann, whose foundation provides funding to Education Week to help support coverage of education research, urged grantmakers to concentrate less on “action” projects and more on helping to better educate the public about what is needed to improve schools.

Without that public engagement, education reforms will be like “moving the furniture in the living room,” she said, when what is needed is to “redesign the living room.”


At one reflective session during the Nov. 6-8 gathering, several foundation representatives shared a lengthy list of lessons they have learned from their attempts to tackle “systemic” improvements.

Atlanta-based education consultant Robert A. Kronley, who recently studied three multiyear, multisite, multimillion-dollar projects underwritten by the Panasonic, Edna McConnell Clark, and Rockefeller Foundations, put it simply: “The pace of change is exceedingly slow. It is not for the faint of heart, the passive, or the shy.” Foundations that choose to work on systemic-reform projects, Mr. Kronley said, must have “a sense of urgency and a habit of patience” and must “live with contradictions.” They must have “tolerance of ambivalence and acceptance of ambiguity,” he said, and know how to “make haste slowly.”

Funders must “push and pull districts to reform,” finding ways to create a continuing demand by knowledgeable people for reform, Mr. Kronley added. They must remain focused enough to reinforce their rationale for investment, yet flexible enough to adapt to inevitable changes. They must involve the public in their work and engage them in discussion about it.

Other participants echoed sentiments expressed repeatedly throughout the conference: the importance of foundations’ learning more about organizational change and development; forming clear ideas about outcomes and goals that are shared by the grant recipient; and involving the entire community—parents, teachers’ unions, school boards, businesses, and local community foundations—in the dialogue about how schools should change.

Others pointed to the value of learning everything possible about the school or district—from its politics, its gossip, and its key players to its teacher contracts and school board rules—before entering into what should be a highly interactive, two-way grantmaking relationship.

Despite the challenges and persistent questions about “scale and sustainability,” Mr. Kronley said, the large-scale reform efforts can indeed bring about positive changes, including a crucial one: making community members more knowledgeable about and more invested in school reform.

And while foundations still have much to learn about what works and how best to achieve those results, they cannot wait for complete expertise before stepping in and trying to do the best they can, participants here said.

“Don’t be immobilized by trying to understand the complexity of the system, or you won’t do it,” said Hayes Mizell, the director of student achievement for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York City. The foundation has invested more than $47 million in middle school improvement in nine districts since 1989 and underwrote an Education Week supplement on the middle grades last month.

—Catherine Gerwertz

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A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook

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