Education Funding

Work Partly Accomplished, Benefactors Exit Middle Grades

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — May 21, 2003 3 min read
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The philanthropic efforts of four large foundations have laid much of the groundwork for improving middle-grades education, says a study released last week by the group Grantmakers for Education. But all four of those benefactors have bowed out of the middle school business, and no one appears to be waiting in the wings to replace them.

Since the late 1980s, the push to infuse academic rigor into the middle grades has been supported primarily by tens of millions of dollars in seed money from the Lilly Endowment, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The results of the initiatives are mixed, concludes the report, but the improvements they triggered may be imperiled unless other public and private parties take up the mantle.

The forthcoming report will be available online from Grantmakers for Education.

“The funders involved in these efforts have made real progress that has led to significant new understanding about middle grades, far greater capacity among educators and other stakeholders to address middle grades, and, for many students, improved outcomes,” says the report, “Maturing Investments: Philanthropy and Middle Grades Reform.”

But those gains must be nurtured and built upon, it says, if the nation’s middle schools are going to meet higher academic benchmarks as outlined under the federal “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001.

“This movement is really now 15 years old, at the end of early adolescence,” said Robert A. Kronley, an independent consultant who wrote the report with colleague Claire Handley. “It’s time to turn the car keys over to a new set of drivers.”

Seed Money

The foundation-financed initiatives were successful in shining a spotlight on the weaknesses in the middle school movement, which had been perceived by critics as focusing on students’ social and emotional needs at the expense of their intellectual development. Through professional development, the support of networks, and an array of resources for those in the field, the foundation ventures also were instrumental in cultivating a more unified vision for improving middle grades, according to the report.

Experts in the field say the contributions of the private organizations cannot be overstated.

The foundations have been “the major stimulus for a lot of what’s gone on at the middle-grades level,” said Nancy Ames, a founding member of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, an alliance of researchers, educators, and organizations formed in 1997 and underwritten by the Clark Foundation.

The foundation also provided financial support for Education Week‘s special report, “Middle Grades: Feeling the Squeeze” (Oct. 4, 2000).

“They did a lot of field-building,” Ms. Ames continued. “They did leadership development, [and] they funded research and policy and public engagement. I think their reach is far and broad beyond a specific program.”

But all the deep-pocket funders have now abandoned their middle-grades initiatives, to focus on other projects, after commitments of up to a decade or more, a period that, according to Mr. Kronley, represents a persistence uncommon in philanthropy.

The Clark Foundation, in fact, has pulled out of public education entirely and now focuses on youth-development and community programs.

The report was commissioned last year by the Portland, Ore.-based Grantmakers for Education, which represents more than 180 foundations nationwide. It sums up what has been accomplished as a result of the four big foundations’ grant programs. The analysis also outlines the somewhat smaller middle-grades projects undertaken by two dozen other foundations.

“We helped to create a consciousness and understanding of the need for greater attention to the academic dimension of the middle grades,” said M. Hayes Mizell, who directed the middle-grades project for the Clark Foundation from 1987 until this year. “Our work provides the basis for other funders to take, if you will, a more sophisticated approach.”

Other funders have yet to commit to middle-level education on the same scale. But experts on that age group say federal requirements for testing 5th and 8th graders that kick in by the 2005-06 school year will motivate policymakers and the public to continue the push for improvement.

And, they say, the movement now has a sturdy foundation.

“Just like this is a pivotal age for the kids, it is a pivotal time for the [middle-grades] movement,” said Ms. Ames, who directs school programs at the Boston-based Education Development Center.

“Those of us who’ve committed a lifetime to middle-grades reform are energized and ready to go, but we are hoping that some other players will step up to the plate and support it.”

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