Is a New Day Coming for Edu-Philanthropy?

My book, A Teacher's Tale, provides a case study in the way that test-driven, competition-driven school reform failed, often taking bad inner city schools and making them much worse. It concludes with a call for replacing the test, sort, reward and punish shortcut with high-quality early education and full-service community schools. It includes some cautious optimism that edu-philanthropists will shift gears, stop blaming teachers for the educational legacies of poverty, and start to treat poor children of color as individuals who deserve just as much respect as more affluent children.

The chapter on solutions cites a semi-apology by former Gates Foundation leader and former Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement, James Shelton. Shelton admitted that programs like "Turnaround for Children" were often overlooked as "so much kumbaya." But, he then praised these community schools as "significant and growing," saying, "for us to ignore that is not only at our peril, it's just stupid."

Shelton was just selected by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan to lead their new education campaign. A centerpiece of the effort he will lead is personalized learning. Of course, that term could signify individualized education, with teachers working closely with students and building on their interests and strengths, or it could be more soul-killing mechanization of worksheet-driven instructional malpractice. But, Inside Philanthropy's David Callahan seems hopeful.

Callahan introduced his analysis of Shelton's appointment by writing, "If you've thought the ed wars would never end, you aren't alone. The grinding battle that has pitted advocates of choice and accountability against teachers unions and progressive educators has, at times, felt as intractable as the partisan deadlock in Washington, D.C." He sees Shelton's selection as another sign "that this era of polarization is giving way to a different and more constructive phase in U.S. efforts to boost student achievement." Callahan recalls:

Zuck, of course, famously started out as an ed donor squarely aligned with the pro-reform cabal, making a $100 million gift in 2010 to improve Newark's schools. That effort has yielded better results than many critics acknowledge, but was otherwise a disastrous case study in why the efforts of top-down ed philanthropists have often been so polarizing and unconstructive.

Callahan acknowledges that the Walton and the Broad foundations are "doubling down on charters." But he sees the Gates Foundation questioning its most basic assumptions (that, I would add, led to the single most disastrous reform failure, test-driven teacher evaluations.) It is also moving into personalized learning. "Significantly," Callahan notes, the Gates foundation "is now examining how factors outside of schools impact student achievement." He says it feels "like we're seeing the dawn of a new era of K-12 philanthropy."

Callahan says that, "You can see why Zuckerberg might have been originally attracted to a reform model hinging on large-scale disruption. Many of the people in the tech world have made their fortunes by destroying yesterday's industries and creating new products that sweep quickly to market dominance." But Zuckerberg's Newark experiment:

Showed the limits of these strategies, as have failures in other cities ... And Zuckerberg and Chan's takeaway, apparently, was that wielding dynamite is not the proper way to achieve change in systems where, in fact, everyone mostly shares the same goal: helping children succeed.

If the real goal is improving schools, Callahan's conclusion is unassailable, "Anti-teacher rhetoric from reform quarters has been a powerful and toxic factor in polarizing the education debate over the past decade. [But] Mark and Priscilla grasp an obvious point that still eludes many ed reformers: Bashing teachers and warring with one of the most powerful unions in America isn't very constructive."