Funding Conventional Wisdom

For many decades foundations played the role that Rob Reich describes. Twenty years ago I would have agreed about their unique capacity to take chances with new ideas, tolerate the risk of failure while promoting innovation, and create pilot projects that spur the government to take action. In the area of education, where I work, they served as incubators, trying diverse new ways to improve schools.

But something happened about a dozen years ago that changed the situation. The traditional sources of funding for education innovation—the Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations, and a few others—receded into the background, dwarfed by three new behemoths: the Gates, Eli and Edythe Broad, and Walton Family Foundations.

Each of these “venture philanthropists” has billions of dollars. All of them fund similar projects. There is no diversity, merely a consensus position. They don’t respond to someone’s good idea. They have their own ideas, and they either find someone to implement them or they create organizations that will.

In the education field, the big three support what they call “reform.” They promote privately managed charter schools. They favor evaluating teachers according to their students’ test scores. They support online charter schools. They support competition and choice among schools. They either actively or implicitly question the value of teachers’ experience, education, tenure, and collective bargaining rights. They like brand new teachers, not experienced ones. They do not object when for-profit companies, such as White Hat, Mosaica, and Charter Schools USA, run schools.

The foundation agenda coincides with the agenda of the U.S. Department of Education, which supports charter schools, competition, and choice. Rather than prod the Department to do things it might not have considered, they count Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan as their ally and spokesman.

This notion of reform has become the conventional wisdom. It enjoys the support of the president, the Department of Education, Congress, and most states. It disregards evidence. It scorns critics, none of whom hold positions of influence at the national level.

The foundations share the underlying premise that public education is broken and obsolete. This is not true, but the big foundations act on the assumption that it is, and dozens of smaller foundations follow their lead, promoting vouchers, charters, high-stakes testing, and related programs. Their agenda is profoundly destabilizing to our nation’s public education system.

In education three huge foundations line up behind the same agenda.

Consider the Gates Foundation’s special interest in creating a measurement of teacher “effectiveness.” It has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into this effort, but has yet to demonstrate that any district has successfully identified its best and worst teachers or created the magic of an effective teacher in every classroom. Using test scores to measure teacher effectiveness produces a slew of bad incentives: to narrow the curriculum to only what is tested, game the system, teach to the test, and cheat. The tests just aren’t good enough; they are subject to statistical error, random error, measurement error, and human error. And the people who score them often have no background in education. Pearson has used craigslist to recruit test graders in Texas.

One of the Broad Foundation’s major creations is a training program for urban superintendents, which instructs future leaders in looking at the bottom line with an eye to closing down “failing” schools and opening new ones to replace them. Many district and state education bureaus are led by “Broadies.”

And the Walton Foundation invests heavily in vouchers and charters, furthering the privatization goal.

I agree with Reich that foundations should be free to do what they wish. What is frightening, however, is seeing so many foundations lined up behind the same agenda, which is so damaging to public education and so demoralizing to career educators. Even more frightening is that their opinion is shared by the U.S. Department of Education.

Privatization of public education is a terrible idea. Allowing profit-seeking enterprises to take control of schools and districts is even worse. For-profit enterprises look for profit first; that’s their job. Stripping teachers of job protection will eliminate academic freedom and remove one of the incentives—job security after a reasonable period of trial—that makes teaching an attractive profession. Merit pay has been tried time and again, and it doesn’t raise test scores. If it did, the higher scores would be products of unhealthy focus on test preparation. High-stakes testing is ruinous for the quality of education; it crushes critical thinking and innovation.

The experience in education points to one of the flaws in the foundation concept.When rich donors partner with each other and with government, they create new, damaging orthodoxies of the sort that Reich rightly opposes. The conventional wisdom that foundations and government foster represses innovation.