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Thompson: Russo's Disheartening "Eight Lessons for Funders and Grantees"

Almost every paper presented at the American Enterprise Institute’s conference, Is the ‘New’ Education Philanthropy Good for Schools?, made me somewhat more hopeful that the Gates Foundation, at least, will learn and back off from insisting that stakes be attached to standardized tests, and start down more promising policy paths. The exception is Alexander Russo’s Inside Foundations: Eight Lessons for Funders and Grantees on Education Giving

According to Russo’s astute article, the lessons of this new generation of philanthropy are:

1. Policy and advocacy are great tools—to a point.

2. New approaches complicate measurement/evaluation issues. 

3. Newly-created organizations bring focus and fidelity but can lack credibility and engagement.       

4. “Strategic” philanthropy is a powerful way to narrow priorities—unless it’s applied too rigidly.  

5. Setting clear metrics helps—until you take them too far.

6. Fail fast—but don’t overreact to bad news, either.

7. Don’t forget/underplay “the grind.”

8. Little more coordination, please (but not too much!)

In a rational world, this witty and insightful call for balance would contribute to better policy-making. In contrast to the statements made by other insiders to the other contributors, however, I fear that the several elites interviewed by Russo are concluding that, yes, we lose credibility with each of our risky policy gambles -- but we will make it up on volume.

I catch a lot of flack from fellow teachers for my repeated mistake of seeing the glass as half full. Reading the AEI discussion, I repeatedly jumped the conclusion that venture philanthropists must be ready to heed the wisdom of the Ford Foundation’s Jeannie Oakes. For instance, the way that strategic philanthropy drove the change in teachers evaluation laws was anti-democratic, and those laws haven’t produced measurable improvements.

Oakes makes the most reality-based of the observations in Russo’s article. For instance, she recognizes that, “Program officers don't have much time to read anything besides proposals or write anything down except strategic plans.” I would add my skepticism that they have time to listen to teachers, much less visit classrooms for anything more than a Potemkin Village-type dog and pony show.

One possibly discouraging comment came from former Gates and USDOE official Joanne Weiss in response to Lesson #2, New approaches complicate measurement/evaluation issues. Russo writes that "it’s especially difficult to evaluate policy and advocacy efforts that don’t involve concrete services or products being delivered may unfold messily over time." Weiss, the head the Obama administration’s hurried Race to the Top program, responds with a seeming defense of the rush to reform. Weiss replies, "If the charter issue hadn’t been raised to such a level [through foundation-funded advocacy and policy initiatives], would it have been somehow stopped in its tracks?" My interpretation of her words is that the question of whether policies, ranging from choice to test-driven accountability, actually work is less important than whether their agenda keeps moving forward.

In fairness, a couple of Russo’s other sources seem to understand where venture philanthropy went wrong. Walton alumnus Jim Blew “half-jokingly” says: “We sit in our offices in Seattle or Indianapolis and cook up the ideas and then we go and find good people to implement our ideas.” The obvious advantages are fidelity to the foundation’s ideas, he notes. But, “Surprise, surprise—what you get is much more of a compliance relationship.” (I've got no idea what it means when Blew, the person who makes such a constructive statement, then takes a job at the ultimate blood-in-the-eye reform organization, Students First.)

But, the words by too many of the very top movers and shakers seem to say that they still don’t realize what they are missing when viewing the world only from 30,000 feet. Michelle Rhee may be the most extreme of them, but I worry her conclusions are not atypical. When Rhee speaks to Russo’s Lesson #6, she responds that, “Funding ‘the grind’ [of legislative work, for example] is not exciting” to program officers or impatient board members. 

That raises the question of why the issue of the education grind prompted comments on legislative work as opposed to classroom instruction or other school matters. Teaching is exciting, but it is also grinding, and it seems significant that edu-philanthropy insiders didn’t say they need to ask teachers about the grind of battling poverty in the classroom.

Russo concludes with five possible new approaches for philanthropy. Two, Returning to race and inequality and embracing Diversity and would be great. Two, Bigger/smarter advocacy, and Modifying—but not abandoning—strategic grantmaking, could be more of the same. A fifth, More coordination among grantees and funders, sounds good. But, a frighteningly anti-democratic statement by Michelle Rhee indicates it could put the elites’ hubris on steroids:

The only way to get fixed if funders come together and say, ‘Over the next ten years, this is what has to happen in which states, and here’s everybody’s role,’ ... There’s more than enough work to be done. We need to differentiate local and core competencies—how much do you need to do it. Then we go, then there’s some incentive and upside to all of us collaborating together as opposed to what exists.

Isn't there a name for what Michelle Rhee describes? Isn't she calling for an oligarchy?

But, maybe the glass is half full. Maybe such a stark statement will be a wakeup call to Gates, at least, further warning the foundation of the danger of allies who lack credibility and engagement with reality.-JT(@drjohnthompson)



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