Philanthropy's role in Educational Standards and Assessment

I have had the enormous privilege to interact with highly talented and profound thinkers. That spectrum of people includes classroom teachers, after-school program directors, college professors and yes, even program officers at foundations. One of my most delightful professional affiliations has been with the Ohio Grantmakers Forum (OGF) which is a regional association of Grantmakers from across the State of Ohio. Over the past year, my colleagues have taken on the challenge of improving the quality of public schools in the State of Ohio. Governor Ted Strickland began his tenure with a pledge to develop a new vision and program to improve education in the State and has appointed several civic committees to gather, provide their insights and filter that information to his offices. Presumably that information will be used to roll out a final plan that will transform Ohio schools to prepare all students with “21st Century Skills.” OGF assembled its membership to gather their collective knowledge and provide insight. Taking on a task that will gather information from across the state is an enormous task and OGF is doing a heroic job. Two years into the effort, a document was produced that captured the first phase of the undertaking and included voices from across the State. The Cleveland Plain Dealer review of the document claimed it contained nothing new. Undeterred by tepid reviews, OGF has agreed to take on a second round. I agreed to serve on two of three committees focused on Standards and Assessment and Evaluation of Grantmaking.

It has always been my conviction that philanthropy has an important role to play in public policy. It has a great power in convening people from public (government), private and nonprofit sectors to explore areas of common interest. Foundations not only have the power that comes with money, but they have a vast knowledge resource from evaluations of nonprofit organizations they have funded. Done properly, the foundation will have a relationship with the nonprofit and gather evidence of success and impact by way of site visits and evaluation reports. Unfortunately, too many evaluation reports go unread. I am finding that program officers with power and knowledge, can sometimes go with their personal agendas and be timorous about seeking out innovative things that might happening “outside the box” in the social sector. This is most eviden, i think, When it comes to public education. it is my observation that too many program officers find change to the public system threatening. In watching the coreography, their anxiety reverts people to entrench in what they believe to and resist the absolute need to think critically. I have heard the phenomenon referred to as those who sit in pews of the religion of public schooling. I am not convinced that my colleagues are indoctrinated, but a notion of belief in the ideal of American public schools is a strong because the model worked well for many years. Unfortunately, as too many inner city schools now attest, the model has flaws.

An important task for philanthropy is to find programs that are slightly outside the box. There are ample texts from business schools that describe how innovation in business takes place. One of the best is Clayton Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma which describes how so-called disruptive technologies can be both a threat and a potenial for businesses. More ofen than not, it occurs on the fringes or outside the companies which gives managers some trepidation, especially if it poses new challenges. Think of IBM and managements resistance to accepting personalized computers as something people would need. The challenge for new manaters is to create envionments that stimulate new thought and out of the box thinking but one that can easily meet new demands from the public.

The same can be said for philanthropy. One important task is to find social innovation that with private money can be tested and, if successful, brought to scale. This is no truer than in education. I just finished reading, Relentless Pursuit – A Year in the Trenches Teach of America. This successful program began with determined, organized and focused Wendy Kopp. Her program was the result of her thesis at the Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School entitled, “A Plan and Arguement for the Creation of a National Teacher Corps.” With the assistance of a development officer at Princeton Ms. Kopp got her start with a $26,000 seed grant from Mobile and donated office space from Morgan Stanley. Later, Doris and Donald Fisher founders of GAP provided the financial support to truely launch this sophisticated non-profit. Two companies and a family foundation took a risk but the result has become a national program that, in the words of Pursuit’s author Donna Foote, “…an operation to accomplish what no government program has yet managed – to overcome one of the most basic and vexing of social inequities, a problem we can no longer afford to ignore.”

Teach for America has been slammed by the “establishment” most notably by Stanford University School of Education professor, Linda Darling Hammond at Stanford School of Education. Dr. Hammond’s who skoffed that TFA is argument against teach for America is that it smacked of “missionary program,” calling it a quick fix, “that was harmful to students most in need of qualified teachers.” Dr. Darling Hammond called TFA a revolving door trip into and out of teaching where it was an elitist “pit-stop” on the road to students “real” jobs in law, medicine and business. Dr. Darling Hammond’s suggested the answer to the problem was improving the quality of teacher training, whereas, Mr. Kopp blieives the answer is to be foind in improving the quality of the teacher. In my experience, I have found that Ohio Department of Education dollars used for teacher training is an appalling mess and accounts for unspeakable waste of public dollars.

Similarly, the highly successful KIPP schools were launched with private funding, once again with significant input from the Fishers. The Nord Family Foundation provides support to the KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy in Denver which sits literally between a pubic elementary and public high school. KIPP schools reports on student success shame the performances of the two public schools. So what is the secret to their success?

These institutions which are having positive impact on schools could not have easily happened within the government bureaucracy of the public school system. As I mentioned in an earlier post, any public school teacher I have met introduces an innovative idea despite the system, not because of it. The high-stakes testing standards are just too high for a principle of superintendent to tolerate risk.

Now, when we gathered foundations from across Ohio, it is clear that within philanthropy, there is a divide about the role philanthropy can and should take when assuming the role of advising a Governor as to how to improve the quality of education. On one side is the eternal belief that the public schools can be fixed and other side believes that the system should be scrapped and begun anew using schools like KIPP, teach of America and another highly successful faith-based model known as the Cristo Rey network.

When it comes to addressing standard and assessment, there is equal division. Our task with OGF is to advise the Governor on what role the standards should take on in the future. We have assembled a group of people who have read material provided to us much of which is published by the American Federation of Teachers Union. The theme is how the standards help focus the teachers. Most disconcerting to me is the utter lack of understanding of how technology and sophisticated computing is likely to render the way students learn and teachers teach utterly useless. I highly recommend a book by, David Weinberger, fellow at the Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for the Internet & Society. His book, Everything is Miscellaneous – the Power of the New Digital Disorder provides a glimpse into how computer technology has revolutionized the way we do categorization and assemble knowledge. The book is so popular, he has his own blog inviting comments on this thoughts.

Weinberger draws comparisons to the way we used to assemble photos in albums and coded them by weddings, vacations or other special events and put them in boxes to be retrieved at dates. Compare that to the online photo album Flickr and its ability not only to upload photos, but through tagging, assemble them into various cross-referenced platforms and repackaged and/or referenced in ways unimaginable with a box. Similarly, how Itunes revolutionized the way we pick our music, a far cry from the days of albums and even CD’s. The music industry has spent millions to try and get a hold on this randomness. Play lists are now assembled by millions of users and tagged and shared with themes like, “Loneliness,” “NASCAR,” “breast-cancer” and of course “Love” Weinstein points out that these play lists are a means of self expression. They use explicit (a song) and add to it to make evoke and disclose that which is “implicit.” And there is a power in their being shared with others.

One of the most powerful examples of the impact that recent computer technology has had on knowledge is the emergence of Wikipedia. This tool has challenged the Encyclopedia Britannica for its place in determining and categorizing bits of information which is turned into knowledge. How many schools today prohibit youngsters from using Wikipedia based on the fact that it is somehow unreliable?

Britannica enables us to be passive knowers: You merely have to look a topic up to find out about it. But Wikipedia provides the metadata surrounding the article – edits, discussions, warnings, links to other edits by the contributors- because it expects the reader to be actively involved, alert to the signs. This burden comes straight from the miscellaneous itself.”

Weinberger makes only passing reference to schools and their utter lack of understanding of how these tools can improve learning. Wallowing in ignorance, schools and even their supporters try in vain to tinker with ways to improve the way Standards are set and children assessed. His argument for standards and standardized tests is that they capture that which is “explicit” and perhaps merely a snapshot in a child’s knowledge. They cannot by their nature capture the “implicit” which is really the process of learning the child undergoes as they progress. To make the point, Weinberg says,

“Social knowing changes who does the knowing and how, more than it changes the what of knowledge.

Now poke your head into a classroom toward the end of the school year. …you are likely to see students with their heads bowed, using No. 2 pencils to fill in examinations mandated by the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. Fulfilling the mandate of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the MCAS measures how well schools are teaching the standardized curricula the state has formulated and whether students are qualified for high school degrees. …The implicit lesion is unmistakable: Knowing is something done by individuals. It is something that happens inside your brain. The mark of knowing is to be able to fill in a paper with the right answers. Knowledge could not get any less social. In face, in those circumstances when knowledge it social we call it cheating.

Nor could the disconnect get much wider between the official state view of education and how our children are learning. In most American households, the computer on which students do their homework is likely to be connected to the Net. Even if their teachers let them use only approved sources of the Web, the chances are good that any particular student, including your son or daughter, has four of five instant-messaging sessions open as he or she does homework. The have their friends with them as they learn. In between chitchat about the latest alliances and factions among their social set, they are comparing answer, asking for help on tough questions and complaining. Our children are doing their homework socially, even though they’re being graded and tested as if they’re doing their work in isolation booths. But in the digital order, their approach is appropriate. Memorizing facts is often now a skill more relevant to quiz shows than life.”

The point is reinforced by the field research of Dr. Sugata Mitra presented at the TED Conferences. Click on the site to see his findings on how computers help children form communities of learning. “What”, he asks, “is the role of the teacher.”

Mr. Strickland has called for a system that will personalilze learning in public schools. He is on the right track. Teachers I have spoken with at places like KIPP and Cristo Rey would happily bring these new technologies into their schools which would likely further personalize their already successful programs. Unfortunately, these schools get minimal to no government assistance and must continue to rely on foundation support to just keep the doors open. Despite their obvious remarkable success, they cannot secure the funding they need to educate children. There are many public school officials and advocates that would like nothing more than to see these alternative schools go under.

The challenge for philanthropy is to find pockets of innovation where that idea of personalized education is actually taking place in either a public or priavte school. If the technology does not yet exist in a charter setting such as KIPP funds could be directed to test it there. Similarly we would do well to target one or two successful public schoolls and work with teachers to test the technology and bring it to scale.

The goal should be to exempt these schools from the current Standards and Assessment models and allow teachers, student and designated mentors use the technology to explore how these tools can best support learning. One concrete example is the use of electronic portfolios or (e-portfolios). One of the more promising applications of e-portfolios is found at Florida State University which is the world leader in electronic portfolio development for demonstrating student achievement.

I believe the only authority by which philanthropy can speak is from its relations with the incredible people who are demonstrating programs and methods that are making a difference in a child’s learning experience. Of course standards are needed but the technology challenges us to thing through how these standards which currently operate as a one-size-fits-all program, can be transformed to refocus on what a child learns not what a child can memorize. New starndardization and assessment tools make it possible to bring to light the implicit learning that takes place with a child and helps to make it more visible, i.e. explicit to teachers who more often than not, recognize the bright child who, “just doesn’t test well.” These innovations can and will occur. Robert Stephenson from the Global Education & Learning Community has focused reasearch on in this area, focusing on the need to have bottom-up solutions rather than top-down solutions to personalize education. Philanthropy can provide funding to allow teachers to figure this out. We need to moved beyond the hubris that straddles Encylopidia Britannica that assembles the keepers of knowledge. We can and should be looking at a wikipedia type model that will invite teachers from public schools and private schools, from universities and from businesses – people from inside and outside the box – to become communities of learners who, together will make best use of these tools to make students into life-long learners.

2 thoughts on “Philanthropy's role in Educational Standards and Assessment

  1. Michael B. Horn

    Fascinating post. Thanks for writing it. Shows some real openness to change and new thinking. In addition to Clay Christensen’s book the Innovator’s Dilemma, you may be pleased to know that he and I and Curtis Johnson have recently released a new book applying his theories to education. Titled Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, I think you will see some similar strands of thinking. Would be happy to send you some material on this.

  2. G.R. Kearney


    Wonderful post. I was lucky enough to spend my first two years out of college working at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago. The school, and the Network of similar schools that have sprung up around the country since, have been the beneficiaries of TREMENDOUS philanthropic support. It’s evidence, I believe, that successful schools or educational movements can’t be started by philanthropists alone. Nor can they be started by teachers alone. It takes both. Anyone interested in seeing how philanthropy contributed to Cristo Rey’s remarkable success might enjoy reading More than a Dream ( I wrote the book about the unlikely and inspiring creation of Cristo Rey and published it with Loyola Press in January of this year. Keep up the good work.

    Take care,

    G.R. Kearney

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