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Education Week: Philanthropists Are Losing Interest in K-12 “Reform” Due to Lack of Results

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Christina Samuels of Education Week reports that philanthropists continue to pour a large percentage of their donations into education, but are losing interest in K-12 due to the poor record of their efforts to “reform” the schools. 

ironically, this is good news because the philanthropic money was used to impose “reforms” that disrupted schools, ranked students based on their test scores, and demoralized teachers.

Schools that serve the neediest children definitely need more money but not the kind that is tied to test scores, stigmatizing students and teachers, or the kind that funds charter schools to drain resources from public schools, leaving them with less money to educate the neediest children.

Samuels reports that a growing number of grant makers to early childhood education are looking to help children before they start school, and giving money to issues such as “education and mental health, education and criminal justice, education and the arts.”

In 2010, I visited Denver and met with about 60 of the city’s civic leaders. I was supposed to debate State Senator Michael Johnston, the TFA wunderkind in the legislature, who arrived the minute I finished speaking, never hearing my critique of test-based “reform.” Johnston proceeded to sing the praises of his legislation to introduce exactly what I denounced and proclaimed that judging teachers, principals, and schools by test scores would produce “great teachers, great principals, and great schools.” The philanthropists bought these promises hook, line, and sinker.

They were false promises and a total failure. Now, as this article shows, philanthropists in Denver realize they made a huge mistake. Good intentions, wrong solutions.

Samuels interviewed Celine Coggins, the executive director of Grantmakers in Education, who said,

What we saw in our recent study was that members were more thinking about the whole learner and moving away from just thinking about the academic standards,” she said. Working outside the boundaries of the K-12 system is seen as a way to have more impact, as well as more freedom from governmental controls.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation, created to improve public education in Colorado, is an example of a charitable organization that is moving away from trying to influence education at the K-12 level, said Tony Lewis. Once known as the executive director of the Denver-based foundation, Davis said he eliminated staff titles about a year ago, to create a more egalitarian structure in the organization.

“Over the past five or six years, we’ve gotten frustrated with the lack of progress in improvement in the K-12 system,” Lewis said. “We’ve tried hard, and our partners have tried hard and everyone is still trying hard. The results have been disappointing at best. That’s a Colorado story and it’s a national story.”

Lewis said the organization has pulled back from areas such as school performance frameworks, district accountability, and “turnaround schools” because the gains have been minimal. The organization is also less involved in supporting new charter schools and in early-childhood education than it was several years ago.

Instead, Donnell-Kay is now taking a closer look at the out-of-school space, including afterschool and summertime. That’s where children spend most of their time, he said.

“We keep layering more and more work on schools, reading, math, STEM, nutrition, mental health,” Lewis said. “I don’t think loading more onto the school day is actually the answer any more.”

But, he continued, “What if you really intentionally maximize the time in the out-of-school space? You can make a huge difference in both academics and in life skills.”

Next question: Will Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Bloomberg, and the other billionaire funders of disruptive reforms get the message?

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