Thursday, September 20, 2018
The Bezos’ gift: Here we go again….
Jeff Bezos and his wife are promising to set up a foundation that will work on homelessness and providing preschool to low-income communities. I can’t speak to what this new effort will or won’t do for homelessness. That’s an issue where I have opinions, but no expertise. But I fear what it will mean to have another deep-pocketed mega-donor step into education. I’ve seen these efforts from afar and up close, and I’ve developed a preternatural concern that warns me that this won’t end well. Maybe the Bezos family will be the exception, but in my experiences, having deep pockets involved in education generally isn’t good.
Where to start with the examples? We could look at how the Annenburg Challenge put a half a billion dollars into schooling in the 90s. Or perhaps a review of Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to Newark, New Jersey’s schools. Or maybe the Gates Foundation’s investment of at least $650 million into small schools; or its more recent $575 million on teacher reforms. If you want to review the sad details of all of those, follow the links. And if you want to see more examples, Diane Ravitch offered an excellent history and critique in her 2011 blog posting (including a prescient warning about the current federal Secretary of Education) at this link.
What all of these have in common with the Bezos’ gift is that they come from well-intended wealthy people who have been exposed to some basic ideas about education. Then they marshal their excess resources into well-meaning, yet ineffective actions. What they all also have in common is that they fail.
So what? Somebody with a lot of money decides to throw their money away. It’s not a significant loss to them. They can still buy another estate in San Sebastian, or purchase another sports team, or whatever. It is their money, after all, and what harm comes from sharing their wealth in a way that they feel benefits the world? As things turn out, there’s actually lots of potential harm.
In the Ravitch posting I note above, she identifies some specific, politically motivated efforts that undermine public education. She writes more extensively on that topic in her book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. These wealthy donors who are pushing agendas certainly pose a threat to the successes of an education system that has flaws, but isn’t failing in the ways that these wealthy “reformers” suggest. It’s important to note, though, that Bezos, Gates, Annenburg, and others aren’t rabid reformers who preach an anti-public-school orthodoxy. Yet their failed efforts have had and will have serious and significant negative impacts.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics, from the period of 2004 to 2014, the U.S. increased its K-12 expenditure per student by 3%. The 2014 U.S. expenditures still place it fourth highest on the list of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries; however, that 3% increase is among the lowest increases among member organizations. The average increase for other OECD countries during that period was 15%. The U.S., during that decade, did not noticeably increase its investment in education, and that lack of investment came at a time when, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a dollar at the start of that period required $1.27 to obtain the same buying power at the end of it.
Like everything else, schooling runs on money. An increased 3% investment didn’t help the nation’s education system keep up with costs – especially in poor urban and rural schools. When schools can’t get their communities, their state, or their nation to provide resources, they chase dollars elsewhere. And if mega-donors offer to give funding for schools that implement their idea, many schools will latch onto that idea and reach for the dollars that follow. Look at the links to the initiatives I included above, and you’ll see what that looks like as schools re-formed themselves around donors’ initiatives. Oftentimes, the changes meant that the structures that had been in place prior to the change were eliminated in favor of newer structures. When the experiment failed, the school had neither the newly failed structure or its older processes to support it. In The Emperor’s New Clothes, the only one harmed was the king. However, these schools are left, after the funding is gone, with not only embarrassment, but without the systems they need to function fully.
You can see where my concerns come from with this latest announcement. Does this mean that people with money should just stay away from funding education?
Before I answer, let me emphasize that the problem really lies in inadequate funding of our educational system, and especially insufficient funding for schools that serve students in poverty. In my home state, that was the finding of our state supreme court’s decision in McCleary, et al. v. Washington State. In 2012, the court found the state in gross dereliction of its responsibilities in funding schools equitably. The court even got to the point where it found the legislature in contempt and fined it $100,000 a day from 2015 until 2018 because legislators failed to act even after the court’s ruling. The $1 billion that the legislature added to its budget in 2018 takes a step toward addressing a long-standing failure to fund schools equitably. The new funding in Washington state is a start toward addressing the need – a start. When we adequately fund schools, then we won’t have a need for philanthropists’ involvement.
Given that full funding for schools isn’t likely an immediate outcome, the question remains: With the failures and pitfalls, should philanthropists invest in education? Despite my many concerns, I don’t see a binary “yes” or “no” answer to that.
I have seen philanthropists who do have a positive impact in education. And what they did is instructive to others. First of all, they need to know what they don’t know (and it’s a lot). At best, a philanthropist can only give small amounts of time to understanding the complex issues of education. I expect that Jeff Bezos knows as much about education as I do about online retailing. I understand how it works because I use it, but I wouldn’t be of any use if someone asked me to manage a division of an online retailer. Anyone offering support, or advice, or certainly millions of dollars has to have more than a passing knowledge of how education functions and what communities actually need. If it were as easy as funding preschools, then Head Start, which has been one of the most successful and researched federal programs of the past 50 years, would be where the Bezos family can put its money.
One of the most impressive foundation missions I’ve seen was a regional foundation that sought to support an increase in the numbers of teachers of color. The woman who started the foundation went to school to earn a master’s degree as she and her husband were starting the foundation so that she could be informed. The result of her gained knowledge was a thoughtful engagement with colleges of education, with pre-service teachers, and the regional education community. The foundation listened and learned and developed an excellent model of how to impact their intended focus. The mission that began the organization evolved as they became more immersed in the needs of the communities they sought to impact, and as they learned how to work with those communities to serve the need. What began as an effort to recruit teachers became a movement to support teachers because the funders learned and evolved.
Secondly, funding should be built on relationships. The best foundation grants I’ve either received or evaluated are from funders who’ve taken the time to get to know whom they’re funding and to understand the work that they’re funding through the people being funded. Whether it’s an award of $15,000 or $15 million, this relational aspect is critical. Funding done well isn’t organization to organization; it’s person to person. Of course, that can lead to cronyism that doesn’t ask questions and blindly doles out money. But that doesn’t have to be the outcome. Understanding the work means understanding who’s doing the work: their skills, their experiences, their goals. It also means understanding the people who’ll be impacted by the funds. By granting money, funders intend to impact lives. It’s antithetical to do that in a vacuum where the funder neither knows the people being impacted or the people doing the work.
I once evaluated an afterschool program that intended to serve a specific group of children. The funders gave a significant amount of money to two organizations to implement a specific intervention. The funders had chosen to fund this intervention because they had seen its impact on their own children’s learning. Their children, of course, lived in privilege while the impacted children lived far from privilege. It was a laudable aim. These funders sought to provide a community with something that they believed was useful and impactful. However, after four years of the project, the data that my evaluation team collected showed that the intervention was having no impact on the participating children. The intervention was a poor fit to the children it intended to serve. I recommended that the funder and the two organizations use the funding elsewhere, and they did.
What went wrong? The well-intentioned funders had no idea of the needs of the children they sought to impact. The funders also didn’t know that the two organizations would need at least two years of working together to get the project fully operational. The result was a lot of money that was spent ineffectively. I’ve often thought that the localness of Head Start is one of the keys to its success. The one study I completed involving Head Start certainly showed that. Although it has federal mandates and benchmarks, it is implemented locally by directors and staff who are embedded in the communities they serve and each center tends to reflect local needs through adaptations that are suited to those needs. That’s very different than an external funder coming with a solution that tries to fit the funder’s perception of needs.
In contrast, I worked with a funder who funded some projects that I generated as a college dean, and although I’m no longer seeking private funding for projects, I remain in touch with this funder because we developed a friendship. This funder got to know me and through that knowledge provided support to important projects that helped to complement other funding. Those funds allowed me to support not only my own unit, but the college as a whole as we sought to impact college instructional methods. I still hear from people at that college that they’re using the skills they developed from that work. The funder’s role was critical because as they got to know our work, they could see the arc of that work and its potential. They also got to know the college and continued the relationship with the college well after I left. Instead of seeing programs and operations, that funder sees people and relationships. Through the relationships, they fund people and their projects. I’ve seen that funder do that with many people in the region, and they have a resulting major impact in the region. Instead of their philanthropy being about the funder’s ideas, they develop relationships that ensure that their funding supports communities’ ideas.
That’s what’s troubling about mega-donors’ efforts. Their initiatives are never about building relationships and an understanding of impacts on people. This new Bezos initiative has all the telltale signs: a big plan where direction is already set. It assumes that building Montessori-style preschools will make significant contributions to addressing the problems of an inequitable school system. It’s a technical solution when a personal one is required. As Arnold Pacey warned in his 1985 book, The Culture of Technology, we need to take caution before handing over social challenges to technicians with technical answers. In announcing the new initiative, Bezos noted that, “I’m excited about that [building and operating a network of preschools] because it will give us the opportunity to learn, invent, and improve. We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon.”
This is the technician’s response. Every problem is a matter of engineering a response that addresses the issue. Social challenges, however, require relational responses. Realistically, by the nature of mega-donors’ size and distance from the issues they wish to impact, it’s a getting-the-camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle challenge for them to build the requisite relationships to support education. When you’re spending billions of dollars, creating the kind of organization that knows the people you’re funding and their communities is difficult. However, without that, we see the results in decades of misspent resources.
While people (both in education and without) are excited that the Bezos family has become engaged in supporting the planet that gave so much to it, I’m cautiously pessimistic. Good for them that they want to do something. As the record shows, though, the history of these efforts is poor, and this one has all the marks of being as poor. The Bezos family evidently decided on this venture when Jeff Bezos crowdsourced the issue of where to commit funding in 2017 through his Twitter feed. That’s an innovative approach, but Twitter isn’t a good medium to develop relations or to gain the level of knowledge needed. The family could save itself a lot of wasted resources and time if it replaced its technical response with a plan to develop the skills, knowledge, and relationships to succeed in supporting education. Top-down solution solving may be sufficient to create an online retailer, but it definitely doesn’t work in education.