School Reformers Switch Gears
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For two decades, the prevailing wisdom among education philanthropists and policymakers has been that the U.S. school system needs the guiding hand of centralized standard-setting to discipline ineffective teachers and bureaucrats. Much of that direction was guided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent billions since 2000 to influence both schools and education policy.
But as schools open this year, top-down national initiatives based on standardized testing and curricular uniformity are in retreat.
Two dozen states started backing away from the Gates-backed Common Core State Standards not long after they were first embraced in 2010 (though many of these states retained “key elements” of the standards, according to a 2017 report by an education organization the foundation helps fund.) Earlier, the foundation acknowledged that “many of the small schools” that it invested in — the foundation’s first major education initiative — “did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.”
Now, the foundation seems to be stepping back from sweeping national initiatives in its bid to remake education. In the coming years, its K-12 philanthropy will concentrate on supporting what it calls “locally driven solutions” that originate among networks of 20 to 40 schools, according to Allan Golston, who leads the foundation’s U.S. operations, because they have “the power to improve outcomes for black, Latino, and low-income students and drive social and economic mobility.”
If Gates hews to its new plan, it will mark a significant change from the top-down approach that characterized not only the recent work of the foundation and the continuing focus of other education-minded philanthropies, but also government policy. Think of "No Child Left Behind," the 2001 federal program dictating that all children achieve “grade level” by 2014; schools that failed to reach that mandate risked being closed, though, in practice, the U.S. education department granted states waivers from the most onerous requirements.
Or "Race to the Top," the initiative of President Barack Obama’s administration that offered cash to states that adopted the common-core curriculum and tied teacher evaluations to standardized test scores.
The Gates Foundation’s pivot represents an acknowledgment that when it comes to education reform, local experiments “done with, not to schools,” as Golston puts it, appear to be more promising than grand initiatives.
The foundation’s new strategy bears a striking resemblance to an undertaking that took root in New York City nearly 50 years ago, during the financial crisis of the 1970s. At the time, the legendary teacher Deborah Meier, who would later become the first educator to win a MacArthur Foundation genius award, helped spark a small-school renaissance that came to encompass well over 100 schools throughout the city.
In the early 1990s, the Annenberg Foundation offered Meier $25 million to develop four independent school-network organizations. The idea was that small schools work best if they are supported by links to like-minded schools and can share knowledge and funding. Although political changes curtailed the impact of the Annenberg-funded networks, most survive to this day.
One mini-network that emerged during the Annenberg years caught the Gates foundation’s attention: the Julia Richman Complex, a largely self-governing group of small public schools on the east side of Manhattan that share a building previously occupied by a defunct high school of that name. The foundation declared the complex a success and started to put up small schools across the country like so many tract houses in the midst of a real estate bubble. While some did well, many went bust. Eventually, the small-school strategy was written off as a failure and Gates abandoned it.
One reason: The foundation failed to heed the warning of Ann Cook, the founder of the Julia Richman Complex: “Small is necessary, but insufficient” for success, she said at the time.
What she meant was that the Julia Richman schools, like other networks of successful schools, had developed a unique culture, including essential training and pedagogical practices, that wasn’t obvious to would-be imitators.
One of the longest-lived networks from the Meier era was the New York State Performance Standards Consortium, a network of about 30 high schools to which some of the Julia Richman schools belong. The consortium schools won state exemptions from standardized testing and require students instead to produce ambitious final projects, which demand a distinctive teaching approach focused on guiding students to pursue their own research and learning. Many of these schools also give teachers unusual influence in administration and curriculum decisions — a system that works because new teachers typically undergo rigorous training and because turnover is low.
During Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s final term ending in 2013, New York City’s education department launched its own networking experiment, allowing schools to select teams of expert consultants in areas such as budgeting and special-education regulations and pay for them with their own funds (Bloomberg also had given principals control over their budgets). In the most successful cases, principals banded together with like-minded colleagues and schools, learning from each other. If they were dissatisfied, they could change networks. (Bloomberg is the owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Opinion.)
Although they were championed by some of New York City’s best principals, the networks were dismantled by Bloomberg's successor, Mayor Bill DeBlasio.
Today, the Gates Foundation’s K-12 strategy is run by Robert Hughes, the former president of New Visions for Public Schools, one of the four network organizations that had shared in Meier’s Annenberg-financed project.
The biggest challenge for the foundation, which is accustomed to funding megaprojects and rigorously measuring them, will be to see beyond the data to the organizational culture that makes the best schools and networks work.
Nor has the foundation completely relinquished grand, top-down reforms. It just joined The City Fund, an ambitious new plan by a group of education-focused philanthropies to introduce a sweeping new initiative across “every city” in America that would, among other things, give them an expanded role in developing and running charter schools in arrangements that often limit local governance. So far the group has amassed $200 million — $10 million from the Gates foundation.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."
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