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By John Thompson.

I began David Callahan’s The Givers with a commitment to avoid three types of confirmation bias. As Callahan observes, plenty of teachers (like me) detest corporate school reform, but if he turned out to be supportive of accountability-driven, competition-driven policies, I shouldn’t let that prejudice my reading of his book. As it turned out, Callahan’s analysis of edu-philanthropy is objective and outstanding – and he repeatedly returns to school reformers’ strategies when illustrating the dangers of today’s philanthropy. (A second post will focus on my second bias and how it was clobbered by Callahan’s book.)

The Givers often used education philanthropists as examples of “the rising confidence of the donor class.” The best example of the new, rushed approach to reform is the Gates Foundation that didn’t conduct research on its technocratic theories until after it “dangled millions of dollars before school districts to enact certain policies.” Bill Gates and many other entrepreneurs forgot that:

Making a bundle in software or short trading doesn’t mean you’ll know the first thing about, say, K-12 education, and it’s easy for misguided philanthropists to do a lot of damage. … Overconfidence is a dangerous thing when combined with great wealth and little in the way of accountability.

Similarly, philanthropists such as Eli Broad who made their money in a more old-fashioned economy share the young elites’ hubris. Broad says that since he doesn’t worry about getting fired, his foundation exists to “take big risks.” Younger and older venture philanthropists believe that “disruptive” innovation and competition can unleash “transformational change.” As Warren Buffett says, they can provide “society’s risk capital,” and thus become “society’s passing gear.”

In the inner city where I taught, we need more disruption like we need another gang war.

In terms of the outcomes produced by outcome-driven education donors, Callahan concludes, “It’s hard to think of many social entrepreneurs who’ve succeeded in bringing about changes on a truly large scale.” For example, Mark Zuckerberg’s attempt to transform Newark schools shows “what happens when things accelerate too quickly, without enough careful thought.” In Newark, philanthropists were in passing gear but lacking community buy-in, they “end(ed) up in a ditch.”

Moreover, the scaling up of charter schools to use competition as a driver of change has created turmoil without producing much improvement. Callahan notes, “The only thing that’s really clear is that, compared to the systematic revolution that charter funders were hoping for, the results have been disappointing.”

Callahan further explains that charters “don’t necessarily exert pressures on traditional schools to improve” and they can hurt neighborhood schools by leaving behind the more challenging students in high-poverty schools, while draining away their funding.

On one hand, Callahan observes that some “charter funders absorbed hard-earned lessons.” Now, Priscilla Chan says that she and her husband Zuckerberg learned from Newark, and “we are deeply connected to experts. We’re in touch with the front lines.” The Gates Foundation also makes the same claim and is starting to “change its style,” even if there are reasons to question whether its power at “the end of the policy-making funnel” is being exercised in a more modest manner.

On the other hand, the Broad and Walton Foundations are “doubling down” on charter expansion. They and others “began to concentrate resources more strategically in a handful of key cities.” In doing so, many committed to the tactic of “marshalling serious muscle to overcome opponents.”  They have done so in two ways.

First, these edu-philanthropists sought “leverage points” for defeating stakeholders who oppose their vision. For instance, the Vergara v. California lawsuit was launched as “an end run” around the political system. Callahan sounds neutral on the merits of Vergara, writing that the case “doesn’t sound like how democracy is supposed to work,” while acknowledging that public education politics has no “pure zone.”

Being a former legal historian, who was dismayed by the intellectually dishonest way that Vergara’s evidence was presented, I believe it was also an insult to our judicial system, but I agree with Callahan’s concerns about the similar suits, promoted by Campbell Brown and others, that it prompted.  Regardless, the important point for Callahan’s narrative is, “The new givers have made a lot of noise on K-12, the Vergara lawsuit in California being a good example, but it’s not clear they’ve actually done much to improve outcomes for the vast majority of U.S. students.”

Second, philanthropists responded to defeats by investing even more in “astroturf” think tanks and so-called “citizen” groups, such as the “Black Alliance for Educational Options” and “Parent Revolution” to generate buzz and “momentum.” Broad budgeted $21.5 million for the politics of expanding charters. Gates made multimillion dollar media grants to Education Week, public radio, and others, (and I’d add that the foundation still seems committed to it dubious public relations campaigns.) The “beleaguered” Los Angeles Timeswas given $800,000 for education coverage “despite the obvious conflict of interest posed by the gift.”  And donations were stepped up to so-called think tanks and advocacy sites like Campbell Brown’s The 74, with its daily “banging the drum for charter schools and other reforms.”

Getting back to the second concern I brought to The Givers, I’m a congenital optimist and have a hard time keeping that bias under control. Callahan’s narrative was meticulously documented and carefully worded, and each chapter raised more fears. By the last quarter of the book, I would find myself continually whining, “Say it ain’t so.”

It will take a second post to review the risky, big picture that Callahan presents but, even if their education efforts had been successful, the rise of the new philanthropy would have been worrisome. The power of elites is growing as economic inequality is increasing, and most Americans feel increasingly disempowered. Moreover, Callahan concludes, “These trends are not entirely unrelated.” As think tanks “excel at framing the terms of public debates” and “wage big-picture ideological warfare,” ordinary people are reminded that our voices don’t matter very much. Callahan shows how “philanthropy is playing a growing role in this feedback loop, as more givers with deeper pockets bankroll think tanks that have the ear of top officials.”

Getting back to my third confirmation bias, I quickly gave in to my prejudices. My preexisting assumption that Callahan’s The Givers would be brilliant was repeatedly reaffirmed.

What do you think? Did Callahan’s objective approach to edu-philanthropy provide an indictment of corporate school reform? Was hubris the biggest problem with education reform or were other, equally important motives the drivers of the disaster?

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Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

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