Monday, April 28, 2008

A dirty secret about philanthropists

An article published by the New York Times on March 9, 2008 did a very good job of revealing some of what is going on in the minds of the millionaire and billionaire educational philanthropists today.

The article explained that the educational philanthropists donate their money because 1) they need a tax break and 2) educational issues are currently a popular cause. Unlike educational philanthropists of the old days like Carnegie and Rockefeller who were satisfied by providing supplemental help to the system, this new breed considers themselves to be school reformers. They want to see evidence that their money has produced specific types of output. To control this, they actively seek to have a strategic influence over the school districts which are the recipients of their largess. It's crystal clear that their gifts come with quite a few thick strings attached.

The first thing the educational philanthropists do is to deploy a “disruptive force.” Once the established school system is destroyed, they are poised to insert whatever model they think is better. Aren’t they nice?

For a number of years now, these philanthropists have been playing a huge role in changing school districts in many cities, including my own. Of course, they don’t send their kids to those public schools, nor live among the many members of those communities. They have no experience as educators of the masses, and certainly have not had significant personal contact with schools for the commoners, i.e. the public ones. But these qualifiers which would restrain the cockiness of a normal individual don't seem to carry weight for those arrogant and wealthy individuals with an urge to “fix" the problems, undoubtedly driven to do so for various personal reasons.

The educational philanthropists hunt for weak districts because they need a place to test their ideas. Oakland was one such district. Once it was cleanly obtained, with help from California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, the “disruptive force” was installed.

The force arrived as graduates from billionaire Eli Broad’s training ground, headed by the first State Administrator Randy Ward. They set up shop quickly and went to work creating their own special system for managing our large, urban school district. Some members have left, but others have replaced them. As an organized force from the outside, they have been applying their system for nearly five years now (the “Expect Success” program). The whole operation was paid for by the foundations of Gates, Broad, Rogers, and others. Oakland Unified still isn't “fixed” and with their approach it will never be.

Of course, assisting us with our fiscal recovery, the reason they were supposedly sent here in the first place, was never their primary goal.

Their undertaking was quite easy to do because the conduit for public input had been completely eliminated. Information to the public about what was really going on was scant. It was sometimes alluded to in the promotional materials for “Expect Success.” Many experienced and savvy administrators who questioned features of this new program, or showed resistance, either gave up in disgust and left, or were pressured out.

With the return of our local control, the powers of the “disruptive force” will be diminished, or lost – but not if the educational philanthropists can get a toe-hold by becoming a part of the publicly elected power body. Currently, Brian Rogers is running for a School Board seat in Oakland's District One.

“Gary Rogers was the chief executive of Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream in June 2003 when the company signed a $2.8 billion deal with Nestle SA, giving the Swiss food giant majority control. Rogers had bought the Oakland company 26 years before with his business partner, William Cronk, taken it public in 1981 and grown it into a $1 5 billion business.

The deal created what those in philanthropic circles call an “economic event” in Rogers’ life. Rogers realized he could either fill the IRS coffers that year or pour the money into the community in which he had raised his family and take a tax break of roughly 40 percent.

‘It's not the only reason people set up a family foundation, but it's one of the benefits of doing it,’ said Brian Rogers, who is one of Gary's three sons and executive director of the Rogers Gary Rogers Family Foundation. ‘For us, there was a large transaction for my father's business and at that point, he decided to bring together all of his goals for philanthropic giving.’

The result was a $90 million contribution to the Bay Area. Divided between two organizations - the family foundation that Brian runs and a supporting organization through the East Bay Community Foundation - the funds are backing desperately needed projects, large and small, including Oakland's $43 million Expect Success program in its public schools.”


caroline said...

May I repost this on the sfschools blog? (also I hope you'll send it to the Small Schools listserve. Those are people who really need to hear this.)

Anonymous said...

This post takes an "angry populist" view that is common in Oakland and really does not help anything. The underlying fallacy is that anything that "rich people" are trying to accomplish is suspect simply because they are wealthy. These critiques of Oakland school reform typically take it as obvious that because "billionaires" have funded the Gates and Broad Foundations, they must have evil motives, and be trying to "control" and "take over" our schools, maybe even to make money off them somehow (even though they are giving away money). The argument typically is in support of the view that everything would be better if we had more "local control." What these tiresome critiques always leave out is the extremely sorry state that Oakland schools have been in under local control. The undeniable historical fact is that "local control" has not been good for poor children of color in Oakland, who have been dropping out of school at very high rates and falling far behind their middle class white peers. The angry populist doesn't have to address the utter incompetence of our schools for years and years under "local control" because now they have an enemy - "wealthy philanthropists" - to focus local anger and frustration on. They're the ones who are ruining everything - but wasn't everything a mess before? And according to a rational look at the facts, wasn't it a worse mess before? There actually has been some improvement in Oakland schools under Expect Success. Some schools have been shut down because they were terrible, and better schools have replace them. Obviously things need to improve more, and not everything about ES is working well for students. But the big new education philanthropists are openly "disrupting the system" in Oakland because the system has been failing.

You also argue that "Philanthropists don't have kids in our schools, so they should have no say." Do you require every teacher who teaches your children to have children in the schools? Do you require your pediatrician to have sick children? This is another meaningless ad hominem attack.
If you have better, workable ideas about how to improve the school system, by all means propose them. The Broad and Gates approaches to reform may be flawed (of course they are! but you would never learn from your post what the specific flaws might be), but rather than debate that and provide other constructive ways of fixing a complicated, dysfunctional system, (eg, what would be your approach to ensuring that high schools where more than half the kids drop out do a better job?) you just dish out personal attacks. What exactly do you disagree with in Expect Success? You imply that the reform is bad because there is turnover in the district. There is heavy turnover in every city district! The pay isn't great, the hours are long, and there are uninformed people yelling meaningless criticisms at you! Could they do a better job? Of course! Will your article contribute anything to doing a better job? Not one bit.

The Perimeter Primate said...

One problem with Expect Success, probably because so many of the leaders were new to town, was their blindness and absolute inability to recognize individuals who were ASSETS to the district, and the schools. These people were their resource for an incredible body of knowledge, but I know of several who were unacknowledged and disregarded, or driven out. Having observed this mistake being mad at school sites too, makes me think that a training needs to be done for new principals called “How to Recognize Assets and Resources at the School You Have Arrived At and How to Protect Them Rather Than Drive Them Away.”

Expect Success is also unrealistic. Rather than broadcasting a goal that ALL children WILL graduate from high school in a district with graduation rates such as our own (which sounds dumb), how about a realistic goal that addressed it in terms of baby steps, like increasing the rate from 50% to 55% within two years. Then a big party could be thrown if that simple goal was achieved.

As far as the glossy brochures go, the where-graduates-are-going-to-college one has been filled with tons of errors for the past two years. Its credibility is shot as far as I am concerned. Anyway, what is most important is the college acceptances of the students at any one school. This shows the potential of what has been achieved and doesn’t reveal personal information. If something's big and glossy, it has to have correct information as well.

My fundamental belief at my baseline of thinking though, is that the problems in the schools stem from huge, social issues that rarely get addressed by our society. A school district with insufficient funding, managed by humans who all have their own limitations, will never be able to “fix” those really big things.

One of the social issues that is causing so many problems is the breakdown of family structure, first caused by slavery, more recently caused by decades of unemployment, and very recently caused by the crack epidemic. How can any school, with the resources that they currently have, ever be recover the damage caused by these social forces?

Children need to be cared for. They need parents who have enough resources, materially, intellectually, and emotionally, to be able to do it. A “state” will never be able to do that job. Too many American families have been obliterated. Those who have been able to pull themselves together a bit, then have some other destructive force hit them. Our country needs to start caring about its families.

Have you ever seen the propaganda that was produced during World War II that urged and directed our country to save, sacrifice, and work hard for the good of something bigger? It had a huge effect.

Here’s another idea. I would love to have seen the philanthropist’s millions spent on a public service campaign that would have helped parents. They have enough money to have overridden some of the damaging (as with liquor and cigarette ads) and materialistic (as with everything else) messages that are blasted on billboards, buses, and in the media.

How about giving messages of inspiration and information? These messages make people think twice. They especially need them if don’t hear the content from anywhere else. Maybe instead of deciding to NOT go to the parent-teacher conference, if some celebrity was telling me I should, then maybe I should. The philanthropists could sponsor friendly buses, like the Dreyer’s bus, that even delivers parents to the schools.

As for my other ideas, I am working on an alternative to-do list for the philanthropists and will post it within the next few weeks.

My own anger and frustration at seeing so many people suffer keeps me going, too. I realize that others are working hard and want to make things better. I also know that NCLB pressures are making OUSD’s job harder. At least we're people who care enough about trying to figure it out.

The Perimeter Primate said...

By the way, I had issues with OUSD before the State Administration arrived. I remember taking photos of overflowing garbage cans that had been left on my daughter’s school’s blacktop for over a week because the school’s administration wasn’t dealing with it. I took those photos with me when I drove down to meet with OUSD Superintendent Dennis Chaconas at 6 am on Second Ave. because he would personally meet with parents and listen to their complaints at that time of day.

After that visit, and some more efforts on the part of parents and staff members at the school, the nasty and negligent custodian was eventually demoded and transferred. Of course Peter Hafner, the Director of Custodial Services then, was receiving death threats around that time. A pig’s head was even left at his entry on High Street one morning. Ain’t Oakland fun?

Here’s another thing about having the philanthropist-types and their workers here, from my perspective as a home-owning, childrearing, public-school-sending mother, and twenty-two year resident of Oakland.

It’s like being a homeowner who has a checkbook that is grossly out of balance and also has a really messy yard. Strangers have arrived on my property, having been sent by O’Connell (who is actually afraid of the City of Oakland, I’ve heard), to straighten out my finances, but while they’re here they are going to completely change my yard's landscaping. Sure my yard is messy, but how did they get the right to get involved with that project, too?

As a citizen of this city in a democratic nation, it just feels fundamentally unfair to have strangers standing on my property who I did not invite (i.e. elect), being very judgmental about my shortcomings, and who are altering whatever they wish because the power to do so was given to them by their personal connections!

For their information, people in Oakland have been working on this problem before they arrived and they will continue to work on it after they leave.

And most importantly, the problem of poor educational attainment is present in EVERY poor urban school district in this country. It isn’t unique to Oakland and hasn’t been caused by something the “old” OUSD was doing “wrong.” So stop putting down the previous administrations; they didn't cause the current “problem.”

If it is happening everywhere, this is a problem that is bigger than the inefficiencies of school districts.

By the way, it turns out that my yard was unkempt, not because I am incompetent, but because I didn’t have enough tools (= resources) to do a better job. I suspect the Expect Success folks are figuring out, that with even millions of extra dollars at their disposal, they don’t have enough tools that would be needed to actually do the job, either.

Anonymous said...

OK, now you have replied with arguments about approaches and ideas instead of personal attacks. Let's not emulate the presidential campaigns. Your main argument is that "Poverty is too deep a problem, the schools can't fix poverty (drugs, broken families, chronic unemployment, etc) and shouldn't be excpected to." I see you have Richard Rothstein under suggested reading, he is a leading spokesperson for this deeply conservative view. Hogwash. This is an excuse for bad schooling. Poor children can be well educated! It has happened over and over in our history, and it happens today in many many schools, including several in Oakland. Yes, school reform shouldn't be made to substitute for all the reform that is needed in this country to create and redistribute wealth. That's why you can convince yourself that this view is liberal because it's for comprehensive social reform (that might happen someday..), but it dismisses the reforming power of education that has been a bedrock of liberalism since 19C.
Poverty cannot be the excuse for bad schooling. How many successful schools and students in poverty do you and Rothstein need to see to be convinced that it is possible to educate most of our children? (He argues that each case is an exception, mostly of self-selection a la KIPP, but the exceptions add up to a proof - see Ed Trust reports). The Asian countries that educate their children better than us are much poorer and invest less in education. The problems stem more from social conflict and racism than poverty - "these (black and brown) kids can't learn (because they are too poor and their parents are irresponsible victims) therefore why make dramatic changes to education" - and from outmoded ideas of what education should be (a 'factory model' developed in early capitalism to create a low-skilled workforce).

Then you go back to angry populism - who are these 'strangers' coming into my city and telling me how to 'fix' my schools? Yeah, didn't they say that sort of thing in Little Rock and throughout the south? You don't think that the state of Oakland schools is a civil rights issue? "Well, these kids, their parents don't have the resources, so when their parents develop further (through government intervention, perhaps? ie more strangers and outsiders?) then we will have better schools and education, one day. In the meantime, get off our property." Nice.

The Perimeter Primate said...

Did I ever suggest that poor children can’t be educated? No. That seems to get thrown back in the face of anyone who dares to criticize or question what the reformers are doing. The responses imply that the reformers are the only ones who truly care about these kids and believe in their potential, and that everyone else just doesn’t. I don’t feel that way, and most of the people I’ve met in the schools who have dedicated their lives to helping the kids don’t feel that way, either. I hope that’s not what you really feel.

As far as poor children being able to learn or not, in 2007, 26.7% of OUSD’s Socioeconomically Disadvantaged students achieved ELA proficiency or above and 32.5% achieved Math proficiency. This is not a small group of kids; the figures represent 4541 and 5562 students respectively.

Data driven practice is big these days, right? Maybe the billionaires could fund a study that identifies features that link these socioeconomically disadvantaged kids together. Why not FORMALLY find out what makes them able to succeed in such a lousy system? Medical research often proceeds in this way, for instance when it investigates why one set of individuals is more, or less, susceptible to a condition than another.

Maybe useful strategies could be developed from that information.

Until the results are in, my guess is that a huge part of the difference is because of how “educational pumps” are primed and maintained in homes. Any race or ethnicity, single parents and grandparents who are raising kids, are certainly capable of doing this. Should I now suggest that you are the one who thinks they aren’t?

You explain that Asian countries are able to educate their students with less money. Come to think of it, many poor Asian students, with non-English speaking parents, are able to achieve in the “failing” schools of OUSD, too. How come? The difference can’t be the school because that is controlled for, so it’s something else. I’m guessing that it might be due to a set of values in their homes – probably the tradition of Confucianism.

Actually, I agree with you that schools have the potential to make a huge difference for kids from families that are greatly disadvantaged (and not just income-wise). Maybe where we differ is that I don’t think it can be done with the resources that are currently allotted to the schools. I am just not convinced that by shifting this and that around, and by hiring a bunch of recent college graduates who are willing to teach for a year or two, that a big enough dent can be made.

If public school funding was doubled so that classrooms could be smaller, consistently higher caliber people could be hired for every level at OUSD, more programs could be brought in (health clinics, social workers, high quality enrichment, etc.), then maybe the schools could get somewhere on their own.

I wish more people in our society cared enough about these kids to do that.

Until then, have at it. I’ll check in 20 years to see how you’re doing.

The Perimeter Primate said...

By the way, if ever our nation chose to significantly increase public school funding, that would be REAL and meaningful reform.