Revealed: Why Funders Can’t Change K-12 Educational Practices

We’re all familiar with the most common criticisms leveled at funders such as Gates, Broad, and Walton, and their efforts to reform public education. Critics charge that these and other foundations are on a crusade to privatize public schooling, that they stifle the voices of educators and the public, and that they have no accountability when their experiments go badly.

In a paper presented at a recent American Enterprise Institute conference on education philanthropy, education Professor Larry Cuban of Stanford University examines these criticisms. He finds the claims of a privatization agenda to be largely hyperbole that ignores the broader societal embrace of market-driven reforms. On the second criticism, Cuban finds that by pushing reforms that have the effect of greater centralization of education policy, reduced participation by educators and citizens has been an unintended consequence.

He further agrees that there is no accountability for funders when their initiatives are unsuccessful. Such concerns are legitimate, especially when applied to public education, traditionally seen as one of our most democratic institutions. Cuban points out that concerns about the accountability and influence of foundations are not new and extend as far back as 1915, when then-U.S. Senator Frank Smith branded foundations a “menace to the welfare of society.”

But amid these criticisms of education philanthropy, Cuban contends that a larger, more important, question is not being asked: Namely, why are Gates, Broad, and other funders continuing to spend such large sums to improve academic performance despite such minimal results in changing classroom teaching practices and student learning?

The answer, according to Cuban, can be found in the assumptions that drive most funder-driven educational reforms, as well as the large gap that separates the perspectives of policymakers and funders who think up grand policy reforms from the perspectives of the educators who are tasked with carrying them out.

In the funder worldview, low student achievement is the result of schools with no competition, low standards, teachers unions that fight change, and administrators wedded to the status quo. So funders helped create new schools by putting millions into charter schools, developed the Common Core Standards, and created new pipelines for educators and principals through such organizations as Teach For America and the Broad Superintendents Academy. However, these and other systemic reforms have yet to translate into broad improvements in student achievement.

Among other things, more competition doesn't work magic, as many funders have hoped. Meanwhile, the total number of students in alternative schools is small. Less than five percent of all K-12 students are enrolled in public charter schools. 

This leads to Cuban’s next criticism: Funders are overreliant on public policy as a means to improve education. It is understandable that foundations would choose this route. Most funders seek systemic reforms, and policymakers have the legal authority to require school systems to take some actions (like allowing more charters) and prohibit them from doing others.

But policy has its limits, and funders and policymakers lack the ability to ensure change on the ground in terms of how schools are run and students are taught. Cuban points out that teachers, as the gatekeepers of their classrooms, shape policy as handed down to them by making instructional decisions. While funders and policymakers favor systemic reforms affecting thousands of schools, teachers focus on their own classrooms, taking personal relations and clinical experiences into consideration. As AEI scholar Frederick Hess pointed out, policymakers can require educators to do things, but they cannot make educators do them well.

Cuban’s only real suggestion is the obvious one for funders to make a greater effort to understand the environment in which educators operate and apply that when making grants. Unfortunately, many top funders don't follow that advice.

Depending upon your outlook, Larry Cuban is either delivering bad news or good news. If you're among the folks who want to tear down the existing K-12 system, it will be discouraging to hear the claim that these efforts aren't penetrating down to the classroom level. But that same claim will be reassuring to those who fear the influence of private funders on the most democratic of American institutions. 

By Cuban's logic, for example, even the big and scary Walton Family Foundation could be seen as a mere gnat buzzing around a vast system that is largely impervious to its funding strategies. Most Walton money finances an alternative charter school network that, in relative terms, educates a tiny number of kids and exerts little competitive pressure on public systems writ large. Its much smaller policy funding may well be ineffective. 

One big caveat in all this: Years from now, once the Common Corea top priority of many fundersis much further along, Cuban may have a different take on how philanthropy has shaped the way that teachers teach and students learn.