When filmmaker George Lucas endowed the George Lucas Educational Foundation (GLEF) in 1991, his reasons were highly personal. The Star Wars and Indiana Jones creator hadn’t always been a success; as teenager, he struggled in school, prisoner to an unimaginative education system that was ineffective at engaging students and stifling for a young creative like Lucas.
After becoming a father in 1981, Lucas started thinking again about the shortcomings of traditional education. The writer, producer, and director set out on a mission to provide schools and educators across the nation with tools to develop systems for learning that would better nurture talent, interests, and creativity. Along with business partner and venture capitalist Steve Arnold, Lucas created Edutopia.com, the foundation’s primary service. The website and its community function as an outlet for innovative teaching ideas, techniques, tools and syllabi, spreading ideas between educators that are designed to inspire outside-the-box lesson plans and new ways to teach students well-worn subjects.
Lucas's foundation has now been operating for 25 years. And along the way, an interesting thing has happened: A growing number of other philanthropists and educators have gotten on the same wavelength as George Lucas. Emerging billionaire donors in the ed space like Laurene Powell Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, as well as a growing list of mainstream foundations, have embraced the basic idea that schools need to do a much better job of nurturing creativity and critical thinking. And a rising tide of funding is going to support innovative new school models, as well as personalized learning tools and techniques—the kind of stuff that Lucas has been interested in from the start.
A quarter-century ago, the foundation’s first public-facing project was a film. Learn & Live, hosted by late actor Robin Williams and distributed by PBS, centered on the stories of five progressive schools using project-based learning, modern technologies, and strong partnerships to enhance students’ learning experience.
Boy, that all sounds familiar, doesn't it? Just yesterday, we wrote about the funders getting behind Transcend, a group that aims to advance new school models based on some of the same ideas. And last month, we wrote about how Powell Jobs is giving $100 million to alternative high schools that operate along similar lines. But George Lucas was on the case long ago. And unlike so many billionaire ed philanthropists, Lucas never got behind charter schools, a reform idea that's proven hard to hard to scale, and instead stayed focused on a long-term drive to change the way that all students learn, in whatever schools they attend. The Lucas vision, which a growing number of mega-donors are now embracing, is that a truly "disruptive" revolution in education won't come about by changing institutional systems with ideas like choice and accountability; it will come about by fundamentally changing learning strategies.
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Today, Edutopia’s core function remains the same—employing storytelling as a method for educating teachers and administrators about cutting-edge techniques within their industry. The website, Edutopia.com, is now the main outlet for the foundation’s work, offering success stories and information via case studies, articles, community contributions, and videos.
Beyond Edutopia’s continued work, the foundation’s most prominent step forward over the last 25 years has been the formation of its first major new division in 2013. Lucas Education Research (LER) was created to fund and conduct research in collaboration with universities, educators, and other research firms, with the goal of identifying and designing new models in education that can be easily replicated by schools across the country. The division takes a three-pronged approach to their research: development, replication, and validation. At the moment Lucas Education Research is working on nine major projects, including the Knowledge in Action Project, the Learning Through Performance Project, and the Multiple Literacies in Project-Based Learning Project.
While the nonprofit foundation does see some income from private donors and ad placement sales, its biggest funding source has remained consistent over the quarter century since its inception: George Lucas, who has pumped between $4 and $5 million into the foundation every year in order to fulfill his mission of improving K-12 education.
And there's more where that came from. After selling the rights to his Star Wars franchise to Disney for $4 billion in 2012, Lucas indicated that the majority of those earnings will support his work on education; he has also signed the Giving Pledge.
As a K-12 philanthropist, in other words, George Lucas may just be getting started in terms of truly large-scale giving.