What Can We Learn From Another Flunking Effort by Funders to Help Urban Schools?

Photo:   hxdbzxy /shutterstock

Photo:  hxdbzxy/shutterstock

In 2010, some of southeastern Michigan’s leading funders formed an alliance around an ambitious goal: improving student achievement in the troubled Detroit Public Schools. Galvanized into action by 2009 data from a national assessment that placed Detroit at the bottom of the nation's urban schools, the coalition known as Excellent Schools Detroit (ESD) set a goal that by 2020, 90 percent of students from the Motor City would graduate high school ready for college.

More than six years and millions of dollars later, it was clear that ESD was falling well short of its lofty goals. On June 30, 2017, the coalition quietly closed its doors and dispersed its existing projects and initiatives among other Detroit funders and nonprofits. This is another example, it seems, of how not to do education philanthropy. Notably, though, the funders involved here were not the newer K-12 reform advocates so often criticized for missteps. ESD was supported by multiple regional foundations, including the Kresge, W.K. Kellogg, and Skillman foundations, and the McGregor Fund.

It's impossible to separate the Detroit Public Schools from the city's broader context. As the cradle of the U.S. auto industry, Detroit was a major industrial center by the middle of the 20th century. By the 1960s, however, the Motor City's fortunes began to turn. Rising crime rates, racial tensions, suburbanization, and the decline of the city's industrial base all took their toll on the city, as well as its school system. Nearly one in three Detroit residents live at or below the poverty line, and more than 70 percent of Detroit public school students are eligible for free  or reduced-price lunches.

Over the years, the Detroit Public Schools became virtually synonymous with low achievement, mismanagement and corruption. Student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were the lowest in the nation among urban school systems; enrollment had plummeted from more than 200,000 in the 1970s to just over 40,000 in 2015, and the district had spent much of the last 15 years under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager who replaced the elected school board.

You can see why funders would band together to turn things around. Unfortunately, the results of a push that reportedly totaled $30 million proved disappointing. So what are the lessons that education reformers and funders can learn from ESD? 

One big takeaway is that it's critical to engage parents and other community stakeholders early in the process.

ESD leaders acknowledge that the failure to connect with Detroit parents was a mistake. It said it lacked a good "ground game and failed to engage parents and communities." One of its initiatives, a scorecard that graded schools on multiple indicators, was intended to inform parental choices. Parents had no input into the scorecards development and were in the dark about who put them together and how. As a local education activist said, "Nothing ever really progresses unless you get to the parents and get the parents involved."

A failure to get input from parents, key stakeholders in any school system, and engage them as allies in a reform effort smacks of a "reformers know best" brand of paternalism. From this standpoint, the mistakes in Detroit echo those in Newark, N.J. Buoyed by a $100 million gift by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the campaign to reform Newark schools was formulated with little input from the community and announced nationally on The Oprah Winfrey Show with no prior notice to parents of the city's school children. Things went downhill from there. 

A related lesson for funders and advocates is to know what work is already underway to improve local schools and to seek to collaborate with existing efforts. 

Conducting a needs assessment and learning from other nonprofits in the field what projects are already underway are valuable first steps in building a collaborative reform effort. ESD concedes that it was not as collaborative as it could have been. As a result, it launched projects only to learn later that they were duplicating efforts already undertaken by other nonprofits. For example, ESD's advocacy for early childhood education duplicated work by the Kellogg and Kresge foundations to build a coalition around citywide access to early learning.

Given the potential amount of activity in a major city to improve schools and student outcomes, it's vital to connect dots and coordinate existing efforts. That's why more K-12 funders these days are keen on collective impact efforts that involve a wide range of stakeholders working collaboratively to bolster education. This approach looks beyond the fixation with finding silver bullets, with funders often swooping in with outside experts and fancy new tools or methodologies (like "scorecards").

In some ways, ESD was a collective impact approach—with an executive who focused specifically on this aspect of its work—but things didn't go so well in this regard.  

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The departure of ESD's longtime leader to a new position with Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit moved the organization closer to its end. As the organization prepared to close, ESD spun off many of its projects to other nonprofits. The Detroit Parent Network absorbed ESD's Enroll Detroit citywide enrollment system, while the Michigan College Access Network will take over the Detroit College Access Network, which worked to boost college readiness. Duplicative programs will end because others were handling that work with greater resources and success.

It is difficult to read about failed reform campaigns in Detroit and Newark and not become pessimistic about funder-supported urban education initiatives and their prospects for success. Fortunately, an array of local and national funders remain dedicated to improving public education systems, exploring a range of avenues. Hopefully, the experience of Detroit and ESD will help these efforts avoid certain pitfalls.