If you're not paying close attention, you might be tempted to place John Arnold in a narrow and familiar box: Hedge fund guy fixated with charter schools and dismissive of traditional K-12 systems.
There's no shortage of those guys around, to be sure, but John Arnold isn't really one of them.
However closely identified they may be with charter schools, Laura and John Arnold have always maintained that the foundation that bears their name is not solely about charter schools when it comes to education funding. Rather, the Arnold Foundation insists that its real education funding agenda has always been about education projects that are scalable, sustainable, and have the potential to be transformative—wherever they may be found.
And the more you watch Arnold grantmaking, the more you'll believe these claims.
Case in point: A recent grant aimed at increasing student achievement in Advanced Placement (AP) courses in one of the nation's largest public school districts—a grant that may allay the views of some skeptics that the Arnold Foundation's support of charter schools excludes traditional K-12 systems. The Houston-based funder recently awarded a $2 million grant to Davidson College in Davidson, NC, for a set of online instructional units designed to improve outcomes on AP courses by students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in Charlotte.
The project, known as Davidson Next, is a partnership among Davidson, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and the College Board. The first instructional units will be for AP courses in calculus, physics, and economics, and will combine online learning with classroom discussion. The units will include interactive assignments and video lessons taught by experienced AP teachers. Davidson faculty members developed the AP modules, using data from College Board, which administers AP tests and the SAT, to identify the most difficult concepts in AP subjects.
The program will be piloted among 28 teachers in 20 high schools, and Davidson Next plans to expand the program to include additional instructional units. Following the pilot phase in 2015, the units will be posted on the edx.org website, for free access by students across the country.
Overall, Davidson Next is a good example of how the Arnold Foundation approaches K-12 funding. First, it looks for projects that have the potential to produce transformative results and are scalable. Davidson Next utilizes a blended learning approach—all the rage in today's K-12 classrooms—that will start in a single school district but be available nationwide at the end of the pilot phase.
The project also illustrates how Arnold prefers to work with organizations with a track record of success, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg certainly fits that bill. The district, second largest in North Carolina and 18th largest in the nation, is a 2011 winner of the Broad Prize and is one of the top-performing school systems on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), widely regarded as the nation's report card.
And the Arnold Foundation is keenly interested in the potential for technology to improve learning as well as change the economics of education—as perhaps best seen in its bid to disrupt the college textbook marketplace.
The lesson here is that while Arnold remains a prominent supporter of charter schools, K-12 systems and projects that serve them are not excluded. The key is to have a big idea with potential and a track record to back you up.