24 posts categorized "author-Matt Sinclair"

Whither Education? A Q&A With Michael McPherson, President, Spencer Foundation

July 03, 2014

Differing opinions about how best to educate children have been a feature of polite (and not-so-polite) conversation since the time of Plato, so it’s not surprising that such concerns continue to boil. Indeed, in recent decades it has become common for critics and reports to link the troubled state of public education in America with the decline of the republic and to insist that only a complete overhaul of the system, with a focus on those growing up in disadvantaged situations, can save us.

One of the earliest of those reports, 1983's A Nation at Risk, famously claimed that American schools were failing and called for dramatic action to remedy the situation, including the introduction of a seven-hour school day, a longer school year, and teachers' salaries that were "professionally competitive, market-sensitive, and performance-based." More than thirty years after its publication, however, few of the report's recommendations have been adopted, and the public education system in the U.S. remains an archipelago of local school districts that, some would argue, have little in common with each other.

Established in 1962, the Spencer Foundation received the majority of its endowment after the death in 1968 of its founder Lyle M. Spencer, who made his fortune from Science Research Associates, an educational publishing firm. In the years since its establishment, the foundation has continued to champion education research and today is led by Michael McPherson, a nationally known economist who became the foundation's fifth president in 2003 after serving as president of Macalester College in Minnesota for seven years and in a variety of roles at Williams College in Massachusetts for twenty-two years.

PND recently spoke with McPherson about the state of public education in the United States, the Common Core and its critics, and where the U.S. educational system is headed.

Headshot_michael_mcphersonPhilanthropy News Digest: As a college student in the 1980s, I minored in education, and one of the things we discussed a lot was A Nation At Risk, the 1983 report issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. More than thirty years after publication of that report, many people would say nothing has changed, that the education system in the United States continues to fail millions of children. What does the latest research tell us about what works and what doesn't in public education?

Michael McPherson: Well, it's impor­tant to supply some context. It's certainly true that there are large, important, and disturbing problems in American education, especially for students from low-income families or facing other forms of disadvantage. At the same time, our public schools perform better, on average, than they did thirty years ago. High school grad­uation rates are up over that period of time and test scores are higher, though not as high as people would like. I think some of the criticism is grounded in what I call Golden Age thinking. The fact is that people who are complaining about the performance of our public schools are complaining about schools that are producing kids who, on average, score better on tests than they and their peers did, which is rather ironic. It helps when discussing these things to keep a little perspective.

That said, a bigger problem is the fact that we haven't exhibited any persistence or consistency in our reform efforts, which have been sporadic and characterized by a sort of magic-bullet approach. People try things, give up on them, and go on to something else. Nor have we invested in a consistent fashion in the preparation and quality of teachers. It's as if we're hoping for better schools rather than actually coming up with a long-term plan to create better schools.

PND: When you say "long-term," how long do you mean?

MM: It depends on your goals. So far, nobody's been able to avoid the fact that it takes eighteen years or so for a child to become an adult. We haven't managed to speed up the human development process, and so if we want all children to be successful in school, we have to expose them to quality early childhood education by the age of three. The ultimate effects of such a policy, whether you're talking about high school graduation rates or college readiness, aren't going to be noticed for another fifteen years or so. But we should be able to make some judgments about whether a particular reform is working or not. Take Success for All, which is one of the most successful whole-school reform strategies to be introduced in the United States in decades. The program was introduced back in the 1990s, and today there are roughly a thousand Success for All schools in the U.S. These days, the organization attracts a lot of federal money, but it took them well over a decade to establish their bona fides. The point is, Americans are a pretty impatient people, and that doesn't always work to our advantage.

PND: What is the most important element in student success? Is it teachers? Parents? Something else?

MM: In many ways, the most important factor in student success is the consistency of attention paid to the development of the individual student. There's a lot of evidence to suggest that an exceptionally good teacher can produce a jump in test scores in his or her students but that that effect invariably fades after three or four years. That's not to say that every student needs at least one great teacher in every grade. But being able to provide kids with consistently good teachers throughout their school-age years is a lot better than an alternating pattern of spectacular and terrible teachers. Consistency is important, and that applies as well to what parents do and what happens early in kids' lives.

Let me also say that it's one thing to ask how important a factor is and another to ask how much we can influence that factor. It's one thing, for example, for a child to have "chosen" the right parents in terms of their interest in his or her schooling and development as a person, and to appreciate the importance of that "choice" in the bigger scheme of things. But there's not much evidence to suggest that public policy can have much of an effect on who your parents are. Your parents are your parents, and we have yet to identify or develop programs that change that basic equation in a consistent or reliable way. I don't mean to be negative or to dismiss the possibility of success for every child, regardless of circumstance, but I do think it's important, in terms of a policy framework, to ask both what matters and what can we affect?

PND: Well, are we asking the right questions about what works and what doesn't in public education?

MM: I think we spend too much time asking whether something does or doesn't work and not enough time asking how things work and why things work and for whom things work. The "what works" framework is a little binary in its way of operating. We all know from our personal lives that something that works well for one person, whether you're talking about their tennis game or their personal work style, doesn't necessarily work well for another person. Why should we assume that education is so simple that the same thing works for everybody?

You can see the same kind of problem in other areas of life. The pharmaceutical industry spends a lot of time and money on the trial-and-error discovery and development of different compounds, and then they go through a long experimental clinical trial phase to determine whether the compound works as intended and what its negative side effects might be. Increasingly, however, because of advances in our understanding of the human genome, we are developing better ex­plan­ations for how drugs work. And that is opening up the possibility we'll be able to design drugs that work for particular conditions and diseases, instead of marching around the jungle looking for exotic plants that might yield a new compound or two. In other words, trying out stuff with the aim of determining whether it works is not a particularly sophisticated research strategy.

PND: What else should we be questioning about our current approach to education reform?

MM: We should be worrying about the quality of our success measures. By that I mean we have allowed ourselves to slide, somewhat unreflectively, into equating test scores with academic achievement or educational success. But even within the realm of academic achievement, there are a lot of things these tests don't capture very well. The ability to write a good essay, for example, which is difficult to assess through standardized tests; it's not impossible, but it's almost impossible to do it cheaply and at scale. There's also a lot of evidence to suggest that factors ostensibly influenced by one's schooling include things we don't usually think of as "academic," such as perseverance, resilience, conscientiousness, the ability to handle disappointment, et cetera. All these things seem to matter quite a bit, but they tend to disappear from view when the focus is on test performance.

Finally, I'd say we need to spend more time thinking about measures in general and what we're really trying to achieve with the schooling we provide our children. Presumably test scores are a means to an end, right? Well, what is the end? We're not having that conversation, which is too bad, because I believe thinking more about the ends would be a con­structive thing to do.

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5 Questions for...Eric Schwarz, Co-Founder and CEO, Citizen Schools

March 26, 2014

Established in 1995, Citizen Schools works to help children, especially those from low-income backgrounds, discover and achieve their dreams. To that end, the Citizen Schools model is focused on partnering with middle schools to extend the traditional school day by a few hours and augmenting traditional classroom instruction with a combination of intensive academic support and a range of enrichment and youth development activities. Currently active in seven states, the organization also offers project-based courses led by volunteer "Citizen Teachers" who, outside of school, are scientists, engineers, artists, lawyers, and business leaders.

Earlier this month, PND spoke with the organization's co-founder and CEO, Eric Schwarz, about the Citizen Teacher concept and the scalability of the Citizens Schools model.

Headshot_eric_schwarzPhilanthropy News Digest: When and where did the "Citizen Teacher" concept emerge? Is it something you and your colleagues developed, or is it something you kind of grabbed hold of and made your own?

Eric Schwarz: Well, men­tor­ing and volunteering and apprenticeships have been around for thousands of years. If you think about law and medicine, it's how much of the training happens to this day: you get young professionals training under older professionals in a kind of apprentice­ship model.

The insight we came to almost twenty years ago was that for most low-income kids enrolled in a K-12 school in the United States, the school experience had become disconnected from the real world. Many of these kids had never met someone from a fast-growing profession like engin­eering, and so their chances of growing up and becoming an engineer was close to zero. So we developed a model that made it easier for engineers and lawyers and others to connect with kids directly and do hands-on experien­tial projects with them.

I'm happy to say, the results have been terrific. We've found that Citizen Schools narrows, in most cases eliminates, and sometimes even reverses the achievement gap between middle-income and low-income kids. We're also seeing significantly higher high school and college graduation rates, which means we’re putting kids on a path to success. That's very exciting.

We've also learned that we’re actually making a big difference in the lives of our volunteers. In fact, we commissioned a business school professor from the University of Vermont, David Jones, to do a study of the program's impact on volunteers. And what he found is that there's a significant impact in terms of volunteers feeling better about their companies. They’re happy their company has sponsored or approached them about taking some flex time to give back to the community, and they're usually delighted that they have a chance to build their dele­gation skills, teamwork skills, and coaching skills.

PND: Do you see citizen-teachers as filling a gap in public education, as complementing classroom instruc­tion, or doing a little of both?

ES: The Citizen Schools model is designed to support teachers and public schools by adding three hours to the learning day, every day of the week, all year long. It's a significant extension of the learning day from a six- or seven-hour day to a nine- to ten-hour day. And bringing real-world experiential activities to kids in school is an important complement to the learning that goes on. Think of it this way: if math instruction is limited to a teacher at a blackboard — these days, maybe it's a whiteboard — explaining and talking about concepts, but you, the student, don't have a sense of how those concepts connect to the real world, it's much more likely you're going to tune out and disengage from that class and maybe even from school. Citizen Schools gives kids a sense of how to actually use algebraic concepts in designing a video game, or how, when you're presenting the opening argument in a trial, you want to lead with a topic sentence and then back it up with specific examples. Those kinds of things reinforce what teachers teach, and at the same they tend to motivate students to care more about doing well. It's a terrific comple­ment to what already is happening in public schools across the country.

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5 Questions for...Marissa Sackler, Founder and President, Beespace

January 16, 2014

Marissa Sackler established Beespace in New York City in 2013 to provide social entrepreneurs with experienced mentorship; in-house PR, tech, development, fundraising, and design assistance; and the support of an innovative entrepreneurial community. Beespace does not accept payment from its "Incubees" and requires that they secure at least four months of operational income before they head out on their own.

PND spoke with Sackler, founder and president of Beespace and a founding sponsor and activist for charity: water, in November about the incubator concept, how Beespace works for and with its Incubees, and her ambitions for the organization over the next few years.

Headshot_marissa_sacklerPhilanthropy News Digest: Although the concept of accelerators and incubators is fairly well established in the for-profit world, it's still relatively new in the nonprofit space. Why have nonprofits and funders been slow to embrace the concept?

Marissa Sackler: There are nonprofit incubators out there doing good work, but we think we've developed a more comprehensive model that's going to help organizations grow and achieve their potential. We use a three-pronged approach. The first prong is what we call our co-working space. It's important that we have a diversity of organizations learning and working side by side. The second prong is the internal agency we provide — our executive director, PR, tech, design, development, and fundraising experts — all of whom work to help the organizations grow and reach their potential. We also have people from social media, marketing, and accounting backgrounds visiting for weekly office hours with each organization. Finally, the third prong is the broader Beespace community within the nonprofit world. Beespace connects each Incubee with a nonprofit and for-profit mentor who then works with the organization to guide and support its growth.

PND: You’re currently working with three nonprofits -- the Malala Fund, the Adventure Project, and Practice Makes Perfect -- and you're planning to add three more. What do you look for in an Incubee?

MS: We look very closely at the leader, at the issue they're working to address, and at the nonprofit's overall organizational structure. We’re geography- and issue-neutral — we take organizations that are working both domestically and internationally. They can be working on any issue, but we want to identify groups with a strong organizational vision and an innovative strategy that have the ability to create real change and that are attempting to solve issues at scale. We look at scale in two ways: horizontally, in terms of expanding programs to effectively help solve an issue in multiple communities or even countries, but also vertically, making sure an organization is always maintaining the strongest quality and depth of programming while expanding.

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5 Questions for...Charles Bailey, Director, Agent Orange in Vietnam Program

August 19, 2013

Headshot_charles_baileyFrom 1997 to 2007, Charles Bailey was the Ford Foundation representative in Vietnam. At the start of his posting, the war in Vietnam had been over for more than twenty years, but one of its legacies, environmental contamination caused by the U.S. military's use of Agent Orange, was an under-addressed concern. Bailey looked into the facts of Agent Orange use in the Southeast Asian country and began to develop a vocabulary that American and Vietnamese officials could use to discuss the issue. After a few years, Ford invited the Aspen Institute, which has expertise in facilitating difficult conversations, to initiate a dialogue around the issue, and the two governments began to talk. Eventually, the United Nations, other NGOs and foundations, and several European governments joined the conversation.

But one thing was missing, says Bailey, and that was a way to connect the American public to the effort. With his encouragement, Active Voice, a social documentary shop in San Francisco, put together a three-minute public-service video, "Make Agent Orange History," while San Francisco State University contributed fresh reporting to the discussion through its Vietnam Reporting Project. In 2011, Bailey moved to the Aspen Institute, where he continues to support dialogue, advocacy, and public education around the issue.

Recently, PND spoke with Bailey about the Agent Orange program and what remains to be done.

Philanthropy News Digest: Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang recently met with President Obama in Washington, D.C. Why was the meeting significant?

Charles Bailey: President Sang is the second Vietnamese head-of-state to visit the U.S. since the two countries normalized relations in 1995, and his visit was an important opportunity to celebrate the remarkable progress made since 2007 in at last addressing the legacy of Agent Orange. Over the last six years, our Agent Orange in Vietnam Program has had a hand in raising over $100 million to assist Vietnam to begin to deal with this legacy from the U.S.-Vietnam War. Even more important for the future, President Obama and President Sang issued a joint statement at the end of their talks on July 26 that contained a key statement: "The president reaffirmed the United States' commitment to providing further medical and other care and assistance for people with disabilities, regardless of cause."

I published an op-ed in the Huffington Post on the occasion urging both presidents to take advantage of this breakthrough and include language on disability services and rights as part of a new comprehensive partnership agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam.

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Foundations and Climate Change: 5 Questions for…Robert Searle, Partner, Bridgespan Group

June 13, 2013

Headshot_robt_searleIn recent years, the debate over climate change has centered on greenhouse gas emissions, which have been linked by scientists to rising global temperatures. But after Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on coastal areas of New York and New Jersey, underscoring the importance -- and vulnerability -- of critical infrastructure systems, many policy makers and environmentalists began to shift their attention to climate change adaptation strategies.

To help advance the debate, the Bridgespan Group has released a report, How Philanthropy Can Help Communities Advance Climate Change Adaptation (12 pages, PDF), that examines the funding environment for these strategies and offers a number of suggestions for foundations looking to support adaptation efforts in a post-Sandy context. Recently, PND spoke with Bob Searle, a partner in Bridgespan's Boston office and co-author of the report, about the impact of Sandy on the climate change debate, the tradeoffs between mitigation and adaptation, and some of the things foundations can do to advance the debate.

Philanthropy News Digest: The climate effects of a warming planet had been predicted long before An Inconvenient Truth was released in 2006. Why has it taken so long for the discussion about climate change to get serious?

Robert Searle: I think there are two primary reasons, and they are interconnected. The first is that all science involves an element of uncertainty, and climate science is no exception. There are elements of the climate situation that are quite certain. For example, greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are increasing, and that increase has led to a general warming of the planet. There are other aspects that are less certain and open to interpretation and judgment; for example, whether human activity is the major cause of these changes, and what the environmental and social impact of climate change will be.

And this is where the second reason comes in: The biggest source of greenhouse gases is the burning of fossil fuel, and the global economy is based on fossil fuels. In other words, there are incredibly strong vested interests in not making the explicit connection between man-made greenhouse gases and the potentially devastating effects of climate change. Those vested interests will naturally seize on any element of uncertainty to argue against change that will threaten economic development, especially when the economy is already shaky.

One mistake that the environmental community has made is to allow itself to be painted as anti-people and anti-economic development on the climate issue. There was a great article in the Fall 2012 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled "Climate Science as Culture War," by Andrew Hoffman, that speaks to some of these points.

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5 Questions for...Katie Everett, Executive Director, Lynch Foundation

May 10, 2013

Headshot_katie_everettToday, as in the past, education reform tends to be politically charged and fraught with controversy. And while the needs of students often figure prominently in the debate, the devil is always in the details.

In the Boston area, the Lynch Foundation has worked to engage administrators, educators, and parents to think outside the box about how to improve the educational experience for all. In that spirit, the foundation has begun to work with educational innovator Salman Khan and Khan Academy to provide free educational materials to schools in the metro Boston area.

Recently, PND spoke with the foundation's executive director, Katie Everett, about its partnership with Khan and how new approaches to classroom instruction are making a difference in Boston-area schools.

Philanthropy News Digest: What areas of education does the Lynch Foundation fund?

Katie Everett: We fund in all areas, from early education to higher ed. We've been around for twenty-five years and have funded everything from targeted early literacy programs to comprehensive projects at Harvard, Boston College, and the University of Pennsylvania. We fund teacher training, we fund charter schools, we fund in the Catholic school sector, we fund public schools, and we fund principal leadership programs. If there's one area in which we have stopped investing, it is job training. We found it was really hard to measure the impact of those programs.

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Whither Livestrong? 5 Questions for...Leslie Lenkowsky

October 18, 2012

After years in the public eye, first as a world-famous athlete who won the grueling Tour de France, the crown jewel of international cycling, a record seven consecutive times, and subsequently for his central role in a still-unfolding doping scandal, American Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor, resigned on Wednesday as chairman of Livestrong, the cancer charity he founded some fifteen years ago. Hours later, Nike, one of Armstrong's biggest sponsors, dropped him as a spokesperson -- and was soon joined by half a dozen other Armstrong sponsors.

Earlier today, PND spoke with Leslie Lenkowsky, professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, about the Armstrong scandal and its likely effect on Livestrong. Lenkowsky, who writes and speaks frequently about nonprofit management and governance issues, has served as a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, as president of the Hudson Institute and the Philanthropy Roundtable, and as CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Lenkowsky_headshotPhilanthropy News Digest: Which surprises you more: Lance Armstrong's decision to step down as chair of Livestrong, formerly known as the Lance Armstrong Foundation, or the fact he waited till now?

Leslie Lenkowsky: That he waited until now. In fact, leadership of the organization has been passing from him to others for quite a long time. Stepping down now inevitably makes his decision look like it's related to the doping accusations. Since he is planning to stay on the board, he would have done better to make the transition earlier. But in many nonprofits, founders have a way of staying a bit too long.

PND: Close association with a celebrity can be a slippery slope for an organization, especially when the celebrity's name is on the letterhead. Do you think Livestrong's efforts to broaden its appeal beyond Armstrong will be enough to keep it from seeing a significant drop in its revenues?

LL: Yes. Livestrong has a very diversified base of support, lots of members and chapters, good national partners, and, most importantly, a well-developed set of programs. It has long since outgrown its association with Armstrong, and while his troubles may weaken his value for the organization's events and in other ways, they won't produce a significant drop in revenues.

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Hunger in America: A Q&A With Julie Gehrki, Walmart Foundation

October 12, 2012

In 2010, Walmart and the Walmart Foundation launched a five-year, $2 billion effort to help end hunger in America. In partnership with Feeding America and five of the country’s largest food companies -- ConAgra Foods, General Mills, Kellogg Company, Kraft Foods, and Unilever -- Walmart has since launched a variety of initiatives to encourage its customers to join the fight against hunger. Earlier this fall, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Walmart Foundation senior director Julie Gehrki about the company's Fighting Hunger Together campaign and what the foundation is doing to address hunger in America.

Julie_gehrki_headshotPhilanthropy News Digest: What effect has the sluggish economic recovery and the drought in the Midwest had on hunger and food insecurity in the United States?

Julie Gehrki: In early September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released the results of its most recent survey, which found that more than fifty million Americans are suffering from food insecurity. And a recent survey conducted by Feeding America found that 65 percent of its foodbank directors are very worried about food supply in the coming months. While we're hopeful the economy will continue to improve, we want to make sure that those who may not be benefiting from the improvement are taken care of. Feeding America foodbanks are on the frontlines of need in our communities, and Walmart wants to make sure they have the food they need to help those who need it -- particularly if food prices rise, as some are predicting, and as we head into the holiday season.

PND: What are some of the best ways for individuals to fight hunger in their communities?

JG: One of the things we're doing is called the Golden Spark campaign. Through Sunday, October 14, people can go to Walmart.com/hunger or our Facebook page and vote for a community to win $50,000 to start or expand a backpack program -- that's a program that provides meals to food-insecure children over the weekend, when they don't have access to free- or reduced-price school meals. A lot of people understand that kids get fed through school, lunches and sometimes breakfasts, during the week. But the backpack program forces people to think about what a kid does on the weekend. Studies have found that teachers have noticed that many kids are less attentive on Monday mornings, and that's because many of them have not eaten enough over the weekend. Backpack programs are largely run by volunteers. Individuals pack backpacks with food that's easy for kids to open and prepare on their own over the weekend. Walmart believes this is a local issue, something that communities and individuals in those communities have to rally around, because it's their neighbors who are feeling the pain.

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Key Facts on Social Justice Grantmaking

April 30, 2010

Today we turn our attention to social justice philanthropy, which the Foundation Center defines as "the granting of philanthropic contributions to nonprofit organizations based in the United States and other countries that work for structural change in order to increase the opportunity of those who are the least well off politically, economically, and socially."

First, some key facts:

  • $3.7 billion -- Giving by sampled funders for social justice-related activities in 2008
  • 14.7 percent -- Share of overall grant dollars targeting social justice in 2008
  • 46.9 percent -- Share of 2008 social justice grant dollars supporting international activities
  • Economic development -- Top-ranked field by share of 2008 social justice grant dollars

According to the center's most recent social justice benchmarking study, Social Justice Grantmaking II: An Update on U.S. Foundations Trends, social justice-related grantmaking by U.S. foundations climbed to nearly 15 percent of giving in 2008. Over most of the past decade, funding for social justice had remained fairly steady at between 11 percent and 12 percent of grant dollars awarded.

Socjustice_keyfacts_overall
 

A primary factor contributing to the increase in the share of grant dollars targeting social justice-related activities in 2008 was the emergence of the nation's largest private foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as the country's top social justice funder. In fact, in 2008 the foundation awarded 22 of the the 25 largest social justice grants.

Socjustice_keyfacts_25largest
 

(Note: The charts and tables in this post are based on the giving of U.S. private and community foundations. As a result, they exclude social justice-related grantmaking by public charities as well as by non-U.S. social justice grantmakers, including Atlantic Philanthropies, arguably the largest of the latter. Established more than twenty years ago by Duty Free Shops co-founder Charles Feeny, Atlantic, which is spending down, plans to award approximately $350 million a year until it completes active grantmaking in 2016.)

The center's research also shows that social justice giving by U.S. foundations spans all areas of activity, from human rights to environmental justice to to the arts. Consistent with past trends, the biggest share of dollars awarded in 2008 went to economic and community development (31.1 percent), followed by health care access and affordability (20.8 percent) and human rights and civil liberties (11.2 percent).

Socjustice_keyfacts_fields

Socjustice_keyfacts_domestic

To learn more and/or download free highlights (13 pages, PDF) of the center's most recent social justice benchmark study, click here.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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