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208 posts categorized "Education"

Classroom Saints and Fiends

April 21, 2015

Cover_teacher_warsThe Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession

Dana Goldstein
Doubleday, 2014, 368 pp.

Reviewed by Joanne Barkan

The crusade — now more than a decade old — to remake K–12 public education in the image of a business enterprise moves on two fronts. One is private management of public resources: convert as many "regular" public schools as possible into privately run charter schools while also setting up voucher systems that allow individual students to use public funds to pay for private school tuition. The second front is transformation of the teaching profession into...what? Here the stated goals and actual policies of the market-model "ed reformers" are a tangle of contradictions.

Ed reformers, whose political identities run the full gamut, claim that putting a great teacher in every classroom will offset the disadvantages suffered by poor and minority children outside school and will close the academic achievement gap between these students and middle-class white students. Teaching, therefore, must become a highly respected, well paid profession that attracts the most talented graduates of the most prestigious colleges and universities.

Yet these same ed reformers have worked tirelessly and successfully to undermine the substance and reputation of the profession. They bear responsibility for focusing public school teaching on standardized test preparation and for using student test scores to determine how much teachers are paid (merit pay), who is fired, and which schools are shut down. They promote mini-length training programs to replace experienced teachers with lower-paid, non-union neophytes; they help to pass state laws that weaken collective bargaining and cut pensions and benefits; they advocate abolishing tenure (due process) so that teachers can be fired at will; and they've conducted a nonstop media operation to depict public school teachers as greedy, poorly trained, and ineffective to the point of endangering the nation's future.

The disrespect for teachers embedded in the ed reformers' policies is matched only by their overt hostility toward teacher unions. Not surprisingly, job satisfaction among public school teachers has plummeted in recent years.

The ed reformers' stance looks like a Madonna-whore complex: teachers are miracle-working saviors of poor and downtrodden children, or they are villains preventing these children from benefiting from a good education. According to Dana Goldstein in The Teacher Wars, this kind of saint-fiend split has characterized Americans' view of teachers since universal public education first took hold in some states in the 1830s. Again and again since then, reformers of different stripes have tried to improve teaching with some of the same fixes — merit pay based on test scores, fast-track training programs, ranking teachers — with the same lack of success.

In addition, writes Goldstein, the negative view of public school teachers has periodically erupted into a nationwide "moral panic" about national survival. We've been living through just this kind of moral panic for a decade (the seeds were sown during the Reagan years) with fingers pointing to the stock savior-villain: "[W]hen the quality of a teacher can make or break a child's education, we've got to make sure our certified [read "public school"] teachers are also outstanding teachers — teachers who can reach every last child," declared ed-reformer-in-chief Barack Obama in 2011.

Goldstein, whose father and maternal grandfather taught in public schools, began reporting on education in 2007. In The Teacher Wars, her first book, she sets out to compose a history of the debates that have shaped public school teaching from the 1820s to today. She writes not as a professional historian trying to shed new light on an established interpretation, but as a journalist trying to gain insight into current policy clashes. (Some of the reporting in the book first appeared in the American Prospect, Slate, the Daily Beast, and theNation.) Although her tone is not argumentative, she doesn't approach the subject as a neutral observer. Goldstein has opinions about what hasn't worked and what might succeed in the future — opinions based on six or seven years of conversations with educators, researchers, public officials, and private funders and, most important, classroom observations. She lays out her point of view in the book's introduction:

I do not believe schools are good enough the way they are. Nor do I believe that poverty and ethnic diversity prevent the United States from doing better educationally. Teachers and schools alone cannot solve our crisis of inequality and long-term unemployment, yet we know from the experience of nations like Poland that we don't have to eradicate economic insecurity to improve our schools.

No rational person would argue that public schools cannot or should not be improved, especially those attended by low-income and minority children. And even without the Polish model (Goldstein doesn't say what this is), reasonable people understand that school improvement doesn't require first eradicating economic insecurity. But Goldstein's statement raises a key question that she never investigates in depth: how much better can schools with large majorities of low-income and minority children do if nothing about the children's lives outside of school changes? Can these schools do well enough to improve the life chances of millions of children who begin school unprepared to learn? No, she implies: "Teachers and schools alone cannot solve our crisis...."

In several places in the book, Goldstein mentions that families need social supports in addition to better schools in order for children to thrive academically. In passing she lists well-known supports, including living-wage jobs, proper housing, childcare, and health care. She refers approvingly to schools with "wraparound" social services for low-income families. But she doesn't go beyond these mentions. Her decision not to delve into this conundrum is disappointing because she started researching the book with a strong premise: "I suspected that the key to understanding the American view of teachers lay in our history, and perhaps had something to do with the tension between our sky-high hopes for public education as the vehicle of meritocracy and our perennial unwillingness to fully invest in our public sector, teachers and schools included."

Indeed, the teacher wars have everything to do with this tension between sky-high hopes and the refusal to fund the means to achieve them. Pulling together the long history of this tension with the history of teaching reforms would provide the most complete understanding of today's war. Goldstein opts instead for a narrower focus, training her eye on the job of teaching — certainly a relevant and complex subject. But because she writes with the unexplored recognition that teachers and schools alone cannot achieve what is demanded of them, her focus has serious limitations. More on these later.

Goldstein constructs her engaging historical account around the stories of people who were involved in the events. She describes the development of the nineteenth-century common school and the rapid transformation of teaching from male to female work through the stories of Catharine Beecher (she successfully promoted the ideas that women's nurturing nature was better suited to teaching children and, all important, women could be paid less) and Horace Mann (Beecher's like-minded reform ally and Massachusetts' first secretary of education). Goldstein argues that their success produced the détente between advocates for universal public education and anti-tax activists that "redefined American teaching as low-paid...missionary work for women, a reality we have lived with for two centuries...."

The story of the feminist backlash against the "feminization" of teaching is told through the experiences of former teacher Susan B. Anthony and affluent activist , Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Put schematically, Anthony struggled for equal pay and advancement for women in teaching, unionization, and better training to boost the quality and status of their work. Simultaneously, Stanton fought to open all professions and careers to women so they could escape the teaching trap.

Goldstein recounts the efforts of African American teachers to inspire self-esteem and racial pride as well as academic achievement. She follows the careers of Charlotte Forten, who taught the children of freed slaves on St. Helena Island during the Civil War, and Anna Cooper, the nationally recognized public speaker and essayist who was the principal of a prestigious black public school in Washington, D.C. Goldstein also recaps the well-known debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois on the goals of education for African Americans. Washington advocated basic education in reading and math along with vocational training; Du Bois argued for a broad liberal arts education to create an intelligentsia and new leaders.

A pivotal chapter called "School Ma'ams as Lobbyists" — set in Chicago from the 1890s through the 1920s — covers the intensification and growing politicization of the teacher wars. Male ed reformers pursued a campaign in the 1890s to de-feminize teaching. They supported regulations to keep women in the lowest-paid and least powerful teaching jobs in order to entice men back into the profession with higher-level, better paid positions. Women responded by founding the Chicago Teachers Federation in 1897. The next three decades saw the federation's engagement with the women's suffrage movement and its radical decision to affiliate with the male Chicago Federation of Labor; the consolidation of the reform notion that teachers are the determining factor in overcoming poverty; muckraking journalism that exposed school overcrowding and truancy; the temporary defeat of Chicago politicians determined to cut school budgets; successful struggles for higher pay and tenure; and battles over evaluating teachers' performance.

One of the recurring themes in this history is the thorny issue of evaluating teachers accurately. Early twentieth-century reformers argued that evaluation was necessary to improve and professionalize teaching. The Chicago Teachers Federation dismissed proposals for testing teachers and merit pay as ploys to avoid raising salaries across the board — and, in fact, merit pay was used in other cities to lower payroll costs. The tug-of-war has never ended. Goldstein is critical of teacher unions for digging in their heels on teacher evaluation. After pointing out some of the Chicago union's "achievements of high idealism" in the early decades of the twentieth century, she closes the chapter stating, "Yet the teachers union movement was (and remains today) a pragmatic, even sometimes cynical, lobbying effort, and one that protected some poorly performing teachers."

In the post–Second World War period, Goldstein covers the federal government's emergence as a force in K–12 education with Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the groundbreaking Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which allocated significant federal funds to improve schools for low-income students for the first time. She also discusses the Johnson administration's National Teacher Corps — a teacher-as-low-cost-missionary program for recent college graduates, similar to today's controversial Teach for America. Goldstein describes instances of successful school integration amid the overall failure of desegregation. She also pays close attention to the devastating loss of more than 30,000 teaching positions held by African Americans in the South and the lasting negative effects on African-American children. In a chapter devoted mostly to the notorious 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers' strike, which created a long-term rift between African Americans and the union, Goldstein sides more with the minority parents and community activists than the union.

Goldstein confronts today's reforms, reconfirming that "failed ideas about teaching...keep popping up again and again, like a Whac-A-Mole game at the amusement park." For critics, the reforms this time around come wrapped in market ideology and are structured for massive data collection, numerical ranking, survival of the measurably fittest, bottom-line efficiency, and freedom from government regulation. Goldstein doesn't examine the reforms from this perspective, but, overall, she doesn't think they are successful.

For anyone who isn't paying attention to public education news (unfortunately, a majority of citizens), the chapter called "Big, Measureable Goals" would be a valuable compendium on the genesis and consolidation of the major market-model reforms for teaching: quickie training programs like Teach for America, which are often used to replace unionized veteran teachers; "no excuses" charter schools, which some educators are increasingly criticizing for their punitive style of schooling; value-added measurement (VAM), which uses algorithms to compute a number that represents how much each teacher has added to her own students' standardized test scores each year; and Obama's Race to the Top program, which offered grants to "coax" financially strapped states to implement VAM or VAM-like measures as well as other market-model reforms. Goldstein questions both the design and implementation of these reforms.

At this point, Goldstein's readers will legitimately wonder what she proposes. Her epilogue offers eleven "ideas for improving both the teaching profession and, consequentially, the quality of our schools." One of the strongest is restructuring the school day so that effective veteran teachers spend some time watching and coaching novice teachers, novices spend time observing veterans in the classroom, and they collaborate on planning lessons. Schools that use these techniques find that they not only improve teaching, they make the job more interesting. Goldstein advocates paying teachers "the upper-middle-class salary that would align with our sky-high expectations for their work." Well-paid, interesting work is required to implement another of Goldstein's recommendations: attract and retain "ambitious, intellectually engaged people." Other important proposals include hiring principals who inspire teachers, recruiting more men and people of color, and using standardized tests as diagnostic tools, not as punitive instruments.

Under "End Outdated Union Protections," Goldstein supports maintaining tenure but wants due process for dismissed teachers (that is, review of the decision by a neutral arbitrator or a peer-review board) to be "swift and certain." Tenure plus effective due process is the soundest system, but getting the balance right — no effective teachers fired, no poor ones retained — requires careful oversight. When budgets demand that multiple teachers be laid off, Goldstein would use performance, not seniority ("last in, first out"), as the criterion. Seniority would be the tie-breaker to decide between two equally effective teachers. This presupposes an accurate and fair evaluation method. Goldstein's proposed method fits into one sentence: "[T]eacher evaluation must be based on genuine measures of student learning, such as rigorous, non-multiple-choice tests and sophisticated, holistic classroom observations." This is surprisingly skimpy after her examination of almost two centuries of evaluation controversies.

Most of Goldstein's sound proposals would be expensive to implement. The money would be well spent, but "cost" resurrects the underlying dilemma that she acknowledges but doesn't tackle: "our perennial unwillingness to fully invest in our public sector, teachers and schools included." On the book's last page, she again enumerates "the full range of social supports" that families require. Their cost must be added to the cost of effective teaching reforms. Despite the chasm between what's needed and what Americans will pay for, Goldstein insists in her final sentences, "But there is hope":

If we accept the limitations of our decentralized political system, we can move toward a future in which sustainable and transformative education reforms are seeded from the ground up, not imposed from the top down. They will be built more upon the expertise of the best teachers than on our fears of the worst teachers. This is how we will achieve an end to the teacher wars.

If we accept our system's limitations, then conflicts over costs, resources, priorities, and values will disappear? This is, I fear, magical thinking.

I'll close with two other reservations about her inquiry into today's teacher wars.

First, Goldstein provides no political context for the market-model reform campaign, which is thoroughly political, and often ideological. She doesn't explain, for example, why ed reformers keep pushing VAM despite its error rates, which she cites: 35 percent for calculations based on one year of data and 25 percent even when three years of data are used. Thanks to ed reformers, close to forty states now tie teacher evaluations to student scores on standardized tests. She describes how merit pay was tried and failed in the 1920s, late 1960s, and 1980s. Yet ed reformers keep selling the policy despite recent studies showing more failures. She doesn't explain why ed reformers want more standardized tests in more subjects, starting in kindergarten, although it's been obvious for years that testing is hollowing out public education. She doesn't explore the deep ideological antipathy to government endeavors or the goal — embraced across the political spectrum — of weakening teacher unions; or the strength of market ed-reformism in state legislatures and its limitless funding; or the ties between ed reformers and testing companies (we'll hear more about this as Jeb Bush pursues the White House); or the large politicized constituency consisting of employees of ed-reform think tanks, advocacy groups, and nonprofit projects; or the role of private mega-foundations in fueling the reform machine. All of this constitutes not a conspiracy (ed reformers accuse their opponents of being conspiracy theorists) but a successful political movement.

Goldstein might respond that she wants to quiet the teacher wars. She might have given high priority to the possibility of constructive engagement with ed reformers, many of whom complain that opponents are shrill and that only cooler heads and more polite wording will produce useful dialogue. "Throughout this book I have tried to be more analytical than sharply opinionated," she writes in the epilogue. But political context is part of a full analysis. This book about public education — a fundamentally political topic — is strangely unpolitical.

My second reservation is that Goldstein doesn't convey any sense that public education as a publicly provided and democratically accountable service is under assault. Perhaps she doesn't agree that it is, but something new is underway. For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the teacher wars were enmeshed in efforts to create, expand, or improve public education. One thrust of the current ed-reform movement is to curtail the role of government in running schools, to use tax money to fund privately managed education (the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit privately run schools has become largely meaningless). True, Goldstein isn't writing about charter schools or vouchers — the most direct means of limiting government's role, but today's teacher war is tied up with this endeavor. Much as I support many of the proposals she makes, I worry about getting a chance to implement them widely. I worry that by the time the market-model reforms fail their way into disrepute, the "public" in public education will be damaged beyond repair.

Joanne Barkan graduated from public schools on Chicago's South Side. This review first appeared in Dissent magazine and is republished here with the permission of Barkan and Dissent. More of Barkan's articles on the education reform movement and the role of private foundations in a democracy can be found at


Weekend Link Roundup (April 4-5, 2015)

April 05, 2015

Baseball_grassOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector...

Community Improvement/Development

"[T]he stories of individuals, communities and organizations who are working to help... transform [Detroit] street by street — in small and much larger ways — are often overlooked," writes Frances Kunreuther, co-director of the Building Movement Project, on the Transformations blog. In contrast, Detroiters who are working at the neighborhood level "know that the real promise of urban transformation comes not from the outside in, but from the inside out — building a new city from the bottom up."


The debate in Congress over reauthorization of "No Child Left Behind," former President George W. Bush's signature education initiative, is a useful reminder, writes Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books, that "[p]overty is the major obstacle to equal education. To overcome that obstacle requires not only investing greater resources in the education of poor children, but creating economic opportunity and jobs for their parents."


In the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Michael Anft reports on research which shows "the charity world lacks a basic understanding of how donors' brains work, how would-be donors behave in certain situations, and what incentives can successfully woo them."

NPR reports that the dramatic shift in fundraising engendered by social media -- think Movember, the Ice Bucket Challenge, and Giving Tuesday -- is putting pressure on large national nonprofits to rethink their walk-related events.

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Weekend Link Roundup (March 28-29, 2015)

March 29, 2015

Umbrella_april-showersOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector...


On the Rockefeller Foundation blog, Zia Khan, the foundation's vice president for initiatives and strategy, shares four "counter-intuitive lessons" about cross-sector collaboration.


On the Markets for Good blog, Bill Anderson, technical lead for the Secretariat of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), examines the potential for a people-based data revolution across Africa.


50CAN, a network of local education advocates "learning from and supporting each other," has launched a new blog called The Catalyst to help local education leaders develop policy goals, craft their advocacy plans, and secure lasting change.

On the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation blog, Cari Schneider, director of research and policy for Getting Smart, suggests that one of the least appreciated barriers to effective education reform is definitional in nature.


Why do people give to charity? The Guardian explains.

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Weekend Link Roundup (March 21-22, 2015)

March 22, 2015

Think_springOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector...

Climate Change

Cold winter, wasn't it? Well, yes, if you were on the East Coast of the United States. Not so much everywhere else.

According to, the Guardian has launched a campaign to encourage the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK-based Wellcome Trust, the two largest funders of nongovernmental medical and scientific research in the world, to divest their portfolios of investments in fossil fuel companies. "We have to confront our own inconsistencies," said Professor Chris Rapley, former director of the Science Museum in London. "Either [Gates and the Trust] accept the argument that we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels or they don't. It's highly symbolic when charities like this make a stand."


On the Gates Foundation's Impatient Optimists blog, Allan Golston, president of the foundation's U.S. program, argues that annual, comprehensive education data is vital to ensuring that all students have access to a quality education.

International Development

In the Washington Post, Kevin Sullivan and Rosalind Helderman offer a closer look at how Bill and Hillary Clinton's charitable work in Haiti has both succeeded and failed.


On the NCRP blog, Britt Yamamoto, executive director of iLEAP, a nonprofit organization that works to inspire and renew social leaders, shares some key takeaways from the NCRP report Cultivating Nonprofit Leadership: A (Missed?) Philanthropic Opportunity.


The future of innovation in the social sector is...general operating support, writes Jocelyn Wyatt, executive director of IDEO, on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog.


Boston-based venture capitalist Todd Dagres is a fan of Shark Tank, the ABC business-pitch reality show, and according to the Boston Globe's Sacha Pfeiffer, he's looking to create a competition modeled on the show where "[e]arly-stage not-for-profit organizations could pitch their missions to investors, who would vet them on their plans and fund those they consider most promising."

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Weekend Link Roundup (March 7-8, 2015)

March 08, 2015

Daylight-Saving-TimeOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector...

Criminal Justice

"For years, punitive policies...have conspired to reinforce injustice and inequality [in America]. Together, they have produced an overrepresentation of people of color in our prisons and jails. Today, more African Americans are part of the criminal justice system than were enslaved on the eve of the Civil War," writes Ford Foundation president Darren Walker in an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee. Walker goes on to mention some of the things Ford is doing to bring change to the criminal justice system and urges policy makers and his colleagues in philanthropy to do more to address the root causes and systemic issues that contribute to the shameful pattern of mass incarceration in the U.S.


In the Washington Post, Lyndsey Layton reports that New Jersey governor Chris Christie's plan to remake the Newark public school system with the help of a $100 million investment from Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has run aground.


In a post on LinkedIn, Wounded Warrior Project CEO Steve Nardizzi applauds the Humane Society of the United States'  suit against Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, who, according to Nardizzi, "has waged a public war against the HSUS, accusing the organization of exorbitant fundraising costs for misleading solicitations and untruthful advertisements."

On the other hand...a new report (“Pennies for Charity”) shows that for-profit telemarketers operating in New York in 2013 retained the majority of the funds they raised on behalf of charities.


Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Jim Thaden, executive director of the Central Asia Institute, offers a staunch defense of the organization's decision not to fire co-founder Greg Mortenson after a 60 Minutes segment in 2011 questioned  many of the "facts" in Mortenson's best-selling 2006 memoir Three Cups of Tea and raised questions about the organization's finances.


"Impact investing advocates can sometimes give the impression that they have 'outsmarted poverty' (and other societal problems)," writes Alex Counts, president and CEO of the Grameen Foundation, on the Center for Financial Inclusion blog. But "[i]t is important to remember that few if any social innovations besides microfinance have proven capable of reaching large scale and generating consistent profits – which should give people pause before they create a new impact investing 'bubble'."

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Weekend Link Roundup (February 28-March 1, 2015)

March 01, 2015

Leonard-nimoy-spockOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector...


On Medium, Dan Gillmor, the long-time technology writer for the San Jose Mercury News, argues that governments and powerful tech companies such as Google, Apple and Microsoft are creating "choke points" on the Internet and "using those choke points to destroy our privacy, limit our freedom of expression, and lock down culture and commerce. Too often," Gillmor adds, "we give them our permission — trading liberty for convenience — but a lot of this is being done without our knowledge, much less permission...."


In an op-ed for the Minn Post, progressive activist and education blogger Lynnell Mickelsen suggests that Minneapolis could change its schools to work better for kids of color, but it "would involve asking mostly white middle-class administrators, teachers and employees to change their work lives — i.e. their schedules, assignments, job locations and even pay — around the needs, comfort and convenience of low-income people of color and their children." Be sure to check out the comments thread.


Pamela Yip, a business columnist for the Dallas Morning News, reports on a recent presentation by Sharna Goldseker, managing director of 21/64, a New York consulting firm, in which Goldseker touched on several factors that distinguish younger donors from their parents and grandparents.

Global Health

In a podcast on the Humanosphere blog, Gilles van Cutsem, a physician and medical director for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders, says the Ebola crisis in West Africa is far from over.

Higher Education

As this well-thought-out data visualization from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation shows, America’s postsecondary student population is more diverse than ever.

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Weekend Link Roundup (February 14-15, 2015)

February 15, 2015

No-snow-signOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector...


Foundations and philanthropists need to find new ways to advocate in the post-Citizens United world, write Shelley Whelpton and Andrew Schultz on the Arabella Advisors blog, "or risk ceding influence over national policy to those who are willing and eager to play by the new rules."

Arts and Culture

Nice post on the Dodge Foundation blog by ArtPride's Ann Marie Miller, who curates recent research and opinions on what she terms the "shifting paradigms" in the arts field. 


The American Enterprise Institute's Jenn Hatfield shares three takeaways from a series of papers released last week at an AEI-hosted conference on education philanthropy:

  1. Education philanthropies have shifted their focus from trying to influence school systems to trying to influence policy.
  2. Education philanthropy is getting more attention, and a lot more criticism.
  3. Education philanthropies are evolving, and maybe even learning.


In a heartfelt post that serves as a compelling counterpoint to a recent op-ed by Jennifer and Peter Buffett in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Jed Emerson argues that, yes, "metrics matter." And while "too many of those in the impact investing community view an effective metrics reporting system as 'nice to have' as opposed to 'critical to our practice in advancing impact'...

the myth persists that we can attain our goal of effective and relevant metrics assessment and reporting. One must ask, after all the frustration and challenges, why do we bother? I submit we persist in our pursuit because we know at a deeply visceral level our goal of integrating meaningful metrics into the core of our efforts to create a changed world has value and is central to who we are....

International Development

Are insecticide-treated bed nets the most effective intervention against malaria in the global development toolkit? Maybe not, writes Robert Fortner in a special report on the Humanosphere site.

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Weekend Link Roundup (February 7-8, 2015)

February 08, 2015

Winter-wonderland-tumblr-3Our weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector...

Climate Change

The Guardian's Damian Carrington reports that Norway's Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG), the richest sovereign wealth fund in the world, with assets totaling more than $850 billion, dumped 32 coal-mining companies from its portfolio in 2014. "Our risk-based approach means that we exit sectors and areas where we see elevated levels of risk to our investments in the long term," said Marthe Skaar, spokesperson for GPFG, which had had $40 billion invested in fossil fuel companies. "Companies with particularly high greenhouse gas emissions may be exposed to risk from regulatory or other changes leading to a fall in demand."


In the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Andrew Sherry, vice president of communications for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, argues that, in the age of the Internet, "communications is not just an opportunity for nonprofits; it's a necessity. Whether we're fundraising or trying to influence policy," he continues,

how we reach the right person with the right message has changed profoundly. Now it can take far more to figure out who the right people are, what channels to reach or influence them through, and how to hear them. It’s one thing to land a grant to open a new art space; it’s another to convince city hall that the community wants it, and still another to build a community to support it....


It is troubling and a very big deal, writes Ben Hecht, president and CEO of Living Cities, that a majority of U.S. public school children today live in poverty and are eligible for a free or reduced price lunch. 


On the Glasspockets Transparency Talk blog, Jessica Bearman (aka "Dr. Streamline) shares six things foundations can do to improve the diversity and inclusion of their grantmaking.


In a LinkedIn post, Peter York, founder and CEO at Algorhythm, a Philadelphia-based software company that is working to "democratize" impact measurement, asks: Who really has access to the power of impact measurement? And is there more we can do to make it available to everyone, including the beneficiary?

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Seven Lessons About Childhood Poverty

February 07, 2015

Instead of posting an infographic, as we usually do on Saturdays, we decided to mix things up this week and share a compelling presentation put together by journalist and author Jeff Madrick (Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World; Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present), Clio Chang, and their colleagues at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank here in New York City.

Built with an online tool called Creatavist, Seven Lessons About Childhood Poverty opens with a reminder that the official child poverty rate in the United States today stands at 20 percent, the second-highest among the world's developed countries. The presentation then segues into an articulation of  seven "lessons" about childhood poverty in the U.S. — lessons formulated at the Century Foundation's Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative conference last June. They are:

  1. The Stress of Childhood Poverty Is Costly for the Brain and Bank Accounts
  2. Child Poverty Is Not Distributed Equally
  3. The Power of Parental Education
  4. Higher Minimum Wage Is a Minimum Requirement
  5. Workplaces Need to Recognize Parenthood
  6. Government Works 
  7. Cash Allowances Are Effective

The length of a substantial blog post, each lesson includes downloadable tables and charts, a short video, and links to related materials.

So grab a mug of your favorite warm beverage, pull up a seat, and start reading. We're pretty sure that by the end of the last lesson, you'll agree with Madrick, et al. that "investment in early childhood is the best way to create a better economic life for all Americans." 

[Review] 'The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession'

January 07, 2015

Bookcover_The_Teacher_WarsConventional wisdom has it that America's once first-rate public education system is a shadow of its former self, today surpassed in both quality and cost-effectiveness by the educational systems of any number of European and Asian countries and with little hope of improvement.

Although some of this decline has been blamed on larger societal problems such as poverty and racism, the teaching profession itself has come in for a large share of criticism. In this view, "bad" teachers — those seen to be undereducated, coddled by their unions, and/or unmotivated and uncaring — are virtually untouchable, while good teachers are forced out of the profession by poor pay and lack of respect.

According to Dana Goldstein, there's nothing new about the conventional wisdom. Indeed, throughout U.S. history, she writes in The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, teachers have been unfairly blamed for the state of American public education even though a host of larger "villains" — misguided reform movements, an unhealthy obsession with standardized tests, ideological crusading, political meddling — are more rightly to blame.

Goldstein characterizes the regular attacks on public school teachers as the product of "moral panics," a term used by sociologists to identify an all-too-common feature of American society in which "policy makers and the media focus on a single class of people . . . as emblems of a large, complex social problem." She identifies at least a dozen such panics, and in each one she finds that blame for the failings of the American educational system, real or imagined, was assigned to one easily vilified group or another: intemperate male teachers, undereducated female teachers, black intellectuals, unionized teachers, unpatriotic teachers, alternative-program recruits, and teachers protected by seniority, to name a few.

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Weekend Link Roundup (January 3-4, 2015)

January 04, 2015

2015_desk_calendar_pcWelcome back! Hope you all got a chance to grab a little R&R over the holidays and are looking forward to the new year. Let's get it started with our weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector...

African Americans

The Washington Post's Jeff Guo reports on an examination of the health disparities between white and black Americans over the last century by the economists Leah Boustan and Robert Margo, who found that while those gaps have narrowed considerably, we're still pretty much "in the dark" as to how and why it happened.


As they do every year at this time, the editors at Education Week have compiled a list of the publication's most-read articles from the preceding twelve months.

The continued rollout of the Common Core was one of the big education stories of 2014, and according to the one hundred articles  gathered by the folks at Educators for Higher Standards (two from each state), teachers were some of the loudest voices in support of the standards-based initiative.


In an op-ed in the New York Times, Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution (and co-author of Show Me the Evidence: Obama’s Fight for Rigor and Results in Social Policy), argues that Congress must reject efforts by some Republicans to eliminate "the most important initiative in the history of federal attempts to use evidence to improve social programs."


As Robert Egger reminds us, ten thousand baby boomers will turn 69 tomorrow -- and the day after tomorrow, and every day in 2015. And that means a lot of nonprofit CEOs and EDs will be retiring this year (and next year, and the year after that), to be replaced, in many cases, by a millennial -- i.e., someone born after 1980. What does that mean for boards and staff? Eugene Fram explains.

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Weekend Link Roundup (December 13-14, 2014)

December 14, 2014

Nutcrackers-christmasOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the nonprofit sector....


On the George and Cynthia Mitchell Foundation blog, David Festa, vice president for ecosystems at the Environmental Defense Fund, suggests that if "we're going to meet growing needs for food and water,...[b]usiness as usual just isn’t going to cut it." But, adds Festa, there are reasons for optimism, as retailers, food companies, agribusinesses, farmers, and ranchers all rethink their roles in the food supply chain to do more with less while improving the ecosystems on which they, and all of us, depend.

Civil Rights

Interesting look by the New York Times  at police shootings in New York City in 2013, the last year of the Blo0mberg administration. According to an annual NYPD report released early in the week, shooting by officers, "whether unintentional or in the course of confrontations with suspects," fell to 40, from 45 in 2012, and were down from an eleven-year high of 61 in 2003.


Guest blogging on Nancy Schwartz' Getting Attention! blog, Allison Fine, author of the recently released Matterness: What Fearless Leaders Know About the Power and Promise of Social Media, suggests that the secret to succeess in today's social media-driven world is to communicate with people instead of at them.

Speaking of a "world gone social," what are the attributes of CEOs who "get" social media? Ted Coiné and Mark Babbitt have the answers in the Harvard Business Review.


On the Markets for Good site, Beth Kanter shares ten ideas about how to find to data-nerd types to help enhance your organization's data collection and analysis capabilities.

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Weekend Link Roundup (December 6-7, 2014)

December 07, 2014

9626_Northern_Cardinal_02-10-2010_2Our weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the nonprofit sector....


On Beth Kanter's blog, Jay Geneske of the Rockefeller Foundation announces the launch of Hatch, a digital platform that connects nonprofit practitioners with resources designed to help them "craft, curate and share impactful stories."


Writing in the Nonprofit Quarterly, Derwin Dubose, co-founder of New Majority Community Labs, a social venture that works to empower communities of color to identify and solve their own challenges, argues that the nonprofit sector has a "Ferguson problem" of its own: too few people of color in positions of leadership. As a result, writes Dubose, "people of color are relegated to being mere recipients of philanthropy rather than becoming active partners in their communities' success."


NPR, which seems to be doing a lot more reporting on the social sector of late, takes an in-depth look at Teach for America as the controversial organization celebrates its twenty-fifth year.


Nice piece by Peter Sims, co-founder of Fuse Corps, a social venture that gives up to twenty professionals a year the opportunity to help governors, mayors, and community leaders across the country bring about social change, on the origins and evolution of the #GivingTuesday movement. CauseWired president Tom Watson, who has been a "friendly skeptic" of #GivingTuesday in the past, also has some interesting thoughts about the success of the movement and how that success may portend a major shift in the way we give, volunteer, and organize around social causes.

No matter how you slice it, #GivingTuesday 2014 was a resounding success. If your nonprofit failed to capitalize on the buzz and good feeling surrounding the event, now is the time to start planning for #GivingTuesday 2015, writes Nancy Schwartz on her Getting Attention! blog.

What's driving next-gen giving? On the Forbes site, the Northwestern MutualVoice Team shares some findings from a 2013 survey conducted by 21/64, an organization that studies generational giving, and the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy.

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Weekend Link Roundup (November 15-16, 2014)

November 16, 2014

Ice-ballsOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the nonprofit sector....


On the NPR-Ed site, Emily Hanford has a piece (the first in a four-part series) about how Common Core is changing the way reading is taught to kids. (The piece originally appeared as part of American RadioWorks' "Greater Expectations: The Challenge of the Common Core.")


On Friday, the Sierra Club released a statement from its executive director, Michael Brune, in response to an announcement, expected this week, that the United States will contribute $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund (GCF),  a new multilateral fund created "to help developing countries reduce climate pollution and address their vulnerabilities to the most dangerous effects of climate disruption."

Here on PhilanTopic, Gabi Fitz, director of knowledge management initiatives at Foundation Center, shares the results of a collaboration between IssueLab and the Oceans and Fisheries team at the Rockefeller Foundation to capture and share knowledge  about sustainable coastal fisheries management.


In a post on Forbes, Jean Case, CEO of the Case Foundation, argues that pay-for-success models, although not a silver bullet, "hold the potential to illuminate what works and what doesn’t, and to optimize both delivery of service and tax dollars."

International Development

The mainstream media tends to focus on the bad news, but Africa is changing -- largely for the better, as this slide deck from Our World in Data shows.

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How to Help Low-Income Students Cross the Finish Line

November 07, 2014

Headshot_jessica_pliskaLast week Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a new partnership to help ambitious low-income students get into and graduate from top colleges and universities. This historic investment in college access is the latest initiative to expand opportunities for low-income students and is a big step forward.

I also know from hard experience that there is a next step.

For every hundred students from low-income families that start college, fewer than eight will graduate and secure jobs. So, if our goal is to enable these young people to take charge of their futures, we need to move the finish line: college graduation is not the final destination — launching a career is.

We need to integrate career education into our college access and success programs if we want to maximize the hundreds of millions of dollars we are investing in these students. College and career readiness cannot operate in separate, parallel dimensions, with career readiness as an implied outcome. Low-income students need interventions that are intensive, sustained, and rigorous.

My organization, The Opportunity Network, levels the playing field for high-achieving, low-income high school and college students by creating access for them to career opportunities and professional networks while they are still in school. Our curriculum builds what we call "career fluency." In addition to preparing students for college, we teach them how to build and leverage professional relationships for academic and professional success. One hundred percent of our students graduate from college, and 85 percent start career-track jobs or graduate school within six months of college completion.

I've seen firsthand that education is essential, but it isn't enough.

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Quote of the Week

  • "My idea of education is to unsettle the minds of the young and inflame their intellects...."

    Robert Maynard Hutchins

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