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Investing for Impact: Education Reform

June 07, 2011

(Ashley Allen is a partner at the Endeavor Group, an innovative consultancy offering an integrated suite of strategic, legal, and communications solutions to advance its clients' complex global agendas. In her previous post, she wrote about combining social and financial returns.)

Ed_reform_politics-progress Education reform represents one of the most compelling opportunities for philanthropists and foundations interested in maximizing and leveraging efforts to drive sustainable social change. Clear-eyed, results-oriented philanthropists such as Edith and Eli Broad, the Walton Family, Bill & Melinda Gates, Julian Robertson, and Laura and John Arnold view their wealth "not as an end in itself, but as an instrument to effect positive and transformative change" and have made investing in education reform a cornerstone of their philanthropic strategies.

And not a minute too soon. The United States has fallen behind many of the world's industrialized countries in educational achievement, ranking 25th in math and 21st in science. Almost 70 percent of 8th-graders cannot read at grade level, 25 percent of high school freshmen do not graduate on time, and more than 1.1 million Americans drop out of high school every year.

Grim statistics like these have helped to catalyze the emergence of a new breed of philanthropist with large ambitions and little patience for the status quo. In keeping with those ambitions, these funders hope to transform education at its core by reshaping expectations, expanding and testing new models, influencing policy, and driving better outcomes for the nation's most vulnerable youth.

Five investment themes highlight the potential for high-impact work in the field:

Transforming Education Policy. Increasingly, philanthropists are directing a portion of their philanthropic investments to organizations working to remove barriers to effective primary and secondary education at the state level. In Connecticut, ConnCAN, an education reform organization that aims to provide every child in the state with access to a great public school, is working to overhaul state education policy and create an environment for improved student achievement. Through research, community-based organizing, and advocacy, ConnCAN has influenced the passage of a slate of education reform bills, placed the issue of public education front and center in the most recent gubernatorial race, and raised thousands of dollars for public school classrooms across the state. Similar efforts have been mounted by groups such as Advance Illinois, which is working to ensure that that all students in the state have the chance to graduate from high school college- and career-ready; Colorado Succeeds, a nonpartisan coalition of business leaders committed to ensuring that every student in Colorado graduates with the knowledge, skills, and behaviors necessary to succeed in a competitive global economy; the Chalkboard Project, an Oregon nonprofit working to elevate student achievement statewide and propel Oregon's K-12 education system into the top ten nationally; and DC School Reform Now, a volunteer-driven organization committed to education reforms that support achievement for every child in every school in the District of Columbia.

Empowering Parents as Education Reform Partners. Along with students, parents are the core constituency in public education. Yet their views and ability to influence outcomes for their children go largely unheard in the larger education reform movement. The Parent Institute for Quality Education, an Oakland-based nonprofit dedicated to helping low-income, ethnically diverse parents actively support their children in school, works to create partnerships between schools, families, and communities that empower parents as advocates and champions for their kids. PIQE teaches parents how to build their children's self esteem, navigate local school systems, communicate with teachers, and help prepare their kids for college. A 2011 independent study found that students whose parents went through the PIQE program consistently outperformed the academic achievement of comparison students. Other organizations working to enlist parents as partners in raising student achievement include the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership in Lexington, Kentucky, and the Parent Leadership Training Initiative in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Expanding Access to Early Childhood Education. Because of the tremendous income-driven disparities in early learning experiences, as much as a third to one-half of the achievement gap between black and white students in the U.S. is already a fact by the time children enter the first grade. Study after study has shown that investment in quality early childhood education programs produces a variety of long-term benefits, including lower grade retention, special ed placement, and drop-out rates; reduced involvement with the criminal justice system; and higher educational attainment leading to improved earning capacity as an adult. The AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation and the AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., have developed an evidence-based, early language and literacy program that produces dramatic outcomes for kids from low-income households, putting them on equal footing with their more advantaged peers before they enter kindergarten. As a recipient of Invest in Innovation (i3) funding, AppleTree has embarked on a pioneering longitudinal research study to further demonstrate the power of its early childhood program. Other organizations working to reinvent and/or promote early childhood education include the Chicago-based Erikson Institute, which, in addition to advanced degrees in child development, offers direct services to families and publishes applied research that pinpoints effective early childhood programs, practices and policies; the Philadelphia-based Children's Literacy Initiative, which offers professional development for pre-kindergarten through third-grade teachers; and the Harlem Children's Zone's Harlem Gems program, an all-day pre-kindergarten program that gets children ready to enter kindergarten.

Driving Advances in Teacher Quality. The quality of classroom instruction has a dramatic effect on student outcomes. A skilled and motivated teacher can set high expectations, inspire and lead real learning, reinforce positive social and emotional behavior, and hold students accountable for their academic performance. Founded in 1997 by former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, the New Teacher Project works with school districts nationwide to recruit, certify, and hire great teachers and helps schools, districts, and states take the critical next step: improving the way they measure and manage teacher performance on the job. Indeed, a 2008 study found that teachers who went through the NTNP program performed better than more experienced teachers in terms of their impact on student achievement in math, reading, and language. Other programs and projects working to address the issue of teacher quality include the Research and Innovation in Teaching Excellence (RITE) Center, a partnership of YES Prep Public Schools in Houston, KIPP Houston, the Houston Independent School District, KIPP Nashville, and Tennessee-based LEAD Public Schools; the Center for Inspired Teaching in Washington, D.C.; Pittsburgh-based ASSET Incorporated; WestED, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research, development, and service agency in San Francisco; and Teach for America.

Fueling Competition in the Education Sector. Independently operated and free from many of the regulations that burden traditional district schools, charter schools have become fertile ground for experimentation and innovation and today educate approximately three percent of the nation's public school population. The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) is a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools with a demonstrated track record of preparing students in underserved communities for success in college and in life. KIPP currently operates ninety-nine schools in twenty states and the District of Columbia serving more than 27,000 students. By recruiting outstanding principals and teachers, setting high expectations, extending the school day, and focusing on student achievement, KIPP has produced outcomes for low-income and minority students that trump those produced by traditional district schools. Other exemplary charter networks include Brighter Choice Charter Schools in Albany, New York; IDEA Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., the Harlem Children's Zone's Promise Academies in New York City; and Breakthrough Public Charter Schools in Cleveland, Ohio.

Improving the quality of public education in the United States — particularly in low-income urban neighborhoods — has emerged as one of the most critical challenges we face. The work is complex and multi-faceted, and incremental approaches are unlikely to get the job done. What's more, the risk-averse nature of large systems and entrenched interests will continue to impede the nature and pace of reforms, making it all the more important for the philanthropic sector to take the lead in funding creative approaches and new solutions to this critical issue. The five approaches outlined above offer compelling entry points for foundations and individual donors looking to achieve impact, in both the short and longer terms, with their philanthropic investments.

-- Ashley Allen

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