These high-profile donations will continue. Trying to stop billionaires from spending their money is a fool’s errand. If the neoliberal adherence to capitalist free market ideology doesn’t diminish, the population of billionaires is going to grow exponentially, until we reach a point where Bezos’s $2 billion pledge looks minuscule, especially for a large urban district. In fact, if Bezos had promised the same amount to the New York City Department of Education, it would represent a significant infusion of capital, but, with an annual budget of $24 billion (Council of the City of New York, 2018), it would be a relatively small increase. Accordingly, if these donations remain prevalent, it is vital that the funds be used to serve the communities in question and not just to facilitate charter expansion and the success of the education management industry. From what we have analyzed thus far, and with supporting evidence from existing research findings, I believe I can offer three steps for present and future donors who claim to want to help students in urban public schools. I will reiterate once more that all of this is moot if their public concern is merely a show designed to mask private indifference and/or cruelty, but if we take them at their word, and if Bezos’s more innovative plan is any indication, they have the capacity and the willingness to listen and learn.
- Start From the Bottom
The interventions that have failed to move the needle for public schools have all started by convening experts and public figures across the fields of education, business, and politics, and then coalesced around a free market, accountability plan that ultimately upset many of the community members it was designed to serve. Look to Newark, where Zuckerberg was courted by Booker at a tech conference in California, and where the lion’s share of the money was eventually spent on fighting the extant district system (Russakoff, 2015). Looking on from outside of the Newark public school system, a donor might say that the district needed to be pushed to change, and they would have been correct in this assessment, but their approach to doing so was so poorly chosen that they expended considerable time and energy on this contract dispute that could have been used for tangible district reform. Facebook’s original motto was “move fast and break things,” and no matter one’s opinion of the company, they are certainly successful at living up to that (since-updated) phrase, perhaps to the detriment of our very democracy. But when they tried to apply it to the Newark school district, the system in place was ready to fight back.
Any systemic change should start from the front lines. As we saw in White Plains, educators and administrators, if given support, can and will find innovative solutions to internal crises. If the hiring of consultants is inevitable – and it probably is – why not send them to district schools to research what teachers and principals would do if they were given time and money to create? Why not ask what stressors are preventing teachers from performing at their very best? There will inevitably be a small number of teachers that are fundamentally not equipped to lead classrooms, but it would be significantly cheaper to spend money and time (and of course, with consultants, time is money) on this than the $21 million spent on buying out scores of teachers in Newark. Donors could also, presumably, spend less than the $21 million spent on consultants’ time if they were used more judiciously (Russakoff, 2015). Ultimately, the goal should be to help district employees find the solutions that will work for their students and families rather than imposing flawed solutions upon them, as they are likely to resist, as well they should.
- Read the Research
Several studies (Gershenson, Hart, Lindsay, & Papageorge, 2017; Egalite, Kisida, & Winters, 2015) show that having just one black teacher significantly improves outcomes for black students (specifically boys). In New York, the district has responded by taking pains to recruit and support new black male teachers through NYC Men Teach, which has a budget of $16 million over three years (Fink, 2016). Is that a significant amount of money? Yes, though it’s very little in the context of these donations. Why not expand such programs in districts where “achievement gaps” exist for black students? Or find out what might help the students in a given district if the demographics are significantly different?
It’s not as simple as hiring more black male teachers, though, as part of the reason for the paucity of this group in the teaching corps is that they leave the field at extremely high rates, mostly due to being forced into dual roles as disciplinarians for so-called “unruly” black students (Barnum, 2018). These teachers need to be supported more than they need to be simply hired and thrown into the fire, so programs like NYC Men Teach need to be given much more financial support than they currently receive, even before their long-term results are measurable.
This is hardly the only empirically-supported intervention that could improve public school systems. I admittedly chose this as an example as a black male teacher myself, but the point is merely that donors should use their financial ability to have their employees pore over every inch of available research and decide on a handful of district-specific systemic changes supported by empirical findings. Is it increasing pay? If so, to what level? Is it changing the seniority structure? It might actually be the case that peer-reviewed research supports an intervention that aligns with free market ideology in some instances. But they won’t know if they don’t actually read all the research to see what is the best and most feasible option for a given district.
- Everything is Connected
Whoever convinced Jeff Bezos that education was not best served by its usual placement inside a silo where it can be isolated from other societal issues deserves considerable credit. In many cities, homelessness has an impact on a substantial percentage of public school students and their families, not only those without permanent housing, but those who share classrooms with boys and girls grappling with the resultant anxiety and trauma.
Education is also closely tied to employment, with low-income parents often forced to work time-consuming and physically demanding jobs that prevent them from supporting their children by remaining involved in school events, even if they otherwise would. Education is related to healthcare, both physical and mental, with many families unable to afford appropriate treatment for their children, treatment that is of particular need in communities with less healthful air, water, and food. And, as much as we often prefer to ignore it, education is inextricable from the racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination that are persistently prominent in our society. To pretend, as we often do, that we can save an education system by focusing only on instruction – or only on the results of standardized tests – is to consign ourselves the sort of failure we have seen from even these most talented and successful donors.
When I say we ought to look at the research, I don’t want to imply that findings from a district in Florida should be grafted onto Brooklyn without taking into account the latter’s particular context. When I say we need to speak to the educators on the ground, I mean we should do so to learn what is unique and specific to a particular district or school. I fear, with these recommendations, that the adherence to a goal of a national model will supersede the need for contextualization, and I want to be clear that my first two recommendations are of little use without the third. We need to consider each of these societal issues in turn if we hope to improve outcomes for students and families in our schools, and we will improve nothing if we don’t. A portion of any future education donation should be reserved for the creation of school-based responses to a city’s specific structural issues, even if they are unlikely to be solved quickly.
The main question I cannot answer – that no one can really answer – is what is in the heart of high-profile education donors. Surely, there is some ego and vanity involved in the process of making such donations publicly, but on the other hand, these districts are usually so large that one really does need to give tens or hundreds of millions to make a dent on the budget, and any donation of that size is not going to go unnoticed. Districts budgets are tight, and so my recommendations might not be possible as donors are unlikely to make these changes unless pushed, and districts are under considerable financial pressure to accept the donors’ terms. After all, who wants to be the chancellor or mayor who turns down a ten-digit donation on principle?
Nevertheless, I believe these changes would appeal to the capitalistic side of these wealthy men, especially if they want both a return on their investment and the public relations boost a successful donation might provide. If a future donor were to engage deeply with the community (or hire consultants to do so), incorporate the findings of peer-reviewed research, and contextualize their reform efforts, students and families could see great benefits. Instead of attempting to create a rubber-stamped national model to save people, they would serve as examples for other reformers, who could in turn learn to help more effectively.
I can’t claim to know how to solve the many problems in American public education, but, at least to this point, neither can most of these donors. What I do know is that they have enough money to find the right answers, but only if they ask the right people the right questions.
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