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Edu-Funders: Seek Smart Criticism, Even Amidst Cheap Shots

There's been a surge in attention paid to edu-philanthropy of late, especially with Sam Dillon's piece in the New York Times in May and Bill Gates' WSJ interview this summer. The condemnations of "corporate philanthropy" and of philanthropists giving away tens of millions as "MBAs run amok" fly hot and heavy. I think the critics are mistaken and way too quick to hurl accusations here. I don't remember them raising concerns about the pernicious influence of grantors when the Ford Foundation bankrolled litigation to boost edu-spending or when the Annenberg Challenge pumped $500 million into a mash-up of ineffectual mid-1990s reforms that educators happened to like.

But I want to focus for a moment on the foundations themselves, and particularly my friends who enjoy positions of influence inside the major foundations. As annoying as it might seem, especially at a time when critics offer up cheap, ad hominem attacks, there's an opportunity--and even a responsibility--to embrace criticism and feedback much more productively than has been the norm. I tackled this whole subject six years ago, in my book With the Best of Intentions; here, I'll revisit a few key points.

Let's start by noting that those who steer leading foundations make concerted efforts at disciplined self-appraisal. They evaluate the effectiveness of grants, engage in self-criticism, and convene working groups to assess their giving. This is sensible and desirable, but these conversations take place privately and away from public scrutiny, allowing foundation officials to reassure themselves that they've heard the array of arguments, sorted through options, and made the best decision they can.

The problem? It's not these retreats but hard-hitting public exchanges that can most effectively change the way options are weighed, alter the attractiveness of certain courses of action, or even reframe the context in which decisions are made. The groups convened by foundations tend to include, naturally enough, their friends, allies, and grantees. Such groups are less likely to offer a fresh or distinctive take on strategy or thinking--especially given the sensible disinclination of grantees to offend their benefactor or reformers to offend the engine funding their cause.

The disinterested media go easy on foundations, but leaders in the education and policy worlds have good cause to hesitate when it comes to speaking harsh truths. First, academics, activists, and the policy community live in a world where philanthropists are royalty--where philanthropic support is often the ticket to tackling big projects, making a difference, and maintaining one's livelihood. Even individuals and organizations who also receive financial support from government grants, tuition, endowment, or interest groups are eager to be on good terms with the philanthropic community.

Second, even if scholars themselves are insulated enough to risk being impolitic, they routinely collaborate with school districts, policymakers, and colleagues who desire philanthropic support. Incurring the wrath of a major giver may make it harder for otherwise blunt scholars to collaborate with skittish colleagues, public officials, or educators. The irony is that leading experts on high schools, school choice, or urban school reform, for instance, tend to avoid commenting starkly on funders like Gates, Walton, or Annenberg.

All of this results in an amiable conspiracy of silence among the thoughtful and the serious. The usual scolds remain in the good graces of the foundations by training their fire on other, less sympathetic targets. Even if foundations take no explicit action, the natural instinct for self-preservation is enough to render a skittish education community even more reticent.

The result is a vacuum that tends to be filled by incendiary voices and marginal figures who have nothing to lose. Rather than providing instructive or constructive criticism, the critics seek volume and shrillness--as this helps them gain attention. Fostering serious criticism then is not simply some masochistic exercise, but a way for foundations to ensure that the public discussion is framed by thoughtful debate rather than hysterical conspiracy theories.

I'm suggesting, odd as it may seem, that foundations need to make it conscious policy to welcome, and even encourage, public criticism. I'm not talking about hired evaluations or strategic assessments conducted by friendly consultants but about rigorous debate over objectives, strategies, and outcomes. Given that even tart-tongued observers will be unusually reluctant to share their thoughts, foundations need to make it extravagantly clear that they will not blacklist critics and that they will not look kindly upon anyone who does.

Of course, such debate inevitably entails critiques that may seem incomplete, wrong-headed, or unfair--especially compared to the warm bubble in which foundations have long resided. However, the value of skeptics is that they raise unpleasant issues and make it possible for those inside an organizational bubble to see things in a new light. Engaging with critics in a real and sustained way is essential to forestalling the plagues of hubris and groupthink.

This would require foundation boards to become more accepting of negative publicity than is the norm. It calls upon foundation staff to view themselves as fair game for public criticism, rather than stewards of noblesse oblige. This may seem like a lousy deal. But I think one of the lessons the new edu-philanthropists have learned is that mixed reviews just may be the painful price of relevance.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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