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Silver Bullets and Solutionism in Education Philanthropy

Note: Our guest-blogger this week will be Megan Tompkins-Stange, an Assistant Professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. Her first book, Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence, will be released June 1 by Harvard Education Press.

 Who said it: Sam Seaborn or Bill Gates?

"Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don't need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes.... I just haven't figured out how to do it yet."

White House wunderkind Sam Seaborn (aka Rob Lowe) staked this claim in the first season of The West Wing in 2000, but if it were reshot today, he'd likely be having lunch not with his sometime flame Mallory, but with the benefactors of the "new" philanthropic revolution in education. In the last two decades, the "new" foundations have definitively shifted the center of gravity in education funding.

My new book, Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence (coming out next week from Harvard Education Press), tells the story of how the new foundations became so powerful, and how their practices have shaped the fields of education policy and philanthropy. Drawing on a series of in-depth interviews with foundation insiders at four of the largest foundations in the U.S.—Gates, Broad, Kellogg and Ford—the story takes shape around two contrasting modes of engagement that characterize the "new" foundations and their more traditional peers (see Figure 1).

Tompkins figure 1.jpg

Gates and Broad predominantly align with what I term an outcome-oriented perspective, wherein grantees are held accountable for measurable, pre-defined results, with a high degree of involvement and control at the foundation level. In contrast, Kellogg and Ford represent a field-oriented perspective, wherein grantees retain more control of their initiatives. My sources often referred to these two perspectives as discrete and oppositional; one informant described a "fault line" that has developed within education philanthropy in the last several years, while another asserted, "There are basically two kinds of foundations." (In an excellent New Yorker article, Larissa Macfarquhar describes these twin poles as "strategic" and "social justice" approaches.)

Within these two perspectives, the foundations displayed considerable nuance that stemmed from their institutional values and founding benefactors' imprints. For example, as a product of Microsoft's breakneck technical innovation, Gates viewed technological expertise as a defining pillar of its culture, as best described by Bill Gates himself, who once declared "We're technocrats." A number of sources referred to Gates' actions as "searching for a silver bullet" or "injecting a specific technical solution" through various initiatives - whether small schools, the Common Core, or teacher evaluation. When faced with complex social challenges such as poverty or educational inequality, one official remarked facetiously, "We wish there was an app for that." 

Tompkins 2.jpg

"We wish there was an app for that."

The ethos of technological expertise has manifested in an offshoot of outcome-oriented philanthropy known as "hacker philanthropy." In a much-circulated piece in the Wall Street Journal last fall, founding Facebook president Sean Parker described "hacker philanthropy" as "a desire to 'hack' complex problems using elegant technological and social solutions, and an almost religious belief in the power of data to aid in solving those problems." As an example, Parker proposed funding private militias to conduct peacekeeping operations rather than government armies (in response, Princeton historian Stanley Katz wrote: "I teach public policy, and I'd be very concerned about a graduate student who told me that he felt confident that private militias should replace government military forces in troubled parts of the world. Wouldn't you?").

Tompkins 3.png

Sam Seaborn reacts to suggestion of private militias.

Evgeny Morozov refers to this mindset as "solutionism," wherein solutions to social problems can be engineered through designing technical solutions rather than engaging with "messier" culture norms and values. To a solutionist, technology represents the pureness of objective calculation and scientific expertise, as opposed to political and social processes that cannot be controlled for. For example, when asked about the foundation's work on the Common Core, Bill Gates told a Washington Post reporter, "These are not political things," he said. "These are where people are trying to apply expertise to say, 'Is this a way of making education better?'"

Solutionism is particularly salient in Silicon Valley, where "disruption" is a core value, political processes are considered inefficient, engineering expertise is dominant, and private philanthropy is almost exclusively outcome-oriented. This contested philanthropic terrain is shifting under our feet, as tech wealth continues to grow and a new generation of philanthropists seek the holy grail of impact.

Regardless of the fate of hacker philanthropy, the outcome-oriented perspective has become dominant in the broader field of philanthropy, as one source described: "The education reform landscape is really heavily over determined by this managerial mindset...And it's not recognized as an ideology in its own right that could compete or that could be challenged." (In fact, outcome-oriented philanthropy has become so taken-for-granted that Hal Harvey, co-author of a seminal book on strategic grantmaking, recently apologized for the extent to which his ideas had been applied in the field.)

I look forward to recognizing ideologies and challenging assumptions this week at RHSU. Until we meet again, a few wise words from Emmy-winning writer Kevin Bleyer: "To Democrats, nothing is any less complex than a West Wing episode." 

--Megan Tompkins-Stange

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