When it comes to philanthropic giving to public schools, the hype is always big. Like when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced on Oprah Winfrey’s show that he was giving $100 million to Newark, New Jersey, schools.
But the results don’t always live up to the hype.
Five years after Zuckerberg’s donation, it was deemed a failure.
Now, hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio and his wife Barbara have announced their foundation will give $100 million to Connecticut schools, and the state has pledged to raise $200 million more over the next few years, specifically to help students at risk of dropping out of high school.
Education spending is already the largest expense for towns, cities and the state, but even with that investment, Connecticut still has the largest achievement gap in the nation. Supporters of the Dalio gift say there should be new ways to look at the complex problem.
Governor Ned Lamont recently announced the donationt at East Hartford High School.
“The Dalio Foundation has stepped up in a significant, significant way,” Lamont said. “You know, it’s a partnership we have together. The Dalio Foundation is gonna contribute $100 million to make sure your education is the best that it could be.”
The crowd of students, teachers and policymakers erupted into applause. But across the state, Connecticut College education professor Lauren Anderson was not clapping.
“My initial reaction was, ‘Oh no, not again’,” she said. “When there are these gifts that sort of create new things that are not sustainable over the long term -- and then wealthy philanthropists can ultimately decide not to continue funding those things -- it only contributes to greater volatility to public systems.”
While she’s not optimistic that this new influx of private cash will do any good, she said it could work if there was a long-term commitment
“I would say it’s investments in things that can be sustainable,” Anderson said, “as opposed to things that would be ephemeral, and eventually passed off in terms of cost to local districts.”
The details of the plan have yet to be worked out, but the aim is to reach out to teenage students who are disengaged from learning and at-risk of dropping out of school. The governor said he wants teachers to lead the process. A non-profit would be set up to distribute the money, and it would be run be educators, Lamont said.
Other than that, a lot of questions remain, and there aren’t many examples of something like this working out. LeBron James’s contribution to an experimental public school in Akron, Ohio, has shown some promising results, but it’s still in the early stages, and those efforts also focused significant attention on helping parents in addition to students.
More often, it seems like the results don’t match the goals. Last year, the Rand Corporation released a 500-plus page report about a billion-dollar program that was partially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Local, state, and federal dollars accounted for over $700 million of the multi-year investment, which aimed to improve teaching in three public school districts in Florida, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.
But like Zuckerberg’s experiment in New Jersey, it didn’t have the expected outcomes. There was hype around that program, too, when it came out. In a promotional video created by the Gates Foundation, teachers and principals tout the expected results.
“We will become a model district of how things should be done across the United States,” said Deborah Hellman, an exceptional student education specialist with Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida. Michael Piscal, a charter school founder based in Los Angeles, echoed Hellman in the video.
“It would have taken us 15 years to get where we’re gonna be in five,” Piscal said.
But neither of those things came true.
Laura Hamilton, senior behavior scientist with the Rand Corporation, co-authored its report on the Gates gift. She said there are a few common mistakes these philanthropic projects often make, such as frequent leadership turnover, inconsistent messaging, poor outcome measures, and a lack of teacher involvement.
“One of the things teachers say frustrates them the most about their jobs, is that it seems like there is always some new reform that’s being imposed on them from above,” Hamilton said. “They don’t really have a lot of say in whether [or] how that’s enacted, and then as soon as they kind of figure it out and get used to it, some other new reform comes along.”
This ‘reform fatigue’ is talked about by teachers in many districts, especially those that have traditionally struggled.
Morgaen Donaldson, director of Education Policy Analysis at the University of Connecticut, said Connecticut should consider the wealth of existing research on what works for disengaged teenagers when developing how it will spend the money. She said she’s excited about the announcement by Dalio Philanthropies.
“The proposal focuses on under-resourced communities, and it also tries to make that connection and that link between students and schools and also the workforce,” Donaldson said, referencing the governor’s statement that he’d like the money to connect students to jobs after graduating high school.
She said she understand the worry that the money could come and go, and then districts would be left to figure out what to do.
“I think that’s a very valid concern,” she said. “Given the financial situation at the state, I think it behooves us to think outside the box a bit.”
Foundations often underestimate the complexity of working with school districts, and the politics involved, Donaldson said. Philanthropists might also become blinded by their initial vision, and fail to pay attention to warning signs along the way that should indicate a shift in focus.
Bottom line: teachers should drive the conversation, and parents and the broader community should also be involved. Those interviewed agreed that in a few years, to see if the investment has paid off, the state should look at a variety of measures, and not just graduation rates.
Hamilton, from Rand, said collecting attendance records early on helps district leaders understand if their students are engaged. She also said it’s important to look at students after they graduate. The National Student Clearinghouse keeps state-level data on students who go on to college, but it doesn’t track students who do other things, like go straight to work, join the military, or get a vocational certification. That data would be important to collect, Hamilton said, if Connecticut wanted to measure the true impact of the Dalio gift.