Mark Zuckerberg's recent $100 million donation to Newark's public schools was a big surprise. Some believe it was a publicity stunt aimed at diverting attention away from any negative publicity from "The Social Network." For Newark, no matter the motive, this infusion of cash will likely make a difference in schools. At the same time, this donation has again raised the question many people seek to understand: Is throwing money at the system the answer?
There is an ongoing debate about whether more money will solve our nation's education woes. Over the last 30 years, per pupil spending has doubled while student achievement has flat lined. One logical reaction might be to think that money doesn't matter. Specifically for individuals who want to support education, it can be difficult to know whether donations to schools are going to make a difference. My experience in education suggests that money can make a difference but it's not that simple.
I started my career in the Bronx as a fourth-grade teacher with Teach For America. For one of my students, we'll call him Andrew, school was unbearable. He struggled with a graphomotor disability and severe ADHD. Luckily we had a computer in our classroom which allowed Andrew to type his papers and daily journal entries. Further, by incorporating art in my curriculum, Andrew was able to experience immediate success while better focusing on the subject at hand. Having both the computer and well-stocked art supplies were crucial to Andrew's ability to concentrate and learn. Sports and the occasional field trip further engaged Andrew and permanently altered his attitude toward school.
Andrew's year ended much differently than it started. His confidence grew dramatically and he was selected for a significant honor. He represented the school as a docent at the Guggenheim Museum where his art and the art of a few fellow classmates was being displayed. Andrew became a top student. He just needed more supports to make learning meaningful.
With spending at an all-time high, there is little proof that more money equals better education -- forcing districts and states to make difficult funding decisions. In this era of wide-spread budget cuts, however, the experiences that make school fun, meaningful, and accessible to students are the ones that are most often on the chopping block. Cutting art class is easier to justify than layoffs. Thus, the responsibility to provide an exciting and supportive educational experience often falls to educators. They have to be savvy to find ways to get the materials and experiences they need for their students. This process can be time-consuming, expensive, and requires knowledge of where to find resources.
The lack of resources creates a dilemma for educators. At the same time, concerned individuals are finding it difficult determine how to best support public education. We receive conflicting messages about whether money really matters, yet it's clear that money is needed to purchase art supplies and to take students on trips. There needs to be a way for concerned citizens to support public education on a very local level by connecting directly with schools in need.
In fall 2009 I launched The Generation Project, a nonprofit that supports low-income public school students through an innovative approach to giving. The Generation Project allows donors to design and fund meaningful educational experiences and provides teachers access to the free opportunities our donors sponsor.
The Generation Project has become more than a way for teachers to find free opportunities for their students. Philanthropists at all income levels are sharing their passions and exposing students to a range of experiences that would not have been available to them otherwise. It is providing a platform for individuals to invest in schools. Anyone can utilize the platform at www.thegenerationproject.org to create their own impact to benefit low-income K-12 students. Past gifts range from tuition to a fine arts camp, sponsorship of a baseball program at a school, and funds for a computer and art supplies.
Zuckerberg's answer to the dire state of education was to give Newark a wad of cash. Most of us don't have the deep pockets of a social media mogul, but with some thought, the right platform can make a direct impact for students in need. By harnessing the passions of individuals to benefit kids, The Generation Project is creating a new way for teachers to make the learning process fun and meaningful for their students. Donors who are giving back through The Generation Project and other community-based organizations give me hope that individuals can make a real impact in education. They are part of a larger grassroots movement of concerned citizens that refuse to wait for education to change. We don't have to fully understand how money affects learning to make a difference. There are ways to support education today while the larger money issues are being sorted out.