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Shortcuts, School Reform and Private Foundations

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Author Bob Sutton recently wrote about a report commissioned by the Annie Casey Foundation that examined one of its major funding initiatives related to school reform (the report is titled The Path of Most Resistance).

Here is an excerpt from Mr. Sutton's post:

This weekend, I read an old (1993) but excellent study commissioned by the Casey foundation on what it takes comprehensive school reform in large school systems. I was taken with its counter-intuitive title "The Path of Most Resistance"....[the authors] argued that taking the easy way out -- expecting instant results; not taking the time to engage with parents, students, administrators, local politicians and other key crucial actors; doing it on the cheap; expecting everything to go smoothly-- and a host other "easy solutions" -- simply weren't realistic or wise for would-be change agents. The examples of successful large scale change they examined all took pretty much the opposite approach -- there was a lot of patience and a long term perspective, time was taken to involve major constituencies, lots of resources were devoted to the effort, and a host of other tactics that entailed doing things the hard way rather than the easy way.

Ah, if only foundations, including Casey, took these lessons to heart (see Private Foundations Have A Place (And Have To Be Kept In Their Place)). Though I obviously don't know about every foundation grant ever given anywhere, in my very direct experience with foundations during my twenty-year community organizing career, and my growing familiarity with education-oriented foundations over the past eight years since I've become a teacher, I only know of one -- yes, just one -- major foundation initiative that reflected those lessons. It was called The Central Valley Partnership for Citizenship and was a strong and successful effort to encourage active citizenship by immigrants and others throughout California's Central Valley.

I'm happy to be enlightened if someone, other than a foundation staffperson, contacts me with information on another major foundation program that did not push for "shotgun marriages" between groups in the name of "collaboration;" did not lead with the belief that the foundation had the best ideas of what and how a strategy should be implemented and, instead, reacted to the ideas recommended by community-based organizations; did not push for immediate results and instead emphasized supporting long-term organizational sustainability; and actively encouraged candid pushback on the foundation's ideas.

I wish funders like the Gates Foundation and other members of what Diane Ravitch calls the "billionaire boys club" would learn all the lessons in the report -- not just the one about needing to contribute massive resources to an effort --as well as others. They need to learn that, as successful organizers know, often the best solutions for problems come from those who are most affected by the problem, not from foundation program staff or those who are providing the foundation's funds.

The root of the word "foundation" means "discovered." It would be nice if foundations learned that their job was to discover solutions to school problems by asking the people most affected by those problems -- K-12 educators, teachers, and students -- instead of trying to invent and push their agenda on the rest of us.