A Major New Education Donor Avoids Some Pitfalls But Needs To Dig Deeper

MacKenzie Scott has given away more than $4 billion over the last four months, including at least $840 million to colleges and universities serving disadvantaged students. She’s done this in a simpler, more trusting way than most education philanthropists. But will her gifts have any more impact?

As the year winds down, many of us are grappling with decisions on charitable giving: Which of the multitude of worthy causes are most important? Which approaches are likely to be effective, and which organizations efficient? In light of the misery that 2020 has brought, these questions are more urgent than ever—and no easier to answer.

Imagine what it’s like to be MacKenzie Scott. A novelist and the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, she’s worth about $55 billion even after her recent donations. Obviously, that level of wealth insulates you from problems most people deal with. But it can also introduce problems of its own, especially if you feel, like Scott, that privilege carries an obligation to help others—and to figure out how best to do that.

Scott’s recent gifts—which, added to others made earlier in the year, total nearly $6 billion—have gone to a range of organizations, some serving basic needs and others focusing on “long-term systemic inequities” in areas like race and sexual orientation.

Like many philanthropists, Scott has also ventured into education. But she’s largely avoided K-12 schooling. In the realm of higher education, she’s zeroed in on institutions serving Black, Hispanic, and Native American students, ranging from high-profile schools like Howard University to obscure community colleges.

She hasn’t made these organizations jump through the hoops usually required for gifts of this magnitude: extensive grant proposals; then, if you’re lucky, presentations to foundation boards and/or site visits to the program by foundation staff; and, if a grant is ultimately made, follow-up reports on how the money was spent and its impact—before the whole cycle begins again.

To be sure, Scott and her team of advisors did voluminous research on their own, winnowing some 6,500 potential grantees down to 384. But the recipients just got a phone call out of the blue and were told to spend the money however they thought best.

“We all just went berserk with joy,” the chancellor of North Carolina A&T State University, the largest historically Black university in the country, told the Washington Post. Scott gave the school $45 million. Its previous largest donation had been $5 million.

No doubt many if not all of these institutions are worthwhile and will spend the money wisely. Freed from burdensome fundraising requirements, they can devote more of their energies to actually helping people.

Scott’s approach also steers clear of some of the high-handedness that has characterized major education funding in recent decades. A previous generation of philanthropists were often content to donate to education programs that looked good or tugged at their heartstrings. The current crop, dominated by people who made their fortunes in technology, have tried to change what they saw as a fundamentally broken system. They’ve sought initiatives that are “disruptive” and “data-driven,” and they’ve wanted to see returns on their investments in the form of quick and significant improvements.

These funders have tended to cluster around the same few ideas for K-12 schools: improving teacher quality, expanding school choice, holding schools and teachers accountable on the basis of reading and math scores, beefing up academic standards, and shifting to “personalized learning.” They’ve dismissed some other possibilities for lack of evidence or “proof points”—instances where theories have produced results, usually measured by test scores—never mind that some of the initiatives they’ve poured money into weren’t backed by that kind of data. A frequently heard mantra was “we know what works.”

Except much of it didn’t. A case in point: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the biggest player in education philanthropy, undertook a five-year partnership with several school districts and charter networks to change the way they hired, evaluated, and compensated teachers. The total cost was $575 million, with a third borne by Gates. But the effort failed to boost teacher quality or student learning, and one commentator argued that it was correlated with a significant negative effect on test scores.

Burned by results like that—and hostility from many educators—the Gates Foundation is now trying to transfer more decision-making power to the objects of its largesse. One new initiative allows networks of schools to decide on a problem to solve and a strategy to use (although they’ll still need to be “driven by data”). Scott’s hands-off approach goes even further. But like previous efforts to address education inequity, it overlooks some key factors—which are also often overlooked by those leading or working in schools.

A huge challenge for colleges like those Scott is funding is that so many students arrive unprepared for college-level work. On average, 60{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of students who enroll in community college take one or more remedial courses within three years; among those who are low-income, the figure is 76{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}. Most who start remedial courses never complete them—and never get a degree. Of course, despite these odds, it’s important to try to narrow preparation gaps when students get to college. But wouldn’t it make more sense to prevent those gaps from occurring in the first place, by ensuring that all students get an adequate K-12 education?

Maybe one reason Scott didn’t go that route is that it appears to have been tried before, by Gates and many other foundations, without success. But despite the trappings of a data-driven, scientific approach, these funders have paid little attention to what scientists have discovered about how learning works—and how far our current education system deviates from those principles. Most have also looked only at “inputs” like teacher quality and “outputs” like test scores but haven’t investigated what goes on inside classrooms.

That’s especially true at the elementary level. Gates and others have assumed that high school—or maybe middle school—is where inequities begin; to the extent that the Gates Foundation is now focusing on curriculum and instruction at all, that’s primarily where they’re looking. But the seeds of inequity are being planted in elementary classrooms on a daily basis, largely because of the deeply mistaken assumption that it’s not important for younger kids to learn anything of substance.

The result is that the gaps between demographic groups that are present in kindergarten only get wider and harder to narrow as grade levels go up. By the time students arrive in college or even high school, achieving true equity is almost impossible. And if we educated all kids from the get-go in the way cognitive science indicates will work, many students who currently don’t even apply to college might well thrive there—or thrive in well-paying careers that don’t require a college degree. We have no way of knowing how much potential is being wasted—but indications from classrooms that have adopted an approach grounded in science suggest that it’s huge.

So what’s a conscientious philanthropist to do? Some suggestions:

·        Don’t give up on K-12 education. It’s more complicated than providing basic needs like food and shelter, but we’re never going to break the cycle of multi-generational poverty unless we figure out how to do it right.

·        Look to what cognitive science has to say about how people learn. It’s natural to rely on experts in a field for guidance, but in education that can be dangerous. While much of value can be gleaned from educators, their training has generally misled them about how learning actually works. Researchers in other fields who study learning—primarily psychologists and neurologists—have made great advances in recent decades that have not penetrated the world of education. To be sure, findings from scientific studies can’t tell teachers exactly what to do in classrooms. But they can guide us in figuring out what’s likely to work and what’s not.

·        Respect data but be aware of its limitations. There are some important things that are hard to measure—like building kids’ knowledge, a process that may take years to show up in standardized test scores; the scientific studies that command the most respect generally last no more than six weeks. “Data-driven” education may sound good, but much of the data collected in schools focuses on largely illusory skills like “making inferences” and not on whether students have learned anything substantive; faulty data may lead only to continued faulty instruction. And just because an approach has been studied doesn’t mean it’s better than another that has not. There’s a Catch-22 at the heart of modern philanthropy: you can’t get funding without evidence, but studies are expensive, which means you often can’t get evidence without funding.

Scott is to be applauded for getting an enormous amount of money out the door quickly and with little fuss, and no doubt it will do much good. But if she and others who aim to attack societal inequity want to get to the root of the problem, they’ll need to dig a lot deeper.

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