Isn’t creating significant change in society what the social sector (nonprofits and the philanthropists who fund them) is all about? A person starts a nonprofit organization when they recognize some disequilibrium (poverty, homelessness, failing schools) and they have a theory of change that will result in righting that disequilibrium.
I think at times, however, the structures that we create in the social sector get us away from that fundamental goal. It’s interesting to take a step back and evaluate whether or not activity within the social sector is significantly changing broken systems.
Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in Washington, DC, wrote a thought-provoking and controversial opinion piece at the Chronicle of Philanthropy about how social entrepreneurial programs like Teach for America, Green Dot and KIPP are not really solving the problem of the crumbling American school system. He argues that these programs, which are beloved by funders and proponents of social entrepreneurship, “don’t have a prayer of dealing with the problem at the scale that is needed.” It is not the quality of the innovative programs or the ability to get results that he is at odds with. Rather, it is the lack of scale of these programs. They just can’t address the entire system:
But as exemplary as they are, small programs like these are not equal to the task. Teach for America accounts for just two-tenths of 1 percent of the new teachers entering our schools every year. The entire enrollment of the Green Dot schools is no larger than the enrollment of one typical high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. KIPP schools, the object of enormous attention in the national news media, has an enrollment equal to three-hundredths of 1 percent of the 92,000 public schools in the United States.
He argues that instead of funding these “handful of small, disruptive interventions” we need to emulate the most successful countries’ educational systems by:
- Recruiting teachers from the top one-third to one-fifth of college graduates by paying them as much as the other professions they could just as easily choose to go into: medicine, law, architecture, accounting, engineering.
- Giving them the same kind of control over the way their services are delivered to their clients as the other professions have over theirs…turning virtually all of the decisions as to how the schools are run over to them.
- Adopting high-quality board examinations like those the most successful countries use, which can measure a student’s grasp of the concepts underlying the subject, the student’s creativity and capacity for innovation, as well as the student’s knowledge and ability to apply what he or she has learned to real-world problems.
- Shifting the school financing system away from a reliance on the local property tax and toward a system that makes sure each and every student has the resources needed to get to internationally benchmarked standards.
He recommends a complete overhaul of the American education system at a cost of $60 billion a year in initial investments. These costs would eventually be offset by expenses saved.
He argues that to get this kind of systemic change donors to educational programs must “shift their attention from financing cameo programs to putting their money into groups that influence public policy. That’s where the payoff is.”
It is an interesting, bold idea. I’m not sure, however, that I completely agree. I think we’ve seen over the past several decades that education policy is broken. There are so many special interests in the field of education policy, it’s unclear to me where we would pour the money. Perhaps we needed social entrepreneurs like Teach for America and others to point out the problems within the system and offer a theory of change. Now that they have demonstrated that there are programs that work and new ways to do things, we can now create policy around those ideas. And with a new administration and a new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who has a history of reforming the Chicago Public Schools and implementing new models like Teach for America, perhaps policy reform has a chance. It will be interesting to watch.
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