As President Obama signs the economic stimulus bill into law today it is interesting to analyze what this means for nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and crumbling American institutions like our education system. I have written many times before about the opportunity that this financial crisis offers. When systems are crumbling the time is right to build something stronger, better, more effective. So it is today, particularly in the realm of American education.
Arne Duncan has taken over as Secretary of Education. He is a young, bright, energetic innovative former superintendent of Chicago Public Schools. He’s seen as a consensus-builder with a similar governing style to Obama’s, which has allowed him to push through some key reforms while keeping teacher’s unions happy. In his 7+ years as CEO of CPS he:
- Increased elementary test scores in Chicago from 38 percent of students meeting the standards to 67 percent
- Increased the graduation rate by 6%
- Increased the number of master teachers who’ve completed a rigorous national certification process from 11 to 1,200
- Spearheaded merit-pay incentives rewarding school leaders and teachers for gains in student achievement
- Championed good charter schools
- Shut down failing schools and replaced their entire staffs
- Opened 53 new schools
Another less talked about thing that Arne Duncan has done is to encourage the success of the Chicago Public Education Fund. This corporate-backed venture philanthropy fund is in its 9th year and has invested over $25 million in innovative programs in Chicago’s public schools.
The Fund invests significant capital and management expertise in a limited number of well-managed, high-impact programs that improve school leadership, drive policy change and make system-wide impact. The Fund has invested in programs like Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools and only invests if Chicago Public Schools signs on as a co-investor.
It’s a fascinating model, much like a city-sized, education-focused version of the social investment fund that America Forward, the Obama administration and others have been discussing where government and private dollars are pooled and invested in high-impact social innovations.
So Duncan brings to the table success in education reform paired with an understanding and experience with new models of social innovation (both social entrepreneurship and venture philanthropy). Now, add to that the $100 billion in emergency aid for public schools that he will have at his fingertips with the stimulus plan, and you have a pretty exciting combination of factors that could mean a transformation of the public school system based on social innovation. $54 billion of this money is largely at Duncan’s disposal. According to a New York Times article, Duncan said he intends to reward:
- “Islands of Excellence:” school districts, charter schools and nonprofit organizations that demonstrate success at raising student achievement
- Programs that tie teacher pay to classroom performance
- Training efforts that pair new instructors with veteran mentors
- After-school and weekend tutoring programs
So, perhaps what we are starting to see is the large-scale education reform that Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, argued last month wasn’t happening with social entrepreneurs. As I argued in response to him,
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.
Yes it will.