Friday, October 1, 2010

How to spend $100 million

Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million dollar gift to Newark schools has recieived a lot of attention.  This despite the fact that it amounts to only about a 2% increase in spending if spread across Newark's schools.  In other words, I think we can all agree that if his money simply gets added to Newark's general funds that not much will happen (even after accounting for the $100 million in matching funds that the grant requires).

So, how should Zuckerberg, or any other philanthropist, spend their money if they actually want to change schools?

Robert Pondiscio writes a lot of really smart things, but I don't see much merit in his idea that they money be used to set up an "X Prize" in education rewarding, for example, the first urban district to close the achievement gap in NAEP scores for 3 consecutive years.  I have two reasons for believing that the money would sit in the bank for an awful long time.  First, I don't buy the argument that motivation is a humongous problem in education.  There are certainly assorted unmotivated teachers, principals, adminstrators, etc. scattered throughout the country, but I don't think motivation levels are at a point where a little extra money can raise them enough to produce large gains.  Second, if dramatically altering the structure of a school district enough to close the achievement gap were an easy thing to accomplish (requiring just a little extra blood, sweat, and tears) then somebody would have done it by now.

Andrew Rotherham doesn't push the X Prize idea, but gives Zuckerberg and others a few tips in his TIME column yesterday.  I think they're mostly pretty good points (though I think the notion that one must necessarily make everybody hate them to get anything done is overplayed).  But if I had extra money lying around that I wanted to use to revolutionize education, I'm not sure I'd be much closer to figuring out how to use it after reading that column.

Maybe it's because I'm not fabulously wealthy, or maybe it's because there are so few large-scale replicable successes backed by empirical evidence in our education system, but I genuinely have no idea what I would do with that kind of cash.  But I think there's one golden rule that anybody who donates to education must keep in mind: about a million different things impact educational performance over a number of years, and changing one of those things for a short period of time isn't usually going to have that much of an effect.  In other words, it's really, really hard to change a child's (yet alone a school's or city's) educational trajectory.

Rotherham writes that philanthropists should "go big or go home."  Indeed, paying for large-scale interventions is enormously expensive.  The Harlem Children's Zone, for example, has a budget of over $75 million this year alone.  That's for about 10,000 children -- one-quarter of Newark's 40,000 students.

Which would lead me to consider two possible approaches:

1.) Focus on something small and do it well.  Maybe that's a single school or neighborhood or a single activity or topic.  I'd much rather sponsor, say, an intensive and well-run debate program that students attend daily than buy a whole bunch of math software, reading books, and training videos that are used occasionally.  Similarly, I'd rather provide 1,000 kids with high-quality health care, after-school acitivities, counseling, cooking classes, and mentors than provide 40,000 kids with, say, tutoring if they want to attend.  Not because I don't care about the other 39,000 kids, but because I'd rather make the difference in the lives of 1,000 kids and then try to find more people and money to scale up than simply throw money at 40,000 and not really accomplish anything.

2.) Do something that will leverage action.  This is where Pondiscio's not completely off-track with X Prize idea.  I don't think the Race to the Top money will do very much, but the competitive grant process certainly spurred an awful lot of legislative changes.  But I'd rather incentivize actions than results.  Teachers, principals, and superintendents are already motivated to help kids learn more, but they may not be motivated to adopt a new training program, curriculum, salary structure, evaluation system, etc. in a timely fashion.

1 comment:

Roger Sweeny said...

First, I don't buy the argument that motivation is a humongous problem in education.

I was going to strenuously disagree until I read the next sentence. I agree that there are not a whole lot of seriously unmotivated "teachers, principals, administrators, etc." But (at least in high school) motivation is a tremendous problem when it comes to students. Put simply, most students aren't very interested in most of what they are supposed to learn.

There is a character in Isaac Asimov's Foundation stories called The Mule. He is physically slight but he has the power to reach into people's minds and change what they want to do. (He is, in a sense, the opposite of the Jim Carrey character in Bruce Almighty.)

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be The Mule on the first day of school and make my high school science students want to learn physics and chemistry. My guess is that we would cover about three times as much as we actually do, and they would be pushing me instead of me pushing them.

Robert Samuelson recently had an interesting column on motivation: