Friday, October 8, 2010

Small Schools and Extracurriculars

I've written this week (here and here) about the decision of Pittsburgh's superintendent to step down.  One of the reforms he's implemented over the past 5+ years is move the district away from large, comprehensive high schools and toward smaller, specialized high schools.  It's a trend anybody in NYC would be familiar with (where the average size of a middle school has shrunk by about 15% since 2004).  In the past I've referred to this as the "charterization" of schools.  As is clear in NYC and other places, charters tend to be much smaller and have more specialized names (think "Knowledge is Power Program" instead of "PS 100" or "Washington High"), and draw from beyond the local neighborhood.

In a lot of ways, I think smaller schools are a good thing (or at least have the potential to be a good thing).  I've heard one charter operator explain that he believes in schools with about 500 students because that's what all the top private schools are like -- and I think he makes a good point.  A small school makes it easier for everyone in the building to know each other and, subsequently, for schools to be more aware of the dynamics of the school environment and the needs of individual students.

But there's one major drawback to the smaller schools that doesn't seem to get much press: extracurriculars.  A lot of students define their experiences in high school (and, for that matter, college) by their experiences on athletic teams, in school plays, in the marching band, and so on.  When a friend mentions an old classmate and you can't quite put a face to the name, what do they say?  They don't say "he really liked history" . . . they say "she played the clarinet" or "he was on the swim team".  Everybody takes classes in high school, but far fewer people make pottery or play a leading role in the school play.  Accordingly, some students -- at least to some extent -- care more about their favorite extracurricular activity (or activities) than they do about classes.  Witness this excellent Sports Illustrated piece from last year about a school in Ohio that cut all sports and started hemorrhaging athletes.

So, what do we do to ensure that kids at these new smaller schools get to experience the activity (or activities) that might make them love high school?  There are a few options.

1.) We can continue to create schools that are focused around interests and activities -- arts academies and the like -- and hope that kids with similar interests enjoy similar activities.  Though I'm skeptical that athletic leagues will want to allow the new basketball academy to join its ranks.  And I'm not sure what happens when the quarterback at the football academy wants to join the glee club or the soprano at the choir academy wants to play volleyball.

2.) We can combine schools for the purposes of extracurriculars.  This is apparently Pittsburgh's plan, at least for football.  The biggest problem with that is that it robs the power of the school play or the Friday night football game to bring the community together (both the school community and the surrounding neighborhood).  If two separate schools field one football team, are they supposed to have two separate pep rallies?  And if two small towns merge their schools, in which town do they play football?  (Here's an excellent article on this phenomenon, again in the areas surrounding Pittsburgh.)

3.) Schools can boost rates of participation -- in various ways -- so that a smaller school can support more activities.  A number of private schools (I think, historically, this is something all-boys schools tended to do) mandate that every student play on a certain number of athletic teams each year.  Or schools could allow some clubs to meet during class time (I took a journalism class in jr. high in which we also wrote the school newspaper).  Or they could just emphasize clubs and activities more to students, parents, and teachers.

4.) We can go back to large, comprehensive, neighborhood high schools ("back" meaning in urban areas -- that's still still the norm in the suburbs and only somewhat possible in rural areas).  NYC might have the highest concentration of (relatively) small, specialized, non-neighborhood high schools in the country.  But it was announced this week that a new HS in Queens will be a large, comprehensive one.  “People want one large comprehensive school. You don’t want a bunch of boutique schools, a dance school, a school for lawyers,” said the DOE rep.

5.) Kids can just learn to do without.  Historically, the vast majority of schools in the United States have been quite small (which, of course, doesn't mean that the majority of students have attended small schools).  And many might deem other things (e.g. math skills) more important anyway.  Besides, there's always the possibility that local organizations (the theater, library, YMCA, little league, etc.) might sponsor activities if a school doesn't.  Of course, that would then remove one more enjoyable activity from students' school experience.

Extracurricular activities are extraordinarily important to many students, parents, schools, and communities and we do ourselves a disservice when we ignore this during our debates and discussions about education.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

More on Roosevelt's Departure

I wrote yesterday that I didn't understand why Mark Roosevelt was stepping down as Superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools (and in mid-year, no less). And I still don't.

For those who are unfamiliar with Roosevelt and Pittsburgh, here's a little bit of background info: Roosevelt came to Pittsburgh a little over 5 years ago with no experience as a teacher, principal, or district administrator.  Which isn't to say was completely unqualified or without talent or relevant experience.  He had a law degree from Harvard, worked on education issues as a state legislator in Massachusetts (where he later ran for Governor), and served as a CEO and in various other leadership positions.  He then completed a fellowship with the Broad Foundation (not sure of the exact name of the program, but it was a 10 month program that dealt with leadership in urban schools) right before his appointment.

When he came to Pittsburgh, the district was most famous for its contentious (and that's being kind) board of ed meetings -- so contentious that a large number of foundations had pulled money from the district and warned that they'd better straighten up if they wanted to get it back.  At the same time, the city of Pittsburgh has fewer than half the residents that it did 60 years ago.  100 years ago it was the 8th largest city in the country and, I believe, had more corporate headquarters than any American city outside NYC (that might not be exactly correct, but the point is that it was a major center of industry).

Which means two things for the city and district: 1.) that they had far fewer students, but not far fewer schools, and 2.) that there's a lot of foundation money, per capita, in the city.  Which meant two things for Roosevelt: 1.) He needed to shrink or close schools, and 2.) he needed to make the foundations happy.

He closed 22 schools in all, and reconfigured many more.  Whether or not this was the correct move, one must admit that it took political courage and saved the district money -- and that it also upset a lot of parents living near schools that were closed or changed.  He's also been a big hit with the foundations.  The major Pittsburgh newspaper, the Post-Gazette, ran two stories on Roosevelt today (here and here), both of which are full of praise from all sorts of people.

Which is why it surprised me that he was leaving.  Yes, some parents and teachers didn't like him.  But the foundations loved him, the board of ed loved him, the mayor loved him, and the union barely put up a fight (they recently agreed on a 5-year contract).  I really have no insight into why he left -- I don't know the man personally and am unfamiliar with the day-to-day operations of his office -- so my best guess, given his previous frequent career-hopping, is that he was telling the truth when he said that he simply needed a new challenge.

The gist of what I've read and heard about him over the years is that he has many of the same strengths and weaknesses of a typical businessman.  He obviously got along well with the foundation people and the board of ed (a definite plus compared to previous regimes), but nobody would confuse him for a community organizer or former teacher.  The result was an administration that seemed to run smoothly and attracted lots of outside dollars, but didn't spend much time asking parents or teachers for advice.

Saying he ran the schools like a business would be cliche and overly simplistic, but he clearly wanted to streamline things.  He closed schools, narrowed curricula, and hired principals who would do things his way.

From the second article in the Post-Gazette: "In the classroom, Mr. Roosevelt sought to make teaching more consistent, including instituting a managed curriculum that required teachers to use certain materials and to present them at a certain pace. The recent teacher survey showed that some teachers think they have too little role in decision-making."

In the lower grades, the district closed many of the lowest-performing schools and moved the former students to K-8 "Accelerated Learning Academies" with extended hours and years.  In the upper grades, the vo-tech high school, and many other vo-tech programs, were closed in the name of academic rigor, scripted curricula were implemented, and he began opening small, specialized schools.  He leaned heavily on paid outside help to accomplish these reforms.  RAND evaluated all the schools, America's Choice provided the procedures and curricula for the ALA schools to follow, Kaplan wrote new HS curricula (and then was asked to leave so the district could re-write them themselves with some help from Pitt), and an outside firm was hired to run an alternative school for students with consistent discipline or attendance problems.  In the long run, he might be best remembered for starting the "Pittsburgh Promise," a fund that aims to pay full college tuition for qualifying district students who attend PA state colleges.  The fund got off to a rocky start, but is now much closer to its $250 million goal thanks, in part, to Roosevelt's relationship with local foundations.

In the end, he upset a number of parents and teachers.  Though the union rarely criticized him, there was a sharp divide between the attitudes of elementary and secondary teachers -- with the new contract being passed due to overwhelming support from the former and despite heavy opposition from the latter.  The lack of opposition from the union led to the election of some non-slate candidates in the last election who'd promised to be less docile.

And I'll be the last to argue that at least some of this anger was warranted.  I've written in the past that his new grading policy was poorly implemented and his newer system, though a little better, didn't work the way it was supposed to, that teacher morale was suffering under his leadership, and that some of his rhetoric was unhelpful.  But I'll be the first to admit that Pittsburgh could do a heck of a lot worse than 5+ years of more or less smooth sailing with the foundations, the board, and the union to go along with a steady stream of new ideas (some good and some bad).

But love him or hate him, one has to admit that it's somewhat irresponsible of him to step down abruptly in the middle of such turbulent change (and, personally, I think leaving mid-year reflects poorly on him -- but you're entitled to your own opinion).  This is the first year of a new $80 million dollar program (funded by Gates and the federal govt.) to re-vamp teacher pay and evaluation, numerous schools and students are slated to be reconfigured and moved next year, and he has a million other balls up in the air.  I think everybody can agree that he's done some good things and some bad things (though they certainly won't agree which things were bad and which were good), but I think everybody can also agree that he didn't finish the job.  It may or may not prove to be a good thing for the city/district that he didn't finish the job, and there may or may not be some very good reason(s) underlying the decision, but I'm somewhat disappointed in him personally for being willing to pick up and leave before the job is done.

Why?  In the midst of the effusive praise lavished on him by people of all different stripes was this quote from a leader of a local parents group: "Our group would ask that all initiatives be placed on hold until a new superintendent is found . . . We don't want all this money, expense, experimentation done if a new superintendent is going to take it in a different direction."  I don't know how many months it's going to take to find a new superintendent or how many of the current reforms will continue under his/her leadership, but the changeover seems pretty likely to result in a lot of uncertainty, hesitation, and delays.  Which can't be what Roosevelt thinks is best for the district.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Pittsburgh Superintendent Stepping Down

Forget the conflicting rumors over whether Ron Huberman is or is not stepping down as head of the Chicago school system, this is actually bigger news.  While Huberman is just getting his feet wet as chief of the Chicago schools, Mark Roosevelt dove in head-first a long time ago in Pittsburgh.

Apparently, he's resigning to become the head of Antioch College when it re-opens next fall -- though the college says there are a few more hurdles he has to leap before they'll be ready to make that decision.

But the timing of the move makes it both newsworthy and surprising.  And not just because he's jumping ship in the middle of the school year (December 31st, to be exact).  Few teachers would ever consider abandoning their students mid-year, so it seems somewhat tasteless for a Superintendent to do it (or maybe it just proves that teachers are more important, since the district will likely operate about the same in January as it did in December).

Roosevelt is in his sixth year leading Pittsburgh's schools (which is a fairly long time for an urban superintendent) and was, seemingly, right in the middle of his master plan for reform.  During his time he's implemented massive reform -- closing 22 schools and restructuring countless others, founding the "Pittsburgh Promise" (guaranteed college tuition for district grads that attend in-state public schools), and winning a $40 million grant from the Gates Foundation to overhaul teacher evaluation and pay last year, among many other things.  While he's upset more than a few teachers and parents, the school board is in his pocket, there are no national headlines about his brusque personality, and the mayor isn't going to be replaced anytime soon.

In other words, he pretty much had free reign to mold the district as he saw fit in the coming years (and his pay was recently upped to $240K, with which one can live like a King in eminently affordable Pittsburgh, as part of a new five year contract).  He was on top of the world.  And now he's leaving.  What?  What am I missing?

Considering that he had never worked in schools prior to his job in Pittsburgh (he was a lawyer/politician/businessman), and that he's faced so little opposition from the Board of Ed, it's hard to believe that he's burnt out (though, I suppose, not impossible).  He's originally from Massachusetts and attended Harvard, so there's not a blindingly obvious tie between him and Antioch (in Ohio).  He's never been a college administrator before, so he's not returning to his previous profession.  It's hard to believe that Antioch would be courting him if a giant scandal was about to be exposed.  So, why's he leaving?  You got me.  He's changed positions and professions quite a few times, so maybe he was just ready for a new challenge.

But considering that he was right in the middle of major reform in Pittsburgh, it seems like an awfully odd time to walk away.

It also exemplifies one of the problems with education.  Every time people start to adjust to a wave of reform, somebody new comes along and demands something else.  But people still wonder why teachers and school systems are so resistant to change.

It will be very interesting to see who gets hired as his replacement and which reforms he/she continues . . . stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Today's Random Thoughts

-my latest pet peeve: people who complain about schools hiring people during a recession.  Why are we so bitter that people are finding gainful employment?

-The entire American educational system is not in crisis.  The entire system could be improved, yes, but only one portion (the same portion attended by children from low-income families) is truly in crisis.  That's essentially what Nicholas Lemann wrote in the New Yorker, but for some reason Joel Klein and others felt the need to write in and point out that a number of schools really are in crisis.  Am I the only one who fails to see an actual disagreement here?

-Not sure of the exact statistics, but Linda Perlstein writes that Macke Raymond told her that most charter school lottery "losers" actually end up at other charters, private schools, or move rather than attend the local public schools.  I'd like to see an actual statistic (e.g. is "most" 60% or 90%), but it sounds plausible.

-Albert Shanker was, apparently, full of good ideas.  I always wondered when I was teaching why a few exemplary lesson plans weren't made available for teachers on every topic so that they could get ideas and adapt them to their classrooms.  Wouldn't that make a lot more sense then asking every teacher to reinvent the wheel every time they teach?

-Another pet peeve: people who fundamentally misunderstand statistics and argue that a correlation doesn't exist because there's an exception to the rule.  Kevin Carey is far too smart to make that exact argument, but he falls into the same type of trap by pointing out that students in DC became poorer (it's unclear if this is true, but it's certainly plausible) over the past couple years at the same time that their test scores increased . . . which apparently means that income doesn't perfectly correlate with a child's test scores (?) or something like that.  Of course, we already knew that the relationship between poverty and academic performance is complex, that there's not a perfect correlation between income and test scores because a million other factors also impact test scores, and that children living in urban poverty are capable of improving their test scores.  So I'm unclear on exactly what this proves other than that people still don't understand that the exception doesn't disprove the rule and that a correlation doesn't mean that two things always move in lockstep.

-On a more positive note, I stumbled across this Freakonomics quorum on how to close the achievement gap the other day.  It's 2 1/2 years old, but it's still fairly interesting.

Can a School Transform a Neighborhood?

Mike Petrilli had an interesting post over at Flypaper yesterday, in which he writes that Arne Duncan's argument that "the only way you change communities is by having great public schools in those communities" is preposterous.

I say "interesting" for two main reasons:

1.) I'm not really that surprised, since Mike Petrilli is probably the most contrarian writer over there, but it's still somewhat surprising to see somebody from Fordham -- a group that has labeled Richard Rothstein and Charles Murray "defeatists" for doubting the efficacy of schools -- arguing that there's something schools can't do.

2.) I think it's a generally interesting question.  Can a school, or a group of schools, transform a neighborhood?  There's no question that the effects of poverty and the performance of students and schools are heavily intertwined, but it's yet to be seen exactly how much changing one can change the other.

The debate on the links between neighborhoods and schooling has generally been focused more on the reverse hypothesis: i.e. can fixing a neighborhood fix its schools (or, at the societal level, can eradicating poverty close the achievement gap)?

Petrilli quotes colleague Jamie O'Leary saying that "schools need to improve despite the neighborhoods; improving poor neighborhoods is beyond the capacity (or purpose) of public schools."  That's an interesting take.  I can see why, in the short run, the last thing somebody running a school would be worried about was whether their school was transforming a neighborhood.  But, in the long run, if good schools can't improve neighborhoods then what's the point of good schools?  If closing the achievement gap didn't reduce poverty, then what, exactly, would be the point of closing the achievement gap?

Sure, helping kids succeed academically is nice.  But if it doesn't translate into a better job and higher standard of living, doesn't it ring kind of hollow?  If there was no achievement gap in this country, but just as much poverty; just as much crime; just as much despair; and just as much suffering, would it really be a significant better place to live?

Petrilli challenges readers to name a single community that has been transformed as the result of the performance of the local school.  Off the top of my head, I cannot name such a community (which doesn't mean it hasn't happened), but I can offer some thoughts on how, hypothetically, such an outcome would occur:

First, Superman shows up and turns the local schools in a down and out neighborhood into the best schools in the area.  As a result, two things happen: 1.)kids learn more; and 2.) homes in that neighborhood become more desirable.  As kids learn more, they become more likely to do their homework and less likely to loiter around or otherwise terrorize the neighborhood after school.  As word spreads that the neighborhood has good schools and docile teenagers, interest in the neighborhood increases and gentrification begins.  Homes previously in disrepair are renovated, abandoned factories are turned into hip lofts, and vacant lots are filled with fancy new townhomes.  Home prices (and rents) increase.  Stable families with more money and higher achieving kids move in.  Unstable families with less money and lower achieving kids move out.  The parents in the neighborhood take pride in their local schools and band together with the new arrivals to form a community association.  This association bands together to clean up the neighborhood, raise money for community center, ballfields, and community garden, and demand more amenities from their local politicians.  With all the kids now attending school during the day and attending tutoring or playing on the newly constructed athletic fields after school, crime continues to drop and housing prices continue to rise.  The kids in the neighborhood go on to attend college and get high-paying jobs.  Some move back to their still-improving neighborhood, raising the average income and education levels of the neighborhood even further, and join the community association.  Their kids attend the local schools and are excellent students who stay out of trouble, do their homework, and volunteer in the community.  By this point, the neighborhood is a happy, healthy place to raise children.

Which isn't to say that all is right with the world: some of the former residents who were forced out by price increases caused by the gentrification are no better off.  Other neighborhoods still have problems.  But not this one.  This one's been fixed as a result of the prowess of all the local schools.  And all thanks to Superman, who decided to leave Lex Luther alone and make them the talk of the town.

Ok, so that's obviously the dream scenario.  But the general gist is plausible.  If nothing else, better schools could certainly help spur gentrification.  Whether or not that really improves a neighborhood (since so many of the residents would be forced out) is up for debate.  But, in the long run, better educated children returning to a neighborhood to raise their children would certainly have a positive impact on both a neighborhood and its local schools.  On the other hand, one could argue that in this scenario that it's really the improving neighborhood that sustains the quality of the schools over time.  And, at the same time, that it would've been more efficient to simply improve the neighborhood and watch the local schools soar (instead of waiting for Superman to turn them around).

I've been involved in more than one discussion of whether fixing schools or fixing neighborhoods is the more effective way to reduce poverty.  Before I started teaching, and before I started grad school, I had that debate in my head.  I decided to enter education, and then decided to study education policy, because I sided with the former position: that fixing schools was the most realistic and efficient way to improve the lives of low-income children -- and subsequently improve our nation.  After spending some time studying the effects of poverty on academic performance, I now find myself sitting on the fence.  I'm not convinced we really know the answer to the question.  I have little doubt that, when taken to the extremes, both are true.  If we were able to actually transform a neighborhood (which likely would require extraordinary amounts of time, effort, and money), the local schools would certainly be better -- and I think if we were able to fix our school system (again, requiring a lot of time, effort, and money) then it would go a long way toward improving our worst neighborhoods.  On the one hand, fixing a school (though certainly not easy), has to be easier than fixing a neighborhood, but fixing a neighborhood (if possible) has to have larger effects.  I suspect that some combination of reforms have to be undertaken at both levels in order to fix both, but I digress . . .

The fixing neighborhoods versus fixing schools debate can be another post (or a hundred posts) for another time (maybe then I'll use language less simplistic than "fixing"), but I'll end by asking a different set of questions:

1.) Can the local schools become, and remain, excellent without first improving the neighborhood?

2.) If so, can the local schools become, and remain, excellent without subsequently altering the neighborhood in which they're located?

3.) Can anybody point to one example where a poor, crime-ridden, and disorderly neighborhood housed and sustained excellent neighborhood schools for multiple decades with no significant changes to the community before, during, or after this time period?

Who's The New Teacher?

While everyone else was off watching "Waiting for 'Superman'" this weekend, I stumbled upon Tony Danza's new show where he becomes a teacher in Philly.  I was initially highly skeptical of a show where a former star actor becomes a teacher at an urban school to make it back on tv and show the world how great he is.  But after watching the first episode, I was left feeling more sorry for Tony Danza than anything else.

I don't know what was in the 99% of the footage that was edited out, but two things seem quite apparent to the viewer as the school year starts out: 1.) Mr. Danza isn't a very good teacher; 2.) He spends a lot of time dwelling on worries and self-doubt, both about his teaching abilities and other things in his life.

I'd also add that he comes across as a genuinely enthusiastic and charismatic person -- somebody who could probably be a great teacher, though it's not obviously apparent that he has the knowledge base requisite to teach 10th grade English.  That said, these were a few of my thoughts as I watched the episode:

*Wow, the Asst. Principal (Ms. DeNaples) is incredibly rude to him.  Are you an administrator in an urban school that wants to make new teachers quit?  Treat teacher the way she does.

*The Principal, on the other hand, is tough but fair.  She informs that he'll get "all the support" he needs, but she also says that he has to know that "if this doesn't work, you're out of here".

*The kids are pretty blunt.  One says flat-out: "he's a lot older than the videos I saw of him."  Another interrupts his first(?) day of class to ask if he's nervous and points out that he's sweating through his shirt.  This alleviated some of my concerns that that the students would be in awe of him and the tv cameras and act like docile angels.

*It seems like in every camera shot his mentor teacher (not sure what his exact title was) was there.  They seemed to be constantly talking over how Danza's lessons had gone (not well).  Most teachers in Danza's situation wish they had an ever-present mentor like that.  On another note, the fact that his mentor was at least 20 years younger than him was somewhat amusing.

All in all, it wasn't wholly unrepresentative of what life is like as a new teacher in an urban school.  I'm still skeptical of his motives, how it will affect the kids (he apparently lives in LA, so it seems unlikely he's planning on doing this for more than one year), and the way the footage is edited.  I also could find no indication that he was teaching more than the one English class in the show or on the website (that would make life an awful lot easier).  I found the show neither incredibly riveting nor incredibly aggravating to watch.  I'm not going to boycott it, but I'm also not going to schedule my life around the airtime to ensure I catch every remaining episode.

If I do watch a few more, though, I'll be watching to see how they frame the middle and end of the year.  Right now they're clearly clearly portraying him as a struggling teacher.  Will the focus of the rest of the series be on his personal struggles and crises, on the difficulties of teaching in an urban school, or be made into a cheesy "Danza conquers Philly" tale of success and redemption?  Is Danza the "Superman" for whom we're waiting?

p.s. Linda Perlstein had a good take on the show a couple weeks back that's worth reading

update: Just came across this article on the series in the LA Times (which, by the way, has the worst website of any online newspaper I've read recently -- it looks more like the National Enquirer than a major national newspaper).  Apparently Danza taught last year, only taught two classes per day, was only filmed teaching until January, and had to have the teaching coach sit in on every lesson b/c he wasn't full certified.  And it mentions a "casting call" for the students in his class -- not quite sure what that means.  It also sounds like he ended up considering the year a success despite the rocky start.

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.