Editors’ Note: Megan Tompkins-Stange discusses her book, Policy Patrons, which was published by Harvard Education Press this month. Earlier this week, HistPhil co-editor Maribel Morey reviewed the book on this site.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” wrote George Santayana in 1905 – a perennially popular aphorism. But in the case of philanthropy, the message is particularly apt. Understanding foundations’ history is a key concern for philanthropic and public officials alike, given the central role that foundations have played in policy contexts for over a century. In my new book, Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence, I examine how four of the largest and most powerful foundations in the US – Gates, Broad, Kellogg, and Ford – have attempted to influence education policy. Through observation, archival analysis, and 60 interviews with foundation insiders, education policy leaders and grantees, I examine how these foundations’ strategies vary on four dimensions: whether they manage grantees in a “top-down” manner or not; whether they prefer to work with elite or grassroots partners; how they frame and choose problems to address; and what results they expect from grantees.
The foundations’ approaches vary distinctly, reflecting two contrasting modes of engagement with education policy. In short, Gates and Broad exemplify what I call an “outcome-oriented” approach, wherein their strategies are formulated with the goal of achieving defined policy targets, whereas in contrast, Kellogg and Ford align with what I term a “field-oriented approach” – an emphasis on making grants to advocacy organizations in a more hands-off manner, with a less specific policy objective in mind. These contrasts in strategy have significantly impacted K-12 education policy, but in highly divergent ways. In this post, I expand on the book’s arguments to show how knowledge of philanthropic history might have informed and prepared Gates and Broad in one of their key strategic goals, which was ultimately successful in the short run, but not sustained.
In the last ten years, philanthropic attempts to influence education policy have increased exponentially, both in terms of funding and political activity, and particularly among “mega-foundations” with endowments of at least $1 billion. Since their dates of founding in 2000 and 1999, respectively, Gates and Broad have advocated for an education reform agenda that endorsed common state standards, value-added teacher evaluation, and merit pay – an agenda designed to capitalize on the policy window of a new administration. With the start of the Obama administration, Gates and Broad elected to more assertively pursue a concerted campaign to institutionalize these reform measures, taking advantage of a new policy window. A 2009-2010 Broad annual report explained this strategy:
In many ways, we feel the stars have finally aligned. With an agenda that echoes our decade of investments – charter schools, performance pay for teachers, accountability, expanded learning time and national standards – the Obama administration is poised to cultivate and bring to fruition the seed we and other reformers have planned.
To move this agenda, Gates and Broad built close partnerships with governors, chief state school officials, and national education reform leaders, and by 2012, they had succeeded in instituting several core goals, with the Common Core State Standards active across the U.S. and many states instituting uniform methodologies to assess teacher effectiveness. One of my informants described the influence of Gates and Broad during this period in the following way:
It was not that long ago, if anyone had come to us and said, “In the next few years someone is going to come along and within 18 to 24 months, they are going to convince the right people…to embrace a national core curriculum,” which is something that has invaded and people just thought that was like the third rail. You can’t touch that in American politics. But we now have a common core, and we are slowly moving to a common protocol for teacher evaluations.
Another informant made a similar statement, commenting:
I am amazed at what they’ve done. Look at how education is a high priority item in this country. And it’s singularly because of Gates and Broad.
Fast-forward to late 2015, however, and the tides had turned. In early 2013, an unexpected backlash emerged as teachers and students boycotted mandated state tests in Washington state, growing into a broader national movement against the Common Core and the use of high-stakes testing to determine teacher compensation and retention. In some states, more than 20% of students opted-out of mandatory state examinations, and many states elected to end their participation in the Common Core. In December 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law, diminishing the power of the Department of Education and re-locating authority at the state and district levels, broadly dismantling the Common Core. Essentially, ESSA represented a referendum on the policies that Gates and Broad had advocated for over a decade.
How did this happen? In 2011, John Thompson presciently wrote that Gates and its peer foundations sought to avoid the “messiness of the democratic process,” preferring to work with leaders in districts under mayoral control rather than elected school boards, or superintendents who embraced their preferred reform measures. One informant described this approach in the following way:
As foundations became more involved in district reform, they began to look at pressure points or leverage points with school systems and essentially attempted to work or establish and maintain very close relationships with school superintendents. Now what they did not do very well is engage boards of education.
While these close relationships with sympathetic elites enabled Gates and Broad to rapidly advance their policy priorities, it was precisely this focus on elites that became their undoing. In the pursuit of urgent, transformational change, the foundations had “no time for dissent,” in Thompson’s words. They did not invest in a broad-based grassroots advocacy strategy designed to convince parents, teachers and local leaders of the benefits of the Common Core and other reform measures. Thus, as my colleague Sarah Reckhow has aptly described, they won the sprint, but lost the marathon.
Gates’ and Broad’s approach represents what I term, in Policy Patrons, an “outcome-oriented” mode of philanthropic policy engagement. From an outcome-oriented point of view, it makes sense to “start at the top,” in the words of one informant, establishing alliances with those in power who have the ability to move policy quickly and effectively – what some informants termed “the grasstops.” An outcome-oriented approach, however, is less effective without the parallel engagement of a broader population of citizens – the grassroots. The foundations’ purposeful circumvention of the “messiness” of democratic deliberation – the process involved – ultimately reduced public ownership of reforms. One informant argued this point:
That’s a more effective way to do policy change in philanthropy and it’s a more democratic way to influence policy in philanthropy; it has more people collectively determining what the common good is, as opposed to a few people determining what the common good is…[In the end] you need to have the democratic element to make it stick.
In the last month, Gates has indicated new recognition of the importance of “the democratic element.” Gates’ new CEO, Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellman, issued a reflective letter that described the foundation as a “learning organization,” acknowledging past missteps in its education strategy and emphasizing its intent to be more responsive to communities, grantees, and the broader public. Desmond-Hellman wrote, “This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart.” More specifically, L.S. Hall of Inside Philanthropy wrote that the foundation realized that “it failed to engage educators, parents, and communities about the benefits of the [Common Core] standards and to build support for them.” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten remarked to David Callahan of Inside Philanthropy that “what they did didn’t work and it created huge polarization,” and noted that the foundation was now moving away from a “top down, managerial approach.” Callahan noted:
Weingarten sees more funders looking to find collaborative ways to improve education that engage teachers, parents, and communities—after a long period that focused on top-down strategies that pushed school choice and test-based accountability, leading to epic clashes between unions and ed reformers.
These acknowledgements are certainly heartening for education professionals. Yet interestingly, this series of events might have been avoided altogether, as they almost uncannily mirror a controversy that occurred more 50 years ago at another foundation I profile in Policy Patrons – the Ford Foundation (which, ironically, has typically been less outcome-oriented, and more grassroots-focused, in its aims).
In the early 1960s, the Ford Foundation began the “Gray Areas” program, an effort to improve urban neighborhoods through community action and crime prevention. The Gray Areas program bore several similarities to Gates’ and Broad’s strategies, operating predominantly through elite officials and focusing on executive action. Like Gates and Broad, Ford was successful in instituting its vision into policy, as the federal government committed $30 million to expand the Gray Areas program in what was touted as a breakthrough foundation-government partnership in 1962.
Nonetheless, the Gray Areas program began to falter soon after implementation. Working with citizens in communities, who had not been involved with the process in a grassroots capacity, proved difficult for the foundation. Ford’s model emphasized change through elite connections in a top-down capacity rather than local community organizing, leading to racial tensions between urban residents and the predominantly white, educated administrators who managed the Gray Areas program. Ford’s over-emphasis on fast results and elite networks, at the expense of coalition building with neighborhood constituencies, limited its ultimate reach. UC Santa Barbara historian Alice O’Connor notes that the Gray Areas program is historically remembered as “a grandiose fusion of paternalism and bureaucracy” due to its inattention to community engagement and racial issues. Echoing Randi Weingarten’s critique of Gates’ education strategy as “top-down,” O’Connor writes:
Committed at least nominally to indigenous participation, Gray Areas was actually far more concerned about making services more comprehensive and efficient than about involving community residents in bringing about reforms. Like the “executive centered” urban mayoralties it funded, the program adopted an unapologetically top-down approach—in which the foundation, and other elite institutions established for the purpose, would act as outside “catalysts” to spark system wide change.
Fifty years later, replace “Ford” with “Gates” and “Gray Areas” with “Common Core,” and the core narrative remains the same. How might the foundation have acted differently, had it been aware and appreciative of this past experience within the sector? Lessons of this nature could be useful for contemporary foundations engaged in similar structural practices. One informant argued that the lack of historical understanding on the part of foundation officials undergirds many key philanthropic errors in policy contexts:
It’s important for folks to remember the context and approach this stuff historically. They work for these foundations and they don’t have a clue what the context is. I think the field suffers badly [from it]. It’s the thing we most need, the things foundations most need. Foundations should want to facilitate that debate, to be informed – but they don’t. It’s appalling.
My goal in writing Policy Patrons is to help stoke this discussion in the field of philanthropy, adding to the important work that HistPhil and others have engaged in over the past several years. My hope is that my analysis of contemporary foundations’ policy actions will complement historical insights, and in doing so, inform more effective practices for current philanthropic endeavors – particularly those that are outcome-oriented in their engagement of grassroots organizations and communities. My belief is that learning from the past, and taking a critical look at contemporary practice, will help foundations build more democratic, contextually appropriate, and ultimately impactful solutions.
Megan E. Tompkins-Stange is Assistant Professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan. She is the author of Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence (Harvard Education Press, 2016). Her research examines the impact of private philanthropic foundations within education policy contexts. She is currently working on a W.T. Grant-funded project, with Sarah Reckhow of MSU, on how foundation-funded advocacy research has shaped debate and discourse surrounding teacher quality at the federal policy level. At Ford, she teaches courses on nonprofit management, values and ethics of public service work, qualitative research methods and the role of philanthropy in democracy. She received her PhD in Organization Studies and Education Policy from Stanford University.