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Venture-Capital

I’ve become increasingly fascinated with the idea of venture philanthropy, applying the strategies of venture capitalism to charitable giving, and convinced that this can play a greater role in Catholic education. Venture philanthropy seeks promising start-ups and innovative models and helps provide funding to bring them to scale. This implies a shift in thinking, from giving as charity to giving as investment, where the expected return is transformative social impact.

I like this idea for a few reasons. First, it looks for leverage. It bets on winners with the potential to scale.  This is a smart strategy for effecting change.  Secondly, by treating giving as an investment – with an expectation for specific outcomes – it helps bring greater accountability to the social sector.  In sum, it is a more strategic use of funds that seeks the greatest possible impact or return on investment for charitable giving.  It combines charity with strategy with powerful effects.

A specific example of venture philanthropy in the education sector is the Charter School Growth Fund.

The Charter School Growth Fund is a non-profit that invests philanthropic capital in the nation’s highest performing charter school operators to dramatically expand their impact on underserved students.

So here is the big idea.  Why not a Catholic School Growth Fund?  It would do the following:

  1. Invest in and scale what’s working in Catholic education
  2. Replicate successful Catholic school models
  3. Drive and spread innovation in Catholic schools

A quick note on each point.

First, Catholic schools need to do more to invest in what’s working.  We’ve spent too much time focusing on the problems in Catholic schools and not enough time focusing on the bright spots.  A Catholic School Venture Fund would begin to change this.

Secondly, there is a need for new school models and effective turnaround models. This is already the norm for public school reform in the U.S., and Catholic schools are behind the curve.  We need a diversification of approaches to Catholic schooling in America.  The vanilla Catholic school is quickly becoming an endangered species. The explosion of new school options, from charter schools to virtual schools and everything in between, is creating an increasingly diverse educational market. This is good for parents and children, with more options and more innovation, but a threat to Catholic schools if they don’t adapt.

Though on the whole Catholic schools still provide a high quality education and a distinct advantage to under-resourced children – see here for more stats on this – there are relatively few new Catholic school models that have proven exceptionally effective at educating low-income children and even fewer avenues for bringing such models to scale.  A list of new Catholic school models might include the following:

By creating a Catholic School Growth Fund, we would open up opportunity for more new Catholic school models.  It would allow Catholic educational entrepreneurs to see an easier path for scaling good ideas. New Catholic schools must be created more rapidly in areas with favorable conditions for growth, namely, a growing Catholic population, areas with insufficient supply of Catholic schools per capita, and states or cities with robust parental choice programs.

We also need to support effective school turnaround strategies. The Archdiocese of Seattle, with support from the Fulcrum Foundation, has been experimenting with an interesting turnaround approach. This approach recognizes that an ailing Catholic school – and some have fallen on hard times (low enrollment, mediocre or struggling academics, etc.) cannot be helped with a single intervention or just pouring money on the problem.  Their model prescribes, instead, an intensive regimen. It includes the following:

  • Changing the academic program to fill a niche in the market (i.e. dual language immersion, blended learning, a STEM focus, etc.),
  • Providing intensive support and professional development to improve school quality in key areas known to drive performance,
  • Conducting a rebranding, marketing and recruitment campaign, and
  • Providing significant short-term financial support with a gradual withdrawal.

The intended outcome is shocking a sluggish Catholic school out of poor performance and setting it on the road to success in terms of academics, enrollment and financial health.  All of this is done, of course, without sacrificing or changing the core of what makes Catholic schools special: faith and character formation rooted in community.  We know that turnarounds are hard, but possible.  The alternative will be round upon round of closures, in city after city, year after year.

Finally, a Catholic School Venture Fund would serve as both a catalyst of and repository for promising strategies.  Funding shouldn’t necessarily be limited to replicating school models, it could also drive good and innovative ideas, like a particular approach to finding, training and retaining talent in Catholic schools or expanding data-driven instructional practices in Catholic schools.

I’ve heard that the idea of a Catholic School Venture Fund has been kicked around in different forums in the past couple of years, but to my knowledge there has not been much action yet.  Well, it’s time to get started.

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The Foundation for Educational Excellence hosted its annual conference in San Francisco last week, drawing approximately 800 attendees from across the country.  The “2011 Excellence in Action National Summit on Education Reform” featured keynote addresses by prominent figures in the education reform movement, including Jeb Bush, Sal Khan, and Melinda Gates, and offered strategy sessions on topics such as successfully incorporating digital learning into schools, advocating for parental choice legislation at the state level, and implementing educational reforms that work, as witnessed in Florida.

Video of the keynote addresses can be watched online.  For those on their lunch break who are interested in checking out the speeches, Sal Khan’s talk (in particular) offers some really good food for thought.