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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.

I have been reading some great books in the past few months that are shaping the way I think about education reform and renewal. I’d like to share the hit list and offer some brief comments for each.  Some of you may have already read many, but if you haven’t read all, I’d jump on it.  They are worth your time.

Topping the list is the much acclaimed Paul Tough book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. A wonderful read in the tradition of the Malcolm Gladwell books – integrating research in a lively nonfiction narrative – Tough weaves together stories and examples that depict the importance of non-cognitive skills on student outcomes. Drawing heavily upon work in psychology, neuroscience and innovative school leadership, Tough makes a compelling case for the importance of cultivating character strengths to allow students to flourish. I found the idea of the KIPP Character Report Card to be particularly fascinating. The concept involves providing students and parents with regular feedback on students’ character strengths and areas requiring improvement, focusing on observable indicators, to facilitate student improvement.

The next at the top of my list is Leverage Leadership by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, a leader of Uncommon Schools, a charter school network on the East Coast. This book is a treasure trove and detailed guidebook for what high-performing schools do and what school leaders must do to achieve superior results. The videos, sample documents, and planning tools make the book an outstanding resource for creating professional development and enacting school change. The chapter on data-driven instruction was awesome, peaking my interest in Bambrick’s other book, Driven by Data, which goes further into this area.

Third on the list is Sal Khan’s book, The One World Schoolhouse. Sal Khan is the founder of the now ubiquitous Khan Academy, an online library of 10 minute instructional YouTube videos and practice programs, especially strong in Math and Science. A thoughtful and quick read, One World Schoolhouse is a clear and thoughtful articulation of a lot of new thinking at the front lines of re-envisioning k-12 education.  Though neither the first nor only person to express these ideas, Schoolhouse is a good and fun read that captures  a lot of the thinking within this explosive area in k-12 and higher education.  With a particular focus on the role of technology in allowing mastery learning, anytime learning, self-paced learning, and adaptive instruction, Schoolhouse also explores basic assumptions around the role of homework, summer vacation, and the role of internships.  I am convinced that certain approaches to technology, particularly blended learning, will become predominant within the next 5 to 10 years. This book is a pleasant way to enter into that dialogue, and begin thinking about how education will be transformed with the emergence of new technologies. Read this book and visit The Khan Academy website, it will be worth your while.

Next on the list is a wonderful book about change management called Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard, by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. Also in the Malcolm Gladwell style, Switch offers a simple, clear and compelling formula – with numerous examples and interweaving research – on how to effect change.  The book uses memorable metaphors and stories to explain certain principles and rules of effective change management, such as “scripting the critical moves,” a less is more mentality to change that recognizes that simple and clear direction is of paramount importance, complexity is the enemy of effective change, and confusion and being overwhelmed or exhausted by change is often the source of people’s resistance.   For any leader attempting to facilitate the change process or implement a new vision, this is a must read. Catholic schools in the U.S. are woefully in need of change. Therefore, this should be on all of our reading lists.  I’ll be bringing it as a gift to some leaders in the Haitian Ministry of Education on my next trip down there.  They’ve got a massive change agenda and could use some tricks from this play-book.

Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov, is next on my list.

If anyone else has recommendations, please share!

This WSJ article by Staphanie Banchero and Jennifer Levitz detail some of the promising signs for Catholic schools nationally, Vouchers Breathe New Life Into Shrinking Catholic Schools.  Though much of the largest gains are in states with voucher and tax-credit programs, especially promising is the enrollment growth in large cities like Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles – all in states which lack publicly funded scholarship programs.  It is notable that all three cities have a large commitment to privately funded scholarships and have been proactive in welcoming Latino families to Catholic schools, two factors that may explain some of their recent growth.

One has to wonder if the combination of expanding voucher and tax credit programs and efforts to innovate and adapt to changing markets have started to yield a systemic turnaround.  Though too early to suggest that the 50 year storm of enrollment decline and closure is abating, these are very promising signs that fairer weather may be on the horizon.

For the first time in decades, Catholic education is showing signs of life. Driven by expanding voucher programs, outreach to Hispanic Catholics and donations by business leaders, Catholic schools in several major cities are swinging back from closures and declining enrollment.

Chicago Catholic elementary schools saw enrollment increase 3% this year and 1% last year—the first two-year growth spurt since 1965. Greater Boston elementary schools had a 2% bump—the first in 20 years. And Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Bridgeport, Conn., also added desks for the first time in years.

Nationally since 2000, U.S. Catholic school enrollment has plummeted by 23%, and 1,900 schools have closed, driven by demographic changes and fallout from priest sexual-abuse scandals. Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia have announced plans to close even more Catholic schools.

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But lately, Catholic schools have slowed their overall rate of decline. This year, two million children attended Catholic schools, down 1.7% from last, but less than the average yearly decline of 2.5% over the past decade.

The improving prospects for Catholic schools in some cities come at a time of great ferment in U.S. education. Years of overhauls in public schools have yielded only modest progress. And attendance at independent private schools fell during the recession.

On May 3-4, the American Federation for Children hosted its third annual Policy Summit.  Nearly 350 school choice advocates gathered for the two day event in Jersey City, New Jersey, which featured panel discussions and presentations by leading education reformers, researchers, and policy-makers.

The governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, and the mayor of Newark, NJ, Cory Booker, delivered two of the four keynote addresses at the Summit.  Despite representing different political parties, both Christie and Booker agreed that implementing school choice initiatives was not a partisan issue but a people issue – one that stands to benefit millions of children across the country.  Mayor Booker acknowledged that it would be unfair – and even hypocritical – of him to try to limit parents’ control of their children’s education given his own upbringing.  “I cannot ever stand up and stand against a parent having options, because I have benefited from my parents having an option,” Booker said.  Governor Christie, who recognized the looming battle over the Opportunity Scholarship Act in the coming months, told supporters, “If you are ready to fight with me, I’m ready to fight with you.”

Also of note, Thursday evening featured the presentation of the John T. Walton Champion for School Choice Award. This year’s recipient was Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett, whose state witnessed the most successful first year voucher program in the country’s history.

We’ve written about this topic before on this blog (namely here and here), but I don’t think we are talking about it nearly enough!  Everywhere I turn now, from articles I’m reading (see Harvard Business Review article below), to lectures I attend, to the national strategy emerging in Haitian education, people are talking about the transformative power of technology in schooling.

The main point of the technology enthusiasts is this: computer based instruction that uses complex software and increasingly sophisticated algorithms is becoming more and more responsive to students’ unique learning needs.  This has the power to individualize learning and dramatically increase its effectiveness.  The prediction of the ed-tech prophets: this will cause a revolution in the way education happens in this country and throughout the world.

Here is a long but worthwhile excerpt from one of the more valuable articles I have read on this topic from the Harvard Business Review called Rethinking School by Stacey Childress.

DreamBox Learning delivers math lessons for kindergarten through grade three in this way, allowing students to work alone at their own pace while providing their teacher with a dashboard of granular diagnostic information about what they’re mastering, what they’re missing, and why. Armed with this knowledge and freed from the demands of large-group instruction, a single teacher can tailor his or her efforts to the individual needs of dozens of students. Students who work with DreamBox and Reasoning Mind, a similar program for grades three through seven, are outperforming their peers on both state and independent assessment tests. And teachers report that they have more time for individualized and small-group instruction and for critical-thinking projects.

What’s more, a growing number of free resources are becoming available online, the most prominent of which are the 2,700 short video lessons produced by Khan Academy, which the MIT graduate Sal Khan began to record in 2004 in response to requests for math tutoring from his family. Three million unique users access Khan Academy every month, and teachers in 10 school districts are piloting Khan Academy content in classrooms this year, assigning the video lessons for homework and thereby freeing students to focus on deeper learning in the classroom.

Rocketship Education, which runs five charter schools serving 2,500 students in San Jose, California, takes this approach much further in comprehensive programs that blend such software with teacher-facilitated instruction in both math and reading. Its students, 90% of whom come from low-income backgrounds and start out two or three grades behind their more affluent classmates, are now outperforming those in every elementary school in the area and performing at the same level as students in affluent Palo Alto.

I think this impending change is utterly important for Catholic Education for a few reasons:

  1. Catholic schools need a game changer:  Catholic schools in the U.S. are beset with challenges.  5 decades of closures have shrunk the system by well over half and there is little sign that this trend is abating.  It is a struggle to maintain quality when Catholic schools cannot afford to pay teachers competitive salaries.  Technology can represent a game-changing variable to increase efficiency (i.e. doing more with less), increase effectiveness (improve academic quality through increasingly sophisticated programs and software), and provide just the sort of change and edge that Catholic schools need to reinvent themselves.
  2. Catholic schools are well-positioned for change:  The vast majority of teachers in U.S. public schools are represented by unions.  Unions do not like the impending technology revolution because it may threaten the number of teaching jobs.  As a result, unions will fight to keep these models out of traditional public schools as long as possible.  Charter schools and private schools are unencumbered by this challenge.  As a result, they can become early adopters and benefit from being first on the scene.
  3. Catholic schools possess a unique vision: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Catholic schools will and must have a unique response to this technological revolution – which increasingly appears to be a sure bet in the years ahead.  Catholic education has a particular and important vision for the goal and philosophy of Catholic education.  A leading critique of the role of technology in the classroom and the increasing influence of business ideas like “efficiency,” “effectiveness,” and “accountability,” is that it will dehumanize education.  The argument of some is that education is a craft and an art, it cannot be distilled into input and output measures and made into an economic formula.  People fear the loss of the human touch, of socialization, and  mentorship that is provided in schools.  This is a real concern, but one where Catholic schools have a decisive leg up.  The goals of Catholic education cannot be reduced to economics.  Because the goal of a Catholic education is to form the whole child towards completeness, and ultimately towards a spiritual end, Catholic education can never be reduced to mere economic outputs or the learning of so many factoids.  If Catholic educators can embrace this change with courage and imagination, it could actually be a huge advantage to more effectively realizing the deeper goals of a Catholic education.  With less time spent drilling math and other exercises more easily and more effectively managed with e-learning, teachers can be freed to cultivate the child’s capacity for reason and higher level thinking, can organize group work to promote a sense of community and social learning, can engage in the study of literature and the richness of the Catholic intellectual tradition.  In other words, this innovation can and should make Catholic schools free to be more fully themselves, more fully Catholic in their cultivation of the mind and spirit according to a Catholic vision.  Technology is simply a tool.  It cannot and should not replace the Catholic educational community and our profound need for a relational existence for a meaningful life.  It cannot and should not threaten the role of parents as the primary educators of their children.  It cannot and should not displace the importance of the Sacraments, of service, of reflection and prayer.  It cannot change the fundamental orientation of Catholic education, which is the fullest development of the child towards wisdom and fullness of life, ultimately found in and through Christ.

If Catholic schools are to take advantage of this opportunity they must act quickly and decisively.  It will require major changes in the way teachers teach and schools organize themselves.  It will require adequate support structures to help schools and dioceses manage this transformation.  It will require the emergence of new models of Catholic schools created by entrepreneurial leaders, unencumbered by past forms and ways of schooling.  Ultimately, this represents a tremendous opportunity – not a threat – for Catholic schools to be more effective academically, more efficient organizationally, and more fully Catholic in their mission.  Moreover, the voice and vision of Catholic education will be uniquely important in the dialogue that lies ahead for the country, to make certain that education does not lose sight of its deepest purpose, of that which makes us human, namely, our capacity for reason, for love, and for relationship with the Divine.  As we embark upon this journey, we would be wise to remember these incisive and visionary words of the poet T.S. Eliot:

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

(T.S. Eliot, The Rock, 1934)

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.