The use of trumped-up numbers downplays the difficulty of the work Demmellash and other nonprofit leaders do -- and it downplays the stubbornness of problems like poverty, racial isolation, and lack of education. T
The Social Innovation Fund is not the only corner of the Obama administration to fall under the sway of venture--philanthropy vogue, sometimes to the detriment of good social science. Through the Department of Education's innovation funds, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is promoting a very specific image of school reform, one that borrows liberally from the venture philanthropists' goal of bringing free-market values to the public sector. The federal guidelines encourage states and schools to embrace specific "innovations," such as enacting merit pay for teachers and lifting laws that cap the number of charter schools. Though such policies may have tertiary benefits, there is no research consensus on whether either one contributes to the "bottom line" of education reform -- increased academic achievement for high-poverty kids.
A recent Stanford University study of charter schools in 16 states found that in math, only about 17 percent of charter schools increase student achievement over traditional public schools. The researchers described the results as "sobering." A competing study out of Stanford, by Hoover Institute Fellow Caroline Hoxby, found that students who win a lottery to attend a New York City charter school do much better on standardized tests than socioeconomically similar students who lose the lottery and return to traditional public schools. But New York's charters may be superior in quality exactly because state law allows only a few carefully selected organizations to manage charters. It is exactly such laws that the Department of Education claims stifle innovation.
Regardless of whether you believe the charter detractors or defenders, it's undeniable that the obsession with innovative charter schools is out of proportion to the reality that less than 5 percent of American kids attend such a school. "[Charters] should not distract us from the challenging, important, and unheralded task of making process improvements in the operation of traditional schools," writes Grover Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution, in a gently mocking essay titled "Innovation, Motherhood, and Apple Pie."
In Denver, the site of one of the largest experiments in merit pay for teachers, a 2008 study from the University of Colorado found no evidence that the new compensation system helped students; rather, teachers who were already high-performing chose to opt in to merit pay, while those who were less successful opted out. Even among teachers who participated in merit pay, only 38 percent believed the program directly improved student test scores.
Critics contend the administration has ignored more difficult, yet proven school reforms, such as efforts to integrate schools, thus guaranteeing that fewer classrooms are overwhelmed by the challenges of poverty and racial isolation. Research by Cornell labor economist C. Kirabo Jackson found that when the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina ended a 30-year busing program and resegregated, the highest-performing teachers fled schools that became predominantly black and poor. Yet integration is seen as a pie-in-the-sky, old-school lefty goal by the venture-philanthropy crowd and has registered not at all on the Obama/Duncan agenda. It's not "innovative."
Another criticism is that even when innovative social programs are proven to work well, the Obama administration under-estimates the costs involved with scaling them up. The White House's single favorite nonprofit is probably the Harlem Children's Zone, Geoffrey Canada's effort to flood 97 blocks of New York City with educational, health, and economic resources -- including several charter schools. The president has asked Congress to set aside $10 million in the 2010 budget to replicate 20 such "promise neighborhoods" across the country. But that figure is considered laughable by most nonprofit experts. The Harlem Children's Zone has an annual budget of $70 million.
While the Social Innovation Fund and Department of Education grants are unlikely to result in systemic policy improvements, it would be a mistake to view the administration's social--innovation efforts in a vacuum. The same White House is pushing for a major overhaul of our health-care system. The $700 billion stimulus package is the greatest increase in federal spending since the Great Society.
In the end, the administration's social-innovation push may be most useful for its signaling effect. Both Obamas have appeared in front of the moneyed and influential to tell them they should invest in community nonprofits and care about inner-city schools and unemployment. Nevertheless, it's true that the Obamas' infatuation with social entrepreneurship and venture philanthropy serves as a reminder of their aversion to a more robust, liberal, government-focused rhetoric. In this regard, they are, perhaps, more Clintonian than they'd like to admit.
The administration's concept of social innovation injects government into the philanthropic sector as a sort of tastemaker, hopefully influencing charities to advance progressive public policy ideas without the federal government having to spend too much more money. With the Republican congressional delegation in a full-on tax revolt, the strategy is arguably politically savvy, at least in the short term. But is it innovative? Not so much. There's nothing new about vilifying big government and asking a stretched-thin philanthropic sector to address a truly staggering landscape of human needs -- 10 percent unemployed, 47 million uninsured, only half of all black and Latino boys completing high school.
"Many of these social problems are of the scale that require the government to be involved," says Nee of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. "A lot of the nonprofit stuff is sort of ... nickel and dime."
From: The American Prospect.
DANA GOLDSTEIN | November 16, 2009
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