Thursday, December 22, 2011

Billionaire Education Policy

This from  Education Optimists:
A lot of people who work in education, philanthropy, and government are wary of the rise in billionaire policymaking, but are reticent in voicing their concerns. Perhaps this is fear of retaliation -- what Edward Skloot calls the “Brass-Knuckles philanthropy”of the Gates Foundation. But I see another, more heartening piece to this puzzle. People in the philanthropic and advocacy communities don’t want to harm the mission of philanthropy. We fear that revealing the pitfalls of billionaire philanthropy might have some unforeseen effect on the good work that these foundations support.

Billionaire policymaking is the elephant in the room, but nobody seems sure how to approach it. I say that we should name the elephant, but we don’t have to shoot him. There is a middle road.

We’ve named the elephant – it is philanthro-policymaking. It is here to stay. A small, well-networked group of the super-rich will make and fund social policy globally. We don’t have to shoot the elephant, but we need to understand its nature and learn to live happily with it. Like any powerful institution, billionaire philanthropy needs checks and balances. Our task is to develop them.

Now, to education policy. If you’re not a policy wonk, wonkette, or even a wink, as my more politically savvy friends called me in college, stay with me. Once you get past the odd language of experimentation and evaluation, it’s all politics and human folly.

Testing new policy ideas is appealing. Why have a political battle over education reform, when you can experiment with a bunch on a small scale, and then pick the one that works best? In my last post, I mentioned the recent New York Times article “Policy-Making Billionaires” by Nicholas Confessore. In his coverage of Mark Zuckerberg’s controversial 100 million dollar donation to the Newark, NJ school system, Confessore wrote that NJ officials now plan use the money to “experiment” with education policy and find “what works” and then replicate the best programs with public money: “Whatever proves most effective [in the experiments] can then be rolled out on a larger scale.”

This approach to policy reform is not new. It was a central part of welfare reform in the 1990s. Testing and measuring are particlulary attractive to super-wealthy business oriented philanthropists – philanthrocapitalists. Philanthrocapitalist apply business models to philanthropy. They want to measure everything like money.

Social good is harder to measure than money. The official U.S. poverty line was changed this year after years of debate and controversy. We are struggling to even measure poverty. How do we measure student performance? Teacher quality? Our measurements are imprecise at best and meaningless and misleading at worst. Most educators, advocates, researchers, philanthropists, and policymakers are well aware of the problem of measuring complex outcomes. That awareness disappears when we talk about policy experiments. We act as if testing these programs will lead to some empirical, objective truth about what work bests...

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