Five school reformers walk into a bar...

Okay--it was a restaurant, not a bar, where Green Dot's Steve Barr, AEI's Rick Hess, venture philanthropist Vanessa Kirsch, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, and Gates Foundation alumnus Tom Vander Ark sat down with writer Paul Tough for a New York Times Magazine "roundtable" on education philanthropy. (Find it here.)

Their question: If you were to advise a billionaire on how to spend his largesse on k-12 education, what would you recommend?

This kitchen cabinet cooked up some nourishing nostrums, all related to shaking up the system. Barr, for example, would fund outsiders--"disruptive forces" like the KIPP guys circa 1995. Vander Ark argues for public-policy investments. And Hess calls for a focus on basic infrastructure, like "legal and business support" to help programs such as The New Teacher Project grow. Building a market in education, he continues, isn't just about creating new options: "It's a little bit like the mistake we made in planning for the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003: if we create a vacuum, good stuff will happen."

Indispensable ideas, but in light of Sol Stern's recent troublemaking with regard to "incentivists" versus "instructionists," it's striking how Tough's roundtable discussion never reached the classroom. In a 5,000 word forum on education, these words did not appear once:  instruction, curriculum, reading, math, history, literature. This  "incentivist" thinking is a fair reflection of the state of the "new" education philanthropy. Staffed mostly by smart MBAs and obsessed with structures and systems and processes, their ignorance about the stuff of education leads to agnosticism. And, predictably, to trouble. (See Klein's embrace of Diana Lam and Lucy Calkins as Exhibits 1 and 2.) To continue the Iraq analogy, it's like sending in nation-builders who can't speak Arabic and never studied Iraqi history.

So let's assume that our billionaire cares about incentives and instruction. (It could happen.) What are some smart instructionist investments? Let me offer a hat trick:

  1. Support the development of national standards and tests. The incentivists can talk all day about the power of "data" to improve student achievement, but said data comes largely from state tests and those tests are a mess. They generally measure rudimentary skills, they leave out big chunks of the curriculum, and they aim way too low. While the government dithers, private dollars could encourage key parties to come together, set rigorous standards across the entire core curriculum, develop state-of-the-art tests aligned to those standards--and build the political will for states to adopt them as their own. Funds could also support R&D efforts to improve the technology of testing. If we get the tests right, then "teaching to the test" will become something to celebrate rather than loathe.
  2. Create a voluntary national curriculum. What teachers desperately desire but still mostly lack are high-quality classroom materials aligned to meaningful standards. Our billionaire could create an online marketplace of fully developed lesson plans, videos of master teachers delivering those plans, associated readings and exercises, baked-in assessments, and everything else a new teacher would need to be effective from day one.
  3. Fund thousands of high-quality summer workshops. Send teachers to month-long, content-rich seminars with respected scholars. Immerse them in history, or literature, or science, or the arts, so that they can deliver a compelling, comprehensive education to their charges. Make sure elementary teachers are included too, as they have the most potential to turn students on--or off--to these key topics.

That's just a start, but you get the idea. Mr. Billionaire, pay attention to incentives and instruction if you want to make a real impact.

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