Philanthropic spending in education is only a fraction of that spent by local, state and federal governments ($1.5 billion versus more than $400 billion in 2005) but represents a significant proportion of the discretionary funds available for reform. Regardless of the focal unit, whether it is students, individual schools, classrooms and teachers, or school districts, the panelists agreed that innovative approaches are desperately needed. They shared the challenges and triumphs they have encountered while working at each of these levels.
Tennis star Andre Agassi discussed the critical success factors for his charter school in inner-city Las Vegas, which has received national recognition for its effectiveness in raising the performance of students. His vision for the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy is to show that education can be a "different experience." His charter school's use of eight-hour school days, performance-based teacher contracts and stringent standards for student conduct and parent engagement have proved that such a transformation is not only possible, but highly effective.
On the other end of the size and scale spectrum, The Broad Foundation focuses on reforming large urban public school districts, which educate more than 40 percent of America's schoolchildren. Dan Katzir of the foundation emphasized the critical role of leadership at the superintendent level -- "great principals make great schools" -- and described the foundation's focus on developing and placing talented managers from both within and outside the education sector. The foundation employs rigorous performance and accountability measures for its grants, investing not only money, but intellectual capital and resources to make a difference for urban public schools.
Several of the panelists mentioned the need for engagement from all sectors, and Stanley Litow of IBM demonstrated the role that corporations can play in catalyzing innovation in education. "Great schools require great teachers," he noted, adding that the IBM foundation has developed an innovative program to train and support individuals interested in second careers as teachers, particularly among the ranks of retiring IBM employees. In addition, the foundation is developing a portfolio of creative, interactive educational lesson plans to help support teachers in the classroom.
Thomas Boysen of Classroom Solutions disagreed with Litow that better teachers are the answer. Instead, he argued, the key is that education must develop a "lust for innovation," both within and without the system. One critical component is accountability for results, founded on clear standards and constant feedback. Although many critics argue that tests can "dumb down" teaching, Boysen argued that the opposite is equally true. The No Child Left Behind Act demonstrates that effective tests are the best way of elevating standards, he said, noting that he is optimistic that this orientation toward results will lead to significant improvements over the next few years.
Education experts agree that there are no easy solutions to the growing education crisis. However, today's panelists have demonstrated that philanthropic efforts can make and are making significant contributions. Education reform is not only possible, but also critical to the future.