My answer was intemperate and unhelpful, boiling down to “funders need to stop being idiots.” What I was thinking about at the time was funded initiatives designed to influence factors I consider peripheral to student success, or that depend on particular action (or inaction) by stakeholders; action that I think funders should recognize the actors are very unlikely to take.
I’ve been stewing about my answer for days now, to see if I could articulate it in a way that is more defensible and more helpful than “don’t be stupid.” I’ve come up with two factors. Both are pretty obvious, but neither appears to be a guiding principle. They are also obvious enough that I’m sure neither is original to me.
I described the first factor in When Can You Trust the Experts? where I called it the Chain of Influence. Learning happens in the mind of the student, and is the product of student thought. Teachers try to influence student thought. School leaders try to influence what teachers do, with the ultimate aim of changing student thought. District policy is meant to influence principals, state policy to influence districts, and federal policy to influence states.
Student thought ← Teacher ← Admin ← District ← State ← Feds
It does not matter what else is going right…if student thought is not changed, learning does not happen. If you seek change at, say, the state level, the change must migrate down through districts, principals, and teachers before it has a chance to influence student thought. If any link of the chain is either broken or operates in an unexpected way, you lose.
Moving up the chain is tempting because linear distance in the chain is associated with exponential increase in influence. Influence a teacher and you influence the 25 children she teaches…but influence a principal and you influence all 400 children in her school. Or influence a few hundred members of Congress and you influence every student in America. But I suggest that once you get more than two or three links in your chain of influence, the probability that your change will not work out as you intend approaches 1.0. (Hello, Common Core.) So the first principle I’d advise funders to follow is this: stick as close to classrooms as you can.
All right, once funders are in classrooms, what should they pay attention to?
Given that the ultimate goal is to change student thought, two factors are paramount: what sort of change do you seek, and how are you trying to bring it about? In other words, the content (facts and skills) you want children to learn, and what the teacher does to try to bring about the change in thought. Again, this point is obvious, but it’s easy for it to get lost. That’s what happened when Britain sought to put a smartboard in every school without a plan how it would help children learn. That’s what happened when the state of California sought to boost student self-esteem in the 1980s. So the second principle I’d advise funders to follow is this: fund projects that explore which content is most effective for children to learn (given a set of goals) and how to teach it.
The drawback to my recommendations is that they lack razzle-dazzle, and so will funded projects. It’s a lot more dramatic and interesting to try to find the next disruption to education. But it’s actually a lot easier to do some good if you pay attention to fundamentals.