Improving teaching quality in the U.S.: A key role for philanthropy amidst all the politics

Reauthorization of and revisions to the No Child Left Behind education act, Race to the Top, Common learning standards… These are just a few of the education policies that have made headlines over the past couple weeks.  A common theme among them has been improving teaching quality. It makes perfect sense: all of the research points to teaching quality as the greatest in-school factor affecting student achievement.  With the alarmingly high achievement gaps in the U.S. and the poor performance of our U.S. system compared to other nations, it is not surprising that everyone is trying to figure out how to solve the teaching quality puzzle.

The quest to solve that puzzle has produced a noisy, impassioned, politically-charged debate. Proposed solutions include:

Fire all the bad teachers

Spend less on teacher professional development

Spend more on teacher professional development

Enable data-driven decision-making

Break the union stranglehold

Hire from the top quartile of college students

Pay for performance

Allow principals to be leaders

Allow teachers to be leaders

Abolish schools of education

And the list goes on.

But of course, as with any complicated question, the answer lies in a smart combination of measures.  Effective teaching requires a host of skills.  But even the greatest teachers struggle to make gains in a broken system or a school culture that does not promote collaboration, accountability, and professional growth.  Improving teaching quality will require better recruitment, better training, and better overall human resource management, including identifying strong and weak performers and creating an environment that enables both teacher and student learning.  Clearly the government plays a huge role in reforming the education system, but what can philanthropists do?

The good news is there are programs that work. There also continues to be a great need for more exploration and research.  This is where private philanthropy can step in.  Philanthropists have the ability to assess the cost/benefit of actions before spending the funds and to directly support organizations and districts engaged in the highest impact initiatives.  Though private philanthropic financing is small compared to public financing, its influence can be great, thanks to its flexibility, speed, and ability to strategically target needs while avoiding the bureaucracy of government.

Here are some ways in which philanthropic capital can play a key role in education reform:

  • Philanthropic capital is well suited for higher-risk, entrepreneurial innovations, while government is often best for bringing programs to scale that have already been tested and proven effective.  Philanthropic capital can also support important research and advocacy that are needed to advance the field
  • Philanthropic capital can be used to scale or expand a program geographically.  For example, an individual donor might decide to bring a great program to his/her community
  • Individuals can play an important role as an impartial outsider.  This role is critical for facilitating conversations with stakeholder groups such as unions and district management
  • Most government and foundation support is project-based (sometimes known as “line funding”).  However, what many nonprofit organizations need is unrestricted funding in order to build the capacity to operate both effectively and with efficiency. Individuals can provide this flexible capital and support that many foundations and government agencies cannot

Our preliminary analysis points to three highest impact opportunities for donors looking to improve teaching quality for at-risk secondary students:

  1. Enhancing and improving early teacher training and development
  2. Improving human capital management and allocation
  3. Rethinking schools and teaching (whole school reform efforts)

Over the next several months, we will be diving deeper to understand the most promising models in these three categories that improve both individual teacher development and the environment in which teachers work. Our end-product will be an investment guide for philanthropists, complete with case studies and actionable tips for donors.  We strongly encourage your feedback and collaboration throughout our process.

Thanks to Kate Hovde and Kat Rosqueta for their contributions to this post.