Strategic Capital to Improve Teaching Quality: making the most of limited funding

Across the country, federal, state, and local governments are facing painful education budget decisions. While philanthropic capital is a drop in the bucket compared to public financing of education, the current budget debates provide an important reminder to donors of the need to focus relentlessly on where private, donor capital can get the biggest bang for philanthropic buck.

Our special report, High Impact Philanthropy to Improve Teaching Quality, synthesizes the best available evidence on what works and at what cost when it comes to improving the greatest in-school factor affecting student outcomes, teaching quality.

While taxpayer dollars go to paying salaries and benefits for public school teachers, for example, private philanthropic capital can help ensure that those teachers:

  1. Have the skills they need to be effective, and
  2. Work in organizations—schools—that facilitate great teaching through the kind of strong leadership and performance culture that enables success in any enterprise.

For philanthropic capital, the question isn’t how to fill the gaps left by public funding cuts, as this would be nearly impossible. The question is how to make limited capital (both public and private) go further.

Below is an example from High Impact Philanthropy to Improve Teaching Quality of a whole-school reform Model in Practice that takes existing public funding, and reorganizes and redesigns schools so they are more effective with the highest-need students. However, philanthropic capital is crucial during the start-up phase for new schools. The nonprofit is young, but the early results are quite staggering. This is a model that does more with less. Much more.

Model in Practice: Redesigning district schools to improve the learning environment for students and teachers

About the model: Efforts to improve the learning environment for teachers and students at the secondary level are frequently hampered by structural and financial barriers. Teachers tend to work in isolation and sometimes see more than a hundred students in a day, making it difficult to get to know any one student well. Union contracts often prohibit adding more time to teachers’ schedules for activities that can boost student achievement, such as common planning time. In response to these challenges, many whole-school reform models include efforts to restructure school schedules to maximize both student instructional time and professional development time for teachers without adding drastically to costs. Generation Schools represents one such model. While new, it offers an example of how a public, non-charter network can reallocate existing school resources to improve teaching quality and, ultimately, student outcomes.

Nonprofit agent: Generation Schools is the brainchild of founders Furman Brown and Jonathan Spear, who developed the model in 2001 with the idea that schools could get better results by reallocating time and other resources more effectively. Brown and Spear faced an uphill battle to convince funders and district leaders that the model could work in practice. A prize from the Echoing Green Foundation proved critical in establishing credibility for the model, and early support from the Blue Ridge Foundation and the Ford Foundation provided important start-up resources. Currently, the organization operates one pilot school in New York City, Brooklyn Generation School, a public high school.

Brooklyn Generation School opened in 2007 with a class of 65 students and has grown by one grade per year since then. There are now approximately 310 students in grades 9 –12. The first class of seniors will graduate in June 2011, and it is anticipated that middle school grades will be added over the next several years.220 Generation Schools has recently attracted significant financial and organizational support for a planned expansion of the model and expects to create additional schools in at least two regions—New York and Colorado—over the next five years. Joel Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, asked Generation Schools to establish six new schools by 2012, with the goal of having 11 Generation Schools and 10-11 affiliate schools (schools that adopt key aspects of the model, with some support from Generation Schools) operating in New York City by 2014.221

How it works: Rather than setting up shop outside the rules and regulations of the local district bureaucracy, Generation Schools has painstakingly worked with the New York City district and teachers’ union to rethink public schooling. Its model is designed to use people and time strategically, focusing on two main goals: recruiting more talented people into the teaching profession, and improving incentives and opportunities for existing teachers to help students thrive and learn.222 Generation Schools operate on a schedule that reorganizes the use of time throughout the day and year to increase learning for students, reduce class size for core academic subjects, and promote teacher collaboration and satisfaction. The model attempts to address organizational barriers that prevent teachers from delivering effective instruction to their students and from building rewarding, successful careers for themselves. This reorganization is accomplished without adding personnel. We describe key features of the model on the following pages and illustrate how the Generation Schools model compares with current practice in most public schools. (Also see chart above.)

  • Teachers in teams: Teachers work in grade- and subject-based teams, blending different expertise. Small core classes allow teachers to get to know students well, while common planning time lets them learn from each other and collaborate. Teachers also use the planning time to collect, analyze, and respond to data on student performance. Professional development includes a two-week staff conference before each year begins and weeklong grade-level conferences twice annually.
  • Restructured school year to increase both student learning time and teacher planning time: The model extends the school year to 200 days (the national average is 180 days) without increasing the length of the teacher work year, thereby helping to prevent teacher burnout. Teachers’ vacation and professional development time is staggered to allow each team to get a four-week break (three weeks to rest and one week to meet, plan, and observe colleagues) twice a year. While one group of teachers is on break, another team steps in to teach their students intensive month-long courses focused on careers and college planning.
  • Rethinking standard class periods: The teaching day begins with two 90-minute academic classes (called foundation courses). These courses, required for all students, are strategically sequenced over the four years of high school and are geared toward meeting graduation requirements and preparing students for college. Foundation courses are small; at a school’s full enrollment, the average student-to-teacher ratio in foundation courses is 14 to 1. Afternoons are divided into shorter, larger elective courses and two hours of daily planning for teachers. This reorganization is possible because all teachers cover at least one core area plus an elective (art, music, gym, and others). Many teachers have dual certification.

Impact: Although Brooklyn Generation School is still quite new, early performance indicators are promising.

  • Student outcomes: Brooklyn Generation School has done well compared with a group of 40 “peer schools” selected by the New York City Department of Education. The peer schools serve student populations from similar socio-economic backgrounds and with similar incoming academic achievement levels. Brooklyn Generation School has outperformed the peer group on two critical student achievement measures: pass rates on state exams and credit accumulation. Additionally, despite sharing space with other small schools on the former campus of a notoriously dangerous large high school, the school has succeeded in attracting students and today has exceeded its enrollment goals for incoming freshmen.223
  • Pass rates on state exams: In this category, Brooklyn Generation School ranked first among the 40 schools in the comparison group,224 with approximately 70% of students passing state exams required for graduation, despite the fact that only 20% entered the school performing at grade level. (See chart below.)
  • Credit accumulation: Approximately 78% of students are on track to have enough credits to graduate on time, more than a two-fold increase. Historically, the South Shore High School campus on which Brooklyn Generation School is located had a 33% on-time graduation rate.225
  • Teacher outcomes: In the first three years, teacher retention at Brooklyn Generation School has been relatively high, with nearly two-thirds of its original staff still working in the school since its founding.226 Annual turnover rates in urban public schools nationally range from 19% to 26%,227 so 33% over three years is promising. It is also important to note that some turnover is necessary in any school to weed out low-performing staff.

Cost/resources required: The Generation Schools model is designed to operate on the same public per-student allocation as a regular public school, currently approximately $12,500 per student per year in New York City.228 That per-pupil allocation, however, does not include start-up costs. For Brooklyn Generation School, start-up costs included training and technical assistance in areas such as instruction, leadership/management, and operations, provided by the parent organization. Also, because the school began with less than full enrollment, public per-student allocations were insufficient to cover fixed costs (e.g., physical space) in the first couple of years. Generation Schools raised $1.2M for operations during the first three years. During the start-up phase, the annual cost per student was approximately $15,000,229 about 20% higher than the district average.230 The additional start-up costs (in percent terms) are similar to Green Dot’s costs for the turnaround of Locke Senior High School. As Brooklyn Generation School moves beyond the start-up phase and attains full enrollment, the per-student expenditure is forecast to decline to $12,476 per year, consistent with district per-pupil spending. This amount will vary for future Generation Schools, since per pupil spending varies significantly by district and state. Additionally, opening schools at full enrollment will decrease start-up costs.231

Cost per impact: For an estimated $15,000 per student per year during the start-up years (with lower costs expected after year three), attending a Generation School in New York can result in the following impacts for students:232 Approximately 70% of students passing exams required for graduation, the highest pass rates among a comparison group of schools serving similar populations, and despite the fact that only 20% of students entered the school performing at grade level.233 More than a two-fold increase in the number of students on track to graduate on time.234 Note: at full enrollment and after year three, this cost will be consistent with the district average of approximately $12,500.235

Nonprofit contact: For more information, please contact Furman Brown at (347) 417-5323 or, or visit the Generation Schools website at