Grading the billionaires on education reform

iWatch News examined the track records of the four billionaire philanthropists who have taken the lead in trying to use their private money to reform school districts around the country over the last decade. Here are their report cards.

Grades were assigned based on the amount of money and time invested by charities in specific reforms, as well as interviews with district and foundation officials. Among the factors affecting grades were decisions by the foundations to abandon or modify signature efforts based on initial results they found disappointing.

The Broad Report Card

Giver: Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation

Grade: B-

Amount Spent: $440 million

Where Started: Los Angeles in 1999

Goals: To further urban education by focusing on leadership training, competition through charter schools, and teacher effectiveness.

Examples of Expenditures: Invested $116 million to train principals and superintendents, but pulled out of the principal programs. Superintendent graduates lead 43 urban school districts; Broad says two thirds of superintendents serving for three years are heading up districts where student achievement has improved faster than similar districts. Spent $97 million on charter schools, $25 million on district financial controls and restructuring, and $25 million on teacher evaluation and merit-pay schemes.

The Dell Report Card

Giver:  Michael & Susan Dell Foundation

Grade:  B-

Amount Spent:  $400 million

Where Started: Austin, Texas, in 1999

Goals: To improve education for the urban poor through charters, school leadership programs, and data systems that track student performance.

Example of expenditures:  $135 million on quick-access systems that provide at-a-glance monitoring of student and school trends, allowing for speedy responses to kids' needs. Spent $66 million on select charter schools, claiming that half of poor students in them outperform statewide averages on standardized tests. Spent $29 million on expanding access to Advanced Placement classes.

The Gates Report Card

Giver: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Grade: C-

$3 billion

Where Started: Seattle in 2000

Goals: To see 80 percent of high-school students, especially minorities, graduate. Shifted focus from school redesign to developing effective teachers.

Examples of Expenditures: Spent $2 billion to improve high schools and reduce their size. After eight years, Gates ditched the project, concluding that size alone doesn't beget academic excellence. Invested $466 million in charter schools, but some failed to meet expectations for student achievement. Now spending $360 million on strategies to evaluate and pay teachers and on researching what makes an effective teacher.

The Waltons’ Report Card

Giver: Walton Family Foundation

Grade: C

Amount spent: $538 million

Where started: Bentonville, Ark., in 1987

Goals: To create competition through charter schools and voucher programs, especially in low-income areas.

Examples of Expenditures: Spent more than $272 million on 1,200 charter schools serving 350,000 low-income students. Pleased with the progress, but no results released. Stanford University experts found a third of students at Walton-backed charters scored better on standardized tests than similar students in regular public schools. Spent $42 million on advocacy for school vouchers and charters; gave $10 million to Washington, D.C., pay-for-performance initiative.

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