by Citizen Stewart

In a new book called “A Good Investment? Philanthropy and the Marketing of Race in an Urban Public School” former teacher Amy Brown critiques the major role that philanthropy now plays in public education.

Her work is the basis for a new podcast from Tiny Spark that raises interesting questions about the way some schools seek to market themselves to wealthy donors.

Ask yourself, do you know of any school that tells its story like this:

College Prep’s students are mostly black and Latino. Seventy to 80 percent receive free or reduced lunch, and nearly everyone goes on to college. The school boasts that it grooms these students into upwardly mobile professionals…

If you know school reform, the answer must be yes.

Most “high performing” schools have learned to tell their story in a way that amplifies the features we know funders appreciate most.

Large populations of kids of color in poverty.

High rates of proficiency.

Great stories about kids escaping the margins of society and making it into the colleges that will, presumably, thrust these students into economic nirvana.

It’s all part of the formula.

But, what if culture stripping comes with the success? What if the mismatch between privileged teachers and disadvantaged students creates problems that are whitewashed in the test scores?

Sharhonda Bossier, formerly a teacher at a school favored by donors, says the social distance between teacher saviors and the targets of their salvation, the students, creates real tensions that are hidden from outside eyes.

She says:

Kids don’t necessarily have the language to talk about what it feels like to have a teacher not understand you and your culture. And you have teachers who are not confident in their own ability to manage a classroom, and who have not done their own work around figuring out what it means to be white and a person of privilege working in a school that serves predominantly low-income kids of color in Brooklyn. And so time and time again, we would see these blowups between kids and teachers.

But stories like that never make it into the marketing spiel.

To make it worse, there isn’t adequate space in reform world for those getting reform paychecks to have honest conversations about the real world human interactions that complicate otherwise tidy stories of academic success for poor kids beating the odds.

That lack of space for candid reflection can create double consciousness for a person of color working in the trenches.

“It occurred to me that we were trying to sort of sell this school as something that was literally saving the lives of the students we were serving, and to convince our donors that there would be no way we could do it without them and their generous support. And that is deeply problematic. Because I don’t know that we were doing a much better job than anyone else.

Where is that level of truth telling taking place? Certainly not at happy hour with funders. Not if you want a school to survive.

In the end, Brown blames the “competitive” nature of “market-based” education philosophy for the drive of schools to pretty up their stories and sell themselves. She says the idea that some schools are more deserving of the funding than others because they know the “right way” to educate children creates inequity.

That critique might be mislabeling the problem. The difference in approach to funding schools stems from a sincere difference in how to do good things for kids.

In fact, philanthropy is about granting and investing, not markets per seTypically people with something worth investing appreciate putting their gifts into things that work. Often they have made their wealth by creating value (or having descended from someone who did), and they have a focus on investments that create even more value.

Sorry folks, but there are inventors, creators, makers, and developers who created things in the the world that many people found valuable. The same drive it takes for them to deliver things people say they want goes into how they view investments in education.

Conversely, there are those who believe in state-based education philosophy.

For them there is one strategy: take from value creators and redistribute resources as equally as possible without concern for whether or not the allocations “work.” The focus is on equity of distribution, not of outcomes. Even after decades of school systems that fail to educate poor children of color the state-based education philosophers still focus almost entirely on inputs, in the hopes that one day the outputs will magically change.

As if that ever worked. It hasn’t worked, and ridiculing smart investors for not simply giving their money to everyone equally in the state-based system won’t get us any better results.

That is just one guy talking.

Tiny Spark is an independent news program and podcast that reports deeply and constructively on philanthropy, nonprofits, international aid and for-profit social good initiatives.

Listen to the podcast and see what you take away from it.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.



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