When the comic strip “Doonesbury” is making fun of your state’s lackluster education record, you know things must change.
That’s the situation Oregon’s foundation leaders found themselves in 10 years ago. That part of the story isn’t that unusual; every state has had to cope with the failures of the K–12 system. What leaders of Oregon’s six largest foundations did about it is where this takes a turn.
These foundations decided to band together to devote a significant amount of their resources to attacking an education system that rates a C and is 42nd worst in the country according to Education Week. While we are proud that our state gets an A+ for both hazelnut production and microbreweries, we inherently understand that Oregon must achieve more in education to truly compete in the 21st century.
Foundations often say they want to be collaborative and strive toward common goals. Very few of them do and even fewer do it successfully—egos get in the way and usually one or more of the partners feels overshadowed.
I’m happy to report the collective effort known as Foundations for a Better Oregon is, knock on wood, showing how to pull together diverse interests in a powerful effort to attack education lethargy.
The foundations allocate a combined $2 million per year on the initiative known as Chalkboard Project; federal grants add another $5 million to the effort.
Here is how we have come together.
Common Plan and Independence
Chalkboard Project has a three-pronged strategy that all the entities agreed to based on an extensive public outreach effort including the largest and most extensive poll ever conducted in the state on education issues. The tenets are: 1) Research: provide evidence-based research as the foundation for reforms; 2) Incubate: partner with educators and stakeholders to pilot promising practices and demonstrate results; and 3) Advocate: serve as an independent, non-partisan voice for evidence-based policies.
These are the things that the foundation support as part of the initiative. We also recognize that foundations and their boards have interests in education beyond this platform. We always agreed that they should and could continue the ideas that made sense to them. What we’ve come to see is that many of the foundations have decided to follow our model in their education grant making; one even requires that all their new education grantees align with Chalkboard’s action plan. The result is our influence has grown.
It Takes More than a CEO
Early on we decided to engage more than just the CEO of each foundation; we also met with the trustees. In the beginning we asked trustees from one foundation to go to other foundations and their trustees to ask for support for the common effort. This high-level of involvement with trustees might seem unusual but we are convinced it worked.
Educators know that one of the best ways for a student to learn is for him or her to try to explain a concept to another student. Likewise, the act of thinking through and explaining Chalkboard to their peers heightened the understanding and commitment of every trustee.
No Empire Building
The last thing we wanted to create was a new bureaucracy to implement the program. We decided to rely on a core group of staff and engage agile consultants to do the project work as needed. In this way we are following the lead of the private sector which in recent years has expanded its use of consultants instead of always relying on in-house staff. For Chalkboard, this has been the right fit.
Invite competing viewpoints
One major point of controversy in Chalkboard’s history was at the point when the organization had to decide whether to jump into advocacy work or continue to hope that others would act on its recommendations. The foundations were cautious about getting involved in public policy issues. We brought in long-time government relations experts—one Republican and one Democrat. The consultants rarely agreed with each other, but it gave the board the full picture of what was possible and they always felt like they were getting both sides of the story. By presenting the full range of possibilities to board members, it gave them the knowledge base to take the chance and enter into the public policy space. Now they are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and enter the fray.
At the beginning stages, no one wants to consider that a coalition won’t hold. Yet that lack of acknowledgment of the elephant in the room is often the undoing of a group effort. In our first meetings we discussed how we would come together and what would happen if one of the foundations pulled out. We have contingency plans to ensure the education reform work will continue. Thankfully, no partner has ever walked away. I think this is all due to thinking about how to handle opposing viewpoints, and keeping an eye on the end game.
So what about results? Overall, Oregon’s graduation rate and its performance on national assessments have improved little since 2003; other states have made quicker progress, leaving Oregon in the bottom third.
However, in our partner districts, which serve about a third of Oregon’s students, we have seen student achievement improve significantly and teachers become more empowered as professionals.
It’s going to take more time and effort to fulfill our goal of making Oregon’s schools among the best in the nation but we are confident we are on the right path. Along the way we believe we have learned a number of valuable lessons about foundations that can also benefit the sector as a whole.
Sue Hildick is President of Chalkboard Project.