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Leather knight shield with holes, November 2, 2011. (http://paulssupplies.com)

As an educator and someone who has worked in the nonprofit world on education reform issues for slightly less than half of my life (I turn forty-two next month), it’s curious and disappointing to continue to see a scatter-shot and tweaking approach to education reform. An approach that often gets the bulk of the funding from private and corporate foundations.

If what Bill Gates said at the National Education Summit in Washington, DC in February 2005 is correct, that “American high schools are obsolete in their current form” — and I believe he is — then why does his foundation and others fund mostly small-scale projects? Especially ones that have few, if any, possibilities for replication or for making American high school more relevant to the twenty-first century?

But let me not pick on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as being neglectful of seeing the big, panoramic picture on K-12, K-16 or even P-20 education. Below, in general, are the parts of education process the big foundations have tended to fund over the past five to ten years:

Preschool, Pre-K Education = Annie E. Casey Foundation, Pew Trusts

K-12 Education = Gates Foundation, Hewlett Foundation

Higher Education, Education Research = Spencer Foundation (most $$$ now via AERA/NAE), Mellon Foundation

Higher Education Access/Success = Lumina Foundation for Education, Ford Foundation, Gates Foundation, Jack Kent Cooke Foundation

Student Financial Aid = Lumina Foundation for Education, Gates Foundation

Teacher Effectiveness = Gates Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Ford Foundation

Poverty, Community Development, Race = W.K. Kellogg Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Pew Trusts, Ford Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Gates Foundation.

They have funded and still do fund everything from early childhood education programming, credentials for early childhood educators, small schools, research for curriculum realignment, online education options for K-12, leadership programs for principals and school superintendents, to student and teacher incentive programs, fiscal and human resources allocation, early and middle college high schools, and assessments for teacher effectiveness. (By the way, that is the longest sentence I’ve ever written, at least without editing into

Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock in Pollock (2000), spreading and throwing paint, August 6, 2009. (http://www.totalfilm.com).

smaller sentences).

Seems like everything in the P-20 education universe is covered, right? Except, I’d defy anyone in or out of the education field to try to add all of this up into a comprehensive overhaul of early childhood and K-12 education that would then force reform in higher education.

The reason that we can’t assume that all of this adds up to real reform is simple. A dozen or so foundations pouring billions of dollars into a quarter-trillion dollar a year system through tens of thousands of grants, each working on a separate problem? By definition, a comprehensive overhaul isn’t possible. It’s as unlikely as Wall Street disengaging itself from American politics without a decade of Occupy Wall Street.

We could start, conceivably, with the idea of early and middle college high schools. One where school districts and the colleges and universities adopting these high schools collaborate on creating a system that would leave high school graduates with the equivalent of two years of college training or an associate’s degree. Or in the case of students who made plans to not go to college, two years of training that would make them employable in the twenty-first century workforce.

Only, these early and middle college high schools would be without the additional burden of providing remediation to ninth graders not ready for what we now call high school. Bottom line: we need a single-track college/career ready system that begins its work in preschool and pre-K programs, one in which these programs are tied to elementary schools, so that it doesn’t take the poorest of students three years to catch up. We need linkages between elementary and middle schools — or as many researchers suggest, K-8 schools — where the work to make students ready for algebra, critical thinking through writing and the arts could take shape in a more supportive and coherent environment.

More direct linkages between schools and community organizations and services — health clinics, psychological services, nonprofit organizations focused on the arts, writing, sports, science and math — are

Crane removing part of Berlin Wall at Brandenburg Gate, December 21, 1989. (SSGT F. Lee Corkran/US Dept of Defense). In public domain.

necessity to build communities that are committed to large-scale education reform. For if these organizations and systems continue to work in parallel series rather than in collaboration, all these attempts at reform are for naught.

But foundations have always been leery to link their work, to fund for the long-term, to think in ways that encourage collaboration — kind of like corporations, Wall Street bankers and the GOP. They also tend not to hire deep thinkers on issues like education. Or at least, the linkages between education, race, class, gender, community and the workforce.

Though they are doing a better job these days, especially in the case of the Kellogg Foundation on race, we need a more solid shield. One that is truly about transforming P-20 education, and not just tweak it with data and pilot programs. Funding programs without a grander vision might as well be a “make it rain” party at a strip club.