Targeted Philanthropy and the New Focus on “Competency” Graduation Requirements

Money is a big force in educational decision-making. So is talk about money: Educators make all sorts of decisions based on financial issues. Public schools around the country are slated for closing based on real, or perceived, need for savings. And lobbying dollars pay a huge, if not always acknowledged, role in education policy.

OSSE_GradReq The District of Columbia is preparing to switch from Carnegie-unit graduation requirements, a long-standing system based on hours in class and successful completion of coursework, to a system that stresses competency. The new system is actively promoted by supporters of digital learning. Simultaneously, the Public Charter School Board is preparing to open thousands of digital learning opportunities for DC students.

Similar policy changes are occurring across the country. This trend can be traced in part to strategic efforts of philanthropists the Jaquelin Hume Foundation, based in San Francisco, CA and directed by Gisele Huff.

Strategic Philanthropy

A decade ago, Gisele Huff explained to other grantmakers how her foundation employed a two-pronged investment strategy: a “destructive” strategy of challenging school systems, and a “constructive” strategy of supporting charter school networks and think tanks to influence and sustain policy change. Taking a long view, she said, they waited through years when conservatives were a legislative minority, so they would be positioned well for a strong policy role when Republicans gained control.

For years the Hume Foundation funded the Alliance for School Choice and other charter-supporting, union-opposing organizations. Then in 2005, Huff heard Clayton Christensen speak about his concept of “disruptive innovation” – a process through which a new idea in the marketplace can displace established competitors. She became convinced that education in the U.S. needs a disruptive innovation for real transformation. Blended learning is that disruption, in her opinion. (See “Philanthropy and Free Market Education” podcast from Stanford Business School).

So, the Jaquelin Hume Foundation is the biggest single funder of Innosight Institute, a nonprofit founded to apply Christensen’s ideas to education, health and other areas. Innosight Institute advocates for blended learning. Hume also funds iNACOL, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, the digital learning advocacy umbrella group. Ms. Huff now sits on the boards of both organizations.

The Hume Foundation gave Innosight over $500,000 in 2011, for example [Innosight 990s], and Huff reports supporting iNACOL “at the same level” (see podcast above; see also Hume 990s). The Hume Foundation continues to support charter-related think-tanks and blended-learning charter schools: It donated $50,000 to Rocketship in 2009, for example, and $100,000 to KIPP Empower LA in 2011. (Hume 990s).

Digital Learning Results

The switch to digital learning is essential, Huff argues, for the US to compete globally. She does not add that the emphasis on digital learning also promotes, by different means, the “destructive” strategy she outlined back in 2003. She does not dwell on the fact that the US Department of Education has yet to find research evidence supporting the use of blended learning at the elementary and secondary levels.

Innosight and iNACOL both publish uncritical, but widely cited, reports on blended learning in the U.S. (The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning, e.g., and Blended Learning: the Convergence of On-Line and Face-to-Face Education. (More about Innosight Institute and Christensen’s for-profit companies – including Innosight LLC, Innosight Ventures and Rose Park Advisors, which invest in digital learning, among other disruptive innovations.)

Regardless of who is promoting blended learning and why, DC agencies will be determining related policy soon. The State Board is set to vote in March on the proposed competency-based requirements. (The formal [widely advertised] comment period on the proposed requirements is closed, but there is still time to learn more and convey thoughts to board members.) The Public Charter School Board will announce decisions on fast-track approval for blended learning schools in February. Similar measures are under consideration across the country. Spatz2012

— Virginia Spatz, The Education Town Hall on We Act Radio (“Do Something!”)

“Do Something!” Note:

DC’s Public Charter School Board did not advertise it’s January 28 meeting to consider the applications of blended learning operators, Flex DC and Rocketship (excepting this Nov 20, 2012 press release). There has been no hint on PCSB’s main webpage that there is (or was) a comment period open on these applications; I can find no announcement in their newsroom (let alone anywhere in the outside world where interested parties might see it). Moreover, there has been no public engagement on the more general concept of blended learning and its place (or not) in DC Schools. I suggest contacting the Public Charter School Board about the former and the Mayor about both.

SIMMONS_DEBORAH_CUTOUT_s200x281Story, plus discussion with Deborah Simmons of the Washington Times, on this and other education topics, January 31, 2013 Education Town Hall.

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