Learning from Disappointment

A recent paper by Duke graduate student Peter McElroy surveys the literature on the Annenberg Challenge, a huge philanthropic school-reform initiative of the late 1990s, and reflects on whether, why, and how it failed. A couple of weeks ago, when the new mayor of Newark was elected on a platform of opposition to a privately-sponsored school reform, I pointed out that public education has long been a minefield for philanthropy. Like many people who make that sort of observation, I cited the Annenberg Challenge (1995-2000), a half-billion-dollar bundle of grants to overhaul schools in 15 metropolitan areas, along with special initiatives for rural schools and arts education. Matching contributions brought the total cost of the program to $1.2 billion.

desks in classroom

In his 2007 book The Foundation: A Great American Secret, Joel Fleishman, director of Duke’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society, reported a near-unanimous judgment among foundation executives that the Challenge was “one of the major failures in foundation history.” Given that foundation executives are not known for their unanimity on almost anything, that consensus alone makes the Annenberg Challenge worthy of careful analysis. And many reports and evaluations have, in fact, been written about it.

Peter McElroy, a Duke graduate student and the incoming editor of the Sanford Journal of Public Policy, has helpfully surveyed a great deal of this literature and produced a thoughtful overview and reflection on the lessons of the Annenberg Challenge. He takes a close look at three of the largest and most ambitious of the Annenberg reform sites — Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia — and then zooms back for a broader consideration of how, why, and even whether it failed.

Mr. McElroy's report is the newest addition to the Center’s library of case studies on foundation initiatives. What strikes us as particularly helpful about his review is that it offers not one but seven different interpretations of the Challenge, with a succinct argument for each. In two of these interpretations, the Annenberg effort was at least a partial success, in that it clarified some critical lessons about school-reform philanthropy on which later efforts were able to build.

To some, defining a chastening disappointment as a “success” might well seem a stretch. (And to be sure, Mr. McElroy’s other five interpretations leave no room for such leniency.) But these rosier views deserve some careful thought. Most people in foundations believe their job is to take big but intelligent risks, to venture boldly, and to share what they learn — even when the lessons are painful. Few institutions fully live up to that vision. But there is no question that the Annenberg Challenge was a bold risk that provided an enormous helping of cautionary lessons, both for educators and for philanthropy. And if that is not a success, it is at least a public service.

Tony Proscio is a planning, evaluation, and communication consultant working with the Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society at Duke University.

This post was initially published on The Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society on May 30, 2014. Follow Tony's blog here.

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