How Philanthropy is Influencing Education Reform in the United States

By Richard André

On May 16 AS/COA hosted a panel discussion where education experts addressed best practices in improving education for underserved schools.

Welcoming Remarks:

  • Christopher Sabatini, Senior Director, Policy, Americas Society/Council of the Americas
  • Kim Meredith, Executive Director, Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society


  • Wendy Kopp, Founder and President, Teach for America
  • Jeannie Oakes, Director, Educational Opportunity and Scholarship Programs, Ford Foundation
  • Shael Polakow-Suransky, New York City Senior Deputy Chancellor and Chief Academic Advisor
  • Rob Reich, Associate Professor of Political Science, Stanford University (Moderator)


This event—held in collaboration with the Stanford Alumni Association and the Stanford University Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society—explored how the debate over education reform has evolved over the last 20 years. Panelists looked at new thinking and best practices in promoting effective education both at the policy level and in the classroom.

Roots of Philanthropy in U.S. Education

Over the past decade, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has become the public face of philanthropic investment in education. But Robert Reich pointed out that the roots of philanthropic involvement can be traced back to 1993 when the Annenberg Foundation announced the $500 million Annenberg Challenge for School Reform. This was matched by more than $600 million in additional funding. Since then, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation, Carnegie Foundation, and others have invested significant human and financial resources in narrowing the achievement gap in education, especially among students of differing socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.

Foundation Support of Education

The Ford Foundation—a leader in philanthropy in education—has identified two approaches for improving schools: One is based on systematic change, such as modifying testing standards or developing accountability mechanisms, and the other focuses on addressing direct needs such as recruiting better qualified teachers and investing in classroom materials. But above all, according to Jeannie Oakes, the Ford Foundation’s priority is on engaging marginalized populations, through students’ parents and other members of the community, in the decision-making process of how to direct investments in local schools. Building community support is critical. If a funder takes a less inclusive approach, the community is much more likely to reject the external influence as patronizing, even if there is agreement with the fundamental ideas of a reform strategy.

Reviving Failing Schools

Experience in the classrooms counts as well. This was one of Shael Polakow-Suransky’s messages, who recalled how his experience working to raise academic standards at Morris High School in the Bronx helped shape his career as an administrator. Despite being a failing school in one of New York City’s roughest neighborhoods, Morris High School still attracted dedicated teachers so long as they felt they could make a difference. Suransky and his colleagues successfully lifted Morris High School to above-average performance—a process that he now has replicated in other city schools. One of the lessons learned at the time that he still carries with him today is that more power must be placed in the hands of school administrators to create conditions for lasting change. Those closest to the everyday educational challenges should be spearheading new initiatives as well as have more authority over hiring and firing decisions.

Revitalizing a failing school is an effort that is best achieved by working with various stakeholders. Department of Education discretionary funds alone cannot achieve it. Foundations can play a crucial role in providing financial support and giving school administrators the power to allocate that funding where it is most needed.

The Importance of Teachers

The effect of external funding, whether from foundations or the department of education, is limited if the receiving institution lacks competent, driven teachers and administrators. The reality is that underperforming schools in poor neighborhoods struggle to attract quality teachers. This is what pushed Wendy Kopp to found Teach for America (TFA) in 1990—an idea first proposed in her undergraduate thesis. Over the last two decades, 28,000 individuals have become part of this national program that recruits college graduates to teach for two years in an underprivileged school.

When TFA was created education policy analysts believed that a student’s socioeconomic background would decide his or her educational achievement. But programs like TFA—through their work in low-income communities—begun to debase this assumption. Kopp pointed to New Orleans as an example of a city with a poor schools system that is undergoing large-scale reform. The decade-long process of improving schools was hindered by Hurricane Katrina, but the influx of qualified teachers from TFA and other programs have helped continue the process of education reform in the city’s previously failing public schools. This is a model that has been replicated outside the United States. In Latin America, Enseña Peru and Ensina Brazil are both modeled on Teach for America.