Can a New Focus on Learning by Funders Move K-12 Past the Ed Wars?

The world of K-12 education philanthropy has been so polarized for so long that it can be hard to imagine things might ever be different. In Column A, you've had funders who believe that the system, while in need of serious improvement, is worth saving overall; and in Column B, you've had those who believe the system needs to be blown up and rebuilt. The latter approach has gained considerable traction over the years, with mega-funders led by Walton and Broad pushing charters and new mechanisms of accountability to remake K-12. A central focus of the ed debate has been on choice, competition, and teacher quality.

But just maybe we're now entering a new, less polarized period of discussion on K-12, as more funders turn their attention to learning. Last month, we reported on the rise of personalized learning as a major focus of the Gates Foundation, and its careful work to explore the merits of this idea through research. We've also written about a number of other new learning efforts by funders.

Related - Personalized Learning Is a Big, Exciting Idea. But Can Funders Like Gates Get It Right?

Now comes news of a new education think tank, the Learning Policy Institute (LPI), backed by the Sandler Foundation and a number of other foundations.

Led by Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, LPI is all about preparing America’s kids for a rapidly changing, knowledge-based society.

In a blog post announcing the launch of LPI, Darling-Hammond wrote:

The problem is, our current education system was designed to meet the needs of the industrial revolution, not the knowledge revolution. And our education policies are too often designed to hold the old factory model in place, rather than to stimulate this new learning and create the settings in which it can thrive.

Hammond goes on to say that the mission of schools must be to prepare students "to work at jobs that do not yet exist, creating ideas and solutions for products and problems that have not yet been identified, using technologies that have not yet been invented."

Hammond calls for an American education system that develops the ability of children to "think critically and creatively," and that also draws on the best research to improve.

To our ears, this sounds similar to what many of the new Silicon Valley funders are saying, most recently Laurene Powell Jobs, who just announced a $50 million effort to reinvent public high schools that she says were designed to prepare students for factory life. LPI's focus on promoting evidence-based strategies also parallels what we hear from ed funders like Gates and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

In announcing LPI, Hammond—who has often been associated with progressive ed circles—did put attention on economic and racial inequality as a cause of low student achievement in the U.S. And her top funder, the Sandler Foundation, is known for backing progressive groups. But overall, LPI's work is likely to draw a wide range of allies and its creation is not yet another salvo in the familiar ed wars. Rather, it suggests that maybe things are heading in a new, more constructive direction.

With $5 million in initial funding for LPI, Sandler is joined by funding partners that include the Atlantic Philanthropies, the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stuart Foundation.  

Earlier this year, we introduced our readers to the Sandler Foundation and its founder Herb Sandler with an in-depth article. We told you about the foundation’s focus on elevating great leaders—and then letting them lead. And we wrote about the careful and calculated way Sandler targets its funding.  

Related - The Sandler Way: Where Big Philanthropy Meets the Art of Common Sense

The Sandler Foundation is closely identified with progressive causes, but it has also put big money into basic science and medical research, as well as nonpartisan investigative journalism. Additionally, it's supported work to improve the efficiency of U.S. healthcare systems.

Sandler's backing of LPI might be seen as a combination of instincts. On the one hand, it's creating a new alternative voice in an ed debate where right-leaning funders have tended to dominate. On the other, the focus here is very much on new research and advancing evidence-based approaches to learning.