The Ford Foundation pledged $100 million Wednesday to “transform” urban high schools in the United States, focusing on seven cities, including Los Angeles.
The seven-year initiative is among the largest philanthropic efforts aimed at improving education in the United States and, as described, could both complement and challenge aspects of the Obama administration’s education reform efforts. It will fund research and reform in four areas: teacher quality, student assessment, a longer school day and year, and school funding.
The initiative is being led by Jeannie Oakes, who until recently was head of the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at UCLA, where she was a strong advocate for reform aimed at helping disadvantaged students in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Besides Los Angeles, the Ford Foundation effort will focus on schools in New York, Newark, N.J., Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and Denver.
Oakes said the foundation has already begun working with L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon C. Cortines to find ways to better distribute finances in the district. She said Ford also hopes to help Los Angeles land one of the Obama administration’s “Promise Neighborhood” grants, which place public schools at the center of a comprehensive strategy of combating poverty and improving educational achievement.
She said the initiative dovetails with much of the administration’s education reform efforts, but would try to avoid some of the most politicized aspects. “We don’t want to get into anybody’s ideological fights,” she said. “We just want to cut through this and think about building an outstanding public school system for the kids who are least likely to have one now.”
The announcement from the New York-based foundation quoted its president, Luis Ubinas, as saying the initiative is intended “to shake up the conversations surrounding school reform and help spur some truly imaginative thinking and partnerships.”
The initiative challenges conventional thinking in at least one way, offering a skeptical outlook on student assessment. It calls standardized tests “a blunt and inadequate tool by which to gauge student learning and school effectiveness,” and calls for the development of “more meaningful methods of assessment and accountability.”
Several large philanthropic organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation, already fund significant educational research and reform efforts.