- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 14, 2006

Foundations have been giving to support high schools and elementary schools for decades. But surprisingly, there has not been a book that explains what foundations are trying to do in their education grants and whether or not they are doing a good job. That gap has been partially filled in For the Best of Intentions: How Philanthropy Is Shaping K-12 Education (Harvard, $29.95, 312 pages), edited by Frederick M. Hess.

Mr. Hess, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, convened a conference on education and philanthropy that was held at AEI early last year. This book compiles the papers from that conference. As with most collections of scholarly papers, the book is uneven in quality, but perhaps the best paper in the book is by Brookings senior fellow Tom Loveless.

Mr. Loveless polled the program officers at the U.S. foundations who fund grants to primary and secondary schools. He found that these grantmakers were less likely to believe than education professors, teachers and the public that schools should encourage students to be on time and be dependable, that students with drugs and weapons should be expelled and that troublemakers should be taken out of class.

Mr. Loveless urges these foundations to hire former teachers to oversee education grants, since they are less likely to be ideologues than are people who’ve never taught.

Another important paper is by Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute and the University of Arkansas. Mr. Greene calculates that in 2002 America’s foundations donated about $1.5 billion to schools, while total government spending on K-12 education was $427 billion (equivalent to the Russian gross national product).

He argues that rather than give money for “low-leverage” projects like teacher training foundations would have a greater impact if they pursued “high-leverage” projects that provided alternatives to the existing system, such as charter schools, private school vouchers, and funding good research on education reform.

Other papers in this important book include a history of grants for education reform, a study of how foundation grants changed (and didn’t change) the school systems of Charlotte, Houston and San Diego, and a view from two foundation program officers as to why they fund what they fund.

All in all, “For the Best of Intentions” is a pioneering analysis of the mistakes and successes that foundations make when giving grants to public schools.

As charter schools continue to expand and evolve, it’s important that reporters continue to analyze their successes and failures. In Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea, and the School That Beat the Odds (Palgrave Macmillan, $24.95, 224 pages), Joanne Jacobs has produced a book that unsuccessfully tries to see how charter schools succeed or fail.

Mrs. Jacobs, a syndicated columnist, decided to volunteer and study Downtown College Prep, a newly created charter school in San Jose, Calif. The book combines reporting from the school’s first year in 2001-02 with anecdotal updates from the school’s next three years.

She explains that her interest in charter schools came from her analysis that charter schools were the best way to help students from low-income households do better in school. “Parents who have money can exercise school choice,” she writes, “either by buying a home in an area with good public schools or by paying tuition.

“But less-affluent parents are stuck with what they’ve got … . If the school is just second-rate, parents are fed happy talk about how everyone is special and those nasty test scores don’t indicate the real learning kids are doing.”

Mrs. Jacobs is a pretty good analyst and not a very good reporter. We get a good sense from the book why Downtown College Prep’s organizers created the school and the obstacles they had to overcome to get the school started and become a success.

We have far less of a sense from the book as to why students went to the school and what they did to overcome substantial deficits in their education. The book’s narration is choppy and fragmented. Nor is it made clear why much of the book’s reporting is as old as it is.

In her conclusions, Mrs. Jacobs does a good job of summarizing the current state of charter school research. Her list of guidelines at the book’s end will also prove invaluable for charter school creators and operators. But readers with a more casual interest in charter schools, or who are interested in good reporting about charter schools, would be advised to skip “Our School.”

Remember third grade? Or what it was like to be eight years old? Most of us have forgotten that stage of our childhood, but in 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny: Life Lessons From Teaching (Simon and Schuster/Touchstone, $19.95, 297 pages), Phillip Done brings the joys and terrors of elementary school back to life.

Mr. Done, a third-grade teacher in Mountain View, Calif., decided to keep a journal of one year teaching students in his elementary school. As you might expect, kids say the darndest things, and Mr. Done repeats all of them.

Children, of course, are also fascinated with bodily fluids and glop, and Mr. Done tells all of those stories too. He’s also adopted one rule of writing about children, namely that if in doubt, throw in some more schmaltz.

As a writer, Mr. Done is charming and funny. One of his little chapters, for example, is about pushy parents: “Mrs. Proud,” “Mr. Permissive,” “Mrs. Issues.”

“Dear Mrs. Weird,” one letter reads, “Please do not drop by any more in the middle of math and say that you just received a ‘psychic envelope’ from Joey and you’re sure he needs to talk with you. The post office is closed today.”

Mr. Done’s book, though slight, is entertaining, and brings back many memories that most of us have long forgotten.

Martin Morse Wooster is the author of “Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds.”

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