Friday, January 4, 2013

Leafstrewn's technology deficit and the inadequacy of philanthropy

Leafstrewn is a great school in almost every way, and I wouldn't want to be teaching anywhere else.  Our technology deficit is real, however, and I've been wondering why.  Here's a quick post telling a story about one small piece of the issue.

Our technology is an embarrassment, but maybe that's okay? 
We don't have projectors in our classrooms.  There aren't many computers in the building for kids to use.  Our new platform for online assignments and grading was rolled out in September with pretty much no heads up to the faculty, and very patchy training.  For a district of our wealth and prominence, our technology systems are somewhat lame.  Maybe this is okay?  I can easily imagine that all the fancy technology in the world wouldn't improve reading scores.  (That's what John Hattie claims the data says.)

Our piecemeal attempts to reduce our technology deficit
Nevertheless, the way Leafstrewn manages things is pretty absurd.  Not long ago, I was asked by some colleagues to join them on a grant application to the Leafstrewn Education Foundation, one of a few private  organizations that support public education in Leafstrewn, to buy tablets and styluses on which we could grade electronically submitted essays.  Each tablet costs $85, and there are nine of us, so the grant is for $765.  I really like the people who were writing the grant, and I figured it would be interesting to try out a tablet, so I said I'd be happy to be on the grant.

For our application, we had to write up a proposal and then make a pitch before a six-person panel.  So I traveled to one of the elementary schools and waited around with five of the other people in our group for half an hour or so before we made our 15 minute pitch.

At the end of the pitch, one of the thoughtful and judicious members of the thoughtful and judicious panel said, "So, what if we couldn't give you the money to buy everyone a tablet.  Would it still be worth doing if you had to share them--if you only got five tablets, say?"  And of course our team said, "Oh, yes."

Even as we said this, we were thinking--or at least I was thinking: WHAT?!  We did all this for a shot at less than five hundred dollars?  I should have just fronted the money myself!

Maybe it was just the indignity of having to come cap in hand before a panel of (what I imagined were) one-percenters to beg them to buy me a little electronic toy that costs less than a hundred bucks, but I couldn't believe the inefficiency of the whole process.  So many people spending so much time for so little money--less than a hundred dollars per person-hour, just counting the hours put in by our team.  If you include the hours spent by the panel themselves (they seemed to take it pretty seriously), the whole exercise looks even more ridiculous.  The panel could have taken our grant applications, read them over, and decided, and nobody would have had to spend an hour of his Tuesday afternoon.

The inadequacy of philanthropy
I ended up wondering if this is what always happens when private money gets involved in public goods: inefficiency. If you want to help the schools, maybe you should just give the money to the central administration.  The Superintendent is hired to make the schools as good as they can be within a certain budget.  If you don't think the Superintendent is doing a good job, wouldn't it be better to try to lobby the Superintendent, rather than trying to do his job yourself in your spare time?  I can't help thinking the point is less to use the money to make the schools better (the funding from this organization and from the other philanthropic organization that funds special programs at Leafstrewn High adds up to about half a million dollars, which is a rounding error in the School Department's overall budget of about 90 million dollars) than something else, I'm not sure what.  To make rich people feel good about themselves?  To give people an excuse not to push for higher taxes?  I don't know, and I don't really get it.  But I do think that philanthropic giving in Leafstrewn, like philanthropic giving nationwide, is fairly inefficient, mostly self-serving and should probably not be tax deductible.
Post Script
In the end, we got the grant for the whole $765.  Maybe the tablets will be useful; I still suspect that private foundations for public schools are inefficient and undemocratic. Am I wrong?

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