Why Do Philanthropists Struggle in K-12?

Imagine you became rich. Super-rich. So you became a philanthropist, and were interested in 3 puzzles.

a. Curing cancer.
b. The Hodge Conjecture.
c. Fixing K-12.

With “a”, you think “Sheesh.

I’m no biochemist. I should give money to some smart scientists.”

With “b”, you think “I’m not Newton. I should give money to some mathematicians. I have no freaking clue.”

With “c,” you may have a puzzle that is just as hard as “a” or “b.” It’s a highly complex system, like cancer. The trick is it’s easy to apply your mental map to get started on some pet theories. You know just enough to be dangerous. You ask questions and uncover all sorts of crazy behaviors and inefficiencies. Plod, plod…soon you develop a theory of change.

If you developed your own geeky theory for curing cancer, it would probably be really dumb. Scientists would ask you 2 or 3 questions and say “You have no idea what you are talking about.”

With “b”,” you would be hard pressed to even utter a dumb idea.

With “c,” not only could you develop a plausible theory, but you could find a tribe of educators who would agree with you. So the cash starts flowing.

* * *

My friend Laurence studies philanthropy in Southeast Asia.

About my “Bezos and Ma” blog, he remarked:

Too many philanthropists under-estimate the challenge of tackling systemic social issues…..if it is so easy, government or business would have solve it already.


My sense:

People who give to good schools serving poor kids often feel a sense of satisfaction. Well deserved. But no “scale.”

A few families, like the Fishers (who backed KIPP) and the Waltons (who back the best charters) probably feel the same. They’ve backed outlier schools at some scale. Palpable progress. Although perhaps their satisfaction is lessened by the personal attacks on them levied by charter opponents.

Bill and Melinda Gates, by contrast, probably feel great frustration. With their K-12 giving to improve the “whole system, at scale”, they’ve experienced little success. By contrast, their donations to help improve health in Africa have often worked.

This is many other billionaires. In most large American cities, there is a billionaire who gives mightily to fix the system (Amos Hostetter is Boston example), only to be discouraged by the results.

Scott Alexander writes:

the sciences where progress is hard are the ones that have what seem like an unfair number of tiny interacting causes that determine everything. We should go from trying to discover “the” cause, to trying to find which factors we need to create the best polycausal model.

And we should go from seeking a flash of genius that helps sweep away the complexity, to figuring out how to manage complexity that cannot be swept away.

Arnold Kling writes of Scott:

I prefer the term “causal density,” which James Manzi introduced in Uncontrolled. Many economic phenomena are characterized by causal density.

Unfortunately, the mainstream approach is to “sweep away the complexity” by coming up with the simplest possible model that might explain some phenomenon.

My friend Brett Peiser once told then New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein that his successful charter schools were made of 100 one-percent solutions. Klein found that dissatisfying. I sympathize. He couldn’t use that to improve his thousands of schools. He needed leverage.

Brett mentioned the 100 one-percent solutions again when he won the Broad Prize.

Maybe someone heard Brett. The guy who gave him the money. Two years later, billionaire Eli Broad ended his prize for school districts. (He continued to support, like the Waltons, the outlier charter schools).

Evidently Broad embraced the complexity of tackling systemic social issues.

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