Tweets as a Window Into Foundation Strategy

Image result for twitter bird flying through window

I’ve been trying to get a better understanding of what strategy major education reform foundations are actually trying to pursue.  I’ve read their mission statements and strategy documents, but it’s hard to know what to make of these vague declarations.  Instead, I decided that we might get a more accurate sense of foundation strategy by examining the social media communications of their grantees.  That is, what the organizations funded by foundations actually advocate on Twitter might tell us more about what those foundations really support.

So I had three research assistants analyze all Tweets from the grantees of four major education reform foundations between October 1 and December 15 of 2016.  We identified the recent grantees of the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations and then found Twitter accounts associated with those grantees.  I then asked those assistants to code tweets for whether they were advocating the expansion of school choice, advocating diversity, supporting or opposing Betsy DeVos, and whether they contained certain words, such as: accountability, quality, social justice, equity, and choice.

Deciding whether tweets were advocating something required a judgment that could distort results.  Despite the fact that my assistants were not experts in education policy, they were still remarkably consistent in their judgements when they coded the same Tweets — generally correlating above .9.  Counting the number of Tweets containing certain words did not require judgments and were even less prone to error.  Despite the consistency of coding Tweets, it’s important to take the results of this analysis with large grains of salt.  Inferring what foundations are actually pursuing based on the Tweets of grantees is a messy enterprise.  Despite that messiness, the results can still be revealing.

The most striking thing we found is that the grantees of these major education reform foundations spend a lot of time Tweeting in support of diversity, especially relative to how often they Tweet in support of school choice.  Grantees of the Broad Foundation advocate for diversity 6.9 times as often as they advocate for choice.  At Gates it’s 7.7 times.  Grantees of the Arnold and Walton foundations pay more attention to choice, but they still advocate for diversity 2.3 and 1.7 times more often, respectively, than for choice.

Keep in mind that supporting choice included any type of choice — charters or private school choice.  And keep in mind that a major referendum on whether to expand charter schools was on the ballot in Massachusetts during the period examined.  Despite the perception that these major education reform foundations are focused on expanding school choice, at least with charters, their grantees appear to be devoting more energy to arguing for greater diversity.

The support expressed for “diversity” generally did not mean anything radical.  Instead, most of the Tweets in support of diversity advocated broadly popular things, like expanded tolerance, greater opportunities for disadvantaged groups, and increased representation of traditionally under-represented groups. For example one Tweet said “Happy International #Tolerance Day. Remember, team always beats individual. Let’s encourage students to embrace #diversity.”  Another said “#LGBT-specific professional development and promotion of acceptance in classrooms can reduce bullying.”  And yet another said, “all students would likely benefit from having teachers from a range of races & backgrounds.”

There’s nothing particularly shocking about foundation grantees expressing these messages.  What’s surprising is how much emphasis they give to these issues relative to issues like school choice.  It’s also surprising given the political realities of education policy-making.  Most education policy-making occurs in states.  And most state governments are dominated by Republicans.  Currently, 25 states have Republican control of the governor and both legislative chambers, compared to just 6 with Democratic trifectas.  Republicans control both legislative chambers in 32 states.  Republican dominance of state governments isn’t a result of the most recent election but has existed since 2010.

So, if foundations wish to exercise influence over education policy (at least in this decade) they had better craft messages that are particularly appealing to state Republicans.  Talking all the time in support of diversity and much less frequently about school choice is unlikely to win over state Republicans.  It’s not that Republicans are necessarily against diversity, it’s just that it’s a wrong set of priorities for addressing Republican concerns and goals.

At times it feels like major ed reform grantees forget who they need to appeal to in order to win.  It’s as if they are competing in a student government election at Oberlin rather than trying to win a legislative battle in Georgia.  At elite colleges you can score points in most debates by emphasizing diversity, but the same tactic is much less effective in Republican dominated state governments.  Part of the problem is that many ed reform grantees and the foundations that fund them are populated by relatively recent graduates of those elite colleges who haven’t adjusted to the fact that what worked back at school and works among their colleagues doesn’t necessarily appeal to the Republican legislators they need to convince.

In the next post I’ll provide a few more results.  None of this should be news to close observers of trends in education advocacy, but it might be useful to have some evidence that documents the shifting focus of ed reform efforts.

33 Responses to Tweets as a Window Into Foundation Strategy

  1. George Mitchell says:

    Great piece by Jay. I have a history dating to the Bradley Foundation’s indispensable support in the early Milwaukee days. There is of course great irony in the current response to the siren song of accountability by foundations who funnel substantial sums into one sinkhole after another on this topic. There actually was a time, something that would surprise many of the current tweeting “thought leaders,” when ed reform finance was comparatively bare bones and quite accountability driven.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    I think you should be more cautious about drawing conclusions from comparing mentions of a vague moral principle (diversity) and a specific policy (choice). They’re apples and oranges.

    I don’t just mean that they don’t contradict each other and may be mutually reinforcing in principle, although that is the case here. I know your point is partly that both the reform groups and the GOP lawmakers lack the moral capacity to understand that choice is the only hope for real diversity. Neither of them is interested in real diversity.

    (There is also a lack of mental capacity in play here. “Remember, team always beats individual. Let’s encourage students to embrace #diversity.” First sentence contradicts the second.)

    My real point is that reformers talk constantly about diversity because that is how they establish social recognition as education reformers. It is not GOP lawmakers or foundations that decide who is or is not socially recognized in our culture as an authentic education reformer. You must say the ritual words if you want to be recognized.

    This is more fundamental to their mission than either securing grants or persuading GOP lawmakers. They must be education reformers before they can raise money or make policy as education reformers. And in modern American culture you are not an authentic education reformer if you are not a priest of diversity.

    I say this as a man who has taken risks to stand against Trump because Trump is a racist (and so much more). But I’m not naive about how the value of diversity is used as a social dye marker. The problem with your analysis is that it’s not just used as a dye marker of leftism (that, too) but of identity as an education reformer.

    • I agree with you, Greg. This is a rough analysis, but I do think it confirms something that you say that is neither obvious to all nor necessary: that preaching bromides about diversity is a precondition for being a reformer. I don’t think everyone knows that this is the ritual that reformers must practice to be accepted. And it hasn’t always been the case in the past nor does it have to be the case in the future that diversity bromides are required to be a reformer. There was a time when you could emphasize choice and parental empowerment and be considered a reformer. And I hope that day may return.

      • George Mitchell says:

        For a large segment of the current “reform” community, to favor choice and the primacy of parent accountability is to be simplistic and un-nuanced.

  3. bkisida says:

    Hang on. “keep in mind that a major referendum on whether to expand charter schools was on the ballot in Massachusetts during the period examined” is your only nod to current events? As Greg noted, we had a racist running and winning the presidency during your sampling period. The entirety of the sane universe saw a rise in tweets advocating for diversity from October 1 through December 15, 2016. I don’t think you can draw any conclusions about foundation strategy from this sampling period regarding choice v. diversity.

    Sometimes larger issues transcend the day-to-day bickerings over any particular policy, and for good reason. Sometimes you sacrifice a limb to save a life.

    (Typically I’d stop there, but for the kids and Presidents who don’t understand my reference, I just alluded to something said by this guy Lincoln, who is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.)

    • It’s possible that reactions to Trump distorted what we observed. But honestly relatively few of the diversity Tweets made any reference to Trump while many of the choice Tweets made reference to the MA referendum. Still, you are right and there are reasons not to believe this analysis.

      • bkisida says:

        Still, I think many people want to protest his xenophobic ideas without giving him the satisfaction of mentioning his name, or they just can’t stomach writing his name. I notice, in hindsight, I referenced him in my comment but never said his name.

        I think a larger conversation is why you interpret these nods to diversity as bromides. I’ve engaged with school choice advocates for years and have never come to the cynical conclusion that their interest in diversity was inauthentic. Rather, it seems fundamentally tethered to their libertarian perspectives that everyone deserves autonomy, in choice of school, choice of lifestyle, choice of border to cross. “Happy International #Tolerance Day”? Sounds internally consistent to me. And so what if it isn’t the red meat Republican lawmakers care about? It should be.

      • I didn’t mean to suggest that anyone is insincere when they express support for diversity. I support almost all of those diversity Tweets myself. Instead, the expression of support for diversity is often a bromide in that it is “a commonplace remark or notion; a platitude.”

        The question isn’t the sincerity or correctness of the support for diversity but the political effectiveness of emphasizing it more than reform proposals, like school choice. You can say “so what if it isn’t the red meat Republican lawmakers care about? It should be.” But if you want to win in Republican dominated states, which is the vast majority of them for the better part of a decade, then you have to craft a message that appeals to them.

  4. bkisida says:

    Or, from the gods of Google: a trite and unoriginal idea or remark, typically intended to soothe or placate.

    But we don’t need to get into semantics. I think we both believe these tweets are authentic.

    So if we are purely talking strategy, then yes, the strategy you suggest is likely to work in Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Alaska, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas. Yes, I cherry-picked, but to make a point. Regardless of how easy it might be to pass legislation in these areas, it’s hard to imagine how choice could even work effectively for people in these states. Purple states are much better examples, in my opinion, of where choice can find a footing and have a viable population of participants. Places like Florida, Arizona, and Colorado are great examples where choice is doing well politically and reaching a viable constituency. It’s generally true that, perhaps with the exception of Texas, places where choice could flourish are more likely to be purple than red.

    • I think choice could work anywhere. Last year new private school choice programs were started in Arkansas, Maryland, Nevada, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. The year before that new programs were launched in Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, and South Carolina. My point is we could get more of these programs and they could be larger if advocates appealed to the political coalitions that actually dominate state governments — mostly Republicans — as opposed to appealing to the preferences of their colleagues. It is striking how few conservatives populate ed advocacy or foundation staffs. (Source for programs: )

  5. bkisida says:

    It might work in more rural areas, but we don’t have any good examples yet.

    I’m also saying that more state programs does not necessarily equal more families having choice options. If you gain Arkansas, Nevada, South Dakota, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, and South Carolina, through shifting to a more narrow strategy that appeals to the Republicans in control there, you’d only gain as many constituents as all of Florida. And depending on what that shift looks like, you’d risk eroding support in places like Florida (see Massachusetts’ vote). And since we’re going down this road, what are you proposing the shift that would better appeal to Republicans should look like? You’re suggesting less emphasis on diversity, but what’s the replacement? Articulating that would be helpful.

    • You seem to have an inaccurate stereotype of what Republican states look like. Florida is one of the 25 Republican trifecta states. 32 states have both legislative bodies controlled by Republicans. There are plenty of population centers in those 32 states, not just rural areas. As to what the message could be, how about focusing on advocating expanding school choice?

      • bkisida says:

        Sorry, I got busy there for a few days.

        Trifecta or not, Florida and a few other trifecta states, typically the ones with more people living in them, don’t look like the rest. Florida’s last gubernatorial election went Republican by a 1% point margin. The margin of victory in South Dakota was 45%, Wyoming around 30%, and Utah around 30%. The strategy to “craft a message that appeals” to Republicans in trifecta states can’t be a one size fits all approach.

        And as far as your answer as to what the message should be, that doesn’t seem like a message at all. Polices are advocated for various reasons and principals. It’s not enough to say they should advocate for expanding choice. Your own stated goal was to “craft a message” that appeals to the Republicans, and you assert that promoting diversity and tolerance is not it. So what’s this politically expedient “crafting” supposed to look like? I’d like to know, because I think the honest answer to this question would shed some important light on the current schism we are seeing.

        Maybe you think the left-right coalition has served its purpose and is no longer needed. Without doing any research, I recall you making some declarations of victory and citations of “escape velocity” over the past few years.

      • George Mitchell says:

        To the extent there ever has been a “left-right coalition” it has been confined to non-elected supporters of expanding educational opportunities for parents. Virtually all the support and heavy lifting to enact such programs has been provided by Republicans. It is indisputable that to enact, amend, or otherwise strengthen such programs one should target states where Republicans are in charge.

      • bkisida says:

        I can’t login to fix my typo on principles.

      • bkisida says:

        I don’t think the issue of whether they should be targeted has been questioned. Jay has argued that foundations should not focus so much energy on issues of diversity and tolerance (if they in fact are), and rather “they had better craft messages that are particularly appealing to state Republicans” and these issues are the “wrong set of priorities for addressing Republican concerns and goals.” Plenty of possible answers here, but I’m not sure what you all have in mind. If it’s just more advocating for choice, that doesn’t seem like much crafting or appealing to me. More “Choice rocks!!!” tweets aren’t going to be particularly persuasive.

      • George Mitchell says:

        Here’s the rub. Those of us who want to expand choice don’t frame it as “just more advocating for choice.” The operative word there being “just.” We think choice is fundamental to reform. We advocate for it on that basis. “Issues of diversity and tolerance” can mean just about anything. More parent choice is just that. The more of it the better. All other things being equal..

      • bkisida says:

        You don’t have to convince me that choice is a good in itself George. The current topic is how to convince Republican legislators. Politicians usually need a little more than self-evident tautologies.

      • George Mitchell says:

        Going back to Jay’s initial post, I took the “current topic” to be a possible drift away from school choice among key education philanthropies. I believe his analysis of tweets illustrates that the focus on choice is diluted from might have been the case one or two decades earlier.

        A problem with the broader topic is that “diversity” and “tolerance” can mean just about anything. So, too, can “choice.”

        So what one can reasonably take from a review of 140-character comments is that foundations that target K-12 reform are less focused on school choice, broadly defined.

        This is important in the real world of state level legislation. The broader and more ambiguous the message is the more likely the results will be unsatisfying if one subscribes to the view that substantially expanding choice is key.

        As to your point about what the message should be, it is that evidence suggests more choice will produce better results for all children. Since existing choice programs are so limited in their funding and in their eligibility criteria, it is rather stunning that they so often demonstrate equal or better results than traditional and more lavishly financed traditional public schools. State legislators should be urged to consider what a real program of choice might produce.

    • bkisida says:

      Thanks, for providing some specifics. I believe the original point was both about the raw frequency of the messages and the crafting of messages that would directly appeal to Republican legislators. Maybe I’ve hijacked this thread to talk about the latter because I find it particularly interesting now that the Republican party doesn’t seem to know who they are anymore.

      If the message should be “better results,” then I think Team Choice is in trouble. Jay, myself, and others have been discussing the problem with test scores for a while now, and how relying on that as a measure of success distorts what many schools of choice are trying to accomplish. Additionally important, recent research about non-urban choice programs has failed to produce positive test score results. So I don’t think that’s a strong message anyone can reasonably craft right now. As to your second point, which gets at efficiency, I would agree that is something that would appeal to Republican legislators. But I don’t think that’s the right message to craft either, and it’s impossible to craft if the “results” continue to point negative. Cheaper but worse is not a compelling argument.

      • George Mitchell says:

        SCDP evaluations in Milwaukee found higher levels of “attainment,” i.e., high school graduation and post secondary education.

        SCDP researchers separately have issued findings that suggest Milwaukee choice schools are safer and choice students are less likely to enter the criminal justice system. This is consistent with separate data showing far fewer police calls to choice schools than public schools (adjusted for enrollment).

        The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and a U of Ark doctoral candidate have estimated the quantifiable benefits from such findings. They are noteworthy.

        More recently, Wisconsin state data showed higher ACT scores for choice students against all students, not just their peers.

        Choice has never been tested and thus evaluated on a level playing field.

        Seven-figure grants don’t exist to do what SCDP did in Milwaukee. This is one major reason we are stuck with evaluations that rely primarily or exclusive on standardized test scores.

        This all ties back to the issue of where education foundations are putting their muscle. While way more $ are being spent I believe a smaller share is targeted at advancing the agenda of school choice.

  6. Jay’s approach is an imaginative way to look at what “ed reform” may consist of via social media. But “diversity” is not an ed reform, and “school choice” is simply a slogan today referring to ways to finane the education of low-income kids outside of regular public education. Are no foundations interested in the school curriculum, or what is taught? Education “reformers”seem to be no longer interested in education. What happened?

  7. When did it become clear (and how) that politics and governance (meaning what?) needed to be solved before kids can learn something substantive in K-12?

    • Greg Forster says:

      It was clear to Jay and I over a decade ago (as we wrote at the time). Others have gradually caught up.

      • It is amazing that we ever got to the moon without a solution to politics and governance. Maybe we can simply pretend we have solutions, abolish all federal and state tests, declare ESSA unconstitutional, and throw away all mandated federal paperwork? May be worth trying.

      • George Mitchell says:

        Of course getting to the moon was largely a political decision.

      • Greg Forster says:

        If you think we got to the moon without politics, watch the documentary Tom Hanks made about the Apollo program.

  8. Exactly so. We did it without a solution to politics.

    • Greg Forster says:

      I’m afraid not. Certainly no one has a “solution to politics” in the same sense as a “solution to polio,” i.e. something that eliminates it. If only! But the supporters of Apollo spent the whole decade of the 60s fighting political battles to defend the program. So they certainly needed to solve their immediate political problem (Walter Mondale wanted to cut the program and spend the money on welfare). Education reform needs a politically viable strategy as well. Simply developing good ideas for curriculum and pedagogy isn’t that, as decades of failure proved.

  9. Agreed. Maybe decades of failure attest to lack of good ideas for curriculum and pedagogy? How do we know an idea is a good idea?

    • Greg Forster says:

      Empirical research on small trials can determine which approaches are promising and which not. But it makes little difference since the current system disincentivizes people from adopting promising approaches.

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