Education Research and the Place-based Funder


Education Research and the Place-based Funder

There’s a common refrain in philanthropy that says, “if you know one foundation, you know one foundation.”  While sometimes said in jest, it does suggest the unique and somewhat idiosyncratic nature of most foundations. However, I think that it is fair to say that all education funders are seeking ways to improve opportunities and outcomes for students. And, for all of us, research and evaluation play a key role in that effort.

Some education funders may see themselves primarily as “consumers” of research who seek out research and analyses to inform funding decisions. Some may see themselves as “instrumental” funders and users of research, supporting specific research or analyses with a particular user and use in mind. Others see themselves as “conceptual” funders of research. They are supporting research in a field to build knowledge and evidence to be used by researchers and practitioners. And, while some funders may adhere closely to a particular role in research funding and use, it is likely more useful to view this as a continuum along which funders may move to advance different purposes at different points in time.

Many of the nation’s largest and most well-known private funders of education research – think Gates, Walton, Spencer, WT Grant, etc. – often fall toward the conceptual end of the continuum. Projects they fund are enhancing our understandings of what works, for whom, and under what conditions, in order to provide evidence that can be used by actors across the country to, for example, improve middle school math instruction or early reading. Many of the nation’s smaller funders of education improvement often fall toward the consumer end of the continuum. They are using available research to make choices about funding local improvement efforts, assessing the extent to which they align with evidence on best practice or greatest likelihood of effect.

Somewhere in the middle of this continuum lie a large number of place-based funders of significant size who focus on improving opportunities and outcomes for students in a particular geographic area. To be effective at improving education within a geographic boundary, as is the mission of the William Penn Foundation and hundreds of private and community foundations across the country, we need to understand deeply what is happening, what is needed, and what might be most effective in our region. For us, using existing research is a starting point, but is not sufficient to catalyze improvement. And funding large-scale national studies is unlikely to advance our specific goals anytime soon. But supporting research that is developed collaboratively with educators and policymakers in our regions, research that is sensitive to the unique characteristics of our people, economy, public systems, and history, is an essential part of our work.

William Penn Foundation’s Great Learning grant program is focused on the city of Philadelphia, where almost 200,000 children attend over 320 public schools and about 100,000 children are served in early learning programs. Our goals are to increase the number of Philadelphia children who are prepared to enter kindergarten, who read on grade level by the end of third grade, and who graduate from high school. Our team awards about $33 million in grant funds each year, with about 250 active grantee organizations working to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for students.

Though research is not identified as a specific strategy to advance our goals, it is integrated into all of our strategies (see theories of change for each strategy here). Approximately 15% of our education grant budget, almost $5 million annually, is spent on research. It provides context to shape our strategies and initiatives, informs grantees’ program implementation, and assesses what may or may not be working. Research with a specific geographic focus is crucial to the work of local education practitioners, policymakers, advocates, families, and funders.

And, ideally, it also provides model studies that can be replicated elsewhere, raises questions that others may investigate, and contributes to an evidence base that can shape national priorities and progress.

Before supporting research in any of these forms, we always ask three questions:

  1. Why is the information needed? We need to know that the outcome of a proposed study will fill a gap in local knowledge and be useful in the context of a large, urban education system.
  2. Who will use it? The resulting findings should be actionable in some way by local education professionals, whether school or district leaders, municipal policymakers, early learning program directors, teachers, parents, or students. If the primary answer to this question is “other researchers” or “the field,” it would be less relevant to our goals.
  3. How will research be conducted and shared? Research should be conducted in partnership with those who are directly in a position to use it and should have a plan for wider sharing from the outset. Even though the primary audience may be local, all audiences will still require effective outreach and engagement to make use of the findings.

For researchers prepared to answer these questions, a place-based funder can provide a great opportunity to engage deeply with a community, to dig deeply into a question of pressing concern for the community, and to ensure that the resulting research will inform decisions.

This approach has led us to fund a wide range of research conducted by experts from our own “backyard” and across the country. It has, for example, helped us to understand more about the population of infants and toddlers in our cityobstacles to high school graduationimpediments to effective teacher preparationimpacts of pre-k programs, and many other pressing issues. The findings have been used to make small tweaks and large changes. They have answered questions and raised new ones. And, most importantly, they have helped strengthen the opportunities offered to children and adults across our city.

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