Education Funders: Step Up and Hear from Those You Seek to Help

This is widely seen to be a rare moment of potential dramatic change in the American system of K-12 education.  Yet, in all the debate about what are the best strategies for improving educational outcomes for our young people, we hear precious little about the perspectives of young people themselves.

That’s what CEP’s YouthTruth initiative, which I discussed in my last post, is all about.  CEP launched YouthTruth two years ago and is now seeking multi-year funding support to expand the project over the next 3 years.

Some may ask, What is CEP, which focuses on helping foundations improve their effectiveness, doing surveying intended beneficiaries?

My response is, How could we not at least try?  If we see the views of grantees, policymakers, declined applicants, and board members as crucial to better philanthropic decision making, how could we turn our back on those whose views should matter most – the people whose lives a funder seeks to improve?

We see YouthTruth and the Beneficiary Perception Report as a “proof of concept” opportunity— a chance to demonstrate that funders can make better decisions when they hear from intended beneficiaries in a rigorous, comparative way.  We also see it as a chance to test, through analysis, the link between perceptions and outcomes.  Do changes in certain student perceptions connect to changes in key student outcomes?  Establishing that connection would allow for the development of the kind of actionable and timely indicators that can prevent mistakes and create opportunities for driving more positive impact.

There is much debate about the right way to assess school performance, and I am not expert enough to weigh in on that one.  But I have to believe that, as we debate the future of education in this country, we need to hear from students about their experiences.  Particularly now, as we experiment with alternate approaches to educating our youth, we should be doing everything possible to ensure our interventions are having their intended impact.  Setting up good systems to hear from students should be an important part of the approach to assessment: student perceptions have a place alongside other important metrics, such as test scores and graduation rates.

Even my nine-year old daughter and her friends, who just completed the third grade, have a valuable perspective on their education.  Surely, then, surveying high school students makes sense.  Yet, despite all the surveys out there, few are delivered on a comparative, large-scale basis, and few are turned around in a timely and understandable enough way to inform decision making.

YouthTruth isn’t the only effort to hear from intended beneficiaries of philanthropy.  There are a number of other, promising, efforts to hear from intended beneficiaries.  But, collectively, we have a long way to go.  So why aren’t we doing better?

I think funders know they should listen to their intended beneficiaries, just as companies know they should listen to their customers – yet all too often act in ways that demonstrate that they did not.  See this recent story on Dell Computer for a stunning example of how a company that has been held up in countless business school case studies dissed its customers by apparently knowingly delivering a faulty product. Or think even of vaunted Apple’s initial responses to complaints about the IPhone 4.  So often the initial reaction of a powerful entity, when facing tough feedback, is to deny the legitimacy of the perspective of those on the ground – the end user, the intended beneficiary.

Look, most of us know, intellectually, that we should listen to the perspectives of the intended beneficiaries of our work.  But knowing something and really doing it are two different things.  Because it takes real discipline and courage – not to mention hard work – to engage this kind of feedback in meaningful ways.

I invite every funder that cares about improving education in the United States to contact us to talk about YouthTruth and our multi-year plan for the project.  I hope you will consider joining the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Stuart Foundation in investing in an effort to hear from – and learn from – those you seek to help.

Phil Buchanan is President of CEP.

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