Tweets as a Window Into Foundation Strategy

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.

ednext-blog-jan17-greene-twitterstrategySo 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.

—Jay P. Greene

Jay P. Greene is endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

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