NYC update: people still have problems

We met with New Visions for Public Schools on Friday afternoon. The contrast with the Children’s Aid Society meeting was instructive. CAS met us for lunch; New Visions met us in a conference room. (I like food, but I think we’re going to avoid lunch meetings in the future so we don’t end up with all our notes on soup-stained Post-its.) The CAS representatives were all smiles; the conversation with Bob, the President of New Visions, bordered at times on adversarial. When asked about other organizations, CAS stressed how much they talked and worked together, despite not sharing funding; Bob pretty much said the opposite, stressing the practical challenges of partnerships.

I came away pretty impressed with New Visions, and feeling that they did a better job of addressing my concerns in a head-on, all-business way (at least in the meeting – we’ve waiting on followup materials from both). The fact that New Visions generally has a “supporting” role in its projects, working with the Department of Education and with smaller teams rather than running programs itself, had been making it hard for us to understand where the money literally goes; now we have a much better sense of that, and I’ll incorporate it into the New Visions review. What’s so exciting about New Visions is that it is funding, supporting, and getting the government to cooperate in a variety of unconventional and “experimental” approaches, and placing a high priority on collecting evidence of these approaches’ effectiveness. The devotion to and quality of self-evaluation distinguish it from other education-centered organizations; another distinction is that by working in existing public schools rather than starting charter schools or “school choice” programs, New Visions is more likely to affect the students who need the most help.

My biggest concern about New Visions is that it doesn’t seem to be building a centralized “This is what we think works, and this is what we think doesn’t” list. I find its Ten Principles of Effective Small Schools vague; more importantly, this list has been around since its small school initiative started 3 years ago. Dialogue is presumably taking place, but what and where are the conclusions (even if tentative) being reached?

The common thread between New Visions, CAS, and Robin Hood (whom we finally got to start a conversation with today, thanks to GiveWell member Kerry’s greasing the wheels with a donation), is that none of them seem to have many other donors who are interested in the details of their activities and self-evaluations. You can see it from their concern about “overwhelming” us with material (which we keep trying to explain is not a concern) to their lack of detailed funding breakdowns to their lack of precedent for having the kinds of conversations we want (both of our in-person meetings ran over; one was over corn chowder; and the Robin Hood representative seemed genuinely surprised that someone wanted to “look under the hood”). Don’t tell me this is because people are “leaving the details to the experts” – that isn’t what you do when a car dealer, even a nice one, assures you that what you’re about to buy is “all fixed up,” and it isn’t what you do when your President assures you that our military plan is all checked out. Any time there’s high stakes, low information, and multiple options, leaving the details to the experts is a mistake. And though we hope that we’ll eventually become experts on charity-related issues ourselves, we also hope you’ll demand that everything that goes into our recommendations is available for you to check out.

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