The GiveWell Blog

Two worlds

Why are people so excited about one study of one charter school showing improved performance on math tests? (Our coverage of the study here).

It’s because in academic circles, improving academic performance is seen as an extremely thorny problem with a very long list of past failures. (See pages 1-2 of the paper for an overview.) The very strong default assumption is that an education program will fail to improve performance. To the point where a one-time, one-standard-deviation bump in math scores is considered (by David Brooks) to be a “miracle.”

But you’d never know it from the world of education philanthropy. Attend any fundraiser or read any annual report and all you’ll hear is stories of success.

There’s a similar split between two worlds in international philanthropy. Academics nearly all stress the challenges, the frustrations, and the sense that progress hasn’t matched expectations. Talk to a charity and you’ll hear “success, success, success.”

Many people are incredulous that we recommend so few charities. I can only guess that that’s because they’re coming from the world of fundraisers, where every charity is assumed to be a success. In our world, “recommended” is the exception, not the default.