When former ambassador and media magnate Walter Annenberg plopped $500 million on the table to strengthen school improvement efforts across the nation, he challenged other donors to “feel an obligation to join this crusade for the betterment of our country.” With three-quarters of the money going into challenge grants requiring a 2-for-1 local match—hence, the name Annenberg Challenge—the philanthropist’s largesse generated more than $1 billion for reform programs. Today, Annenberg programs are working in nearly 2,700 schools in 300 school districts.

Judging the impact of such a diverse, farflung effort is a daunting challenge that has fallen to Barbara Cervone, a researcher and former education activist who is the national coordinator of the Annenberg Challenge, as the whole program has become known.

To come up with the larger story of the Annenberg Challenge, Cervone oversees cross-site research. That requires sifting through results from Challenge initiatives as diverse as an effort in New York to create small schools, a Philadelphia program built around the superintendent’s reform agenda, a San Francisco program embracing 60 area school districts that have demonstrated a commitment to school change, and a Chicago operation that sees itself primarily as a grant maker.

“Each of the sites has a different story to tell,” says Cervone.

Cervone’s work in the 1960s and 70s to create small, alternative high schools was ahead of its time. After a decade of trying, she gave up, believing “school districts were not conducive environments for the kinds of ideas we had.” However, the idea that smaller schools serve students better than larger ones has emerged as a recurring theme among the Annenberg sites.

Another common finding is that teachers in failing schools are critically in need of professional development programs. Questions still to be answered are: Which of the many approaches to small schools or to professional development worked the best, and why?

Not all of the results have been so predictable, Cervone says.

“One of the things that Annenberg unwittingly set up was these new organizations, non-profits that existed outside the traditional boundaries,” she explains. “They were not totally separate from the school districts, but they were not the school districts themselves. What has grown up is this collection of intermediaries that have been real champions for reform.”

Researchers attempting to assess the impact of Annenberg are working on two fronts, Cervone says. One effort is aimed at satisfying public concerns about student achievement: Did Walter Annenberg’s $500 million help raise test scores? The other is aimed at finding the deeper meaning behind those student achievement statistics: What worked, and what didn’t work?

That’s a steep challenge

For example, the analysis of California test scores has been complicated by the fact that the state changed the test mid-stream. In Chicago, researchers are trying to tease out the impact of Annenberg money on a system that has simultaneously undergone significant policy and program changes, including a massive effort to end social promotion. Cervone says researchers also must distinguish between Chicago partnerships that were funded in the first round of grants and those funded later.

Anne Hallett, executive director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform and one of the grant writers that brought Annenberg money to Chicago, believes that the national data collected by the Challenge will be one of the most beneficial legacies of the program. But she concedes, “it will be a messy mix.”

“Annenberg is all about student achievement,” she notes. “That is always complex.”

The short life of Annenberg makes it even more difficult to pinpoint cause and effect, she says. “Most of this stuff is hard and slow work. It doesn’t just happen. It’s the kind of investment that takes time to pay off.”

Indeed, as the national Annenberg Challenge winds down, each of the sites is looking for a way to extend its life. In Chicago, that will be the Chicago Public Education Fund. (See story.)

In San Francisco, officials already are raising money to fund the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative for another five years. Los Angeles is planning a successor organization that will focus on advocacy, public engagement and research, similar to the Chicago Consortium on School Research. Boston’s challenge has merged with the Boston Plan for Excellence, the city’s local public education fund.

In other cities, such as Philadelphia, Houston, Detroit, the future has yet to be determined.

The rural challenge already has changed its name and reincorporated as the Rural Schools and Community Trust, an advocacy organization that will not make grants but will continue to work in schools and communities.

“The purpose of requiring the Annenberg money to be matched locally was to build local resources,” Cervone says. “Annenberg was meant to come in and catalyze what was already there. Annenberg was meant to be a mid-point on the continuum.”

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