At Fordham, we’re not big on grand anniversary galas, the sort of fancy events where organizations toot their own horns and bask in the praise and accolades of longtime friends. We’re not that kind of boastful. But as we get ready to reopen our offices after the long pandemic misery, it’s worth noting that 2021 marks our twenty-fifth anniversary. Yup, a quarter century of the modern, education-centric Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
With the help of a modest midcentury estate accumulated by Mr. Fordham (who passed away the year I was born) and bequeathed to the Foundation by his widow, Thelma Fordham Pruett, we were able in 1996 to reboot that entity as an education-reform organization with one foot planted in Washington and the other in the Buckeye State, which had been the focus of Mrs. Pruett’s philanthropy.
“We” wasn’t just me. Far-sighted trustees on the Dayton side included attorney Tom Holton, who’s still on the board, and longtime community college president David Ponitz. Founding trustees with a national perspective included Bruno Manno (now emeritus on the board but still an active advisor) and—yup—then-ardent ed reformer Diane Ravitch, with whom I had founded the Educational Excellence Network, the work of which we melded into the new Fordham venture. Gregg Vanourek signed on almost immediately to help lead that venture, and in short order, we were joined by the (very young) Mike Petrilli.
Keep the timing in mind. Bill Clinton was president. The Charlottesville summit was just a few years in the past. “Goals 2000” and the “Improving America’s Schools Act” were recently passed. The “new NAEP” had just recently begun offering state-level results to states that wanted them, and its young governing board (which I had recently served on) was still arguing with those that didn’t like its “achievement levels” (one reason was the bleak news that those new standards conveyed: on the 1996 assessment, just 24 percent of U.S. eighth graders were proficient or above in math). Two dozen states had passed charter laws, but only 110 charter schools were operational across the country.
At first, we functioned like any other small private foundation, with modest grants to other organizations doing useful work in the ed-reform space. Soon, though, we saw that more was needed and that we had to stimulate and commission people to engage in studies that needed to be done. Sometimes we had to do them ourselves. One line of inquiry was whether those novel academic standards that states were adopting in response to Charlottesville and the new federal laws were any good. So we launched what has become something of a Fordham brand, periodic reviews of state academic standards, the first of which—a critical look at the ELA standards in the twenty-eight states that had them at the time—was done by Sandra Stotsky. It appeared in 1997. Here’s how I introduced it:
The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is pleased to sponsor this path-breaking appraisal of state English standards by Dr. Sandra Stotsky, the eminent authority on English-language education. We expect it to inform and illumine discussion of just what children should know and be able to do in this most central of subjects as they make their way through America's primary and secondary schools.
Unlike earlier (and often controversial) efforts to set "national standards" for education, the discussion about standards that matters most-and that this report focuses on-is the discussion taking place at the state level. Constitutional responsibility for providing education rests with the states, and it is the states that (in most, though not all, cases) have finally begun to accept the obligation to set academic standards and develop tests and other assessments keyed to those standards.
Back then, a couple of other organizations (including the AFT) were also reviewing state standards, but they’ve since quit. Because we continue to believe that states’ expectations for what their schools should teach and their students should learn is the starting point for just about everything else, we’ve stuck with this kind of analysis—and you can expect a blockbuster Fordham review of state standards for civics and U.S. history next week!
Of course, that’s not all we’ve done. Two hundred-plus studies. Close to a thousand weekly Gadflies and Ohio Gadflies. Multiple thousands of blog posts. Op-eds and articles and books beyond counting. A forceful presence in our hometown of Dayton, which is also base camp for our charter-authorizing work across Ohio. A remarkable team on the ground in Columbus, assisting (and sometimes prodding) state policymakers to do the right thing when it comes to academic standards, accountability, and school choice. And so much more, including dozens of superb colleagues over the years in all three of our outposts. It helps that we remain almost the only ed-reform organization in America with both a national focus and a solid on-the-ground presence in one state, much less the only one that’s both think tank, charter sponsor, and what my friend Lamar Alexander calls a “do-tank.”
Yes, I’m proud, you betcha, though I haven’t led this multifaceted effort for going on seven years (that Mike and I see the world through similar lenses about 90 percent of the time has been a wonderful bonus). Fordham has never lost sight of the two original signposts on its reform path: rigorous standards and results-based accountability on one side and quality school choices on the other, both intended to advance excellence while equalizing opportunity for children from every background to partake of, and succeed at, the best that American education has to offer. But we’re not blind, so along that path we’ve added other timely themes and specialties, ranging from gifted education to sensible SEL to quality CTE. We’ve been fearless, almost always, in speaking the truth as we see it no matter what powerful interest (or funder) we may upset. We’ve gored some ungrateful oxen. We’ve occasionally been light hearted. We’ve built bridges, where we could, across all manner of political and philosophical divides, believing—old-fashioned as it sounds in these polarized times—that it’s possible to team up on some things while doing battle over others yet remain on speaking terms throughout.
A quarter century on, don’t expect to be invited to a big fancy party. But—like it or not—don’t expect us to go away, either. The education-reform effort is generational and is scarcely begun. Fordham intends to see it through.