by John Larmer
Editor in Chief
Tonight I’m going to BIE’s 30th birthday party. Our staff, board members, former staff, and various other local friends of “the Buck” are gathering to celebrate our work on behalf of students, teachers, and school leaders—which for the past 20 of our 30 years has been focused on Project Based Learning.
The MC for the evening is Bob Lenz, BIE’s executive director since 2015. In attendance will be John Mergendoller, our executive director from 2000-2015 (who still consults with us) and members of the family of Carolyn Horan, our founding executive director who died this fall. Let me tell you the tale of how we began—it’s not your typical start for a nonprofit, and it helps explain how we were able to focus so exclusively on PBL.
Beryl H. Buck’s Bequest… and a Legal Battle
Marin County, California resident Beryl H. Buck died in 1975, leaving an estate that in the mid-1980s ballooned in value to $450 million. In her will she had stipulated that the money be used “for exclusively nonprofit, charitable, religious or educational purposes… in Marin County, Calif.” The San Francisco Foundation, which had been managing the Leonard and Beryl Buck Trust, challenged the will in 1984, arguing that so much money should not only be spent in the relatively wealthy Marin County but also benefit “the needy” (as Mrs. Buck put it) in other San Francisco Bay Area counties.
A prolonged legal battle, which some called the “Super Bowl of Probate” because of how closely the national philanthropic world was watching it, addressed the issue of whether a benefactor’s will could be overturned. After six months of litigation, in 1986 the foundation withdrew its court case and signed a settlement agreement that struck a compromise: 80% of the trust was awarded to a new Marin Community Foundation, to be spent within the county (which did in fact have “needy” people and causes) and the remainder was set aside to fund in perpetuity three major projects based in Marin but whose work was to benefit “all humankind.”
During the trial Carolyn Horan, Marin County Deputy Superintendent of Schools, served as an education expert witness and later led the development of a proposal for an institute that would provide research and service to address educational issues of national and global significance. In 1987 she became the first executive director of the Beryl Buck Institute for Education (that’s our old logo above).
How BIE Came to PBL
In its first decade BIE produced a variety of education research studies, evaluations, and resources. In the late 1990s it decided to focus on problem- and project-based learning as a promising instructional methodology for improving student engagement and achievement.
The decision to investigate PBL, according to Yolanda Bellisimo, BIE’s director of programs then, began with Carolyn Horan. “She was notorious for going to lunch with a wide range of people in education, pumping them for information, and writing notes on napkins and scraps of paper. It was one of those luncheons that led to her interest in problem and project based learning.”
BIE heard about PBL because during in the 1990s several schools in Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area—among other places around the U.S.—began using the methodology along with other innovative practices in what was called the “school reform” or “restructuring” movement. (I taught at and helped start one of these schools, Oceana High School in Pacifica, CA, which became a member of the national network Coalition of Essential Schools, founded by Ted Sizer. Another was Drake High School, in San Anselmo, CA, where Bob Lenz was a teacher.) Additionally, the Autodesk Educational Foundation, headed by Bob Pearlman and based in Marin, was at that time supporting the use of PBL and hosting an annual PBL conference in San Francisco called “Kids Who Know and Can Do.”
Autodesk asked John Thomas, who was with WestEd, to write a Review of Research on Project-Based Learning in 1998, which is still widely cited. Thomas studied local high schools that were using project-based learning and BIE commissioned him to write, with BIE’s then-director of research John Mergendoller, the first edition of the Project Based Learning Handbook (shown below) in 1999. The second edition was published in 2003, and sold almost 50,000 copies and was translated into nine languages. Along with the Handbook BIE began delivering PBL professional development workshops for teachers. In the late 1990s we also developed a set of problem-based curriculum units for high school economics, which had recently become a required subject in California. These were followed by the publication of problem-based curriculum units for high school government/civics.
In 2009 the Buck Institute for Education further expanded its publications, online tools and resources, and especially its services and events. Demand for PBL sharply increased with the arrival of the Common Core State Standards, the wider use of technnology in schools, and the growing emphasis on "21st century skills" and deeper, more meaningful learning for students. We now provide PBL professional development to almost 20,000 teachers, instructional coaches, and school leaders annually, designed and conducted by our staff and amazing National Faculty.
The Buck Trust still funds us to the tune of around $800,000 a year, though it’s now a fraction of our overall annual revenue. But when we started, Beryl Buck’s bequest was the reason we were able to stay afloat and not scramble for whatever funding we could get and be pulled in various directions, as many nonprofits are. It allowed us to pursue whatever direction in the field of education we thought would benefit “all humankind,” and we decided that was Project Based Learning. The rest, as they say, is history.