How to Jumpstart Education’s Innovation Engine

Former Bellwarian Jason Weeby, who helped to develop and lead our work around education innovation, offers a series for Ahead of the Heard that makes the case for maintaining some pandemic-era education innovations. Learn more about Bellwether’s work here. Read more posts in this series here.

Can policymakers, funders, and education system leaders come together to find, foster, and spread new ways of teaching, learning, and organizing schools that came out of pandemic-era schooling?

I’m an optimist, so I can’t help but say yes. But I’m also a realist, so I think the most likely path to advancing innovation across the education sector is to link it to a broader plan to help students recover from pandemic-related learning loss. I outlined five strategies for building the conditions for pandemic-era innovations to thrive in my last post; two of them stand out as critical to jumpstart the process: federal leadership and bold philanthropy

Ideally, fostering new schooling approaches would be part of any plan that President Biden and Secretary Cardona hatch for attacking learning loss. The need for a robust pandemic response provides Cardona justification to create the muscular and sophisticated innovation infrastructure at the Department of Education that dates back to at least 2007. High-profile federal leadership would also give big foundations, colleges and universities, and nonprofits something to rally around, especially if it were bipartisan. A clear and compelling vision, realistic goals, a roadmap for action, and a framework for collaboration with foundation heads, scholars, nonprofit leaders, and labor and parent unions, would go a long way toward rebuilding the trust in the federal government that the last administration lost.

Education philanthropy has moved away from K-12 in favor of pre-K and post-K in recent years. The fallout from the pandemic should force them to reconsider that move. Ideally, big national foundations would coordinate their funding efforts toward a campaign against learning loss, as they did in 2010 to support the i3 program. Suppose there’s no government effort with which to coordinate. In that case, funders could create a collective time-bound fund that supports proven efforts like expanded learning time and high-dosage tutoring in addition to more exploratory programs and models. The fast, no-strings-attached, equity-focused, big money brand of philanthropy that MacKenzie Scott has exemplified should inspire funders to be bold and swift.

Fortunately, it looks like these conversations have already begun. The Walton Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Zoom, and private donors have teamed up to pilot high-dosage tutoring to stem learning loss. And a BIPOC-led coalition of organizations including Digital Promise, Camelback Ventures, Education Leaders of Color, Pahara Institute, Surge Institute, and UnidosUS has formed with the goal of developing “an aggressive action agenda” to mitigate learning losses for Black and Brown students.

To curry support for his American Rescue Plan, President Biden tweeted yesterday: “The risk in this moment isn’t that we do too much — it’s that we don’t do enough.” The same sentiment applies to rebuilding and improving our education system once the pandemic subsides. 

If we don’t do enough to seed, foster, and share ideas that can improve schools, our collective desire to return to normal and the gravitational pull of the status quo will keep education innovation on the fringe. Students who desperately needed better schools before the pandemic will simply be relegated back to them with more academic ground to make up.

When it comes to making our schools more effective and equitable through innovation, federal policymakers and philanthropists play an outsized role in jumpstarting some much-needed movement.