Tag Archives: #COVIDandschools

#PandemictoProgress: Lessons for Districts to Carry Forward on Community Outreach and Operations

In Bellwether’s recent From Pandemic to Progress three-part district webinar series, leaders of school districts and community-based educational initiatives joined our team to discuss the 2021-22 school year ahead. Read our summary and see the video of Part 1: Policy and Planning, here.  

Since first shutting their doors to in-person learning in March 2020, school districts and community partners have had to work harder and smarter in order to communicate and collaborate with students, families, and other stakeholders. Even as more schools transition back to in-person learning this spring or fall, millions of students nationally may have had minimal or no engagement with virtual learning over the past year. What has the 2020-21 academic year taught district and community leaders about family engagement, and how might school operations change as students make a safe return to classrooms? 

Part 2 of Bellwether’s From Pandemic to Progress webinar series focused on operations and outreach to tackle these fundamental questions. Panelists included:

  • Amanda Fernández, CEO and Founder of Latinos for Education and Partner in the Boston Community Learning Collaborative, Massachusetts. 
  • Peter Hilts, CEO, District 49, Colorado.
  • Michael Matsuda, Superintendent, Anaheim Union High School District, California.
  • Facilitator: Mary K. Wells, Managing Partner and Co-Founder, Bellwether Education Partners.

The discussion (video above) led to three key takeaways:

Takeaway 1: Districts should recognize the essential role community-based organizations can play in connecting schools with families and communities, and in expanding district capacity

The pandemic, “Unmasked the illusion of independence,” within Hilts’ district that stretches across suburban and rural communities near Colorado Springs, Colorado. “We thought we operated pretty independently…but in a crisis we needed to increase the tempo of our collaboration,” and work with neighboring school districts and community organizations to execute on initiatives like a regional free meal distribution strategy, he noted. 

Similarly, Matsuda highlighted the value of community partnerships over the past year, which have helped his district build relationships with families in new settings and get the word out about community public health initiatives such as COVID-19 tests and vaccinations. “We need our faith-based communities, our nonprofits, and our schools working together to build trust,” especially with communities of color and immigrant communities, according to Matsuda. He noted that these new partnerships shouldn’t just be temporary, “And will make us much stronger as institutions.” 

Fernández saw these dynamics play out from a different angle in Boston, where her organization is one of the leading partners in a community-based effort to launch more than a dozen free, in-person, small-group learning pods serving mostly Black and Latino children. “The pandemic has surfaced a need for equal partnership at the table between families, community-based organizations, and schools, which will contribute to better outcomes for students.” 

Each of the organizations in the Community Learning Collaborative built trusting relationships with different groups of families over the years. These existing relationships served as a foundation for recruiting families into the pods and providing a safe, supportive learning environment. According to Fernández, “Trust, collaboration, and centering students and families have all been consistent in the approach we’re taking,” to running the pods.  

Takeaway 2: Inclusivity and equity are essential to successful outreach efforts

As learning conditions and district offerings evolved rapidly over the last year, it was essential to keep families in the loop and informed. However, traditional venues for communication like parent-teacher nights, flyers in backpacks, or in-person conversations were off the table. Successful communication strategies in this new environment prioritized inclusivity and equity, multiple modes of communication to reach families wherever they were, and a focus on listening to families’ needs and priorities. 

Matsuda noted that families in his district speak more than 40 languages. Beyond translating communications, his district also worked to anticipate and facilitate two-way conversations with families in their preferred language. 

One of the ingredients for success in the Boston Community Learning Collaborative, according to Fernández, was intentionally recruiting mostly Latino and Black educators and staff to supervise the pods. These team members often came from the same communities as the children they served and were well-positioned to quickly build communicative, trusting relationships with students and families.

Takeaway 3: What families and students are looking for from school may have shifted permanently

Experiences of the past year, both positive and negative, have changed many students’ and families’ goals and expectations from schools. Panelists were optimistic about near-term opportunities to bring a renewed sense of urgency to educational innovation. They also agreed on the importance of partnerships among districts, higher-education entities, employers, and community-based organizations to meet students’ needs in new and better ways.

For example, Hilts anticipated that an increasing number of districts would offer, “A mix of online learning and flexible schedule options, because it serves our students, their life circumstances, and their personal preferences,” especially at the high school level. “We have to be better about providing culturally and technically responsive learning options that provide access to more students.” Matsuda was also excited about this possibility, adding, “It’s not going to be easy to innovate, but the comfort level among families and students [with online learning], particularly at the high school level, has grown.” Both Hilts and Matsuda agreed that well-designed, flexible academic learning environments might increase student engagement in learning and develop deeper life skills such as self-directed time management. But they underscored that policy barriers in many states could be an impediment to these kinds of innovative offerings.  

Each panelist noted that the isolating and traumatizing effects of the pandemic have made students’ mental health and social-emotional learning urgent priorities. “Families are concerned about social, emotional, and mental health,” said Matsuda, and are looking to schools to help assess, monitor, and meet those needs. Fernández reported hearing from families that mental health is a top concern and urged districts to, “Continue that kind of support and balance it with any academic support that might be needed.” All three panelists agreed that, by keeping community partners at the table, districts can deepen the web of academic and non-academic supports for students and families. 

Find a video and summary of Part 1 in our From Pandemic to Progress webinar series by clicking here, and stay tuned for a summary of key takeaways from the Part 3 discussion on academics and instruction.

#PandemictoProgress: School District Leaders Reflect on Four Key Policy and Planning Takeaways Amid COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how school districts do their work. Navigating sudden changes in large school systems is not easy but, as we’ve seen in our work across every layer of the education system this year, leaders have pushed forward innovations, created interventions, and learned invaluable lessons to reshape how districts and schools operate in the future.

In Bellwether’s recent From Pandemic to Progress three-part webinar series, leaders of school districts and community-based educational initiatives joined our team to discuss district-level planning and the pandemic’s impact on students in the upcoming 2021-22 school year. 

Part 1 of Bellwether’s From Pandemic to Progress webinar series focused on issues in policy and planning. Panelists shared what they’ve learned about planning and adaptability this year, their plans for next year, and how policies and funding like the recent federal stimulus package might affect those plans. Panelists included:

  • Dr. Adrienne Battle, Director of Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, Tennessee.
  • Dr. Tony Watlington, Superintendent, Rowan-Salisbury Schools, North Carolina.
  • Facilitator: Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, Policy and Evaluation Partner, Bellwether Education Partners.

The discussion (video above) revealed four key takeaways:

Takeaway 1: Plans for 2021-22 must be adaptable and include contingencies for different modes of operation

As Drs. Battle and Watlington plan for the 2021-22 school year and beyond, both emphasized the need for flexibility, adaptability, and contingency planning built into any operational or learning plans. “We still don’t know where we will be by August 2021, so all of the contingency planning will continue,” said Battle. Creating nimble, adaptable plans for tens of thousands of students is no easy task, and Watlington compared it to, “Turning a supertanker around in a small lake.”

These plans will include options for students and families who prefer to continue learning virtually. Although both Nashville and Rowan-Salisbury had virtual schools before the pandemic, lessons from the past year will reshape existing offerings. Watlington noted changes in how his district plans to recruit and train teachers for virtual instruction and support students to be successful in virtual learning environments. The virtual school offering in Nashville, “Will look very different than it has looked in years past, because we’ve learned a lot about educating our students in a virtual space, through the lens of equity, academics, and social-emotional learning,” said Battle. However, she went on to caveat that state policy in Tennessee prevents her district from offering hybrid or virtual options for students enrolled at traditional schools once the pandemic state of emergency concludes. 

Takeaway 2: Districts are looking for ways to maximize their time with students and to use time in new ways

Both district leaders discussed how they’re reframing and refocusing efforts to spend meaningful time with students. After a year in which in-person and virtual time was scarce, how can schools and districts more effectively support learning and build stronger relationships? Potential strategies to increase learning time include summer school, tutoring, and before/after school learning opportunities, all of which might involve new collaborations with community-based organizations and partners. 

As a state-designated Renewal School District, Rowan-Salisbury Schools have greater flexibility over their calendar and curriculum than other North Carolina districts, and are moving towards a flexible competency-based learning model to emphasize student mastery. According to Watlington, “We are thinking differently about time and these artificial beginning and end points of 180 days per year in each grade,” and are instead considering ways to overhaul their approach to student time in a class or in a particular grade level.

Both leaders also spoke about allocating time to intentionally focus on social and emotional learning and student mental health as school communities cope with the disruptions and traumas of the past year. According to Battle, “If there’s anything that I’ve taken away from this pandemic and what our parents are demanding from us, and what our staff is capable of providing, it’s making sure that every MNPS student is known, that they’re cared for, and that we’re serving their needs properly.” Echoing that theme, Watlington said, “I am certain that this pandemic is going to fundamentally change our orientation to be more focused on social and emotional learning, and not to see it as ‘fluff’ or less than ‘academic’ learning.”

Takeaway 3: Federal stimulus money offers opportunities to fund innovative approaches or amp up resources for work already underway

K-12 school systems stand to receive $123 billion in federal funds through the American Rescue Plan. Of that, at least 20% of the funds allocated to school districts must be dedicated to addressing what the federal law calls “learning loss,” especially for subgroups of students who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. 

How to use this money effectively for both pandemic recovery and educational innovation was top of mind for panelists. “We’re not going to go backwards. We’re not going to be status quo. We’re going to continue a culture of innovation,” said Watlington, adding later on, “I think it’s really important that we not squander these resources away and do the same thing we’ve done for 100 years, just because that’s the way we’ve done it.”

Federal stimulus funds will allow districts to expand and continue pre-existing programs aimed at accelerating learning, such as summer school and tutoring, and could also provide resources for big bets on innovation.

Takeaway 4: School systems must engage students, families, and educators in new ways, through an equitable lens

Panelists emphasized the resiliency of students, families, and teachers and described methods of student and family engagement that they plan to continue in the school year ahead. 

For example, Nashville’s Navigator program groups students into small cohorts led by a teacher or a school/district staff member. Each Navigator maintains frequent communication with their cohort, builds relationships, and connects students to in- or out-of-school supports, as needed.

Panelists discussed ways in which the pandemic revealed inequities among students and families. Home circumstances such as internet/technology access, access to reliable health care, and parent flexibility to supervise remote learning intersected with race and class, impacting students’ opportunities to learn and engage. 

District leaders pledged to carry these equity lessons into the year ahead. As his district embarked on a new strategic plan, Watlington asked himself a series of equity-related questions, including, “How do you make sure that equity is hard wired into policy? Do we have a common definition of equity? And how do you know when it’s occurring?” Similarly, Battle emphasized understanding and meeting each students’ individual needs, “We need to be able to adapt and adjust our services our supports specifically to the individual needs of our students, and the various communities of students that we serve.” 

Stay tuned for additional summaries and videos of Parts 2 and 3 in our From Pandemic to Progress webinar series, focused on operations and outreach as well as academics and instruction.

From Pandemic to Progress: Eight Bellwether briefs set long-term visions for education policy and practice

Today, we and several of our Bellwether colleagues released From Pandemic to Progress: Eight Education Pathways for COVID-19 Recovery, making the case for the the education sector to recenter and rebuild after the disruptions caused by COVID-19. At some point — hopefully soon — vaccines will become broadly available and students and teachers everywhere will return to full-time, in-person learning. School, system, and sector leaders will pause and take a breath. Then they quickly will turn their attention back to many of the questions that have simmered in the background for the past year, but that are quickly coming back to a boil.

In the wake of COVID-19, leaders and policymakers will need ambitious but achievable pathways to re-engage in complex policy questions and rebuild education. From Pandemic to Progress draws on the breadth of Bellwether’s expertise and a diversity of viewpoints across our team in a series of briefs — each with a take on what we will need in the years ahead to create a sector that can provide students with the high-quality education and supports they need and deserve to be successful.

Here are the issues and areas where we believe the sector should not go back to normal:

Redesigning Accountability: Bonnie O’Keefe grounds the debates on assessment and accountability back in core principles and practicalities. She doubles down on the need for transparent data and subgroup reporting, but also challenges policymakers to create systems that are aligned to the realities of classroom instruction and school-based decision making.

Supporting a Diverse Choice Ecosystem From the Bottom Up: Alex Spurrier lays out a vision for fostering choice and enabling a diversity of educational approaches, by seeding consortia of assessments, similar to Advanced Placement, that ensure the quality but not the homogeneity of options.

Prioritizing Equity in School Funding: Jennifer O’Neal Schiess pinpoints the inequities in school funding and explains why it should be decoupled from the real estate market, with local property taxes playing a minimal or vastly different role in the funding of schools.

Establishing Coherent Systems for Vulnerable Students: Hailly T.N. Korman and Melissa Steel King stay laser-focused on students who have experienced homelessness, foster care, pregnancy, or other disruptions to their education and call on public agencies to address the confusing fragmentation of social services so students can receive comprehensive and streamlined support.

Creating an Institute for Education Improvement: Allison Crean Davis makes a case for changing the way we change, calling for a standalone entity that can champion and support the education sector in rigorous, data-driven approaches to continuous improvement.

Diversifying the Teacher Workforce: Indira Dammu reminds us of the research that links a diverse teacher workforce to improved student outcomes, and makes recommendations for how policymakers can support the recruitment and retention of teachers of color.

Building on the Charter Sector’s Many Paths to Impact: Juliet Squire acknowledges headwinds facing charter school growth, but reminds policymakers and practitioners of the many ways — beyond increasing enrollment — that charter schools can expand their impact.

Bringing Home-Based Child Care Providers Into the Fold: Ashley LiBetti shines a spotlight on the critical role that home-based child care providers play in caring for the country’s youngest children, a role that the pandemic further dramatized; she makes the case for policies that address the important role that home-based child care plays in the early childhood ecosystem.

Whether addressing a long-standing issue that has shaped the education reform debates for decades, or an issue that has yet to garner the attention it deserves, each brief lays out a long-term vision for success and pathways to get there.

The education sector is far too familiar with the cycle of faddish policies and knee-jerk reactions when reforms don’t immediately produce increases in student proficiency. And certainly the last year has rightfully concentrated attention and resources on addressing the most urgent and basic student needs. But when the crisis subsides, education policymakers and practitioners will need a point on the horizon to aim for. We hope these briefs inspire and inform long-term visions for serving America’s kids.



How to Tack Against the Four Headwinds to Pandemic-Era Education Innovations

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.

To make a sailboat tack to sail into a headwind, the sailor must execute a specific set of motions in sequence to avoid being hit by the swinging boom or tipping over. On large sailboats, multiple crew members must act in concert to change directions successfully. The same is true for education leaders who want to create an environment where good ideas that emerged during the pandemic can be proven out and, hopefully, benefit the students who need them the most.

For any changes to schools and systems to take root and remain durable, district and charter leaders, policymakers, parents, and funders will need to act in concert over the next 6-12 months. Here’s a proposal for where to begin.

Start With the Needs and Desires of Students and Families

For innovations to stick, they can’t just be different from the status quo: they have to confer some advantages over it. The best advantage that we can hope for is improved academic and life outcomes for low-income, Black, and Latino students.

We should be conducting empathy interviews to understand what parts of school families are eager to go back to, what’s surprised them, what could be better with a little improvement, and what they’d happily leave behind once the pandemic is under control. (Look for a toolkit on the topic coming from The Learning Accelerator this month.) It’s in these answers that a new normal will emerge. We should extend our human-centered inquiry to create education policies informed directly by the people that will be most affected by them. Educators and innovators choose to spend their time and energy should stem from students and families’ needs and desires rather than pre-baked agendas, efficiency ploys, educator convenience, flashy ideas, or funders’ whims.

This approach has two distinct advantages. First, we’ll articulate more accurate definitions of problems and more relevant solutions through regular interactions with students and families. Second, it builds trust with a constituency that has a massive influence on determining which innovations are adopted, leading me to my next tack.

Activate and Organize a Natural Constituency — Parents — to Influence Policies

A few months before the pandemic, I attended a meeting of San Francisco parents advocating for better schools in Southeast San Francisco. Through an interpreter translating Spanish to English, I heard a common frustration of an inability to know the quality of curricula and instruction in their children’s schools. Principals and teachers were keeping parents at arm’s length to avoid scrutiny. Now, those parents and millions more like them have been exposed to their children’s education as lessons occur in their living room and instructional materials are a click away. Parents unhappy with the level of communication, quality of instruction, or rigor of curricula will be looking for better opportunities for their kids.

More privileged parents used private schools, pods, or online platforms to curate the kind of personalized learning experience they wanted for their children. It may have been the first time they had to confront their opportunity hoarding as they accessed resources out of reach for other families.

Both cases point to a natural constituency just waiting to be activated and organized.

And organization is key. As Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham recently put it, “A basic rule in politics is organized and focused power beats disorganized sentiment most of the time.” States, districts, and teachers’ unions are organized and focused in most places. With the exception of some community-based organizations and newer outfits like the National Parents Union, parents are not. Harnessing the energy from parents who want to improve school systems will require them to have their own organizations. Reformers will have to broaden their tent to include them, engage them in authentic dialogue, seek common ground, and act together where there are common interests.

In their seminal book on the history of education reform, Tinkering Toward Utopia, David Tyack and Larry Cuban note that many challenges to traditional schooling fail because proposed changes are too “intramural.” That is, they’re popular among reformers but lack political sway and are out of touch with families and the broader citizenry. This has been the education reform community’s blind spot for decades as well-intentioned, highly educated, and mostly white people tried to create better education opportunities for students who did not share their advantages.

Genuine inclusion requires patience, a characteristic not usually demonstrated by funders and leaders who love to say that they are driven by urgency. This tension introduces the risk of tokenizing parents and students to advance an agenda that can erode trust and stymie promising improvement efforts. However, when done well, parents and educators working together can create more responsive schools and systems and build a powerful bloc for future political battles.

Advocate for Federal and State Governments to Lead on Education Innovation

In its first days, the Biden administration is trying to pass a massive $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package that includes $130 billion to help K-12 schools reopen safely and “meet students’ academic, mental health and social, and emotional needs in response to COVID-19.” Despite its massive price tag, Biden’s proposed relief package is a short-term solution that will only cover costs through the summer. Even so, Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Education Miguel Cordona should require SEAs to set aside 1% of current and future coronavirus relief funding to find, test, and spread promising education innovations, and provide them with guidance for how to do it. Districts should be encouraged to do the same.

Relief bills are necessary to meet the crisis’s needs. Still, schools will need more federal leadership to address the learning loss that will affect millions of students for years — an Operation Warp Speed for education.

An obvious place to start would be to provide clarity and guidance to SEAs addressing which flexibilities they will retain for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. Without it, states and districts can’t plan thoughtfully for recovery and for leveraging innovations. Unless and until they have the confidence and funds to continue to innovate, the implicit message will be to wait for the pandemic to subside and default to pre-pandemic schooling.

The origins of Biden’s campaign slogan, “Build Back Better,” could provide a helpful roadmap for a larger initiative. The phrase dates back to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction adopted by the United Nations in 2015. The concept of building back better is “an approach to post-disaster recovery that reduces vulnerability to future disasters and builds community resilience to address physical, social, environmental, and economic vulnerabilities and shocks.” In other words, it’s foolish to rebuild the same infrastructure in the wake of a disaster; the next version should be an improvement. Applying this approach to America’s schools would necessitate fostering innovation or running the risk of building back an inequitable school system.

Cordona could make innovation a priority of his new agenda by beefing up the Education Innovation and Research program and finally starting up the much talked about but never actualized ARPA-ED R&D initiative. The Department of Education could play a lead role in creating shared principles, language, standards, and framework for education innovation and provide SEA’s with guidance on how to implement innovation practices. If Biden triples Title I funding as he’s promised, SEA’s could use their school improvement set-aside for innovation activities. Additionally, they can play more of a support role by waiving onerous regulations that constrain innovation activities and creating strategic partnerships with organizations that can provide technical support for finding and rigorously testing new ideas.

Building the federal innovation and R&D apparatus so that it’s responsive and rigorous is a challenging task by itself. Results from the Investing in Innovation program (i3) were mixed and translating an approach that works in health care and defense isn’t straightforward. Even so, if the administration is up for the challenge and goes in eyes wide open, it could leverage the Democratic in control of Congress, increased federal funding, and the country needing new ways to accelerate student learning to build the federal engine for education innovation.

Step Up Philanthropic Investments in Innovation and R&D

Private foundations could be playing a much larger role in education innovation than they are. In fact, funding R&D and innovation is one of the main roles of philanthropy in a democracy. According to Paul Vallely, author of Philanthropy – from Aristotle to Zuckerberg, philanthropy has three vital functions: “It can support the kind of higher-risk research and innovation generally avoided by government and business. It can plug gaps left by market failure and government incompetence. And it can fund the nonprofits that mediate between the individual, the market, and the state.” Yet most philanthropies fund established nonprofits, essentially ignoring people with novel ideas who need support to test and refine them. This isn’t a new observation.

In 2015, Matt Candler pointed out that philanthropy was largely neglecting the first three stages of innovation: defining good problems, testing new solutions, and going to market. Not much has changed in the last five years. Without more foundations out there providing $1,000 to $250,000 “dream capital” grants, good ideas will die on the vine. Teachers who have developed new methods during the pandemic will never have a chance to share them. Principals who want to pilot new school models that combine the best of distance and in-person learning won’t have the chance to prove their concepts.

The good news is there are already good examples of effective seed funders who can help build the capacity of the sector, such as NewSchools Venture Fund, New Profit, and the Draper, Richards, Kaplan Foundation. An established foundation allocating 10% of their giving to seeding the sector with new ideas with follow-on funding for those that prove effective would catalyze education’s innovation engine.

Private philanthropy should also fund R&D projects that combine basic research, applied research, and experimental development. When ARPA-Ed failed to materialize under the Obama Administration, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation teamed up to launch the $50 million EF+Math Program, which provides grants for multi-year projects to “co-design and develop new approaches to build math-relevant executive function skills during high-quality math instruction.” Endeavors like this are more complex and time-consuming than funding entrepreneurs with promising ideas, so they require big money and patience.

Act While the Overton Window is Open

Although the timing for any effort precipitated by a public health crisis is difficult to describe as “good,” we’re at a moment when ideas that were politically or socially unacceptable only a year ago are now safe for system leaders and politicians to pursue. In other words, the Overton Window is open. In less than a year, the concept of learning from anywhere at any time has moved from being radical to acceptable and even sensible for many families. Educators should be advocating to carry over innovations into the post-pandemic world now as vaccines roll out, scientific consensus builds for returning to in-person instruction, districts are planning for the fall, and new practices have had enough time to show some evidence of improving achievement, equity, or efficiency.

The popularization of new practices and their enshrinement in public policies will likely take much more time, familiarity, and evidence. That’s okay. In the short-term, the focus should be on maintaining the conditions that can allow teachers and principals to test new ideas. Securing waivers from local, state, and policies that give schools the freedom to experiment while holding the line on evidence of success and accountability is an immediate commonsense goal. The broader political landscape matters a lot here. It may be difficult for education issues to earn legislators’ attention while the pandemic rages; childcare, healthcare, and economic stability are at the forefront of people’s minds; and racial divisions deepen. Again, linking education initiatives to these issues will be important for their success.

When it comes to clearing a path for promising education innovations, time is clearly of the essence. A common aim, communication, cooperation, and action are all necessary too. Can policymakers, funders, and education system leaders come together to make it happen? I look into it in my final post of the series.

You can read more from this series here.

The Four Headwinds Threatening Pandemic-Era Education Innovation

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.

In my last post, I outlined how teachers, principals, and education system leaders responded to the pandemic with millions of experiments that have the potential to strengthen, diversify, and augment traditional schooling if — and only if — innovators, system leaders, and policymakers heed the lessons. Unfortunately, there are four strong headwinds that could stop them from blooming into durable innovations. 

A Deep Desire to Return to Normal

After months of physical isolation, prolonged stress and anxiety, upended routines, financial uncertainty, and, for some, death and grief, people just want to go back to normal. Our collective desire to return to pre-pandemic life is the force most likely to drown promising education innovations.

Few routines are more emblematic of normalcy as sending children off to school in the morning and welcoming their return in the afternoon. For many families, life will feel like it’s back to normal when their kids can safely go into a school building to be taught by three-dimensional teachers every day. Not only do schools provide a safe and structured place for students to learn, but they also provide childcare that enables the American workforce to go to work. We’ve learned the hard way that when childcare is removed, those who don’t work remotely are put in a position to choose between their employment and their children’s safety and support. Women, who provide the lion’s share of childcare duties, have left the workforce in droves since the pandemic began. Having their children, especially young ones, learning at home is taxing. 

Educators are burnt out too. An EdWeek Research Center survey found that teacher morale is low and, “32 percent of teachers are reporting that they are likely to leave their jobs this year even though they would have been unlikely to do so prior to the pandemic.” State and district leaders have been through the wringer for nearly a year as well. The steady drumbeat of high-stakes decisions coupled with new ways of assessing, teaching, and supporting students takes a toll even on those who get excited by new instructional and school models. If we knew that student mental health and academic performance were improving, all of the tumults may be worth it, but projections of learning loss from CREDO, NWEA, McKinsey and others are worrisome. A recent analysis of standardized test results from 18 school districts in California gives credence to those projections. State-level student outcome data will take some time to materialize (if it does at all). 

A System Built for Stability, Not Innovation

With a few exceptions, districts, like most taxpayer-funded public agencies, don’t engage in innovation activities. They’re structured to provide services and maintain compliance, two functions that share little in common with innovation. This is important, to be sure. Operating safe and effective schools is a complex enterprise and taxpayers should have confidence that their taxes are being spent responsibly. Yet, most school systems are so focused on executing their core business that they fail to concurrently look for, develop, and assimilate promising new ideas, a concept management experts Charles O’Reilly and Michael Tushman call organizational ambidexterity

Even districts like Denver and San Francisco that had in-house innovation labs struggled to translate their findings into the broader system. Principals who developed a high-potential school model that deviated from the standard ones had to lobby for exemptions to rigid requirements around instructional time, school calendars, and student-teacher ratios. If they succeed in doing so, they still run the risk of their effort being pigeonholed as a pilot or magnet instead of being adopted more broadly.

There are some reasons to be hopeful about school districts’ ability to foster innovation, however. Chief innovation officers are becoming more commonplace, which signals that superintendents are serious about seeking out needs and finding new solutions for them. Unfortunately, they often have a hodgepodge of responsibilities, including activities unrelated to innovation, and it’s an uphill battle to innovate in the confines of a school district bureaucracy. Innovation can happen in school districts, but it’s usually a bug rather than a feature of the enterprise.

Most of the innovation that will persist, then, will occur outside of traditional district schools. When the pandemic started, charter schools capitalized on their nimbleness and autonomy to adapt their models quickly. Private schools used their independence to create safe in-person learning environments and saw a swell in enrollment. Community-based organizations repurposed their staff and space to form learning hubs. Pandemic pods and companies to support their formation emerged in a matter of weeks. Microschools popped up to fill the vacuum that districts created with their sluggish response. It shouldn’t be surprising that nonprofits and companies can respond faster to needs than big public institutions; their autonomy and small scale are critical factors.

Teachers Unions

The iconic teacher union boss, Albert Shanker, knew that job protections and school innovation aren’t mutually exclusive. His commentary on the topic shows his principled approach to testing new ideas, scaling only the ones that proved to be effective, and rejecting profiteers. Unfortunately, today’s teachers’ unions often oppose new programs or school models that depart from traditional staffing, evaluation, or compensation models even when they don’t threaten workers’ rights. Similar behavior is on display now in places such as Chicago and San Francisco where unions demand conditions far beyond what public health officials say is necessary to reopen schools safely. In both cases, a willingness to negotiate in goodwill could mean better learning environments for students and potentially better working environment for adults but it seems that advocating for a vocal minority that insists on upholding the status quo has become modus operandi for many unions. It should be no surprise that a labor union prioritizes its membership’s demands over other competing priorities. Still, a stalwart lack of willingness to test new concepts forfeits innovation to charter and private schools and misses out on the collective genius of millions of teachers.

A Lack of Philanthropic Funding for Innovation

When someone has a good idea and wants to test it out, she will need money to develop a plan, purchase supplies, pay stipends, or subsidize time away from her full-time job. 4.0 Schools does this through fellowships and small grants to test ideas. NewSchools Venture Fund, my former employer, provides grants big enough so that innovators can quit their jobs and focus on developing their ideas full time. Unfortunately, philanthropic giving like this is an exception to the rule. Most of the $64 billion given annually to education initiatives sustain existing organizations instead of seeding new ideas. Compared to the $136.5 billion that venture capitalists invested in the U.S. in 2019, investment in education innovation is infinitesimal. 

For ideas that require time-consuming and rigorous academic research and the development of solutions based on research findings, big dollar, and patient R&D funding are necessary. This is common knowledge in many government agencies and the private sector, where an R&D infrastructure consisting of comprehensive policy, finance, cultural, human capital, and market structures to support innovation is solidly in place. The same can’t be said for the education sector. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Education spent $238 million on R&D projects, just 0.001% of the federal government’s $132 billion R&D spend for that year. And that’s only publicly funded R&D. U.S. companies spent $378 billion of their own money on R&D in 2018. State education agencies and school districts rarely devote public funds to innovation because of their risk aversion and lack of capacity to conduct innovation activities. Education nonprofits have a difficult time attracting philanthropic funds for unproven ideas. All this amounts to a sector underperforming for millions of students without an engine that fosters promising new ideas. 

The good news is that there are ways policymakers, funders, and education system leaders can create the conditions for pandemic-era innovations to benefit the students that need them the most. I’ll address that in my next post.

You can read more from this series here.