If there has ever been a time when we need to embrace bold solutions in education, especially to the challenges faced by the underserved, now is the time. And at this critical juncture, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and foundations should lead by doing what we do best. We need, as Michael Bloomberg wrote, to “embolden government” by investing in innovation and demonstrating what works, even if that means assuming more than a normal amount of risk.
At the Heckscher Foundation for Children, we support programs and partnerships that transform specific inflection points into paths toward success. This year, we have distilled that approach into a focus on three critical areas: early childhood literacy, college access and success, and, in what has become a kind of pandemic throughline connecting kindergarten to college, remote learning.
Allow me to share some of the details:
1. Focus funding on early literacy, where learning loss is most critical. We focused on early literacy in 2020 because we know that kindergarten through second grade are among the most critical years in a child’s formal education, years in which the prevention of learning loss is crucial. During a normal year, K-3 students from underserved communities lose three months of reading knowledge over the summer; COVID-19 has exacerbated those losses. Even though school is technically in session for many, look at what’s happening in California. The California Department of Education recently reported an 89 percent surge in chronic absenteeism among students in the elementary grades, with the highest increase in grades two through four and among Black and Hispanic students, reinforcing what we already knew: remote learning disproportionately hurts students of color. In New York City students who are completing an assignment or a check-in form for the day but who may not be attending classes are counted as present for full-day instruction.
To help address the problem, we are supporting multiple projects that address early literacy learning loss and are urging other funders to do the same. This fall, we developed a project that enlists Brooklyn College students enrolled in graduate and undergraduate early childhood literacy courses to serve as literacy tutors for students in the New York City public school system. Participants in the program are being trained in Reading Rescue, a one-on-one research and evidence-based intervention targeted to high-need first-grade students who are reading below grade level. The program ensures that students receive explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics using techniques determined to be most effective by experts in the field of reading science. We are also funding Practice Makes Perfect, Springboard Collaborative, and Read Alliance, all of which have been proven to work, and have provided a third year of funding for EarlyBird, a targeted solution to the current problematic state of dyslexia diagnosis.
We cannot allow our most vulnerable children to fall further behind in the fundamental area of literacy. With that in mind, education funders should pay special attention to proven early literacy programs, today and in the years to come.
2. Supporting teachers who do not have the skills needed to teach remotely. Remote learning does not work for poor kids, particularly poor kids in elementary school. In fact, remote instruction is far from ideal for any student, and most teachers lack the skills needed to teach remotely in an effective way. In a national survey of more than twelve hundred K-12 teachers conducted by ClassTag in March, more than half (56.7 percent) of the teachers who responded said they are “not prepared to facilitate remote learning,” while a somewhat smaller percentage (42.8 percent) said they alone are responsible for deciding which remote/online tools they use. We know teachers are in need of support, yet not enough attention has been paid to helping them learn how to teach online.
Now, we have never been fans or successful funders of professional development for teachers, for any number of reasons, including difficulties in measuring its impact on student achievement, but desperate times demand desperate measures and have led us to re-examine our position and ask whether there is an opportunity here to support professional development with respect to the skills teachers need to teach online effectively. Many of these skills are basic and easily learned — how to engage students while conducting a Zoom session, how to use tools like Nearpod, how to manage breakout rooms — and all are crucial in keeping students engaged.
With our support, Doug Lemov and his team at Teach Like a Champion offered synchronous webinars for teachers and school leaders at our grantee schools and organizations. The webinars were predicated on the idea that to truly understand the content they were delivering online, educators needed to both absorb it and experience it as participants in synchronous sessions. They needed, as Lemov explained, to be “cold called,” to share short written responses with their peers, and to participate in online discussions. In short, they needed to be fully engaged in an online session for ninety minutes in order to understand how digital tools shape a learning culture. The results of the initiative have been impressive, and classes were oversubscribed as word of the value of the experience spread.
We’ve also provided funding for the Relay Graduate School of Education in support of a series of synchronous online professional development trainings for teachers, school leaders, and alumni of Teach for America. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Relay has run workshops for more than fifteen hundred school leaders and teachers across the country, including over thirty workshops delivered directly to schools and school networks.
The skills needed to teach effectively have changed over the past few months. It is incumbent on us as funders to help teachers learn the basic tech skills that allow them to do what they do best: connect with their students.
3. Increasing investments in college access and success programs — because the best leg up and out of poverty is a college degree. College access and success for underserved students is still the surest path out of poverty. This year, we focused on enabling inner-city high school students, regardless of their achievement level, to earn early college credits, even when their courses were remote. To that end, our staff came up with a way to broaden the appeal of College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams by encouraging students to take courses and the exams via ModernStates.org. Underwritten by philanthropist Steve Klinsky, the site funds the production of online courses taught by college professors designed to prepare students for the exams; it also covers test fees so that students can earn up to a year of college credit without the added cost of tuition or textbooks. At a time when the cost of college is an ever-increasing burden to matriculation and persistence, we see this as an important lever to keep college-going students not just on track but ahead of the curve.
We also envisioned and funded a strategic partnership between two of the best college access and success programs for high-achieving youth — Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) and The Opportunity Network (OppNet) — focused on building up the path from college to a career. While an impressive 90 percent of SEO Scholars earn a college degree, the organization identified a gap in its services: adequately preparing students for the transition from college to employment. Enter OppNet, which teaches career-readiness skills to high-achieving youth, targeting students who have a similar profile to SEO Scholars. OppNet uses a train-the-trainer approach to improving student career competencies and outcomes, and the partnership ultimately enables both programs to better and more broadly serve underserved kids.
Last but not least, we doubled down on our college-success initiatives: we continued our support of intensive career development and leadership training for low-income, first-generation college students via America Needs You; we underwrote the development of a software solution (by Overgrad) that provides counselors and students, in New York, with a localized approach to the college application process; and we increased support for our own transfer credit initiative, resulting in the development of Transfer Explorer, a revolutionary tool for CUNY students. This free, searchable, user-friendly database offers information on how every course in the CUNY catalog transfers across any number of undergraduate institutions in the CUNY system — the first time such information has been made publicly available. Thanks to the database, CUNY students can avoid the loss of credits when they transfer between schools in the system, increasing the likelihood they will graduate.
We are all struggling to find a way out of this mess. I don’t have a clue as to when it will end or how, but I often find myself returning to that old, old saying, “this too shall pass.” While we look forward to that day, let’s embrace our obligation now, today, to take bold action that helps level the playing field for underserved youth.