Insights for 2016

Dear Friends,

This spring, I made my annual migration to West Coast conferences and spoke at various education gatherings to steep myself in the latest trends, worries, and buzz in education reform. I feel lucky to have a foot in both the K-12 and higher education funding and social entrepreneurship sectors, but am continually discouraged by how little connection there is between the two worlds. It often feels like I have two different jobs with almost entirely separate networks of colleagues and lexicons.  

At the NewSchools Venture Fund Summit, which is focused on K-12, CEO Stacey Childress reminded us that 90 percent of the lowest-income students say they aspire to earn a college degree, but only nine percent actually do within six years of graduating high school. There was lots of discussion at the conference about how the issues at play originate back in early childhood education, but this discrepancy also highlights the need for expanded and differentiated pathways after high school. Here’s the problem: few of the groups focusing now on improving success rates after high school are in conversations with the amazingly talented and steadfast K-12 innovators, ranging from Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp to the hundreds of charter school creators from around the country. That’s a pipeline failure, or a supply chain failure. And wait, there is even a third group: the workforce development crowd, which funds and owns the school-to-work issues for non-college-bound students. Their money comes from local workforce investment boards and the US Department of Labor. They are focused on job readiness, but not with schools. So, there are three earnest and well-meaning network hubs pursuing different pieces of saving the path to the American Dream. Why does dropping in on their work feel like visiting different planets?   

I think the answer is funding models and incentive structures. K-12 is held accountable for students’ test scores and college readiness (some charter schools are even held accountable for college acceptance rates). Higher education institutions are increasingly dependent on tuition, and survival strategies incent them to get “butts in seats.” Interestingly, there is a new idea taking hold that might cut through the institutional myopia in higher ed and K-12: skills-based hiring. It’s the notion that big data will allow employers to tell us exactly what they need from employees. This can set meaningful guideposts for curriculum and development plans for high school and college. 

I spoke a few weeks ago to a group of community college presidents who self-selected as “entrepreneurial.” They are probably the group best positioned to connect the dots among the three sectors, as community colleges are tied in with the workforce opportunities in their communities. This is one of the reasons I created (and our foundation has supported) the Education Design Lab, to support schools, entrepreneurs, and universities that are working on new models for closing that gap between 90 percent aspiration and 9 percent attainment. (See the blog post that the Education Design Lab recently wrote with the Lumina Foundation on 12 promising alternative pathways.) I am struck that so many leaders of institutions understand that disruption of higher education is imminent and that we will soon see a shift from institutions controlling the supply of education to a Wild West of a la carte menus of every type of credential and certification—courses here, boot camps there, and promises of pathways to jobs from vendors, schools, and brands old and new.   We call this the Learner Revolution.

How will students make sense of it all? That is where foundations should focus their energies in the next few years. Michael Bloomberg has recently taken a step in this direction, as has Steve Jobs’s widow. And, individuals who do most of their higher education philanthropy through their alma maters should ask themselves: How might my dollars be applied to help solve this pipeline problem? About half of the endowment wealth of universities is held by two dozen private schools that enroll only five percent of all college students in the country—and likely not the five percent who need your support. If you are interested in being part of a funding group working to reinvent college for non-elite students, we are taking names!  

Before I close, let me also mention a few key developments at the deLaski Family Foundation that have us excited this year:  

• We are pleased to welcome several new grantees who have joined us as part of our place-based work in Portland, Oregon and the Santa Ynez Valley in California, where my brothers live: Shadow Project, BRAVO Youth Orchestra, and Veggie Rescue. We look forward to learning from each new grantee and helping them leverage one another’s ideas and energy. 
• As part of our Washington, DC education work, we welcome VineCorps, a new grantee working to support DC students whose families are being pushed out of the city due to gentrification and rising housing costs.
• Finally, we are seeing a fabulous overlap of the work of our DC arts education grantees with the work of the Education Design Lab, which will culminate in a convening at the Kennedy Center this summer on creative problem solving, how to teach it at the high school and college levels, and what role arts education can play. We look forward to working with the national coalition Creativity Matters, as well as the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University. 

Thanks for reading, and please don’t hesitate to reach out if you’re interested in partnering with us on one of these initiatives.

Kathleen deLaski