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Three Opportunities to Drive Change in Education: Themes from GFE 2019

Ryan Ulbrich
Three Opportunities to Drive Change in Education: Themes from GFE 2019

In late October, I had the privilege to attend the Grantmakers for Education (GFE) annual conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. The multi-day event brought together funders, educators, nonprofits, and leading thinkers in America’s education sector for insightful panels, thought-provoking breakout sessions, and compelling keynote addresses—all surrounding the common themes of overcoming student adversity, advancing justice, and promoting equity in the sector.

At a time when philanthropy is increasingly pursuing racial diversity, equity, and inclusion, conference attendees repeatedly acknowledged the need to recognize and support students, teachers, principals, parents, and entire communities facing adversity, injustice, and/or inequitable provisions in the education system. As I listened to keynotes, engaged in breakouts, and met with a wide range of fellow practitioners in the space, the following topics and opportunities from across the continuum of education—from early childhood to adolescence to post-secondary—stood out.

1.) Early Childhood: Strengthening Systems through a Community Framework

In her opening remarks, The First Lady of Louisiana, Donna Edwards, spoke on the subject of early childhood education – an issue Arabella Advisors has done significant work on. She reminded attendees that “early intervention and education is critical to successful reform. We are shaped by our early experiences as children, both positive and negative, and we adapt to our environment as we grow and age based off these experiences.” Scientific studies indicate that the first eight years of a child’s life have a huge impact on their development and lay the groundwork for future success.

In a city like Detroit, the stakes are particularly high. According to a joint study by W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Kresge Foundation, many young children in Detroit begin kindergarten at a significant disadvantage. By age five, they face health problems, homelessness, and hunger, while their families may be blocked from receiving services by confusing eligibility requirements, long waiting lists, and inadequate transportation. Nearly 30,000 of Detroit’s eligible young children have no high quality learning or childcare options, and over 85 percent of Detroit’s third graders are not reading at grade level.

To combat these challenges, Hope Starts Here has a vision to make Detroit a city that “puts young children and families first by 2027.” The initiative’s community framework with six strategic imperatives help engage policymakers, businesses, community-based organizations, and citizens to:

  • Promote the health, development, and well-being of all Detroit children
  • Support parents and caregivers as children’s first teachers and champions
  • Increase the overall quality of Detroit’s early childhood programs
  • Guarantee safe and inspiring learning environments for children
  • Create tools and resources to better coordinate systems that impact early childhood
  • Find new ways to fund early childhood, and make better use of the resources currently available

Approaching early childhood investments as interventions with this sort of community framework in mind is crucial to building long-term impact.

2.) Adolescence: Modernizing Education Systems to Realize the Promise of a Transitional Time

Fostering learning environments that encourage exploration, critical thinking, reasoning, and creativity during adolescence (ages 10 – 25) presents an enormous opportunity to advance learning, personal growth, and resilience during a period of rapid neurological development.

A recent National Academies report concludes that “our current understanding of adolescence, coupled with major changes in the labor market and technological development, require rethinking and modernizing the education system” to address the variability in academic abilities for this population. Schools need to broaden their missions to incorporate the teaching of non-academic skills for success in modern life, adopt trauma-informed care and services, and address biases to become more culturally competent with a growing diversity of US adolescents. Specific recommendations for the education sector include a need to:

  • Rectify disparities in resources for least-advantaged schools and students
  • Design purposeful but flexible pathways through education
  • Teach practical knowledge, such as decision-making, adaptability, and socio-emotional competence
  • Protect the overall health and well-being of each student
  • Foster culturally sensitive learning environments
  • Help adolescents and families navigate the social sector

3.) Post-Secondary: Closing the Guidance Gap and Overcoming Student Challenges

The achievement gap in obtaining a post-secondary degree correlates directly with income inequality. Only 9 percent of people in the lowest income quartile attain a bachelor’s degree by 24, compared to 77 percent from the highest income quartile. One major cause of this achievement gap is the college “guidance gap.” Most public high schools don’t have a single staff member dedicated to college and career counseling for students. More than one-fifth of public high schools don’t even have school counselors.

Moreover, the “new economics” of the college experience present a myriad of challenges for most college students today. Sara Goldrick-Rab, Professor of Higher Education Policy and Sociology at Temple University, summarized this dire reality: “College prices are higher than ever, most family incomes are stagnant, the safety net is shredded, campus work doesn’t pay, and many colleges are underfunded.” Full-length documentary films like “Personal Statement” and organizations like College Access: Research and Action (CARA) are spotlighting these issues and helping to create post-secondary pathways for low-income students by promoting student agency and voice. Meanwhile, organizations like #RealCollege are seeking collective action through awareness and innovation to change the landscape of higher education so that all students can afford and complete their studies. Still, much work remains to be done.

Ultimately, the 2019 Grantmakers for Education annual conference was a sobering acknowledgement of systemic failures and an inspirational look toward a future where those failures are seen and solved. Across these and other different examinations of inequality and adversity, speakers frequently came to three major conclusions: all students must be given more agency if educational systems are to best serve them; justice must be embedded into the educational system; and equitable support needs to be provided to students nationwide.

Celine Coggins, Executive Director of Grantmakers for Education, summed up the value of the conference in a single quote: “A constant striving for agency, justice, and equity in education. These are the reasons and the moral case for why we are all gathered here in New Orleans – a city where we can closely examine real issues of race and power.”

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