Reflecting on the Covid-19 pandemic and the new struggles it posed for driving change in educational environments helped us to identify several ways to improve our K-12 philanthropy—especially by attending to the specific needs of local communities.
The shock of Covid-19 and the disruptions it introduced to families, communities, and schools forced grantmakers to reflect on their work and their funding programs. At the Walton Family Foundation, we looked at our K-12 program and, with the perspective of over three decades of grantmaking experience, considered the implications of the pandemic on our education funding efforts.
Here are four modest lessons learned, creating an action plan going forward for K-12 donors and stakeholders.
LESSON ONE: Positive, local relationships define personal success.
An important source for understanding how Americans view success is the American Success Index, created by Gallup and the think tank Populace. It highlights three bedrock beliefs for most Americans.
First, Americans’ personal view of success doesn’t focus on status, our relative position in society when comparing ourselves to others. Rather, Americans tend to value local relationships and the networks and institutions that multiply positive relationships—in other words, social capital is a key indicator of "success." Second, Americans see these relationships and a "network" view of success as fundamental to having opportunities and realizing those opportunities. Third, Americans believe school is a key formative institution where young people learn about personal success, the opportunities before, and are primed to pursue those opportunities.
So "success" is about relationships, networks, and opportunity—not status. And schools have a fundamental formative role in teaching that. This value cluster is the bedrock on which to develop a new community language and conversation advancing the long term success of our youth.
LESSON TWO: Local coalitions that work to link programs and residents can create new pathways to opportunity.
The Foundation’s program work typically has focused on creating new schools in urban areas—a "supply" strategy. Since 1997, this approach has invested more than $480 million in grants to 2,500 plus new schools—public charter, district, and private schools, including over one in five of today’s 7,500 plus charter schools nationally.
But today, this “top-down” strategy of creating schools is less robust than in the past. Thanks to local leaders in the urban areas where we’ve focused, we’ve learned much from listening to residents, which has informed a more “bottom-up,” community-led strategy to transform education. This change has led to a new orientation focusing our work on specific places and communities.
How will we support new urban and non-urban places where education improvement efforts don’t exist, or where such efforts are just beginning along with local improvement efforts? How can we support local leaders creating a demand for change, especially for effective schools? How can we encourage the growth of individual self-worth and efficacy so that residents take responsibility for improving community life, especially schools?
So we've learned that a top-down strategy—initiated by donors—need to exist in tandem with a bottom-up strategy—led by leaders in the community. Individuals and communities must identify and cultivate ways to shape their futures, and donors must cooperate with local efforts, recognizing that there’s no single answer to the education challenges that various communities face. That's our goal for placed-based efforts: create a coalition of willing local individuals—a civic campaign—where philanthropy follows local leaders to build “grassroots” efforts driving change in the educational efforts.
LESSON THREE: Support local civic entrepreneurs doing things differently.
COVID-19 has upended school and learning, requiring us to do things differently to unlock the unique potential of all learners. Our legacy work—grants to new schools—is important as ever but needs rethinking to meet families’ new educational needs.
The more than 450 grant recipients from the VELA Education Fund are starting and scaling inventive ways to keep children learning during this tumultuous time. They run the gamut from a parent-led school serving 4- to 10-year-olds of younger high school siblings to small, student-focused micro-schools like Prenda.
Another example is a partnership between TNTP, the Center for Reinventing Public Education, and funders supporting work with community and district leaders in six cities who share with each other the lessons they learned during the Covid-19 pandemic, and use these lessons create new programs that meet the needs of students.
So this is our norm for the next five years: listen to, learn from, and work with a range of educators, parents, and other stakeholders. These are our new civic entrepreneurs and community innovators, creating ways to address the challenges raised by Covid-19 and other obstacles to improving education in communities across the country.
LESSON FOUR: Challenge lines of division to create new alliances.
Many say we’re more divided than ever. Our work doesn’t bear this out. Since Covid-19 paralyzed school systems, we’ve seen many across the country dismissing traditional divisions to do what’s best for children. We’ve also learned Americans’ opinions are more nuanced and complex than the Twitter wars and other media platforms suggest.
For example, Populace’s American Aspiration Index shows that divisions between Biden and Trump voters come from intense disagreement on a small number of issues, not disputes on many issues.
More in Common also finds an “exhausted majority” of Americans that feels unrepresented and isolated by the conflict and tribalism of the loudest voices in politics and media platforms. There’s a much greater degree of common ground than conventional wisdom suggests.
Here, then, our action plan going forward is threefold.
First, build on these lessons to develop and support a new generation of partners and coalitions who create an opportunity agenda for our youth.
Second, challenge traditional alignments and divisions to move beyond a worn and predictable national debate.
Third, undertake educational change producing new opportunity pathways for young people.
We hope others join that effort.