As I write to you today from my temporary home office, it’s hard to believe both where this year has taken us and how much further we have to go. I likely echo all of you when I express my hope that 2021 brings us, our loved ones, and our country peace, healing, and progress. 

In March of this year, COVID-19 changed our lives, and education and schools as we knew them to be. A few months later, a national reckoning and conversation about the racism in our country led to further change, and, I hope, progress. It has been a difficult year for all of us. But as we know the devastation has not been equally felt or experienced, and it’s been our grantees, working all across the country, who have risen to the challenge of supporting the children, families, and educators most impacted by the difficulties of this year.

Just as we’ve seen our grantees adapt their work and challenge the assumptions that drove their initial programs, we had the privilege and opportunity to rethink how we approach our grantmaking in service of greater grantee support and impact, especially in these unprecedented times. As a Foundation, we provided $6.2 million in rapid response funding in the wake of COVID-19. Of that amount, $1.8 million was to help organizations scale to meet new demand due to the pandemic and $825,000 was to help grantees innovate by digitizing formerly in-person solutions. We also contributed a total of $3 million to Robin Hood’s Relief Fund to support vulnerable New Yorkers and to the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund, which is supporting COVID-19 relief efforts throughout the state. 

In the midst of so much need, devastation, and constraint, what heartened me most was the innovation and progress we saw through our grantee partners. In 2020, our funding reached over 13.7 million children and 117,000 educators. Today, I want to step back and reflect on what we’ve seen and learned as a Foundation over the past 12 months, with a particular emphasis on the work our grantees have done to ensure that children, families, and educators had as much support as possible given the barriers to learning in 2020.  

Pivot to virtual led to challenges and opportunities

Technology moved from the margins to the center of education, bringing with it both challenges in regards to access and efficacy and, at the same time, opportunity for greater scale and increased cost-effectiveness. For some organizations, this pivot was natural given an already built technical infrastructure. For others, creating a virtual solution was a challenge, but one that had its share of success stories. 

It goes without saying that all the organizations we support had to immediately pivot to some form of virtual delivery with the onset of the pandemic. The early childhood field saw the rise of tele-home visiting when traditional in-person programs could no longer operate, leading to increased demand and scale for programs such as Family Connects and Nurse-Family Partnership. In-person parent coaching programs, such as LENA and ParentCorps, also moved online, creating new ways to connect with and support parents in engaging and growing the minds of young children. With teaching occurring mostly online, professional learning organizations had to pivot their offerings as well. Teaching Lab used the opportunity to incorporate adult learning science into their online delivery, building out their own learning management system, and New Leaders introduced a free Virtual Leadership Academy with over 950 participants in 175 districts and 36 states within the first month of launch. Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture took their multi-classroom leadership model online, offering both direct instruction to more students and growing their impact through coaching for other teachers, which extended the reach of highly effective teachers.

In 2020, our funding reached over 13.7 million children and 117,000 educators.

Take home kits and virtual camps brought out-of-school time home, continuing to provide opportunities for children to learn and discover despite the pandemic. NBA Math Hoops, which typically takes place after school, provided 6,000 families across 47 states with an NBA Math Hoops board game to use at home. They also built a mobile app version of the game, available at no cost to all families. Camp Invention and Girlstart, two other organizations that operate in the out-of-school space, shipped resources home, pairing them with video-based live instruction for tens of 1000s of students. 

Family engagement was key to growth and impact

With so much of school happening at home, grantees that focused on family engagement and connecting the home and school environments saw exponential growth and adoption. TalkingPoints, which connects teachers with under-resourced and non-English speaking families, expanded its reach 6x since March, connecting 50,000 educators to 3 million families weekly. And FASTalk, which similarly connects teachers with families using curricular-aligned messages, saw 4x growth since March to reach 30K families. PBS SoCal, a grantee of the family math initiative, partnered with the Los Angeles Unified School District to launch an At-Home Learning initiative following city-wide school closures, with fun math content and family support resources reaching 700,000 students. And organizations who previously operated only in-school, such as curriculum providers ST Math and Zearn, saw the opportunity to offer targeted support to parents who, overnight, became frequent users. Their addition of parent-facing resources led up to 10x growth in parent sign-up.

Our grantees, working all across the country, have risen to the challenge of supporting the children, families, and educators most impacted by the difficulties of this year.

The home-school connection was key to maintaining engagement and impact for young children specifically, given the challenges of remote learning for this demographic. Organizations like Springboard Collaborative and ParentCorps saw both increased demand and early indicators of impact, suggesting that virtual programs had potential to be impactful despite an unexpected delivery channel.  

Demand grew for tech-enabled, targeted solutions to fight learning loss

With pre-existing learning gaps heightened by school closures and the ongoing challenges around remote and hybrid learning, tech-enabled curriculum and tutoring providers experienced unprecedented growth and demand. Digital curriculum providers Zearn and ST Math collectively grew to reach 6.5M students, a 2x growth from the previous year. Demand for targeted educational recovery solutions increased nationwide with tutoring emerging as a cost-effective solution to speed up the pace of educational recovery and combat decreased student engagement. Tutoring organizations like Saga Education and Cignition grew 3x and 2x respectively, helping close the increasing gaps in academic performance, specifically in mathematics. 

A combination of human and tech-enabled support seemed particularly effective when it came to combating learning loss, ensuring that students not only continued learning, but sped up their progress. Saga, which traditionally operated an in-person tutoring model, switched to fully online tutoring to allow tutors to connect with students on computers. While the fully online model has yet to be studied, it shows promise given Saga’s earlier success with blended learning (a combination of in-person tutoring and independent practice via an online math platform), which showed gains on average of one to two and a half extra years of learning a year. Similarly, early results from Springboard’s virtual summer reading program, which connected over 4,500 students to Teach For America corps members in an effort to close the literacy gap, suggested that families who enrolled in the program succeeded in improving their children’s reading skills and habits, averaging more than 26 daily minutes of reading at home.

Technology, of course, has well-documented shortcomings, including accessibility. Over 18 percent of families in the U.S. still do not have access to the internet, a digital divide that must be eradicated for students to learn and teachers to teach. But notwithstanding these challenges, there is reason to believe that tech-enabled solutions have potential to be a cost-effective and impactful approach for combating learning loss and getting students back on track.

Looking forward–and inward

As a Foundation, seeing all this innovation and adaptation made us realize that the best laid plans may still be disrupted, but a strong leadership team and organization are more than likely to be able to pivot and respond to the moment. This year more than ever, an organization’s proximity to its target population proved critical, as listening to and understanding evolving needs and challenges was crucial to responsive adaptation and innovation.

As we look to 2021, it will be key for us as funders to remember the lessons of 2020, especially as they relate to the way we supported and engaged with our grantees. Throughout this long year, in addition to bolstering support for our grantees, our Foundation has spent time thinking through how to best adjust our grantmaking to meet today’s challenges and tomorrow’s needs. 

After much reflection, we’re committing to the following for next year:

  • Continuing our pledge for less burdensome renewals and longer, more flexible funding terms, especially for organizations with whom we already have existing relationships 
  • Helping grantees center the experience and needs of their target population as a key driver behind innovation
  • Supporting grantees in measuring their impact and addressing any disparities in outcomes across demographic groups
  • Providing support for grantees to develop skills particularly useful for this moment, including cost and revenue projection, scenario analysis, and impact assessment

We are so grateful and proud to have supported 100+ incredible organizations over the past year, and we hope the success stories above give you hope and optimism for the coming months. This year has been difficult for us all, but together we have been able to create meaningful and measurable progress for children and families across the country. 

Take care of you and yours, and have a healthy and restful holiday season.

-Anu Malipatil, Vice President, Education