“Learn better, together” is deeply embedded in our core values here at Overdeck Family Foundation. As a leading education funder, we have long invested in high-quality, rigorous research with the hopes of identifying the most impactful education practices and models, conducting field-building research, and investing in large-scale data that support the design and implementation of high-impact programs. We believe these types of investments are critical in moving the sector towards a future where both public and private funds are spent investing in “what works”—evidence-based strategies proven to boost student outcomes.

This year, we’re refreshing our Foundation’s research strategy informed by what we’re seeing across the education landscape and hearing from our grantee partners. Below, we highlight our vision for investing in evidence-building, with insight into the types of research grants we seek to fund in the year ahead, as well as the substantive areas we’re eager to learn more about.

Our research philosophy

The education sector needs stronger evidence in order to make better decisions on behalf of students. Our research philosophy at the Foundation is designed with this key tenet in mind, and is guided by several principles:

  • Rigor: We value funding a variety of research, data use, and evidence-building activities that help both prove and improve the impact of education programs; what’s most important is clear alignment between each study’s research questions and the methodologies used to answer those questions.
  • Relevance: We fund research that is not only rigorous but also responsive to a critical need, with findings likely to be directly used by stakeholders.
  • Open science: We seek to ensure transparency in methods, data, and results to encourage knowledge dissemination, research reproducibility, and public trust in the evidence we fund. And we believe it’s as critical to determine and understand what doesn’t work as it is to identify the programs that do work.

Our research strategy focuses on four main categories:

  • Field-building research: Building insights about the effectiveness of various education strategies and models and key trends and conditions in the education landscape;
  • Grantee evidence: Supporting grantee evidence-building journeys, including validating and continuously improving program models, as well as building grantee capacity for engaging in rigorous research;
  • Data and research infrastructure: Improving the accessibility and utility of new and existing data that can be leveraged to generate research and inform action; and
  • Dissemination: Spreading insights through communications and partnerships that equip key stakeholders to apply data and evidence to decision-making.

In summary, we prioritize generating and disseminating rigorous evidence to inform programmatic investments across our four main grantmaking areas (early childhood, informal STEM education, and K-9 programs that include supporting expert educators and student-centered learning environments) and to influence the adoption of effective programs and practices in the field at large. Taken together, these investments ultimately improve the sector’s knowledge base and, hopefully, the impact of available programs.

Priority research and data investment areas in 2024

This year, Overdeck Family Foundation seeks to prioritize research funding in three key areas: field-building studies that address a substantive area of interest in one or more portfolios; rigorous validation studies of our Direct Impact grantees; and projects that leverage large-scale data to inform educational decision-making.

Below, we detail what this will look like.

Field-building research in priority investment areas

Our team aims to invest in research that builds knowledge focused on a broader set of questions and issues aligned with one or more portfolio strategies. In 2024, these focus areas are:

  • Artificial intelligence (AI) in education: Examining the development, efficacy, and use of different types of AI-enabled education tools for improving target teacher and student outcomes;
  • Family engagement: Identifying effective approaches for and barriers to strengthening family engagement;
  • Chronic absenteeism: Understanding the root causes of chronic absenteeism post-pandemic and testing approaches that seek to improve student attendance;
  • High-dosage tutoring: Identifying components of effective high-dosage tutoring, examining the unique and combined effects of different tutoring approaches, and helping determine the particular types of tutoring supports that are most effective for different types of students; and
  • Out-of-school time workforce: Understanding and identifying effective strategies for recruiting, training, and retaining educators in the out-of-school time workforce.

In commissioning research to answer these questions, we will consider a broad range of quantitative and qualitative methodologies, prioritizing potential impact and projects that include: a clear set of testable research questions, an appropriate design for answering questions, and a feasible plan for collecting and analyzing data.

Validation studies for Direct Impact grantees

Our Foundation continues to believe that evidence is a key thesis for scale, which is why we prioritize validating the program models of Direct Impact grantees who receive multi-year grants. We approach these validations through high-quality evaluations designed to help organizations better understand and improve the impact of their programs, as well as potentially gain access to additional funding streams. Our team works collaboratively with grantees and researchers across an evidence-building continuum approach, adapted from Colorado’s Evidence-Continuum (illustrated below).

Overdeck Family Foundation's evidence-building continuum approach

Throughout the grant period, we support grantees to strengthen evidence through six steps:

  • Assess the evidence base. First, we review existing research on each program, allowing us to understand the program model, its core components, and how it compares to similar programs with evidence of impact.
  • Identify a plan for evidence-building. We next support organizations to create a plan for moving to the next level of the evidence-building continuum. Activities can include refining a theory of change, piloting program implementation, developing strong data infrastructure and capacity, or identifying an external evaluation partner.
  • Determine if a rigorous evaluation is possible. We work with program models that have been successfully implemented in real-world settings and have established initial evidence of efficacy to identify an appropriate and feasible plan for a more rigorous evaluation.
  • Plan a study to attain causal evidence. We provide funding to support a causal impact study, likely completed in partnership with an external evaluator.
  • Partner with grantees to prioritize learning and impact. We partner with promising organizations to share learnings about program impact and support further scaling and replication. We invest in partnerships that value accountability, excellence, and transparency.
  • Connect high-quality research to policy and practice. We communicate about knowledge produced through research in an objective, accessible way. In doing so, we seek to meaningfully inform policy decisions and influence practice on a broad scale. Grantee research studies can be found on the Overdeck Family Foundation Research Repository, which is updated regularly.

In 2024, our team plans to fund at least eight external evaluation studies that help us better understand how well our Direct Impact grantees’ models work, for whom, and under what circumstances. We seek to fund a range of experimental and quasi-experimental studies with strong identification strategies (e.g., regression discontinuity, comparative interrupted time series, differences-in-differences design) to generate causal evidence for our grantees and capture useful information that can strengthen program models. We will prioritize funding external evaluations that use a rigorous, quantitative design, are well-powered to answer confirmatory research questions, use reliable and valid data to target outcomes, and follow a pre-registered analysis plan when estimating effects.

Large-scale data to inform educational decision-making

We know evidence generation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. To produce actionable evidence, nonprofits and researchers need access to robust education datasets as well as platforms that contextualize findings for target audiences including districts, schools, and families. Our Data for Action portfolio seeks to increase education data availability, integration, and utility to generate and utilize evidence for field-wide decision-making.

In the year ahead, the portfolio aims to:

  • Increase access to new and existing data that can be leveraged to generate research and inform action;
  • Leverage big data, innovative methods, and AI to produce novel research; and
  • Develop resources that inform educators and families based on evidence of impact and cost-effectiveness.

Looking ahead, together

As we near the expiration of ESSER funding, we anticipate reduced district spending, making it more important than ever to ensure that funds are spent on programs and services that lead to meaningful outcomes. This makes our focus on research even more timely, and is one key reason we’re committed to growing this area of our work in the year ahead. Along the way, we will continue to transparently share research findings in our newsletter and Research Repository. We know firsthand that this practice not only informs our own understanding of our work, but also supports decision-making for other funders and nonprofits across the education landscape.

If you are interested in proposing research and evidence-building plans that align with one of our priority areas, please submit a one-page letter of interest or concept paper at: research@overdeck.org. We look forward to hearing from you!


Thanks to Brittany Sullivan, Lina Eroh, Jon Sotsky, and Kim Cassel for helpful feedback, edits, and contributions to this blog post.

Header image courtesy of Saga Education