This article was first published in The74 and is reprinted here in full.
To say the nonprofit sector has been hurt by COVID-19 is an understatement. In a June survey, almost 73 percent of nonprofit organizations reported a drop in revenue, with those in education being particularly impacted. Yet despite these hard times, or perhaps because of them, we’ve seen incredible education innovation occurring within the constraints of the coronavirus pandemic. Much of this innovation incorporates technology, something that was previously a nice-to-have and is now a necessity.
When placed on teams led by multi-classroom leaders, teachers who previously performed at the 50th percentile produced student learning gains equivalent to those of teachers in the top quartile in math and nearly that in reading.
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.
Few areas in education required as much adjustment as the practice of teaching at the onset of the pandemic, which overnight went from classroom to virtual. Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture, a professional learning and development model that partners with schools to recruit high-performing educators to become multi-classroom leaders who guide and coach their colleagues, managed this adjustment quickly, moving over 360 of its schools online. (Our foundation funds this organization.) These leaders stepped in immediately, developing instructional videos for their students, sharing these videos with schools across the district and even continuing to co-teach with their team members and pull out small groups of students for more intensive support. While the impact of the move to virtual is not yet known, previous rigorous analysis from three school districts using the Opportunity Culture model shows that it works. On average, when placed on teams led by multi-classroom leaders, teachers who previously performed at the 50th percentile produced student learning gains equivalent to those of teachers in the top quartile in math and nearly that in reading.
Springboard Collaborative is another Overdeck Family Foundation-funded organization, which usually pairs intensive in-school literacy programs for pre-K through fourth-graders with weekly workshops that train parents to teach reading at home. One way the collaborative pivoted model to virtual learning was by engaging in a partnership with Teach for America this summer. In June and July, over 4,500 students worked virtually with corps members toward closing the literacy gap, which research shows has likely widened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Early results from the virtual summer program suggest that families succeeded in improving their children’s reading skills and habits. Families averaged more than 26 daily minutes of reading at home, and 84 percent agreed or strongly agreed that their child’s reading had gotten better. These indicators are promising for the current school year, as a previous evaluation of Springboard Summer’s in-person program found that students who participated had improved on their reading assessment score between the end of the school year and the start of the following school year. The largest gains were for students behind grade level.
Even before the pandemic, we saw experimentation with hybrid or virtual models by many of the nonprofit organizations we support. For instance, over the last two years, Saga Education, which has historically operated a fully in-person, five-day-a-week math tutoring model, implemented a blended-learning version in around 30 high schools in Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Students split their time between in-person tutoring and independent practice via an online math platform that adapted its content to individual student needs. Because this model allowed tutors to work with more students, it was more cost-effective than Saga’s traditional program, allowing district dollars to stretch further.
As nonprofits continue to operate fully virtual or hybrid solutions for the next school year, it’s more critical than ever for funders to support not only innovation, but also the research and evaluation that studies the impact of these changes on students and parents.
Early findings from a randomized control trial on Saga’s blended-learning model (collaboratively funded with Arnold Ventures) are encouraging: Analysis suggests gains in the blended-learning model were comparable to gains in the traditional fully in-person tutoring model, on average one to two and a half extra years of learning. During COVID-19, Saga, which supports mostly students of color, switched to fully online tutoring to allow tutors to connect with students on computers. This fully online model has yet to be studied, but based on Saga’s earlier success with blended learning, it shows promise during a time of school shutdowns and learning loss given their earlier findings.
Like all of us, nonprofits are trying to navigate the ambiguity of the future while providing for the present. What seems clear is that tech-enabled solutions are likely here to stay. Some of the biggest school districts in the country, including New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles, have announced that the 2020-21 school year will be either remote or hybrid in nature, which will have a massive influence on education. Some of the impact of this shift is currently unknown, and some is likely to be negative, as we saw through the rise of children’s mental health challenges during this past school year. But after considering the fixed costs of procuring equipment and internet for all students who need it, tech-enabled programs do seem to indicate early promise in offering some formerly in-person services in a way that supports, and even increases, student learning while being relatively cost-effective and scalable.
Helping nonprofits confirm that impact is key. In the immediate need to respond to the challenges in front of them, few nonprofits have received the funding or support that allows them to focus on measuring impact. As nonprofits continue to operate fully virtual or hybrid solutions for the next school year, it’s more critical than ever for funders to support not only innovation, but also the research and evaluation that studies the impact of these changes on students and parents. Doing so is key to ensuring that innovation doesn’t just happen, but has a positive impact on children and families during these difficult times.