Almost a year into the pandemic, we are navigating enduring changes to our education system at an unprecedented pace. Despite some attempts to start in-person learning earlier this fall, many school districts had to move back to remote learning amid growing COVID-19 cases. In December 2020, 53% of school districts were operating fully remotely, which is 10% more than the rate reported in November and more than at any point during the fall semesterTwenty percent of districts are in hybrid scenarios, which leaves only about 24% operating fully in person—in other words, the way school was before the pandemic. 

When schools first shut down in the spring of 2020we quickly realized that many students were not attending remote classes or getting quality peer interaction or teacher support, especially students furthest from opportunity. According to one survey, in May 2020, only 17% of students said their teacher met online with the whole class daily during a typical week. By November, this percentage rose to 76% among students engaged in fully remote instruction. While that is an impressive increase, it still left nearly one-quarter of America’s schoolchildren without engaging instruction in any given week. 

With the majority of students logging into their classrooms daily, and teachers designing their instruction for fully online or hybrid settings, how K-12 education uses and leverages technology became pivotal in a way previously unimagined. Tech-enabled teaching and learning solutions, previously considered experimental and limited to select classrooms, became the status quo, which left us wondering about the future and post-pandemic teaching and learning. 

Designing learning solutions that are both personalized and high quality will be one of the key challenges for 2021 and beyond.

In a November 2020 survey of 1,200 teachers and administrators conducted by Promethean, 82% said that combining technology use with traditional teaching methods is the most likely trend they’ll see in the next ten years. And NewSchools Venture Fund’s September 2020 report in partnership with Gallup showed that 90% of teachers see great value in using technology versus 81% in 2019In other words, technology is likely here to stay. 

The opportunity for technology in today’s crisis

Remote and hybrid learning is not without its drawbacks, many of which have been well documented. We’re seeing widening learning gaps (also referred to as unfinished learning and/or teaching), with Black and Hispanic students falling furthest behind. According to a 2020 study conducted by The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford Universitythe average loss in Reading is from one-third to a full school year, and in Math from two-thirds to 1.3 years of learning. Black and Hispanic students are particularly impacted and could experience a loss equivalent to 9-10 months of learning versus 6.8 months for all students. 

Additionally, the range in levels of academic performance are wider than ever, making it harder for teachers to address all students’ needs. 82% of teachers and administrators believe that students need more personalized, individualized instruction to mitigate the disparate impacts of the crisis on the learning experience. In a June 2020 survey conducted by YouthTruth, 61% of students said many or all of their teachers are available to give extra help if they need it, leaving nearly 40% of students without the help they need to catch up. Teachers in schools where at least 75% of students receive free and reduced-price lunch are most likely to say their students work on different content at different paces, suggesting digital learning tools that can be individualized have the potential to be particularly impactful among low-income populations. 

It’s clear that simply using and incorporating technology will not solve our country’s education challenges, but we do believe that there is a pivotal opportunity to better leverage technology to help students through the pandemic and beyond.  

Over the past year, we have increased our confidence in the ability of tech-enabled interventions to measurably impact and meet an ever-growing need for students across the country.

Our 2021 investment strategies

As we’ve written previously, in Spring 2020, the Innovative Schools portfolio started thinking about how our investments fit into the current context, and whether a strategic pivot would better position our portfolio to address the mounting needs of students and teachers. We coalesced around three areas where we thought we could have impact through our funding: preparing for multiple models of school (in-person, hybrid, online); addressing learning loss; and rethinking measurement and benchmarking of student success. With increased unfinished learning and teaching, and many districts signaling continued adoption of hybrid instruction even after the pandemic, we also realized the importance of all the above being tech-enabled in order to continue to meet student needs in ever-changing contexts. 

With these challenges and opportunities in mind, we spent the end of 2020 redefining the Innovative Schools’ grantmaking strategy to focus less on whole school models and more on leveraging technology to ensure that all children in K-9 have access to personalized solutions that are engaging, challenging, and improve both academic and social-emotional skills.  

Specifically, this year, our grantmaking will be focused on: 

  1. Investing in developing and scaling high-quality tech-enabled literacy and math tools, including core and supplemental curricula 
  2. Scaling access to targeted educational recovery programs, especially tutoring 
  3. Improving evidence-based decision making in edtech purchasing and innovation through ongoing validation, field building, and knowledge generation 

How we got here, and lessons learned

Over the past year, we have increased our confidence in the ability of tech-enabled interventions to measurably impact and meet an ever-growing need for students across the country. Several lessons have helped inform our growing confidence in this space:   

  • There is a gap in funding for in-school innovation, particularly in the instructional material market. The majority of private venture funding prioritizes out-of-school innovation with parents as purchasers, leaving a gaping need for capital for in-school innovation. This is especially true in the instructional market, where many solutions on offer may not be high-quality or impactful. We see an urgent need for philanthropy to step into making supply-side bets on digital core curriculum that facilitates both grade-level and personalized learning. Our focus on supporting tech-enabled solutions that improve in-school learning will infuse capital and a focus on evidence-building into a space that deeply needs it. 
  • Hybrid-friendly tech-enabled curricula products saw exponential growth and point to indicators of success for future investments. Our tech-enabled math curricula grantees, including ST Math and Zearnsaw unprecedented demand since the start of the pandemic, growing by 2x while increasing parent signups by 10x. This signaled both exponential authentic demand and organizational ability to meet it, which we rarely see with educational interventionsBoth offerings are hybrid-friendly, optimized for everyday usage, and offer targeted support for teacher and parents, some key indicators that we’ll look for when making new investments in core and supplemental curricula this year.  
  • There is an opportunity to fund and scale tech-enabled literacy interventions to address the reading gap. In contrast to the more mature tech-enabled math curricula space, the blended literacy market is in its early stages of innovation and scale. And yet, 80% of lower-income fourth graders struggle with reading. According to a study from the American Educational Research Foundation, students who are both not reading proficiently by third grade and living in poverty are 13 times less likely to graduate from high school on time compared to their proficient, more affluent peers. These numbers are likely to get worse due to pandemic-related learning loss, which is why we’re excited to add funding for tech-enabled literacy tools to our portfolio.  
  • Tutoring is proving to be a cost-effective solution to help close learning gaps, especially when it incorporates technology. Demand for targeted educational recovery solutions that combine a mix of human and technology assistance increased significantly, with tutoring specifically emerging as an impactful and cost-effective solution to help close learning gaps. A recent 93-study meta-analysis on tutoring found that tutoring produces significant gains in learning outcomes (overall effect size of 0.37), with trained tutors (.4-.5 e.s.) and group tutoring (.46 e.s.) being the most effectiveWe will continue to see how technology can be incorporated into previously in-person 1:1 tutoring interventions as a way to increase scale and are also interested in seeing whether peer-to-peer mentoring can have similar impact to tutoring at a lower cost. 
  • There is an opportunity for edtech to improve both academic and social-emotional skills. Students’ social-emotional skills, which have been negatively impacted as a result of the pandemic, can benefit from the right kind of educational technology. According to research on the expanded definition of student success conducted by NewSchools Venture Fund, edtech can effectively improve social-emotional learning (SEL) by providing teachers better data and guidance on how to engage with students and integrate SEL practices into core everyday instruction.  
  • Organizations that were able to pivot their pricing strategies were often able to capture new sales and increase earned revenue. At the beginning of the pandemic, what previously meant financial sustainability for organizations (e.g. high earned revenue) put some nonprofit revenues at risk given uncertain district budgets. However, several grantees experimented with offering “freemium” trials during the shutdowns last Spring, which in many cases we saw lead to expanded revenue streams by the end of the year, including new district contracts. The ability to pivot pricing strategies quickly and a keen understanding of new purchasers and users was a key indicator of success and continued earned revenue, and something we’ll continue to look for in the new investments we make in this space.
  • Evidence-based decision making in technology has become even more critical as schools navigate hybrid learning. Educators and school administrators spend more than $13 billion on over 6,000 different edtech tools. Yet the decision-makers who make purchasing decisions (administrators and teachers) largely rely on personal networks and internet searches. Only 15% of edtech budgets are spent on tools that are a good fit and are implemented correctly. Improving evidence-based decision-making in edtech purchasing is both critical and timely in the wake of COVID-19. 

What we seek to understand

As a learning-oriented Foundation, we start every year with a set of learning questions that we intend to address through grantmaking and ongoing learning opportunities throughout the year. This year, our learning questions focus primarily on the impact of tech-enabled solutions, especially when they are used outside of the classroom, and the scalability of targeted intensive interventions such as tutoring. Knowing that not all edtech is high-quality, we’re also interested in seeing how to best increase the role that evidence plays in district decision making. 

  • Are tech-enabled solutions in hybrid settings as effective as in-classroom when it comes to impacting student outcomes?  
  • How does teachers’ usage of tech-enabled solutions affect student learning outcomes?  
  • Which resources most effectively increase parent engagement with their children’s tech-based curricula, specifically for low-income families?  
  • How can we lower the cost of tutoring without losing its effectiveness on student outcomes? 
  • In addition to tutoring, what other targeted educational recovery interventions are effective and scalable?  
  • How can we increase the role that evidence plays in district decision making and purchasing of edtech programs and solutions?  

Designing learning solutions that are both personalized and high quality will be one of the key challenges for 2021 and beyond. We’re excited to pivot our strategy to focus more on this work and are grateful to have had so many grantees in our portfolio who were already well-positioned for the moment. If your organization fits into the strategy areas outlined above, please do not hesitate to reach out.