News & Resources
Why We Funded: Tech-Enabled Innovation for Today’s Distance Learning "Classrooms"
Posted on Tuesday, August 25th, 2020
COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the landscape of school and learning.
For schools, the first three months of the pandemic was a story of agility and survival. In the days immediately after closures, schools shifted their focus from how to teach to how to meet basic needs, such as ensuring their students had access to meals, connectivity, and computers. Many of our partners, including New Schools Venture Fund, Silicon Schools Fund, and Charter School Growth Fund, first focused on helping schools meet these immediate needs alongside the transition to distance learning.
All schools transitioned. But we found that the speed and grace with which schools were able to move to distance learning largely depended on pre-COVID structures and implementations in five areas. In general, schools that fared better during the transition already had a deep understanding of their students’ and families’ needs, were committed to high quality materials and professional development, practiced student-centered learning, had strong technology architecture, and were able to adapt to new innovations.
One of the evidence-based solutions emerging for educational recovery is tutoring; online tutoring especially is showing promise at addressing the learning loss from the pandemic while also being relatively cost-effective for the impact it achieves.
The months following the immediate shockwave were shaped by rethinking the old way and planning for the new. We saw this work happen within our grantee organizations, and within our own funding.
Internally, the Innovative Schools portfolio started thinking about our investments around three areas: preparing for multiple models of school (in-person, hybrid, online); addressing learning loss; and rethinking measurement and benchmarking of student success. Given the uncertainty of the coming months, we also realized the importance of all of the above being tech-enabled so that less disruption would occur should our country enter another period of school shutdowns.
Prepare schools for multiple scenarios
As we’ve seen already, schools will look drastically different in the Fall. Hybrid models have become a part of most, if not every, district’s reentry planning to mitigate for an ongoing distance learning scenario. For our edtech partners that were already digital, this meant having to update their delivery model from in-school use to fully remote, and increasing the focus on both teacher training and the feedback features of their products.
Our grantees in the tech-enabled curriculum space, such as ST Math and Zearn, saw an immediate surge in educator, parent, and student demand once schools shut down. We recently awarded grants of $1 million to both organizations to meet this need, alongside supporting the creation of resources that support parents in distance teaching and students in distance learning.
Because Zearn and ST Math’s offerings were tech-enabled to begin with, our grants focus less on implementing technology and more on ensuring that they have the funding they need to reach more students while being able to adjust their offerings to be responsive to current needs. This includes supporting the work they have undertaken to make their offerings more culturally engaging and responsive.
Target learning loss
Given that the last few months of school were remote for most students, research is telling us to prepare for summer learning slide on steroids. One of the evidence-based solutions emerging for educational recovery is tutoring; online tutoring especially is showing promise at being able to address the learning loss from the pandemic while also being relatively cost-effective for the impact it achieves. Even policymakers across the country are calling for efforts to launch large scale tutoring programs such as a national tutoring corps to help combat learning loss and get students up to grade-level.
Saga Education, a multi-year grantee partner that offers high dosage math tutoring, has emerged as a field leader during this time. Our partnership with Saga over the last two years has focused on supporting the implementation and validation of their lower cost, tech-enabled math tutoring model. This blended-learning model, still implemented in school, had students split time between in-person tutoring and independent practice via an adaptive learning online math platform. During COVID-19 school closures, this model allowed Saga to switch to a fully online model with more ease.
Saga, which serves over 4,500 students, the vast majority of whom are students of color, is now integrating technology platforms to facilitate greater scale and customization, including a fully virtual tutoring model by Fall 2020 and beyond. Our 2020 grant to Saga will continue to support their increased reach, projected to be over 10,000 students by 2022, and the validation of the blended tutoring model in partnership with Arnold Ventures and University of Chicago.
Nobody could have predicted a year ago what the 2020-2021 school year would bring. As a funder, we’re grateful to have had so many grantees in our portfolio who were well-positioned for the moment.
Expanding the definition of student success
Social emotional learning (SEL) has a critical role to play in helping students cope with the trauma of the past few months and overcome the learning loss that occurred in the spring. We expect to see schools look for integrated (part of everyday school practice) ways to teach and spread SEL practices and measure student well-being and engagement during distance learning. Already, we’re seeing that districts are looking into tests that measure growth over proficiency and tools and practices that measure engagement over attendance in the Fall.
One organization we fund, PERTS, has long held that engagement is the key to student success. PERTS provides educators with evidence-based strategies to equitably support student engagement, agency, and learning in the classroom. Through its free, online professional learning program, Copilot-Elevate, PERTS offers educators ongoing feedback and best practices that they can use to create engaging learning environments even during distance learning. One way PERTS accomplishes this is through online surveys that ask students targeted questions about conditions that affect their learning. Once students provide feedback, educators see it on easy-to-read reports that pair survey results with relevant, evidence-based recommendations shown to foster academic engagement, persistence, and success.
As student engagement emerges as a key measure for understanding the efficacy of remote learning, PERTS gives educators a practical way to create virtual and in-person experiences that support both academic and social emotional learning for students. Over the last two years, our funding has provided support for the continuous improvement and scaled impact of Copilot. This work is more important than ever given the difficulties teachers face with ensuring student engagement in a virtual learning environment.
Nobody could have predicted a year ago what the 2020-2021 school year would bring. As a funder, we’re grateful to have had so many grantees in our portfolio who were well-positioned for the moment. Whether they were already using technology to inform instruction, or were able to quickly pivot to tech-enabled models, these organizations continue to be key in helping schools and educators in the U.S. prepare for multiple models of school, address learning loss, and rethink measurement and student success.
We’re proud to support them, and even prouder of the impact they are having on students’ lives.