Malipatil: How Education Funders Can Support Nonprofits and Schools Differently to Keep Students Learning During and After COVID-19

COVID-related learning loss is reaching new depths as state education budgets are more strapped than ever. The changing dynamics should make education funders ask what else we can (and must) do differently to support nonprofits and the populations they support.

Across 19 states, data released in October by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes shows that students were behind by anywhere from a third of a year to a full year of learning in reading and from three-quarters of a year to 232 days in math. These learning losses vary according to demographics: Statistics show that students of color may have lost out on three to five months of math learning, while white students may have lost out on just one to three months.

Concurrently, projected state revenues have plummeted, including declines of as much as $31 billion in California, $10 billion in New Jersey and $3.4 billion in Florida.​ The Learning Policy Institute conservatively predicts close to a $230 billion shortfall in state education budgets over the next 18 months. And, according to new estimates from Education Resource Strategies, getting students to where they’d be academically had the pandemic not occurred could cost schools an average of $12,000 to $13,500 per student over the next five years.

In these moments of incredible challenges, ranging from learning loss and low student engagement to difficult teaching and learning conditions and constrained financial resources, how can philanthropy better support education nonprofits to make each moment matter more?

Understand what drives impact

One of the biggest difficulties is that a program an organization is running during a pandemic likely needs to look quite different from the one it was operating before. That is why understanding and prioritizing which program elements are most critical to maintaining impact is so important as organizations innovate and adapt. Staying focused on impact and learning despite changes to their model will allow organizations to isolate those elements that are must-haves versus nice-to-haves. This ensures their resources, both staff and financial, are directed where they have the potential to matter most.

Gauging results is increasingly difficult when what you’re measuring has drastically changed or relies on data from assessments that are no longer taking place. One way to confront this is by learning quickly from real-time data. Doing so can indicate what’s working, for whom, under what conditions and why.

When analyzing internal data from millions of students that showed progress on Zearn, an online math curriculum funded by our foundation, decreased by about half in classrooms in low-income zip codes and not at all in classrooms in high-income zip codes, CEO Shalinee Sharma realized her organization had a problem. (A narrower analysis of Zearn student data was conducted by research center and grantee Opportunity Insights and published by The New York Times.)

She partnered with economist and best-selling author Steven Levitt and the University of Chicago’s Center for Radical Innovation for Social Change to create a campaign aimed at increasing participation and progress for low-income students in some of Zearn’s biggest partner districts. The campaign will focus on parents’ role in student engagement and is expected to reach approximately 1 million students to try to narrow the progress and achievement gap.

Stay focused on the goal

During a time of constraint, doing more of what works and less of what doesn’t is critical. That’s not always as easy as it sounds, especially if the organization is unclear about which attributes lead to success.

Alejandro Gibes de Gac, founder and CEO of Springboard Collaborative, a nonprofit our foundation funds that aims to close the pre-K through third-grade literacy gap through parent engagement, knew his organization wouldn’t be able to run its regular in-person program last summer. So Springboard developed a new virtual program called Springboard Learning Accelerator that operated outside the school buildings the organization had long relied on.

Gibes de Gac was optimistic that the virtual program would succeed in improving reading by relying on parents to play a large role in their children’s learning. He commissioned a study that would use school-based assessment data from just before the shutdown and after summer intervention to compare a treatment and control group over a six-month period.

The findings were not only positive, but comparable to results from Springboard’s flagship program. On a scale where 100 points represents roughly one grade level of reading growth, participants averaged a 256-point gain, versus a control group that grew just 41 points. The study also confirmed that students furthest behind grade level were the ones making the most progress.

These powerful results occurred even though the virtual program was relatively less time-intensive for Springboard than the traditional in-school version, and about 80 percent less costly. The findings are leading Springboard to rethink the type of program it provides even after schools reopen.

There is widespread agreement that the education system will require a deep and sustained recovery effort that will last much beyond the length of the pandemic, meaning philanthropy has arguably never been as important as it is now. But besides providing organizations with funds for the important work they do, there is a responsibility to do more. Advisory board members or funders must continue to encourage nonprofit leaders to stay focused on impact by ensuring that their program prioritizes what ultimately matters most for children to recover and succeed. Key questions for leadership to answer include: What drives your program’s impact? What is the cost of each of these drivers? Are there ways to make your program more cost-effective, if need be (e.g., exploring group versus 1:1 programs or using technology as a hybrid delivery tool)?

As funders focused on enhancing educational opportunity, it is their responsibility to ensure that families and children receive access to supports, programs and services that can reliably deliver academic and socio-emotional improvement. Asking and helping nonprofits answer these tough questions is essential to helping children and communities thrive.

Anu Malipatil is vice president, education, at the Overdeck Family Foundation.

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