Looking Ahead to Meet This Moment

All the way back in January, I borrowed a page from Melinda Gates’s book and chose a “word for the year” to focus my efforts and intentions. The word I chose was…transformation. By that I meant transform our education systems so that race, ethnicity, and income are no longer predictors of student success.

That intention has indeed been my focus this year — and will continue to be the focus of our U.S. Program long into the future — but in retrospect, given all the ways our lives have been fundamentally transformed this year, I’m not sure whether I chose the word of the year or the understatement of the year.

There’s no question that the global pandemic and increased national focus on racial justice has led U.S. education systems to an inflection point, one with a bright spotlight on the inequities that demand systemic transformation and the challenges in making that change.

A recent report estimated that between 10 and 25 percent of K-12 students in the most marginalized populations have completely missed out on learning for the past several months. While some data suggest student learning loss may ultimately be lower than initially projected, when 1 in 4 students who were tested in 2019 on the MAP Growth assessment in reading and math missed the test in the fall of 2020, we know that those students are more likely to be Black and Latino and students from low-income families.

In higher ed, fall enrollment among students from low-income families is down 7.5 percent. First-time student enrollment is down 16% overall, and by nearly one quarter at community colleges. Black student enrollment is down 8% across all undergrad programs and Hispanic student enrollment down 6%.

The list goes on, but the takeaway is clear: education in the U.S. is in a state of crisis, and the moment calls for a clear focus on addressing the immediate challenges while also pushing our education systems to be stronger, braver, and more equitable in the long-term.

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Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we are determined to collaborate with our partners to chart a path to a world where Black and Latino students and students experiencing poverty have the educational opportunities to reach their full potential. If we do not, our education systems will not live up to their promise for all.

For starters, we see new possibilities for how quality teaching and learning can be better integrated, supported, and delivered to better address the structural racism in our education systems. We also see new ways to build on our core strengths as a foundation and develop enduring solutions that will extend the reach of our impact.

Though much of our education work will continue on its current trajectory, we won’t be moving forward with “business as usual.” Instead, we’ll be focusing on the things that enable us as a foundation, working with our partners, to have the greatest impact for the students we seek to serve.

We want to deliver equitable solutions and supports to educators and students faster. Informed by what we’ve seen in the field and heard from our partners, we have identified three keystones that will anchor us moving forward:

Accelerating the development and delivery of high-quality, next-generation instructional systems and digital learning resources. There is an urgent need for coherent instructional systems that combine high-quality curriculum with teachers’ individual practice, intervention, and assessment — and that can work in a variety of contexts. Two-thirds of parents believe it’s time to rethink “how we educate students, coming up with new ways to teach children.” And while educators across the country have done inspiring work to adapt lessons and engage students in creative ways during this pandemic, too often fragmented systems and different technologies are barriers rather than enablers of quality instruction. This has to change.

Enhancing student transition supports that leverage technology and data. Record numbers of students are delaying their postsecondary education as a result of COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, nearly 40% of Black and Latino high school graduates did not immediately transition into a postsecondary program, compared with 30% of their white peers. To get students back on a path to a degree or credential — and to address the gaps that existed before the pandemic — we need stronger data and analytics that span K-12 and postsecondary systems that is clear about student outcomes. We intend to work alongside our partners to strengthen this critical information infrastructure in states and nationally. We also see the potential to build on promising and innovative models like virtual advising and other digital tools for student planning and advising.

Advancing innovation in high school-to-postsecondary systems and models. As high schools, colleges and universities rethink how they deliver education, we see promising models with in-person and digital learning that increase opportunities for high school students to earn college credit and gain momentum in their learning journey. We also will explore how other student barriers can be removed — such as the inability to transfer credits earned through dual enrollment and in community college to other institutions, including four-year colleges. As we’ve seen, public health crises and economic downturns makes credit mobility even more important and can be the difference between a student continuing or ending their education journey.

We believe that these focus areas will build on and complement our existing work with districts, schools, and postsecondary institutions by doing more to ensure that they have quality solutions, practices, and other related supports to deliver equitable impact for students.

It won’t be easy to make these changes count and deliver measurable impact. We have to live up to and deliver on our beliefs, which include our belief in the power of evidence, data, technology, and innovation to support educators and system leaders to deliver for all students. We must also live up to our belief in the importance of listening to and incorporating the voices and perspectives of key stakeholders — students, parents, educators, policy makers, and communities — in the work we do with our partners. And, of course, we must live up to our unwavering commitment to equity.

Based on those core beliefs, coupled with hard work by us and our partners, we have an incredible opportunity to accelerate systemic, scalable, and equitable impact.

We see bright spots in what’s already underway, but none of us can be satisfied with bright spots. We must spread that brightness until it delivers equitable opportunities and clear, measurable improvements for all Black and Latino students and students experiencing poverty. Only then will our education systems live up to their promise.

Written by

President, U.S. Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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