David Leonhardt of the New York Times covered two major stories in education research during the first week of May. Together, they have strong implications for how those in philanthropy might focus their giving to ensure students have the best possible opportunities to learn. 

The first body of research draws on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized exam students from all states have been taking for decades at grades 4 and 8. The data from the late ‘90s through the early 2000s showed remarkable overall progress in both reading and math. Perhaps more important, racial achievement gaps between Black and Hispanic students and their white counterparts actually decreased during this same time period. Researchers attribute the gains to two causes: State accountability and money. During this time period, many states significantly increased funding for K-12 schools. “As Thomas Kane, a Harvard professor of education and economics, says about the recent educational progress, ‘It may be the most important social policy success of the last half century that nobody seems to be aware of.’”

The second body of research analyzes learning during COVID and comes to the definitive conclusion that “remote learning was a failure.” While all students suffered substantial learning loss during the 2020-21 school year, the more time students were home, the more they lost access to high quality learning experiences. Because high-poverty schools averaged 13.5 remote weeks compared to only 8 weeks for low- and mid-poverty schools, historically disadvantaged students were further disadvantaged. Students in high-poverty schools only learned roughly 50% of the math content for the year, while those in other schools learned roughly 80%. COVID closures inverted much of the math and reading progress that Black and Latino students had seen over the prior generation and widened inequality. 

My organization, Grantmakers for Education, tracks trends in education philanthropy. Since 2018, we have documented grantmakers from philanthropic organizations moving away from investing in the academic side of K-12 school improvement. Some are reducing the dollars they allocate to K-12 and increasing their focus on postsecondary education and/or early childhood education. While investments in learning experiences before and after K-12 are important, the K-12 system continues to see big gaps in funding for lower-income communities, even as the research on how much money matters builds. Investments in K-12 are increasingly focused outside academic subjects on important topics like community engagement social-emotional learning, wraparound supports, and initiatives aimed at racial justice (such as cultural awareness training for teachers and trauma supports for students). Not surprisingly, during the pandemic, we saw interest among funders in technology-based approaches to learning rise.  

There are a few key takeaways for donors looking to follow the research and invest in student learning:

  1. Continue to support social-emotional and racial justice-focused supports for students and teachers. Learning is a relationship-based endeavor. Student well-being has been rocked by the pandemic. In a 15-month span, 1 in 5 young people had lost a primary caregiver to COVID-19. In many schools across the country, students lack access to even a single teacher of color in their school, despite clear research showing that connection and achievement increases when students are exposed to a diverse teacher force. In the current moment, improving student mental health and access to culturally-competent teachers are pre-conditions for improving student learning. 
  2. Look at supporting academic improvement with fresh eyes. For those who once invested in math, science, or literacy supports but moved in other directions, consider the new research an invitation back into the fold. Need still exists. In the years that funder interest in academic supports has waned, the science of learning has sharpened, yet teachers have not caught up. Supporting high quality learning in the core subject areas (see Imagine Science for STEM as an example) and high dosage tutoring (see SAGA Education as an example) are worthy investments in students. 
  3. Approach tech-based approaches to learning with wariness. Different forms of technology often appear as the silver bullet that might save the slow, expensive public education system. However, the research on remote learning during COVID-19 just reaffirms volumes of prior research on online schooling. It is a lesser learning experience for young people. Technology can be a supplement to good instruction, but it can rarely replace it. 

Schools have re-opened and want to help all students reach their potential. It is time for donors to re-consider supporting academic experiences as well as the social-emotional side of learning.