Back-to-school season is a time when our minds turn to the subject of learning. What will students learn this year? How can philanthropists help students thrive. To be a funder in the education space is to be in the business of learning. Yet, how funders learn and make decisions is notoriously opaque.

As we head into the new school year, it is clear that the funding community has made some substantial shifts in what gets funded. Trends in Education Philanthropy, a report by Grantmakers for Education released earlier this year, revealed a precipitous decline in the areas of education funding that were dominant across the prior decade. Grants for issues related to the academic core of schooling—teacher quality, accountability, standards and assessment, for example— all saw deep cuts. It is clear that a chapter of school reform is over. What is less clear is why.

I see at least five viable conclusions for these shifts. I hear each of these referenced in different ways and in varying combinations by funders. Is it okay for us to draw different conclusions and move on? I say no. Regardless of your opinion of the past decade of reform, there was coherence – and at some level, coherence is needed to move systems as complex and unwieldy as education. I believe our failure to distill a coherent set of lessons about the last stage of reform explains our lack of direction in the current moment.

So, what might we have learned from a reform agenda that focused on the academic core?

Conclusion 1:

The academic core is the wrong focus. The perspective that “you can’t fix education without first fixing inequity” appears to be growing. Those in this camp argue that it was wrong, even unethical, to focus on outcomes (like test scores) before ensuring equitable conditions in schools. Funders are growing their investments in wraparound supports for schools, restorative justice, community engagement, and initiatives on diversity, equity, and inclusion. These may reflect a conclusion that disrupting the systems that surround schools should be prioritized over a focus on improving academics.

Conclusion 2:

Reforms focused on the academic core were insufficient. The flood of federal grant programs and philanthropic alignment around a common reform agenda during the Obama Era was unprecedented. Yet, it did little to close racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps. Those in this camp would argue for a hybrid approach: Continue to fund teacher development, but ensure it incorporates the knowledge base on social and emotional learning. Continue to fund assessment, but use models that extend beyond a standardized approach. These funders have concluded that we must keep the focus on academic goals, but refine and expand the strategies to get there.

Conclusion 3:

The catalytic work of philanthropy is done. Many would say the best role for philanthropy is at the start of initiatives, seeding proof points that can be scaled with tax dollars if they are successful. Funders were there for the early days of standards development and test creation; now it is time for philanthropy to find new frontiers for modernizing our education system. Many funders anticipate greater investment in instructional technology and personalized learning. This suggests an underlying belief that the place for philanthropy is pushing innovation in new arenas.

Conclusion 4:

It is impossible to succeed without a broad coalition, thus investing there is no longer high leverage.  Funders value collaboration and opportunities that match their investments with additional dollars to realize the greatest impact. Maybe funders have shifted strategy, not due to a loss of faith in K-12 academic reforms, but because there are fewer public and private dollars from other sources advancing a common cause. As the K-12 coalition has weakened, the best example of a broad coalition that is gaining momentum is postsecondary education, which has seen substantial growth in both the number of funders and the number of dollars committed.

Conclusion 5:

Research that has emerged over the past decade has shifted our focus. Our heavy investment in academic strategies was paired with substantial research into how those strategies affected students, and much showed disappointing results. At the same time, emerging research from brain science helped us to better understand the importance of attending to the social dimensions of learning and how critical the birth to three stage is. Early learning is the area in which the greatest number of funders anticipate growing their commitments, possibly due to this research.

All of these cannot be equally correct. Which should emerge as the dominant narrative on the past decade? My wish for the coming school year is that we zoom out a level from student learning and have a conversation about learning in philanthropy. As we practice listening and talking across difference using evidence, new opportunities for collaboration will emerge, our collective focus will sharpen, and students will benefit.


Original contribution by Celine Coggins, Executive Director, Grantmakers for Education.