Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Looking for Economic Opportunity? Mind the Education System Gaps!

May 12, 2014

This blog post is a response to the Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities group blogging event, which asks, “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?”

As recent analyses by Georgetown University have shown, in the next 5 years, we will need far, far (far, far, far) more people with college credentials and degrees than our education systems are currently able to produce. And it’s been clear for decades that the best shot at increasing your economic opportunity is to get as advanced an education as you can. But for too many Americans, this is out of reach.

Part of the challenge is that there are at least three distinct parts of the American education system: child care/early learning, K-12, and higher education. On the surface, it would seem they could all be part of one ‘education system,’ but the reality, of course, is that they are not. They are systems unto themselves (or in the case of child care/early learning, not even quite a system yet), with surprisingly large gaps between them. Many students, unfortunately, also fall into these gaps, and struggle to get out.

Different histories and different funding streams (and maybe even purposes) make our three education systems in this country into a less than seamless experience for students and parents. The expectations on how prepared early learners will be do not match up with what kindergarten teachers would call ‘prepared.’ Notoriously, college-entrance requirements are beyond what it takes to graduate from high school. And we wonder why so many students struggle, and ultimately give up, in the long jump from one system to the other?

This dynamic can also support the ‘blame game’ that goes on between education systems: Higher education might say the K-12 system is to blame for students who aren’t ready for college; K-12 can blame early learning providers for not concentrating on the right things. Sadly, in early learning, some may even place the blame on parents for not teaching the kids enough at home. The blaming has grown more acute in recent years, as greater scrutiny is applied to K-12 and higher education.

But city leaders frequently do not control much, if any, of these education systems. So what’s a city to do?

Some communities and city leaders have come together to create ‘cradle to career’ networks, that seek to solve some of problems associated with our balkanized education landscape. By recent accounts, there are now over 100 of these in various stages of development, according to the Strive Network. The one I’m most familiar with--and have been working in partnership with for the past four years--is The Road Map Project, an education focused collective impact effort in the Gates Foundation’s hometown of Seattle, and neighboring cities in South King County, WA.

While this work is wide ranging--working inside of education as well as with non-education systems to improve results for kids--some of the most critical work is happening to bridge the divide between systems. Innovative work in the Auburn School District has brought together Pre-K child care providers with elementary school teachers (K-3) to work on making a better pathway from child care to elementary school through common assessments and joint professional development. This has enabled Auburn, with a high number of low-income kids, to have some of the highest 3rd-grade reading stats in the state, on par with our wealthiest communities.

Similarly, the State of Washington’s generous College Bound Scholarship -- which is awarded to low-income students in 8th grade, guaranteeing a full ride scholarship to students who graduate with a C or better -- has made a huge difference helping low-income middle school students stay on a path to, and get to college. A recent study shows that this effort has nearly completely erased the opportunity gap between lower and upper income students in terms of both high school graduation and college admissions, and first year persistence in college. That’s a remarkable result – and projects such as the Road Map are starting to focus supports on these students so they complete all the steps needed to go to college, get to college on that first day, and succeed once there.

 If these advances in bridging systems can work for a few students, or a few schools, they can be done broadly in our community for ALL students.

While many of these efforts were started before the Road Map came into play, this community-initiated process has said: if these advances in bridging systems can work for a few students, or a few schools, they can be done broadly in our community for ALL students. City and community leaders have set new educational goals for our community, and efforts such as the Road Map provide a platform for scaling what works. This can benefit all students, and ultimately, change the economic future of residents and entire communities.

Not many funding sources pay much attention to these spaces between systems. Certainly philanthropy is one player that can take a deeper look at the opportunities to fill these gaps. In the Gates Foundation’s collective impact work in South King County, we’re looking to support efforts to bridge the education systems together through efforts that increase these systems to exchange information with each other, and we’re also working to bring other sectors, such as public health, housing, and youth development providers, into more strategic partnerships with education institutions.

But this work can’t be on philanthropy alone: leaders of local municipalities, with their work in human services, health, workforce, and other areas that have deep impact on educational success for kids and families, can also look more into these gaps, and ask themselves: are we doing what we can to help bridge these systems?

 
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