April 9, 2015

How Can Donors Advance Education-and the 'Common Core'?

The Common Core offers donors an unprecedented opportunity to support large-scale, transformative improvements in public education. But many question whether their investments in the Common Core will have a meaningful impact. For some donors, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

By: Amy Coe Rodde

This article originally appeared on The Chronicle of Philanthropy website, April 8, 2015.

The Common Core standards create consistent and rigorous expectations for what students need to learn and be able to do from kindergarten through high school to prepare for college and 21st-century careers.

Advocates consider the Common Core a once-in-a-generation opportunity to raise the quality of American public education — a pressing need given that only about a quarter of students graduate from high school prepared for college-level work. Detractors cite concerns ranging from Washington overreach to burdensome student testing. These concerns have prompted three of the 46 states that originally adopted the standards to reverse course and abandon them.

In this context, many donors remain uncertain about whether and how they should get involved.

My colleagues and I conducted conversations with 10 philanthropies and two philanthropy membership organizations to understand the questions on donors’ minds as they contemplate their role in the Common Core movement.

Donors are keenly interested in knowing if their investments in the Common Core will have a meaningful impact.

For some, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

"Some funders may have been skeptical of the impact potential of investing in school districts, but the Common Core is a unique opportunity to do something constructive across the nation’s public school system," says Rachel Leifer, an education program officer at the Helmsley Charitable Trust. "This isn’t an add-on; it’s about core academic content, the substance of teaching and learning. Educators need support making the fundamental shifts that are required."

Shelly Masur, CEO of Californians Dedicated to Education Foundation, a nonprofit that collaborates with the California Department of Education, agrees: "Our country has never had anything like the Common Core. It’s truly a moment in public education to support educators and school systems in making a big difference for kids. It has opened up new, powerful ways for funders to invest."

In short, some donors see the Common Core as an unprecedented opportunity to support large-scale, transformative improvements in public education.

Deciding to get involved raises a second question: Where are my investments needed?

What’s clear is that districts, schools, and teachers need help with the nuts and bolts of putting the new standards into practice. The 2014-15 school year is the first in which all participating states expect teachers to incorporate the new standards into classroom instruction, and many states are rolling out tests this spring that are linked to the new standards. So the need has never been greater for teachers to have support, and donors can find plenty of opportunities to help.

The instructional shifts required by the Common Core put a premium on offering teachers high-quality opportunities for professional growth. Yet 59 percent have received five days or fewer of training and other preparation for working with the Common Core standards, and nearly 80 percent say they want more opportunities to learn, according to a survey by Education Week.

Teachers also need materials designed to meet the instruction needs required by the Common Core, and most feel overwhelmed by the plethora of new materials available. Getting help with making the right choice has never been more important.

"Recent research suggests that curriculum choice rivals teacher quality in influencing student achievement outcomes and that access to good content correlates more strongly with student performance than ethnicity or socioeconomic status," write Ms. Leifer and Denis Udall, an education program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, in a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review blog post.

Many donors also want to know where to start.

Some grant makers have chosen to focus on a specific school district or region. Working directly with one or more school districts or charter-school operators can keep an investment close to a local or regional donor’s home base, make it easier to stay involved, and keep the work on a more manageable scale.

The S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, for example, saw a special opportunity with the Common Core to support improvements in math instruction in California. The foundation is funding the efforts of 10 California school districts to deliver high-quality Common Core training and other instructional support to teachers. Leaders and specialists in all 10 districts get together as a "community of practice" a few times a year to share techniques they learned from their work with the new standards.

While the effort is young, some promising practices have emerged.

For example, Elk Grove Unified School District, near Sacramento, is providing teachers with feedback from instructional coaches before, during, and immediately after lessons.

Anna Trunnell, director of curriculum and professional learning at Elk Grove, notes that teachers are reacting positively to the support: "We are hearing teachers say things like, ‘I am learning new strategies that I wouldn’t have considered before, and I feel better able to meet my students’ needs.’"

The Silicon Valley Community Foundation also is investing in school districts, with $2.8 million committed to 27 California districts to revamp how they help teachers to meet the new standards.

"We saw an opportunity to move beyond putting Band-Aids on these school systems and instead help them to make meaningful improvements in teaching and learning," says Gina Dalma, a senior program officer. With the foundation’s support, these districts are developing systemwide strategic plans focused on improving supports and instructional materials for teachers. "We have seen real magic happen in the classroom because of this work," says Ms. Dalma.

Donors need not invest directly in school districts or charter schools to support the Common Core’s integration into teaching practice. They can opt to invest in organizations that have a track record of effectively supporting teachers. That’s the approach the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation recently decided to follow.

"We saw a moment in time to help create a healthy, vibrant professional learning sector by working with several organizations to align their services with the Common Core and strengthen their capacity to scale," says Julie Mikuta, senior director for education. "We are also supporting organizations that train teachers so that their graduates are ready for Common Core classrooms."

While a number of donors already see the Common Core as an unprecedented opportunity to support much-needed improvements in the quality of teaching and learning, many others have yet to get involved.

But now is the time. With educators in 43 states working toward this goal and looking for support, opportunities abound for philanthropy to help the Common Core make a difference for generations.

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