What Changes to the U.S. Education System Are Needed to Support Long-Term Success for All Americans? | Future of … – Carnegie Corporation of New York

With the pandemic deepening inequities that threaten students’ prospects, the vice president of the Corporation’s National Program provides a vision for transforming our education system from one characterized by uneven and unjust results to one that puts all students on a path to bright futures 
At no point in our nation’s history have we asked so much of our education system as we do today. We ask that our primary and secondary schools prepare all students, regardless of background, for a lifetime of learning. We ask that teachers guide every child toward deeper understanding while simultaneously attending to their social-emotional development. And we ask that our institutions of higher learning serve students with a far broader range of life circumstances than ever before.
We ask these things of education because the future we aspire to requires it. The nature of work and civic participation is evolving at an unprecedented rate. Advances in automation, artificial intelligence, and social media are driving rapid changes in how we interact with each other and what skills hold value. In the world our children will inherit, their ability to adapt, think critically, and work effectively with others will be essential for both their own success and the well-being of society.
At Carnegie Corporation of New York, we focus on supporting people who are in a position to meet this challenge. That includes the full spectrum of educators, administrators, family members, and others who shape young people’s learning experiences as they progress toward and into adulthood. Our mission is to empower all students with the tools, systems, knowledge, and mindsets to prepare them to fully participate in the global economy and in a robust democracy.
All of our work is geared toward transforming student learning. The knowledge, skills, and dispositions required for success today call for a vastly different set of learning experiences than may have sufficed in the past. Students must play a more active role in their own learning, and that learning must encompass more than subject-matter knowledge. Preparing all children for success requires greater attention to inclusiveness in the classroom, differentiation in teaching and learning, and universal high expectations.
This transformation needs to happen in higher education as well. A high school education is no longer enough to ensure financial security. We need more high-quality postsecondary options, better guidance for students as they transition beyond high school, and sufficient supports to enable all students to complete their postsecondary programs. Preparing students for lifelong success requires stronger connections between K–12, higher education, and work.
The need for such transformation has become all the more urgent in the face of COVID-19. As with past economic crises, the downturn resulting from the pandemic is likely to accelerate the erosion of opportunities for low-skilled workers with only a high school education. Investments in innovative learning models and student supports are critical to preventing further inequities in learning outcomes. 
The 2020–21 school year may prove to be the most consequential in American history. With unfathomable speed, COVID-19 has forced more change in how schools operate than in the previous half century.
What is most concerning in all of this is the impact on the most underserved and historically marginalized in our society: low-income children and students of color. Even before the current crisis, the future prospects of a young person today looked very different depending on the color of her skin and the zip code in which she grew up, but the pandemic exposed and exacerbated long-standing racial and economic inequities. And the same families who are faring worst in terms of disrupted schooling are bearing the brunt of the economic downturn and disproportionately getting sick, being hospitalized, and dying.
Our mission is to empower all students with the tools, systems, knowledge, and mindsets to prepare them to fully participate in the global economy and in a robust democracy.
Every organization that is committed to educational improvement needs to ask itself what it can do differently to further advance the cause of educational equity during this continuing crisis so that we can make lasting improvements. As we know from past experience, if the goal of equity is not kept front and center, those who are already behind through no fault of their own will benefit the least. If ever there were a time to heed this caution, it is now.
We hope that our nation will approach education with a new sense of purpose and a shared commitment to ensuring that our schools truly work for every child. Whether or not that happens will depend on our resolve and our actions in the coming months. We have the proof points and know-how to transform learning, bolster instruction, and meet the needs of our most disadvantaged students. What has changed is the urgency for doing so at scale.
Our starting place must be a vision of equal opportunity, and from there we must create the conditions that can actually ensure it — irrespective of how different they may look from the ones we now have. We need to reimagine the systems that shape student learning and put the communities whose circumstances we most need to elevate at the center of that process. We need to recognize that we will not improve student outcomes without building the capacity of the adults who work with them, supporting them with high-quality resources and meaningful opportunities for collaboration and professional growth. We need to promote stronger connections between K–12, higher education, and employment so that all students are prepared for lifelong success.
The pandemic has deepened inequities that threaten students’ prospects. But if we seize this moment and learn from it, if we marshal the necessary resources, we have the potential to transform our education system from one characterized by uneven and unjust results to one that puts all students on a path to bright futures.

In a pandemic-induced moment when the American education system has been blown into 25 million homes across the country, where do we go from here?
These are not controversial ideas. In fact, they constitute the general consensus about where American education needs to go. But they also represent a tall order for the people who influence the system. Practically everyone who plays a part in education must learn to act in new ways.
That we have made progress in such areas as high school completion, college-going rates, and the adoption of college- and career-ready standards is a testament to the commitment of those working in the field. But it will take more than commitment to achieve the changes in student learning that our times demand. We can’t expect individuals to figure out what they need to do on their own, nor should we be surprised if they struggle to do so when working in institutional structures designed to produce different outcomes. The transformation we seek calls for much greater coordination and a broader set of allies than would suffice for more incremental changes.
Our starting place must be a vision of equal opportunity, and from there we must create the conditions that can actually ensure it — irrespective of how different they may look from the ones we now have.
Our best hope for achieving equity and the transformation of student learning is to enhance adults’ ability to contribute to that learning. That means building their capacity while supporting their authentic engagement in promoting a high-quality education for every child. It also means ensuring that people operate within systems that are optimized to support their effectiveness and that a growing body of knowledge informs their efforts.
These notions comprise our overarching strategy for promoting the systems change needed to transform student learning experiences on a large scale. We seek to enhance adult capacity and stakeholder engagement in the service of ensuring that all students are prepared to meet the demands of the 21st century. We also support knowledge development and organizational improvement to the extent that investments in these areas enhance adult capacity, stakeholder engagement, and student experiences.
These views on how best to promote systems change in education guide our philanthropic work. The strategic areas of change we focus on are major themes throughout our five investment portfolios. Although they are managed separately and support different types of initiatives, each seeks to address its area of focus from multiple angles. A single portfolio may include grants that build adult capacity, enhance stakeholder engagement, and generate new knowledge.
Preparing all students for success requires that we fundamentally reimagine our nation’s schools and classrooms. Our public education system needs to catch up with how the world is evolving and with what we’ve come to understand about how people learn. That means attending to a broader diversity of learning styles and bringing what happens in school into greater alignment with what happens in the worlds of work and civic life. We make investments to increase the number of innovative learning models that support personalized experiences, academic mastery, and positive youth development. We also make investments that build the capacity of districts and intermediaries to improve learning experiences for all students as well as grants to investigate relevant issues of policy and practice.
Lifelong success in the United States has never been more dependent on educational attainment than it is today. Completing some education beyond the 12th grade has virtually become a necessity for financial security and meaningful work. But for that possibility to exist for everyone, we need to address the historical barriers that keep many students from pursuing and completing a postsecondary program, and we must strengthen the options available to all students for education after high school. Through our investments, we seek to increase the number of young people able to access and complete a postsecondary program, with a major focus on removing historical barriers for students who are first-generation college-goers, low-income, or from underrepresented groups. We also look to expand the range of high-quality postsecondary options and to strengthen alignment between K–12, higher education, and the world of work.
At its core, learning is about the interplay between teachers, students, and content. How teachers and students engage with each other and with their curriculum plays a predominant role in determining what students learn and how well they learn it. That’s not to say that factors outside of school don’t also greatly impact student learning. But the research is clear that among the factors a school might control, nothing outweighs the teaching that students experience. We focus on supporting educators in implementing rigorous college- and career-ready standards in math, science, and English language arts. We make investments to increase the supply of and demand for high-quality curricular materials and professional learning experiences for teachers and administrators.
As central as they are to the education process, school professionals are hardly the only people with a critical role to play in student learning. Students spend far more time with family and other community members than they do at school. And numerous stakeholders outside of the education system have the potential to strengthen and shape what happens within it. The success of our nation’s schools depends on far more individuals than are employed by them. 
We invest in efforts to engage families and other stakeholders as active partners in supporting equitable access to high-quality student learning. We also support media organizations and policy research groups in building awareness about key issues related to educational equity and improvement.
Those of us who work for change in education need a new set of habits to achieve our vision of 21st-century learning. It will take more than a factory-model mindset to transform our education system into one that prepares all learners for an increasingly complex world. We must approach this task with flexibility, empathy for the people involved, and an understanding of how to learn from what’s working and what’s not. We work to reduce the fragmentation, inefficiencies, and missteps that often result when educational improvement strategies are pursued in isolation and without an understanding of the contexts in which they are implemented. Through grants and other activities, we build the capacity of people working in educational organizations to change how they work by emphasizing systems and design thinking, iteration, and knowledge sharing within and across organizations.

Two recent surveys by Carnegie Corporation of New York and Gallup offer insights into how our education system can better help all Americans navigate job and career choices
Our approach of supporting multiple stakeholders by pulling multiple levers is informed by our deep understanding of the system we’re trying to move. American education is a massive, diverse, and highly decentralized enterprise. There is no mechanism by which we might affect more than superficial change in many thousands of communities. The type of change that is needed cannot come from compliance alone. It requires that everyone grapple with new ideas.
We know from our history of promoting large-scale improvements in American education that advancements won’t happen overnight or as the result of one kind of initiative. Our vision for 21st-century education will require more than quick wins and isolated successes. Innovation is essential, and a major thrust of our work involves the incubation and dissemination of new models, resources, and exemplars. But we must also learn to move forward with the empathy, flexibility, and systems thinking needed to support people in making the transition. Novel solutions only help if they can be successfully implemented in different contexts.
Only a sustained and concerted effort will shift the center of gravity of a social enterprise that involves millions of adults and many tens of millions of young people. The challenge of philanthropy is to effect widespread social change with limited resources and without formal authority. This takes more than grantmaking. At the Corporation, we convene, communicate, and form coalitions. We provide thought leadership, issue challenges, and launch new initiatives. Through these multifaceted activities, we maximize our ability to forge, share, and put into practice powerful new ideas that build a foundation for more substantial changes in the future.
We encourage everyone who plays a role in education to join us in this work. Our strategy represents more than our priorities as a grantmaker. It conveys our strong beliefs about how to get American education to where it needs to be. The more organizations and individuals we have supporting those who are working to provide students with what they need, the more likely we are to succeed in this ambitious endeavor. 
LaVerne Evans Srinivasan is the vice president of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s National Program and the program director for Education.
TOP: Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, a lower-school substitute teacher works from her home in Arlington, Virginia, on April 1, 2020. Her role in the school changed significantly due to the pandemic. Whereas she previously worked part-time to support teachers when they needed to be absent from the classroom, amid COVID-19 she now helps teachers to build skills with new digital platforms so they can continue to teach in the best way for their students and their families. (Credit: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)
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