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Innovating Education

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

Inspiring the next generation of innovators and doers is something we’re always thinking about. There’s a 10 year old out there right now that just might change the world. What they experience, how they learn, who guides them and what opportunities they have could change everything.   

As millions of children head back to school, we reached out to check in with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and chat with Sara Allen who leads the foundation’s K-12 education research to evaluate promising models in education. Sara will be a featured speaker on the Harvest Summit program this fall.

Do you remember being 10 years old in 4th grade? Any stand out memories?

I went to a small K8 school in Ontario, Canada. In 4th grade I had a boring very traditional teacher who made us chant multiplication tables endlessly. I was lucky enough to have a mother who was a math teacher, and she volunteered to come in and do enrichment math with a group of us. It was way more fun to be solving challenging puzzles than mindlessly repeating facts.   

What led you to your work with the Gates Foundation?

I spent the first half of my career in the private sector, working in finance and management consulting, which gave me a fantastic foundation in business strategy and organizational development. But maybe because I came from a family of educators, I found myself wanting to apply those skills to try to solve important social problems vs just helping my clients improve their market share. 

I was fortunate to connect with a fellowship from the Broad Center that offered an on-ramp into education for people from the private sector who were interested in working in large school systems and I went to work for the superintendent in Portland Public Schools. I found the work there really challenging and satisfying, and I learned a lot about how complex school systems work to support teaching and learning in schools. After a number of years, I was excited to bring that experience to work at a larger scale within the foundation’s US Education Program, where we make approximately $600M in grants to institutions and non-profit organizations in education each year, with the goal of supporting students experiencing poverty and students of color to graduate from high school, transition successfully to a postsecondary program, attain a credential with labor market value, and launch a career that is upwardly mobile.

As Executive Director of Systems Planning & Performance for the Portland Public Schools what was your greatest challenge and opportunity?

Most people don’t realize how complex the challenges are in running large school systems in ways that deliver equity in access to opportunities and outcomes to all students, particularly when budgets are unpredictable and under-resourced and there are many regulations and requirements that constrict choices. I worked a lot on how to optimize how we allocated staffing resources to schools with extremely diverse student needs to support consistently excellent programs and learning opportunities.

During the recession we had a series of years of budget cuts, which were extremely painful to implement, and led us to some decisions to consolidate programs and close schools. That was really challenging. On the plus side, we also made a lot of progress tackling systemic inequities in the kinds of programs that were offered across the district’s high schools which was leading to radically different graduation rates and post-secondary success.  

In the years since, there has been meaningful improvement in those measures at many of the high schools that serve students of color and those experiencing poverty. I saw that when you give kids rich learning opportunities and the supports needed to take advantage of them, they rise to the challenge and are unstoppable, no matter what their backgrounds are. I draw inspiration from that.

What problem do you want to solve?

Young people are growing up to face a labor market that is way more dynamic and unpredictable than previous generations, and pathways to upward mobility aren’t clear or accessible to many. Young people today need to be adaptable, resilient, self-directed, life-long learners – but school today is not designed well for that.  

We also know that a post secondary education is more important than ever, but it can be very hard to figure out which post-secondary path to get on, and where many paths may lead in terms of career. Couple that with the fact that youth unemployment is much lower than a generation ago, many young people don’t get exposed to the world of work as teenagers, and schools and colleges don’t often set kids up to be able to explore their options. So many students go down a post-secondary path that doesn’t lead them where they want to go, and they end up underemployed, and often with debt.  

I want to see a system where high school, work opportunities and college pathways are aligned and integrated, and navigation and guidance exists to help students figure out their path, get on it and stay on it, in ways that prepare them for a dynamic but upwardly mobile career. 

What type of data are you collecting and how does it inform your work?

 In our education to employment pathways work, which we call Equitable Futures, we are working with partners who are collecting data about the availability and uptake of work based learning opportunities in high school and post-secondary, which students are accessing them, and whether they are leading to credentials and career success. Ultimately I think we need to collect data along the high school-college and workforce continuum that allows us to understand whether high school and college pathways are leading to real opportunity for young people, and use that data to improve schools and programs of study.  

It’s not enough to just track high school graduation rates, or college going rates – we need to know which pathways lead to economic opportunity for young people, particularly those that have been systematically disadvantaged in the current system.

How do the needs of students, teachers, administrators and parents differ by state, region, culture or gender?

In recent research, it’s clear there are a lot of things all students need and want – to find their passion, gain the skills and experiences they need to be on a path to success, and to be empowered to make choices for their lives. Lots of students also talk about the importance of giving back to their families and communities, particularly students that come from lower income backgrounds. And everyone also talks about the need for connection – both deep ones, with mentors or teachers, and broader ones, like knowing people who know people who can help them navigate to opportunity.  While there are some differences by gender and race – we observed for example that young women are at times more practical and concrete about planning their education and career paths than young men of the same age – there is more commonality than difference. Young people want opportunities to realize their full potential.

How is your work serving low-income students and students of color?

We need education institutions to serve all students well so that a young person’s race, address or socioeconomic status do not predict whether they are educationally successful.  That means we need to be very attentive to groups that the system is not serving well today. We focus our grantmaking on supporting organizations that are taking down systemic barriers to student success for all students, but especially students experiencing poverty, and Black and Latino students. We try to build mechanisms into our grantmaking to listen to what those young people need and want, and help the field translate that into practices and approaches that support them build their a strong identity and agency as learners and doers. 

What research has led to the development of new tools or best practices in social and emotional learning?

I am very focused on research on mindset and belonging and the role it plays in youth identity formation. A recent promising study we funded is the National Study of Learning Mindsets, which demonstrated the positive impact of growth mindset interventions on student learning in math and on GPA.  While we are ultimately very concerned about academic outcomes, research tells us how learning environments can shape young peoples’ mindsets in ways that either contribute to or detract from learning. So it’s really important to give teachers, parents and students the tools to create learning environments that reinforce identity and belonging.   Too many young people end up holding themselves back from realizing opportunities because they don’t see themselves as successful in various environments, whether STEM careers or even college in general, due to the signals they get sent, which can be subtle but have a big impact. It’s a promising area of research.

What education technology are you most excited about?

I’m pretty optimistic about applications in the college and career advising space, which are part of the puzzle of supporting students to find their path, get on it, and stay on it. There has been a lot of innovation in that space, and, in the absence of public funding for counselors and advisors in every school, technology can play a meaningful role in supporting students at scale.

Is there an unexpected partnership or collaboration that has led to new opportunities?

I am excited about the potential partnership that has arisen between two of our grantees in the education to employment pathways space – Here to Here, an organization that supports high school students in the Bronx to connect to internships, project based learning and work based learning opportunities and CareerWise CO, the model for youth apprenticeship that is growing in Colorado. 

They recently launched CareerWiseNYC, which is creating high quality apprenticeships for young people in NYC in a range of industries, that connect high school to college pathways with an embedded multi year work based learning program starting in grade 11 in which students gain skills, credentials and direct opportunities to upwardly mobile careers. If this can scale up to serve a large number of students in New York City, it could really shift the pipeline for talent there, and life outcomes for young people who typically didn’t have access to high paid Wall St or media company jobs.

What transferable insights from your work can be applied to other industries?

Philanthropy is a unique industry, but much of how we go about developing investment theses for deploying grant dollars is similar to the strategy development and portfolio planning processes that other kinds of investors use. Our mission and outcomes are different, but we are looking to get the most leverage out of our dollars in terms of young people served, and changes in outcomes, and sourcing the right set of opportunities to make the most difference is critical to our success.  

I think what we can offer others is a set of ideas about how investing in social good can strengthen local communities in ways that benefit a range of players, including business.  Philanthropy works best alongside government and the private sector to catalyze innovation in the social sector and fill in gaps/correct for market failures. 

What are you looking forward to in the new 2019-2020 school year?

Well, as the mother of 17-year-old twins who are high school seniors, I’m going to be treasuring the time I have remaining with them at home. In between all the college applications, I am looking forward to spending as much time together as we can having fun as a family!

– Sara Allan

Deputy Director, K-12 Education, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Sara Allan is Deputy Director of US Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation where she leads the program strategies targeted at supporting Black, Latino and students experiencing poverty to graduate on time from high school fully prepared to pursue a post-secondary program aligned to their interests and passions, and to attain the skills and credentials needed to stay on a path to thrive as adults in an upwardly mobile career.  Her team focuses on catalyzing innovative models in education that have the potential to dramatically accelerate student learning and expanding access to high impact educational and career readying experiences.  Previously, Sara was a district level leader at Portland Public Schools where she led a wide range of system change initiatives focused on supporting schools to improve.   Prior to working in education, Sara was a strategy consultant with the Boston Consulting Group, working with private and public sector clients on issues of strategy, organizational development and growth in North and South America. She lives in Seattle with her husband and three children.

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