25 IMPACT OPPORTUNITIES IN U.S. K-12 EDUCATION
By Getting Smart | In Partnership with Vulcan Inc. | June 2015
TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION ........................................................................... 03
PROJECT OVERVIEW................................................................... 05
Process .......................................................................................... 06
Opportunities ................................................................................. 06
IMPACT INVESTING OPPORTUNITIES........................................... 07
10 IMPACT INVESTMENT CATEGORIES AND 10 “BIG IDEAS”....... 09
Student-Centered Learning.............................................................. 10
New School Development ............................................................... 12
Professional Learning & Development ............................................. 14
Next-Generation Assessment .......................................................... 16
Entrepreneurship Education............................................................. 18
Portable Data & Parent Engagement ................................................ 19
Learning Resources ........................................................................ 20
Social-Emotional Learning............................................................... 21
Early Learning................................................................................. 22
STEM, Coding & Computer Science ................................................ 23
25 IMPACT OPPORTUNITIES ....................................................... 24
FUNDING MECHANISMS ............................................................. 27
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS ............................................................... 31
APPENDIX 1: 30 TRENDS IN U.S. EDUCATION.............................. 33
APPENDIX 2: 16 GLOBAL LEARNING TRENDS.............................. 35
ABOUT GETTING SMART ............................................................. 37
ABOUT VULCAN INC. ................................................................... 37
The two-decades-old learning revolution has been fully incorporated into the business sector, partially integrated
into consumer offerings and has begun to transform the elementary, secondary and postsecondary education
landscape. Broadband, ubiquitous mobile computing and powerful applications have created new opportunities
in the education sector. Educators are beginning to reimagine learning experiences and environments. These
developments appear to have the potential to dramatically boost student achievement and completion rates in this
country and worldwide.
Philanthropic investment over the last 15 years has highlighted the potential of new school development.
Private investment over the last five years has powered the education technology revolution. The combination
of new schools and new tools has created a platform for innovation—an opportunity to create more engaging,
supportive, student-driven learning.
With support from Vulcan Inc., Getting Smart conducted a series of expert interviews and a design workshop to
identify and vet impact investment strategies. The work was commissioned to inform the Vulcan team as well as
the sector on investment strategies, with the potential for large-scale impact. The primary focus assessed was
U.S. K-12 education.
Vulcan believes in the power of each person to become more knowledgeable, more aware, more responsible
and more interested in the world around them. That explains why many of our projects have been designed to
educate, inform and inspire. We commit to learning as much as we can, sharing as much as we can and feeling
out the edges – so we can sail right past them.
The investment options summarize a series of expert interviews and meetings. Options presented in this report
are primarily but not exclusively philanthropic; some are or could be approached as venture or return-seeking
investments. They all see large-scale sustainable impact. This report does not entail an exhaustive list of
opportunities available, but it intends to highlight a few promising activities that advisors have considered.
We hope this report will start conversations and further research on the impact opportunities that different
organizations could participate in in order to advance high-quality K-12 education.
David J. Ferrero, Ed.D.
Senior Program Officer, Education
Change forces that create impact opportunities include technology
advancements, demographic shifts and political factors. To identify trends
and associated impact opportunities, the Getting Smart team interviewed
more than 30 thought leaders in education and philanthropy. The interviews
focused on large-scale and unique impact opportunities. Advisors were also
asked about STEM, computer science and entrepreneurship opportunities
that warrant investigation. The team specifically looked for ideas that were
catalytic, scalable and sustainable.
Thirty identified trends have been summarized in Appendix 1. Trends in
global learning, as identified by a Russian think tank, appear summarized in
Investment concepts, identified through expert interviews, were organized into
categories that helped inspire a two-day convening at Vulcan Inc. in Seattle.
Twenty regional and national education and investment thought leaders
reviewed trends, contributed ideas and pitched one idea through a video
presentation and in person. For more on the pitches, click the videos on the
left and see the full YouTube playlist.
Many of the investment opportunities expressed a shared interest in studentcentered learning as an opportunity to boost engagement, achievement
and completion. In many cases, the investment opportunities incorporate
new education technology (EdTech) and associated strategies. While
some selection bias influenced advisor identification, the central theme
of technology-enabled, student-driven and interest-based learning proves
Advisors suggested that student-centered learning could be supported
through better assessment, teacher preparation, school development, learning
resources and parent engagement. Advisors also discussed opportunities in
entrepreneurship, coding and computer science as well as STEM.
Impact Opportunities Videos (YouTube playlist)
Through interviews and the workshop, advisors identified about four
dozen impact opportunities in the following 10 categories:
Several specific investment opportunities were developed in each
category and scored them for potential scale, risk and sustainability.
(They appear indented in each section with arrows and have also been
summarized in a graphic in the 25 Impact Opportunities section.)
Organizers identified a “big idea” in each of the 10 categories. Each
of the top scoring investment opportunities exhibit unique and strong
impact opportunity with lower levels of risk and the likelihood of
Some of the more promising opportunities include competency-based
teacher preparation, micro-schools, maker spaces, an achievement
recognition or badge system and portable learner profiles.
PROFESSIONAL LEARNING & DEVELOPMENT
NEW SCHOOL DEVELOPMENT
PORTABLE DATA & PARENT ENGAGEMENT
STEM, CODING & COMPUTER SCIENCE
AND 10 “BIG
The Nellie Mae Education Foundation describes student-centered learning as
personalized, competency-based, anytime-anywhere learning, where students take
ownership of their learning. With students’ access to technology rapidly expanding, more
opportunities now exist for multi-modal, student-driven learning—in and out of school.
Problem: There are
more than 100,000
learning apps, with no
clear, consistent way
to indicate what works.
have difficulty finding
schools willing to host
trials to measure efficacy
Solution: Sponsor short
cycle EdTech trials in
a district or network
willing to serve as a
test bed. Develop a
protocols and results to
encourage other cities
to do the same.
BIG IDEA: SHORT CYCLE TRIALS
Margot Rogers, Parthenon, thinks it will be difficult to get to true
personalization without supporting competency-based education, which
would benefit from advocacy and communications support. Susan
Patrick, iNACOL, urges support for knowledge hub CompetencyWorks,
“We could give examples of where implementation is happening, update
the literature and hold convenings for people to come together.”
» $300,000 grant for advocacy support of competencybased learning (1)
Phyllis Lockett, LEAP Innovations, said personalized learning can make
a big difference, and fused with technology, it gives educators the
opportunity to better tailor the learning experience of students based
on their needs and at their pace, which will transform the learning
experience. A Gates Foundation RFP describes the opportunity for
“new approaches to facilitating short-cycle feedback on product
efficacy so that teachers, school decision-makers and parents have
better information about the effectiveness of digital courseware, and
developers of such products receive more rapid input to improve their
» $1 million grant for short cycle EdTech trials (2)
Patrick suggested we need to look more closely at the research on
how students learn, youth development, engagement and motivation
theory and design learning environments to empower student agency,
voice and choice. Using technology to expand resources and to
access formative assessment data is key for scaling the designs of
personalized learning. Expanding educational opportunity using multiple
pathways, technology can help educators manage personalized learning
experiences, with broader content choices, resources and also the
creation of ePortolios to house evidence of student work.
Karen Cator, Digital Promise, wants to see students interact more and to
facilitate ways to solve big problems from an early age, with occasional
virtual exchange opportunities. The framework should promote creativity,
design and entrepreneurship. (See Next-Generation Assessment.)
Alan Gershenfeld, E-Line Media, suggests support for a game-infused
platform and tools easy enough to use that it becomes widely adopted
to promote inquiry-based, blended learning trajectories. Associated
learning services would speed adoption, promote creative use and
ensure quality of service. He also suggests sponsored, inclusive game
development, like the recently released Never Alone, has the chance to
introduce new perspectives and promote cultural literacy.
» $2 million grant to sponsor a learning game (3)
Former venture investor Ted Dintersmith, Charles River Ventures, is
enthusiastic about the potential of films—like his recently produced
Most Likely to Succeed—to provoke constructive conversation about
student-centered and interest-driven learning.
Andy Calkins, Next Generation Learning Challenges, suggests a prize for
the best two- minute video of what the next-gen school looks like.
» $500,000 for video competition (4)
Dintersmith thinks Future Project demonstrates the power of interestbased learning. Grant-funded Dream Directors are embedded in schools
to help students create projects that unleash passion and purpose.
Dintersmith thinks Future Project also demonstrates the efficiency of a
program that leverages one expert per 20 to 30 classrooms.
» $10 million grant to support interest-driven learning in 40
schools for three years (5)
Big Picture Learning is an international network of interest-driven
schools. Jeff Petty, Puget Sound Consortium for School Innovation (a
Big Picture Learning initiative), noted that Big Picture Learning data
suggests learning through internships with a mentor increases college
attendance and persistence.
Victoria Bergsagel, Architects of Achievement, comments on the
importance of study tours for community groups to grasp the new/
» $1 million grant to local nonprofit (along with support for
new schools and leadership development) for 500 people
to make school visits (6)
Joshua Schwartz, East Wind Advisors, suggests supporting interestbased learning groups such as Globaloria and Maker-State, using a
sponsorship model like Everfi. Because scale is the issue in this sector,
Schwartz—a merger and acquisitions expert—points to the potential
of a rollup (i.e., acquisitions of similar companies designed to improve
Advisors recognize the inherent conflict of trying to promote studentcentered learning and career-ready skills while using traditional
Amy Berk Anderson, Donnell-Kay Foundation, leads Re-School
Colorado, an effort to create a new education system where the role of
learner advocate remains central. A regional pilot could demonstrate the
potential of next-gen learning and policies.
» $10 million matching grant to support an innovative
regional approach to developing a new education
Alex Hernandez, Charter School Growth Fund, urges support for charter
management organizations developing new school models, like Summit
Public Schools in the Bay Area and Intrinsic Schools in Chicago, both
which take advantage of real-time data.
» $10 million grant to a network developing a new studentcentered learning platform and school model (8)
Calkins suggests investment in regional new and transformed school
» $10 million grant to support regional new school fund
yielding 10 innovative schools (9)
Given the mismatch between traditional policy levers and the core
tenets of student-centered learning, Calkins says this suggests bottomup efforts like private micro-schools could be productive. Beth Rabbitt,
The Learning Accelerator, agrees that highly personalized microschools, like AltSchool, which puts students at the center and gives
them more resources for learning provide great impact opportunities.
Daphne Koller, Coursera, urges support for learning hubs—small,
facilitator-led study groups using open content. Add an advisor and
certification system, and you have a micro-school with equal secondary
and postsecondary opportunity.
New school development, including charter schools and like-minded school
networks, has proven the best impact investment of the last twenty years in U.S.
K-12 education. The incorporation of personalized learning technology and
pedagogies presents a fresh impact opportunity to lead the sector transformation,
while constructing valuable options for underserved families.
but they can be
to scale and often
bound by tradition.
Solution: A modular approach to
grades 6-12 could be adopted by two
teachers with 40-50 students as a
low-cost private school or academy
within a larger public school. School
developers may initially operate
schools to demonstrate efficacy
but scale as a platform and related
services. (See The Micro-School
Opportunity for more.)
BIG IDEA: MICRO-SCHOOLS
Michael Golden, Educurious, and Solomon Steplight, Girls Who Code,
advocate for a micro-school model, with the building block of two
teachers and 40 to 50. The core work of the model is centered around
problem and interest-based projects. This could be deployed as a new
school or academy within an existing school. Virtual mentoring and
online learning would extend learning opportunities.
» $250,000 design prize could be used to identify the most
» $10 million grant (in tranches) to a nonprofit microschools provider yielding 30 schools (or a $5 million coinvestment in a for-profit provider yielding 50 schools)
Matt Greenfield, Rethink Education, advocates for school-centric
urban redevelopment. Because good schools improve residential and
commercial property values, a developer has a financial incentive to
support the development of good schools as an anchor asset to a
redevelopment. Greenfield notes that the founder of Gestalt Community
Schools, Derwin Sisnett, is interested in commercial real estate affiliates
that would lead school-centric urban redevelopment.
Other advisors agree on the gentrification benefits but ask about
maintaining diversity in revitalized areas. The Promise Neighborhoods
initiative presents a valuable opportunity from which to learn.
Cator outlines a powerful triangle for talent development and
competency-based teacher prep—a map of what educators need to
know and be able to do, different ways to learn the formula and ways to
Cator suggests this formula should be used for teacher and leader
preparation and development. Sufficient existing frustration, due to the
low quality of teacher preparation, could change dramatically to improve
the sector with a well-structured investment.
Tony Lewis, Donnell-Kay Foundation, expresses excitement about the
potential of competency-based teacher preparation. He acknowledges
that students can and do learn anywhere. If we have students able to
demonstrate competency in those ways, he argues that the same rings
true for teacher prep.
With a clear path forward and a capable actor, a director investment is
warranted For example:
» Grant of $2 million to a nonprofit to develop, $2 million to
pilot, $6 million matching grant to scale the competencybased teacher development system (11)
of what teachers
should know and
be able to do
Free and open
as well as fee based
level and school
COMPETENCY-BASED DEVELOPMENT SYSTEM
A Competency-Based System for Teachers would include the following:
Preparing teachers and leaders for next-gen school environments means ensuring
that talent development models the ways we also want to learn. In Preparing Teachers
for Deeper Learning, the authors write that talent development should mirror the
competency-based environments best for students. The design principles for the next
generation of educator preparation and development include some element of teacher
control over time, place, path and/or pace; balance between teacher-defined goals, goals
as defined by administration through teacher evaluation efforts plus school and district
educational goals; job-embedded and meaningful integration into classroom practice;
and competency-based progression.
When the market proves inefficient and solutions diverse, a prize or
demand aggregation strategy may be warranted. (See Using Prizes
and Pull Mechanisms to Boost Learning.) Several advisors suggest
a sequence of prizes to advance the concept of competency-based
preparation. Well-designed prizes surface ideas and talent and can
provide cost effective advocacy for a cause.
» Phase 1: Ideation challenge to design a new
competency-based credentialing system ($150,000)
» Phase 2: Fund further development of best ideas from
phase 1 ($750,000)
» Phase 3: Deeper ideation challenge based on responses
in phase 1 ($100,000) (12)
» Phase 4: Prize for state or consortium of states with best
implementation plan (co-invest $10 million) (13)
A prize sequence would likely surface ideas other advisors mentioned,
including linking schools of education to K-12 schools (e.g. High Tech
High Graduate School) and tying payment toward preparation programs
to teacher and student outcomes.
Schwartz envisions more efficient and effective professional learning—
perhaps a General Assembly (i.e., a premium provider of technology,
design, and management training) for K-12 schools or a joint venture
where they contribute assets. He suggests engaging TES Global, a
comprehensive Yellow Pages of sorts for teacher placement and a viable
channel to introduce new products to the ecosystem.
Petty is excited about integrating the incubation of new schools, the
redesign of existing ones, and new approaches to principal leadership
development into a cohesive regional learning lab to ultimately shift the
design priorities of schools to be more responsive to student interests
and real world learning contexts.
A number of advisors agree that a regional link between new school
development and leadership development would be productive (CityBridge
Fellows and Next Generation Learning Challenges, for example).
» $10 million grant to support regional new school fund and
yielding seven innovative schools and cohort of 20 trained
Problem: States accredit
universities that provide
resulting in certification.
The monopoly of ineffective
degree programs provides
expensive, weak and generic
teacher preparation. Once
degreed, teachers continue
to learn throughout their
career, but they only receive
credit or recognition for
formal workshops and
classes, while important
learning opportunities also
exist online and informally.
improve teacher preparation
by creating a multiplepathway and provider
system. Sponsor the
design and demonstration
of a teacher preparation
system based on a common
map of job requirements,
multiple ways to learn and
varied ways to demonstrate
BIG IDEA: COMPETENCY-BASED
Next-gen assessments include opportunities to expand the metrics beyond
state testing to include social and emotional skills as well as personalized,
competency-based progressions (including those that allow for studentcentered learning such as performance-based assessments). As assessments
become more personalized, badges become a common currency.1
1. IMS Global Learning Consortium has announced they have developed an initiative to establish digital badges as common evidence of mastery for K-20 education. IMS Global Learning Consortium, accessed
May 13, 2015, http://www.imsglobal.org.
Acknowledging that many view state testing as a big problem, Cator
sees an opportunity to expand the frame and to work with a state on
forming new metrics of success—a broader dashboard focused on
engagement and habits of success.
Similarly, Calkins notices a big opening for a new generation of
assessments to replace weeklong end-of-year tests. By solving a
couple technical issues (like combining formative data from multiple
sources) and helping a state develop a new lightweight approach, the
country could be saved from the quagmire of standardized testing.
Scott Benson, New Schools Venture Fund, says that rather than relying
solely on end-of-year tests, states and districts should offer on-demand
(or frequently scheduled) mastery assessments to manage student
progress. In a competency-based system, students frequently show
what they know and progress based on demonstrated mastery. Ideally,
students would attain course credit as soon as they have demonstrated
an adequate level of mastery. These assessments can be decoupled
from a formal instructional program. A student who learns content on
his/her own could opt to take an assessment and receive credit for a
course without having to enroll in school.
» $5 million grant to technical assistance group to help one
state develop and implement a new assessment system (15)
Michael Horn, Clayton Christensen Institute, suggests creating a next-gen
“Committee of 10,” comprised of leaders who can raise real questions and
develop solutions to make Next-gen assessments a reality. A parallel idea
involves also having the group make investments in potential solutions.
Thomas Arnett, Clayton Christensen Institute, is also excited about the
potential to create next-gen assessments, and he hopes these evaluations
will make the system work better for all students.
» $1 million grant to organization to develop a report on Nextgen state assessment (16)
Rogers and Cator make the case for funding the development of a new
framework to evaluate student progression.
» $4 million grant to a nonprofit to develop a K-12 badging
system, including assessments sufficient to manage
competency-based progress (or $2 million co-investment in
EdTech startup) (17)
Advisors recommend developing an open library of performance tasks,
project-based learning modules, collaborative authoring environment
and automated scoring engine.
» $4 million grant to a nonprofit for task/module design
and automated feedback partnership (18)
Sir Michael Barber, Pearson, notes the benefits of the quantified-self
movement, citing a cycling analogy “I can benchmark my progress
against thousands of riders.” By using and presenting data well,
Barber thinks this has similar potential to inform teachers and motivate
students. Advisors recommend development of a tagging system that
would enable grade books to combine multiple sources of formative
» $2 million grant for technical working group on tracking
Noting that the college admission process is broken, other advisors
suggest investing in student portfolios for capturing artifacts linked to
college and work-ready competencies.
opportunities exist to learn
inside and outside of school,
but students still matriculate
in age cohorts. There is no
widely recognized way for
students to show what they
know and progress based
Solution: An open
badge framework that
performance tasks) would
recognize anywhereanytime learning and could
be used in innovative and
BIG IDEA: K-12 BADGE SYSTEM
Cultivating entrepreneurial mindsets represents an opportunity for the U.S.
education sector. Teaching entrepreneurial skills in authentic ways and
creating ways for students to demonstrate real-world application leads to
innovative, project-based approaches to education.
Michael Trucano, World Bank, thinks that teaching entrepreneurship
presents a lot of opportunity. Barber believes it would be beneficial to
have a shared understanding of what it means to be an entrepreneur. It
would yield more support—more for-profit and social sector support.
Steve Arnold, vice-chair of the George Lucas Foundation, strongly
advocates combining entrepreneurship with cooperative and projectbased learning. He cites Educurious as a great example of an excellent
project-based learning tool. Rabbitt agrees that project-based
approaches central to a school’s mission prove more effective than
Hernandez says that 4.0 Schools has been an effective contributor
to entrepreneurship education by training educators to think
entrepreneurially, incubating new tools and supporting teams’
development of new school models.
» $10 million grant to support a national network of EdTech
incubators and design studios (20)
Entrepreneurship could be taught in a 9th grade curriculum that includes
design thinking (see example of an Entrepreneurial Studies course). It
could also be incorporated into a triple block capstone that includes
writing a business plan and building a financial model.
Hernandez says, “Ideas scale. Investing in relatively small philanthropic
opportunities could result in much larger scale if the ideas are replicated
in other geographies and by other organizations.” A fund could support
and encourage matching investment in micro-innovations in schools and
Advisors suggest sponsoring a competency map of what it takes to
launch a business. Other advisors note that, while business concepts
are important, supporting entrepreneurial opportunities with a focus on
student ownership remains key; mindset is at least as important as content
Problem: The entire
education sector needs to
shift from print to digital,
from time to learning
and from compliance to
performance; however, there
is little capacity to incubate
talent, tools or new schools.
Solution: Opening two
to three more nonprofit
incubators and creating
a national network of
and design studios could
extend learning and
support opportunities to
a million educators.
BIG IDEA: NETWORK OF INCUBATORS
DATA & PARENT
By creating a portable student and parent-centered data tool, parents, educators,
tutors, mentors and others involved in students’ education could all work together
and share information about student goals, progress and needs. This leads to a highly
personalized experience for students and a higher degree of parent engagement
across multiple channels, mimicking the direction in which we are headed—meaning
all stakeholders can contribute to a student’s learn plan anytime and anywhere.
Jessie Woolley-Wilson, DreamBox Learning, and Hernandez
advocate for a parent-managed learner profile and portfolio—key to
personalization, dealing with privacy concerns and making successful
» Make $200,000 grants to five national organizations to
support development of and advocacy for a technical
solution. Issue an RFP to app developers, and make a $1
million grans (or contract) to develop apps. (21)
Woolley-Wilson notes that few cities teach parents how to engage in
their children’s learning. When Rudy Crew served as superintendent
in Miami-Dade, he created a parents academy in an attempt to help
guardians make good decisions. Steplight agrees on the potential for
parents to personalize the education experience. Advisors speak to
the need to provide parents with more information to help navigate
educational choices. (See Getting Smart’s Smart Parents series about
how parents play a pivotal role in student-centered, powerful learning.)
Problem: What little
capture about students
typically appears in a formal
transcript and paper-based
files. Little if any of the
data gets transferred when
a student enrolls in a new
school. Parents have limited
access to information and
no standardized way to
receive, use and port this
data. A privacy frenzy has
learning will be powered
by portable records and
profiles. (See Department
of Education My Data
Initiative and Digital
Learning Now paper
Data Backpack.) Build
support for a technical
solution with national
organizations, and sponsor
a free learner profile app
for leading online stores.
BIG IDEA: LEARNER PROFILE
The Internet is full of content and represents an abundant opportunity for learning.
However, educational providers need a trusted list of open education resources to
curate and direct the abundant and always-changing online content.
Building on Marc Zuckerberg’s Internet.org, Cator suggests a “411”
for learning which could include free access to data and resources—a
possible FCC initiative. A nonprofit with an advisory panel would need
to maintain the list of resources. Beth Rabbitt says that, in addition to
a library of open education resources (OER), a next-gen open source
learning management system could make a big contribution.
Michael Staton of Learn Capital acknowledges that the entire Internet
consists of content, much of which can be used as a learning resource,
but it needs to be indexed and trusted. “The trust that users have for
content is not just about the quality of content; it is also in the manner
and sequence it is served to the user. This is an act of curation, which
includes a contextual layer of personalization and sequencing.”
Calkins recommends developing a library of rich tasks (e.g., see Literacy
Design Collaborative) and inquiry-based project tasks. He suggests
creating, “The world’s best free and open somewhat curated bank of
Golden recommends a virtual mentoring program in which working
professionals connect with students on real and compelling work. This
provides a simple way for companies to give back and demonstrate
their connection to communities while benefiting students. It could be
supplemental to school, tied into the curriculum or completed after
Trucano affirms the importance of mentors, and he sees potential in
connecting them through mobile technology. He says that learners need
mentors, and he views helping learners and mentors connect as an
opportunity for funding, either regularly or on an “as needed” basis. (He also
emailed a short note to new philanthropists looking to support education and
technology initiatives in the developing world.)
Michael Carter, Strive for College, advocates for connecting college students
and other mentors to high school students making postsecondary plans.
Advisors note the potential of virtual specialists (e.g., counselors, speech
therapists) and the future potential of artificial intelligence expertise. Others
stress the importance of learning through internships.
Cator suggests a tech-enabled summer learning program where students
keep devices over the summer.
Greenfield advocates for investment in education technology venture funds
with a focus on impact. (See Boosting Impact.)
Problem: Mentoring is a
proven strategy for boosting
motivation, persistence and
achievement. However, it can
be challenging to sign up,
activate and schedule mentors.
barriers to signing up
and activating mentors.
BIG IDEA: VIRTUAL MENTORING
It is clear that non-cognitive traits such as persistence and self-control are critical to life
success, but they are not typically taught or assessed. Educators seek ways to define
success beyond traditional measures of testing. Social-emotional learning mindsets, habits
and skills prove important predictors of college and career readiness.
Stacey Childress, New Schools Venture Fund, says we need an
expanded definition of student success. “High performing CMOs have
shown that it’s possible for every kid to be successful. They can do well
on state tests and college entrance tests. High scores are not enough;
students need more than that. We need an expanded definition of
student success and what it takes to create schools that help with this
expanded definition. There’s an opportunity to partner with researchers
and thought leaders to address those needs in kids—but how do we
Arnold concurs, “We need broad adoption of social-emotional learning
skills and capacities in the K-12 sector, which makes a huge impact
on student identity and engagement. We should have a modification of
curriculum to do much more project-based learning with an increased
focus on and explicit cultivation of grit and growth mindsets that are
functionally relevant to students and can have a real impact on student
engagement.” Other advisors agree on the need for initiatives that signal
the importance of creativity, resourcefulness and resilience, in addition
to basic skills.
» $10 million grant to a network of districts and a technical
assistance provider to develop a common approach to
promoting and monitoring social emotional growth (22)
CASEL is the leading advocate of social emotional learning (SEL) and
could support a group of districts seeking better ways to develop and
monitor growth across difficult-to-measure dispositions. Rather than formal
assessment and grading, a badging, feedback and portfolio system would
be better suited to SEL.
Advisors mention the link between SEL and character development, noting
DSST Public Schools in Denver as not only a great STEM network, but also
one of the best examples of a network focused on character development.
Problem: It is clear that
self-management and social
awareness remain key to
success in life, but these
skills typically are not taught
in school and prove difficult
Solution: Support a
network of districts in
its effort to incorporate
social emotional learning
into coursework and
BIG IDEA: SOCIAL EMOTIONAL LEARNING
Investments in early childhood education yield results. Early cognitive and social skills set
a foundation for later success in K-12 education.
Ed Lazowska, University of Washington, thinks early learning is the
best investment. Washington state ranks in the lower half of states; 37
percent of Head Start-eligible students go remain unserved. Trucano
and Childress agree that this is a high-impact category, as the sector
continues to learn about quality preschool learning. Investment will be
needed in order to build demand and provide quality supply.
Hernandez thinks U.S. schools teach reading poorly and that
breakthrough opportunities exist. He believes the transition from
pre-K to grade 2 is very important. Hernandez says, “Building content
knowledge and vocabulary will accelerate reading gains beyond what
we’ve seen historically.” He’s confident that quality online learning
tools can help build content knowledge, “My eight-year-olds got really
inspired by the Elements In Action iPad app to learn about the periodic
Hernandez notes, “breakout ideas could scale here.”
Recognizing the importance of early learning opportunities, the George
Kaiser Family Foundation has invested heavily in expanding the availability
of high-quality, very early childhood education for low-income children in its
hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The combination of advocacy, government
partnerships and support for quality supply make the foundation’s work an
example of best practices.
» Make a $5 million matching grant to expand state support
for early learning access, $2 million advocacy grant to build
smart supply and $3 million in grants to quality providers to
build supply (23)
Problem: Many lowincome families lack
access to affordable
early learning and care.
Solution: A regional partnership
that builds smart demand
and quality supply can, over a
decade, change the opportunity
set in a region.
BIG IDEA: EARLY LEARNING
STEM, CODING &
STEM fields, including teaching students coding and computer
science, prove important for quantitative reasoning skills as well as
postsecondary and career success.
Lazowska advocates for coding programs in K-12 because they teach
computational thinking. “Programming is hands-on, inquiry-based
and involves modeling, abstraction, algorithmic thinking. These are
fundamental skills for everyone.” He thinks Washington state could be a
model for learning to code.
Steplight says we need to fund professional development so teachers
can be well-equipped to teach computer science. Vince Bertram at
Project Lead The Way (PLTW) agrees. They provide professional
development as a foundational element of their K-12 STEM curricular
programs. Each teacher who instructs a PLTW course must complete
PLTW’s professional development program.
Hernandez comments, “Right now coding is easier to learn outside of
school.” And it’s becoming a crowded space, according to Horn. Rather
than expanding the core curriculum, other advisors suggest looking for
ways to incorporate coding into many high school courses, creating
badge sequences and just-in-time (mini-MOOC) resources.
Schwartz thinks we have a marketing problem; girls are still not
signing up for STEM. He thinks we need a marketing plan—a national
conversation—around girls in STEM and computer science.
Steplight wants gender parity in the technology space, aiming to
increase the number of girls who code by 1,000,000 through 2020. He
wants to move the needle and increase the number of girls who major
or minor in computer science in college.
» $1 million grant to expand regional computer science
learning opportunities (24)
Barber and Dintersmith note the work of Eric Mazur, who teaches physics
at Harvard. Mazur has concluded that even students at top schools are not
learning science. He promotes peer-driven, thought-provoking questions.
Other advisors reinforce the importance of problem- and project-based
learning and interdisciplinary approach.
Andrew Coy launched Digital Harbor Foundation and converted a closed
rec center into a tech center. They run maker space and 3D printing training
programs and recently launched a Perpetual Innovation Fund to help
schools purchase a 3D printer.
» Create a $10 million maker fund to make matching grants to
support maker spaces in 10 cities (25)
high schools lack
and other maker
Solution: Community spaces and
informal learning (after and summer
school) offer a quick and often effective
entry point for active learning. Maker
opportunities may promote active
engagement, design thinking and STEM
studies. Periodic demonstrations of
learning would promote school adoption.
BIG IDEA: MAKER SPACES
In the 10 categories discussed within this
report, several opportunities to make a unique
contribution in order to shape the future of
American education are highlighted. In the
following summary table and chart, we recap
the 25 illustrative opportunities and scored them
for risk, potential impact and sustainability.
IMPACT INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITIES
0 1 2 2.5 3 4 5
IMPACT INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITIES
New Schools & Leadership
Maker Space Fund
Prize & Grant
EdTech Incubator Network
EdTech Trials New System
Competency-Based Teacher Prep
0 1 2 2.5 3 4 5
IMPACT INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITIES
New Schools & Leadership
Maker Space Fund
Prize & Grant
EdTech Incubator Network
EdTech Trials New System
Competency-Based Teacher Prep
# Title Description $000 Risk Impact Sustain Stage
1 Competency Advocacy 3 years of advocacy support 300 1 1 0 Advocacy
2 EdTech Trials Grant for 2 years of short-cycle EdTech trials 1,000 2.3 2.5 3 R&D
3 Learning Game Grant to sponsor a learning game 2,000 3 2 1 Scaling
4 Video Competition Video competition on Next-gen learning 250 1 2 0 Advocacy
5 College Mentors Grant Grant to college mentoring program for high schools in 40 schools for 3 years 10,000 2 2 1 Scaling
6 School Visits Grant Grant to local nonprofit for 500 people to make school visits 1,000 1 2.5 1 Advocacy
7 New System Development Grant Matching grant to support an innovative regional approach to developing a new system 10,000 3 3 2 R&D
8 Student-centered Learning Grant Grant to a network developing a new approach to student-centered learning 10,000 1.5 3 5 R&D
9 Innovation Schools Grant Grant to support new fund and yielding 10 innovative schools 10,000 3 3 4 Scaling
10 Micro-Schools Prize and Grant Micro-school design prize; grant to nonprofit micro-schools provider 10,250 4 3 2 R&D
11 Competency-based Teacher Prep Develop and scale a competency-based teacher development system 10,000 3 4 3 R&D
12 Teacher Credentialing Prize Prize for competency-based teacher credentialing system 1,000 1 3 2 R&D
13 State Competency-based Credentialing Matching state award for competency-based credentialing system 10,000 4 4 4 Scaling
14 New Schools & Leadership Grant to nonprofit for regional new school fund and leadership development 10,000 2.5 3 3 Scaling
15 New Assessment System Grant Grant to technical assistance group to help state development new assessment system 5,000 4 4 4 R&D
16 Next-Gen State Assessment Report Grant to convener to develop report on Next-gen state assessment 1,000 4 3 2 R&D
17 K-12 Badging System Grant to nonprofit to develop badging system 4,000 3.5 4 4 R&D
18 Task Development Grant to nonprofit for task/module design 4,000 2 2 2 Scaling
19 Tracking Sub-skills Grant to for tech working group on tracking sub-skills 2,000 2 3.5 3 R&D
20 EdTech Incubator Network Grant to national incubator network 10,000 3 4 3 R&D
21 Learner Profile Grant to support development 2,000 3.5 4 4 R&D
22 Social-Emotional Learning Support implementation of SEL in network of urban districts supported by an assistance provider 10,000 4 2.5 2 R&D
23 Early Learning Grants to build smart demand, expand access and extend supply of quality providers 10,000 3.5 3 2.5 Scaling
24 Coding Grant Grant to support regional coding initiative 1,000 2 2 2 R&D
25 Maker Space Fund Create a maker fund to make matching grants to support maker spaces in 10 cities 10,000 2.5 3 2 Scaling
Impact investors should pick a category of important outcomes that
interest them, where opportunity for improvement and innovation
exists and/or an underinvested area.
Investors seeking big impact and willing to risk loss of capital
can invest in early-stage research and development. Advocating
for public investment may also be highly speculative but yield
tremendous leverage. Investors with less risk tolerance that want
more assurance of impact should focus on scaling proven models.
Grants come with an expectation that the grantee will deliver
proposed impact. However, grantees seldom shift directions, even
if it is apparent that the project won’t deliver the intended impact.
Because return-seeking investments in private enterprises (e.g.,
venture capital) are driven by the goal of maximizing return, the
company may evolve away from the intended impact. For example,
Acceptly, a Facebook application focused on college acceptance,
failed to gain traction and pivoted to Instacanvas, a mobile
In underdeveloped or inefficient markets (like education), customers
have few choices, often controlled by bureaucratic mechanisms
rather than market mechanisms, and there is little investment in
research and development. Underdeveloped markets suffering from
a lack of investment and innovation can be addressed through direct
investment (return-seeking or philanthropic) by advocating for better
policies, or through pull mechanisms including demand aggregation
and inducement prizes. If impact investors feel certain about the
solution, they should make a direct investment in an organization
most likely to deliver that outcome.
Grant or return-seeking
Push or pull
As Boosting Impact notes, each form of capital has an important role
to play in improving education. The shift to digital, mobile, personalized
learning is creating a worldwide market, but learning remains a
function of experiences and relationships. Local context influences
expectations, safety and supports, as well as employment and highered opportunities. As a result, government, philanthropy and private
enterprise all have important roles to play in creating quality learning
opportunities for all. Governments can signal social goals, extend
access to services and frame market opportunities. Foundations can
promote equity and a long-term perspective. Private capital best excels
at producing and scaling innovation. Public-private partnerships, where
each form of capital is used appropriately, can support step-function
improvement in social benefit.
Most ideas in this report were presented as grants to nonprofit
organizations for a specific purpose. An alternative involves making a
grant to or investment in a for-profit enterprise that may have improved
sustainability. As Steve Gross of Calvert Education also points out,
“Pilot projects are becoming an increasingly important vehicle to test
concepts and business models on a small scale—something that
educators are increasingly insisting upon.” Answering four questions
will help an investor select a category and investment vehicle.
Nonprofits have the advantage of targeting and meeting specific needs,
often for vulnerable or underserved populations. Return-seeking
ventures may serve the same populations, though perhaps not initially.
They may also benefit from co-investors and a sustainable business
model, potentially yielding more leverage (e.g., some of the grant
examples note a private enterprise alternative with co-investors reducing
invested capital but increasing risk).
There are many opportunities to make a large impact in American
education. This report has outlined opportunities in which organizations
could make significant shifts in the educational landscape to improve
student outcomes. Two decades of education reform and the dramatic
technological developments of the early part of the 21st century have
spurred the redesign and transformation of schools. Student-centered
learning in particular represents a huge opportunity to personalize the
way each and every student in America learns. Fueled by technology,
funding opportunities exist to significantly improve student outcomes.
Change is not only possible, but it’s already happening in classrooms
and schools across the country.
As this report identifies, there are further opportunities to make a larger
contribution to the country’s schools. We hope this report spurs further
conversation, discussion, and discourse around what is possible
for education. We also hope that more funders will feel motivated to
support additional research to determine best ways to invest dollars in
the education system. Through this report, we hope to have shed light
on available options to interested funders and organizations looking to
make a deep impact that will improve student outcomes.
The interviews and workshop surfaced student-centered learning as a
meta-trend brought about by improving student’s access to technology
and two decades of new school development. In each of 10 investment
categories, “Big Ideas” were identified. Of particular note: five
investment opportunities able to make a large and unique impact.
» Competency-based teacher prep: After a decade of
advocacy highlighting the need for better preparation, a
sound alternative seems to have emerged. It combines
a map of competencies, a variety of blended learning
opportunities and a requirement of demonstrating
» Micro-schools: This lightweight platform-based
approach could be rapidly and inexpensively deployed as
new schools or school-within-a-school models.
» Learner profiles: Comprehensive, portable, parentmanaged profiles will solve the privacy problem and will
power student-centered, extended and mobile learning.
» K-12 badge system: A framework is required to organize
units of study with multiple assessments that certify
learning. A well-designed system could become widely
adopted, breaking the barrier of seat time and unlocking
the potential of competency-based learning.
» Maker spaces: Initially developed outside of school,
maker spaces would showcase active and studentdirected learning. Maker spaces would complement all of
the above impact strategies.
We hope the report conclusions represent a call to action for your
organization. The ideas expressed and the accompanying actionable
illustrative grants represent dozens of interviews and hours of
conversation around funding opportunities in the education sector.
These suggestions represent a timely opportunity; the groundwork
has been laid for relatively rapid large-scale change. The opportunities
all represent student-centered approaches where learning involves at
least partial decoupling from the school building in a way that creates
interesting opportunities for philanthropists and funders. The time to
take action is now.
This report would not have been possible without the guidance and
input from education leaders and workshop participants.
Amy Berk Anderson, Donnell-Kay Foundation
Diane Andolesek, Vulcan Inc.
Thomas Arnett, Clayton Christensen Institute
Steve Arnold, George Lucas Education Foundation
Sir Michael Barber, Pearson
Bob Barnet, Living Computer Museum
Scott Benson, New School Venture Fund
Vince Bertram, Project Lead The Way
Victoria Bergsagel, Architects of Achievement
Andy Calkins, EDUCAUSE/Next Generation Learning Challenges
Michael Carter, Strive for College
Karen Cator, Digital Promise
Stacey Childress, New School Venture Fund
Ted Dintersmith, Charles River Ventures
Dave Ferrero, Vulcan Inc.
Alan Gershenfeld, E-Line Media
Michael Golden, Educurious
Matthew Greenfield, Rethink Education
Steve Gross, Calvert Education
Alex Hernandez, Charter School Growth Fund
Michael Horn, Clayton Christensen Institute
Patty Isacson Sabee, Experience Music Project
Dune Ives, Vulcan Inc.
Daphne Koller, Coursera
Ed Lazowska, University of Washington
Tony Lewis, Donnell-Kay Foundation
Phyllis Lockett, LEAP Innovations
Susan Patrick, iNACOL
Jeff Petty, Puget Sound Consortium for School Innovation/Big Picture
Josh Posthuma, Vulcan Inc.
Beth Rabbitt, The Learning Accelerator
Margot Rogers, Parthenon
Joshua Schwartz, East Wind Advisors
Michael Staton, Learn Capital
Solomon Steplight, Girls Who Code/Prepfoleo
Michael Trucano, World Bank
Jessie Woolley-Wilson, DreamBox Learning
30 TRENDS IN
Changes in technology, demographics and politics create momentum that can be leveraged during windows of opportunity. Below are 30 trends
impacting U.S. education that were highlighted during research for this report. (Thirty associated impact opportunities were also identified.)
Engagement More project-based learning, focus on growth mindset
Investment Growing VC and philanthropic spend on tools & Next-gen
Tools App explosion, many freemium, weak interoperability
Assistive More assistive tech meeting special needs
Schools Long trend toward platform-centric networks
Platforms Slow shift from LMS to interoperable app ecosystems
Connections More career and technical education and work-based options
Guidance Personalized counseling and guidance, virtual mentoring,
informed decision support
Budget Tight in most states; squeezed by health and justice; toward
weighted, flexible, portable funding
Options More schools of choice, access to full- and part-time online
Conditions More teams & better support for teachers; more model variety
Careers More options for educators; growth in remote teaching/
Prep & PD Toward blended, personalized, competency-based preparation
HigherEd Declining ROI on 2nd tier degrees; more flexible, affordable
competency-based options; more dual enrollment
Postsecondary More job-linked, non-degree programs: code school, business
Productivity Developed world needs to do more with less; low-cost models
in developing world
Demands More poverty, English learners and special needs; broader and
more demanding expectations
Students Diverse, distracted, undisciplined; tolerant, enterprising &
Employment Increasing ROI on competence and initiative; expanding
certification and alternative signaling
Politics Anti-federal; Common Core unraveling, back to unique state
Formative Toward continuous feedback in most subjects, background
Authentic Focus on engagement, more performance assessment, Deeper
Curriculum More free/open content and tools; more smart/adaptive content
Data More recommendation engines driving playlists; dynamic
Summative Half of state tests will be unique, no comparability; end-ofweek long tests in sight
Access Toward high access; schools purchasing devices (particularly
web appliances); students bringing mobile devices to school
Strategies Schools adopting personalized and blended learning strategies
Gamification More learning games and game-based strategies built into
Competency Slow trend toward show what you know, progress on mastery
Systems Shift to ubiquitous cloud computing (basic SIS & HRIS
systems are still inadequate)
30 Trends Creating Opportunities & Challenges for U.S. Schools
The hosts of the Global Education Futures Forum, Reengineering Futures
is a Russian think tank that developed a 20-year roadmap of 16 trends
shaping global learning.
» Promotion of global values: globalization and multicultural
societies require possession of a set of competencies based on
» Asian leadership: as a result of unprecedented urbanization
and targeted investments into human capital, Asian countries
become world’s biggest education and science markets
» Growth of business participation in education and science:
educational institutions respond to the demands of economy
and society; programs take employer demands into account;
development of applied research
» Hypercompetition: in a hypercompetitive world, companies try
to attract and retain talented employees that become their most
» Growth of labor and academic mobility: growth of student and
workforce mobility; campuses and workplaces become mobile.
» Spread of DIY culture: DIY culture spreads, driven by the
development of 3D printing and smart technologies
» Internetization: Internet has deep influence on all aspects of
human life; in their everyday life, people rely extensively on
» Automation of intellectual routines: complex intellectual
processes are handed over to machines
» Technological mobility growth: miniaturization of gadgets
becomes even more versatile, and energy efficiency allows
owners to learn anywhere anytime
» Aging population: the most dynamic development in the sphere
of education occurs in its post-university segment. Growth
of the middle class and advances in healthcare lead to the
formation of a class of physically- and mentally-active post-60-
» Individualization of education: automation and ICT change the
model of education. Programs, courses and teaching tools are
» Number of online communities of practice grows: online
communities uniting practicing professionals flourish;
educational function is embodied into the communities of
» Wikinomy: spread of mass collaboration practices
» Economy of merits: development of non-monetary exchange
» Trans- and polydisciplinarity development: interdisciplinarity
and convergence become a norm
» ICT prompts appearance of new cognition model: complete
review of knowledge management models, including science,
education and archive management
ABOUT GETTING SMART
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amplifying innovations in teaching and learning. Getting Smart, an education advocacy firm,
provides strategy, marketing, communications, content creation and professional learning
services that turn ideas into impact. GettingSmart.com is a community of learners and
contributors that cover important events, trends, products and publications across K-12,
early, post-secondary education and lifelong learning opportunities.
ABOUT VULCAN INC.
Vulcan Inc. creates and advances a variety of world-class endeavors and high-impact
initiatives that change and improve the way people live, learn, do business and experience
the world. Founded in 1986 by investor and philanthropist Paul G. Allen, Vulcan oversees
various business and charitable projects including real estate holdings, investments in
dozens of companies, including the Seattle Seahawks NFL, Seattle Sounders FC Major
League Soccer, and Portland Trail Blazers NBA franchises, First & Goal Inc., the Seattle
Cinerama theatre, Experience Music Project, the Science Fiction Museum & Hall of Fame,
the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Allen Institute for Cell Science and The Paul G. Allen
Family Foundation. For more information, visit www.vulcan.com.