Where should K-12 go next?

We ask Derrell Bradford of 50CAN and Jodi Grant of Afterschool Alliance what they’ve learned in the last year, and what they think should happen next in K-12 education.   

March 18, 2021

Mid-March marks one year of disruption from COVID-19: A time of experimentation for schools of all shapes and sizes full of challenge, adaptation, and struggle. One year on, what have we learned? What innovations should we keep? Which should we discard?  

We asked two of our partners in K-12 education to tell us what they’ve learned in the last year, and what they think should happen next.   

CKI: What have you learned in the last year? Where should K-12 go next?  

Derrell Bradford, 50CAN: Fund Families 

Derrell Bradford is the executive vice president of 50CAN, a network of citizen-advocates who argue for stronger, more equitable schools.  

While a great deal has been learned across many areas of our society (economic, health care, public safety)two things really stand out where education is concerned. The first is that the right mortgage is insufficient insulation against the ossified interests of traditional publiceducation bureaucracies. For many years change-minded advocates have made the case that the adults-first orientation of publicschool systems, most easily visible in large, urban districts, was in fact hardwired into public education as a whole. The right house in the right district (the cost of a good, “free, public school) were thought to protect families from this same orientation. The political fighting over school reopening, and the subsequent denial of an in-person option in some of the country’s wealthiest school districts, seems to have undermined that hypothesis substantially. All of this is to say the right border will not save anyone. 

But it has not all been bad. The second and most promising thing I have seen is the widespread use of funding going directly to families so they can address the educational challenges of the moment on their own terms. This is a generational policy change. 

While the prior 25 years of educationpolicy advocacy focused on creating finance mechanisms that improved the movement of students looking for the right fit between different types of schools, it was limited to that paradigm. Which is to say it bought a child a seat in a school, and no more. This was absolutely worth doing and supporting and has given us some amazing schools, of all types, across the country. Direct family funding, however, allows for the organization and delivery of an education that meets a specific child’s needs and unleashes that specific child’s potential. This is a more granular, atomized, and sweeping approach. A decade ago if you’d asked someone if this was possible at the state or federal level they would never have believed it. Now it is essential that this genie is not put back into the bottle. 

Jodi Grant, Afterschool Alliance: Recognize the learning students do outside the classroom 

Jodi Grant is the executive director of Afterschool Alliance, which works to ensure that all youth have access to affordable, quality afterschool programs.  

It’s been a year since the pandemic shut down our economy and our schools, turning our world upside down. Many afterschool programs sprang into action, creating all-day virtual offerings, delivering meals, lesson plans and school supplies, and checking in with students virtually or in-person. Some programs morphed into all-day centers to care for children of essential workers. Many afterschool providers who once programmed for a few hours a day suddenly had full-time jobs closing gaps in students’ time and learning. Our research shows that parents are as concerned about the loss of social activities and the emotional health of their children as they are about lost academic opportunities.  

One bright spot has been the creation of learning centers/hubs. These innovative, community-driven programs provide free, safe, all-day learning spaces for children and youth. Students can take virtual classes, tap into adult support for schoolwork, and access enrichment, meals, and social and emotional wellness support. Community learning hubs also support families, linking them to unemployment assistance, food support, and more. Best of all, these programs create choices for students, parents, and educators, allowing them to learn and teach where, when, and how they think best.    

Emerging from the pandemic, we need to recognize and credit the learning students do, outside as well as inside classrooms. Summer learning programs and hubs create opportunities for students to take subjects not available to them in school, with businesses, non-profits, and faith-based partners providing internships, career and technical education, jobs, and more. Partners such as 4-H, First Robotics, Junior Achievement, and Girl Scouts help make these programs work.   

The pandemic has highlighted the best and the worst in our education system. We can emerge stronger by embracing community learning ecosystems that expand horizons and prospects for our students. The afterschool community will be leading the charge  

The Charles Koch Institute inspires and invests in social entrepreneurs developing solutions to America’s most pressing problems. Read more about our support for social entrepreneurs committed to education.