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By Paul Bradley  /  
2011 July 11 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Finding and Funding What Works

Photo courtesy Next Generation Learning Challenges

Ira Fuchs, at left, is executive director of the Next Generations Learning Challenges initiative. He has been traveling to conferences around the country to talk to educators about it.

C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y

Finding and Funding
What Works
Next Generation Initiative Aims
To Expand Technological Innovations

By Paul Bradley

By now, the statistics and trends about American education have become a deflating drumbeat of bad news and unrealized expectations.

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Despite billions of dollars in spending at federal, state and local levels, educational achievement levels in America remain astonishingly low. Some 30 percent of high school students drop out before graduation. For African Americans, Hispanics and low-income students, the numbers are even worse, closer to 50 percent, according to federal statistics.

For higher education, the landscape is scarcely better. Though college enrollment has been on a steady upward climb for decades, only 42 percent of students who enroll in college earn a bachelor’s degree by age 26. Only 12 percent earn an associate degree by the same age, federal data shows.

The numbers are more that merely data. In an era of globalization, they have grave implications for the future of the American economy. Lower-skilled jobs have vanished, never to return, due to technological advances and global competition. Americans with only a high school diploma, or less, face a harsh new reality: their education no longer qualifies them for the kind of job that can support a family or ensure economic security.

The long-term trends seem set in concrete. By 2018, 63 percent of all jobs will require some kind of post-secondary credential, according to the Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. The center projects that 22 million workers with post-secondary degrees will be needed by the American economy 2018, but current trends will leave the country 3 million workers short of that mark.

Even as these trends have been accelerating, educational institutions have been slow to adjust. Hidebound instructional methods fail to engage a new generation of learners raised amid technological innovations. Neither do they account for students with serious challenges such as financial constraints and work and family obligations.

To be sure, colleges around the country — especially community colleges — have been making great strides to deal with these sobering realities. They are streamlining developmental education sequences and improving assessments. They are embracing distance education and offering midnight classes. But too often, these initiatives exist in splendid isolation, educators say, benefitting only a tiny sliver of students.

Now, an effort led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is seeking to move these islands of innovation into the mainstream of American education by identifying and supporting practices which use technology to improve both college readiness and completion.

Scaling Up

Announced last year, the Next Generation Learning Challenges will funnel tens of millions of dollars to higher education and K-12 public schools to find technological innovations that work — and more importantly, that can be scaled up to the larger education community.

“The purpose is to have a demonstrably solid impact on college readiness and completion, especially for low-income students,” said Ira Fuchs, executive director of the initiative. “The goal is to seek out solutions that have been shown to work and scale them up to much larger numbers of students and institutions.”

Though the Gates Foundation is providing most of the funding for the effort — and grants could eventually total $80 million or more — it is being led by a consortium of groups with a wealth of experience in educational instruction, leadership and management: EDUCAUSE, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning and the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Gerardo de los Santos, the League’s president and CEO, said the initiative is part and parcel of the completion agenda that now dominates community college education, but is distinctive in that it also addresses college readiness.

“As we look at the completion agenda, we know that we can’t do one without the other,” he said. “We have to maintain our focus on the front door, but also concentrate on completion.”

“There is a great deal of pressure on colleges to make sure students earn credentials,” he added. “But we need to have students succeed on the front end, where so many students get lost.”

The initiative is being guided by three overarching goals: financial support for innovators to refine and test their ideas; the compiling of a body of evidence on what works; and, perhaps most importantly, building a broad community of innovators who can create a robust marketplace of solutions, and a larger pool of participants.

“We really wanted to do something that was driven by the community, instead of a single Gates initiative,” Fuchs said.

The response to the Next Generation initiative has been promising, Fuchs said. Plans call for a “wave” of grants to be released every six to 12 months and designed to remove barriers to educational success. The first two waves already have been released, while a third is in the planning stages.

More than 600 Apply

More than 600 applications were received for the first “wave” of grants, from which 29 were approved in April, including eight community college initiatives.

The first wave, aimed at post-secondary education, asked applicants to address four specific challenges:

  • Increasing the use of blended learning models, combining face-to-face instruction with online learning activities.

  • Deepening students’ learning and engagement through use of interactive applications, such as digital games and social media.

  • Supporting the availability of high-quality open courseware, particularly for high-enrollment introductory classes like math, science, and English.

  • Helping institutions, instructors, and students benefit from learning analytics, which can monitor student progress and customize proven supports and interventions.

Stella Perez, the League’s executive vice president and liaison to the Next Generation initiative, said the responses were both broad and deep, ranging from online analytics to early warning systems for developmental math students.

“I think the results, and where we are now, in this recession, is a very hopeful sign,” she said. “I think people captured that unique blend of innovation and collaboration.”

The second wave of grants, aimed at K-12 education, attracted more than 200 applications.

Proponents of the program are quick to point out that technology is not the sole answer of America’s educational woes, but only part of the solution.

“We are not saying that technology by itself will solve or save anything,” Perez said. “It may be that a hybrid approach using technology is the best way we can scale innovation. The question is, how can we leverage resources, and use our technology infrastructure, to scale up and get more of students through? It’s a resource and a tool.”

Added Fuchs: “Technology is an amplifier. It’s not the answer, but it’s a matter of taking what we do well and expanding it.”

Now that he first two waves of funding have been approved and disbursed, the initiative is planning the third wave and expects to issue an RFP in October. While details are still being worked out, Fuchs expects that the third wave will attempt to bridge the gap between K-12 and higher education. Future waves will be based on the success of their predecessors, he said.

“It’s all about adoption,” he said. “It’s all about scaling, where solutions were built for one school but have the promise of working for others. We need to find what’s out there, and scale it up.”

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