Illustration by Chris Gash
What Is the Potential for Innovation in K-12 Education?
An alumnus, a professor, and a student share how they think K-12 school systems can use lessons from the pandemic to evolve.
- June 25, 2021
Daniel Anello, ’07, is CEO of Kids First Chicago, a nonprofit working to improve public-school access and educational environments. In April 2021, he was awarded a Medal of Honor from the City of Chicago for his organization’s work on the digital divide and initiative Chicago Connected, now the country’s largest free internet program.
I’m in education for personal reasons. My education was transformative for me. At Booth I was a marketing major and worked for Unilever as a brand manager. My time at Booth is what gave me the skills, connections, and confidence to dive into the education arena.
There’s also the racial-equity component. I’m a mixed kid with two teacher parents. I went to a pretty under-resourced and low performing school, and something that came with that was the denial of voice in school decisions and policy. The pandemic has exposed school inequality and made it evident that racial equity and education equity are two sides of the same coin. There’s a reason there are gaps between demographic groups, even when you control for socioeconomics. These gaps persist largely because of societal factors around systemic racism. With the murder of George Floyd and the events last summer, there was an awakening. People of color, we were like, “We’ve been here.” But for many others, it became more front and center.
The pandemic has also brought to light the digital divide in education. Kids First Chicago prioritizes issues through the parents we work with, and when the pandemic hit, the digital-divide issue went from No. 7 on the list to No. 1. Chicago Connected is now the prototype for a number of programs nationally. Once everything’s in person, we’re not going back to thinking the internet isn’t a necessary resource.
When schools started remote learning, there was the notion that if students’ screens weren’t on, they weren’t paying attention. But some kids aren’t turning their screens on because there’s all this stuff going on behind them, or they don’t want people to see how they live. Language barriers were highlighted as well.
This experience has been traumatic for every kid in some way. What are the social and emotional supports we’re putting in place? And is there a different mindset around why this kid’s getting an F? We often blame the student, rather than recognizing that their F is a symptom of a systemic problem. If you’re not trying to help kids manage things socially and emotionally, they’re never going to be able to think about their math test, and you’ll continue to see gaps.
At Kids First Chicago, we borrow from product design, where you would never put anything into the marketplace without iterating 1,000 times with the end user. With education policy, our end user is parents. So the idea was, how do you flip the system to help parents understand what the moving parts are in the education ecosystem, and design based on what they want and need for their children?
For too long, predominately Black and Latinx/a/o communities have been boxed out of schooling, which doesn’t happen to affluent communities. So how do we involve these parents? The best product design you’re going to get is by marrying educators’ expertise with parents’ expertise of “I know what’s best for my kids.” If you can get those two things to come together, there’s an opportunity for education to jump ahead by leaps and bounds.
Christina Hachikian, AB ’02, MBA ’07, is clinical associate professor of strategic management and the founding executive director of the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation.
The pandemic has exposed many hidden issues underlying the education system, such as access to reliable internet and the existence of virtual curricula, among others. One big one is just how much the childcare and K-12 school systems underpin our ability to function as an economy. It should be obvious, but for many it was a surprise. For example, the rapid and very scary exodus of women from the workforce during the pandemic, on top of the reported increase in stress among parents, particularly mothers, was a direct result of schools and childcare facilities shutting down. It’s been starkly illuminated how important schools are for families, women in particular, to participate in the economy.
Companies innovated to meet the needs of workers during the pandemic, and are innovating as we head back to work. Google just announced a huge change in flexibility for workers. Yet, I don’t see companies explicitly focused on re-attracting women to the workforce, and the connection to K–12 and early-education systems. How do companies consider how flexibility can also benefit all employees, especially women? How do we become more cognizant of the role schools play in workforce productivity, especially among the mother population? Continuing to invest in home offices and Zoom? There has to be a push as the world returns from the pandemic to focus on hiring (and rehiring) women.
The pandemic must lead to sustained social change.
We also need innovation on the schooling side. There’s regularity to schooling; it starts in around September and ends around June, and the model has looked the same for centuries. Schools were really challenged by the pandemic’s uncertainty. Companies responded quickly, because they’re used to uncertainty as part of their business. Schools took a bit longer, but got innovative as the pandemic unfolded. We’ve seen adoption of new platforms in the K-12 system—the cloud, Google Classroom, Seesaw—to facilitate interactions between teachers and students. We should continue to invest in tools that help us create flexibility that benefits students who struggle with in-person learning because of illnesses or allergies or who need extra support because of disabilities.
At the end of the day, these dynamics provide the opening for change. The pandemic must lead to sustained social change. We’re seeing innovation in actions on racial justice, in the rise of telemedicine, and in education. But more is needed.
Without innovation, we’re not going to crack open the big issues. We aren’t going to get women back in the workforce and deal with the massive learning loss, let alone tackle inequality and climate change. You just can’t have a once-in-a-generation experience like this and not use it for good. I’d encourage companies and nonprofits to look at the past year and consider: What did we learn about our capabilities around innovation? How do we keep these practices alive? We can use this moment and capitalize on these challenges to improve the experience of K–12 education and early learning, as well as to help women to successfully balance work and home responsibilities.
Kurt Kargou is a current Weekend MBA student and Neubauer Civic Scholar, and the manager of special projects at Bluum, an education nonprofit based in Boise, Idaho.
During the pandemic we’ve seen parents become even more involved in their kids’ education. Schools with the most success navigating COVID-19 have been those that communicated well with parents. This is something that Bluum has been advocating for—parents’ involvement in decision-making at every level. The pandemic has really shown us that parents or guardians are almost always the lynchpins in childrens’ lives—as or more important than teachers and school leaders themselves.
It has also exposed that schools are more than just places to learn; they’re also a place where kids come for meals, for a community, and to get nurturing, love, and affection from adults who care about them. Traditional education policy frameworks have neglected out-of-school factors that impact learning, and education reformers focus on the opportunity or achievement gap. However, we know poverty is a serious challenge to education, and we’re seeing this gap between the haves and have-nots widening. Kids who don’t have resources at home need school services that are more than just education related. How do we ensure schools provide these additional resources? How do we do community schooling and wraparound services for students who need them?
We know poverty is a serious challenge to education, and we’re seeing this gap between the haves and have-nots widening. Kids who don’t have resources at home need school services that are more than just education related.
Wraparound services address students’ needs outside of the classroom, and provide students a place to learn, to eat, to get support and mental-health services. This is where we need to innovate, to bridge that gap. For example, we know that low-income students and students of color are less likely to have access to the technology they need to be successful. And even if we provide resources such as internet hotspots to use at home, kids might have the distraction of multiple people in the room, and be unable to focus on learning.
One school we support has teachers make two home visits per year: they go to kids’ homes and get to know parents as individuals. Another option is community organizations—Boys & Girls Clubs and the YMCA provide space for students to come and do homework or play sports in a safe environment. An innovative way forward would be community schools, which help families gain access to mental-health services, food, and social and emotional learning opportunities.
At the policy level, lawmakers should use an equity lens and consider the in-home experiences of students when allocating funds for education. Questions such as, “When we provide this school/district extra funding, how does that affect students when they go home?” Funding at the state level should take equity and out-of-school context into consideration and figure out how to impact low-income students.