2022 marked a confusing year in the world of education innovation. As a friend and school leader said to me a few months ago, “Innovation is dead, right?”
She was half joking while perfectly summing up something in the air last year in schools: a pandemic hangover mixed with ongoing, day-to-day challenges of running complex systems. Together, these made many “new” approaches to education feel too overwhelming to even entertain.
Lurking behind that, a surreal dynamic was unfolding across both K-12 and higher education: as emergency closures subsided, schools quickly regressed to their pre-pandemic approaches, despite new or worsening challenges at their doorstep. That re-entrenchment makes good sense given the resilience of traditional business models. Yet, it doesn’t match up with new realities like stark learning gaps, worsening mental health crises, significant enrollment declines, and a cooling job market. Business as usual is a rational response for a taxed and weary education system, but it’s also risky in light of all the ways the world has changed.
Given this tension, in the year ahead, I’ll be watching innovations that explicitly add new capacity and connections to the mix, at once expanding schools’ ability to innovate and also upping the relationships and resources available directly to students. Here are five on my radar:
1. Building relationships that power recovery
Arguably the top theme of this year in K-12 circles was learning recovery. I’ll be watching programs that are recruiting volunteers and staff beyond teachers to help students accelerate their learning. Significant ESSER investments are powering new tutoring programs. At the same time, the National Partnership for Student Success is calling for districts to enlist a broad array of supports, such as success coaches and mentors, to rally around students. Aligned with that vision, the Biden administration just made a major investment in the Americorps Volunteer Generation Fund. In sum, the next year will offer a powerful testbed for what it takes to build out a network of “people-powered supports” that supplement classroom teachers and school counselors.
This presents a huge learning opportunity for the field. The rightful focus on these interventions is moving the needle on learning—in particular, upping the pace of learning–for students who fell the furthest behind during the pandemic. But they also offer an opportunity to ask questions about the upsides of students having more relationships—with tutors, mentors, and coaches—at their disposal. What developmental assets are students gaining through these additional relationships? What’s motivating non-teacher adults to partake in coaching and tutoring? How are schools effectively brokering communication between teachers and other supportive adults? And which relationships tend to outlast interventions, remaining in students’ lives as part of their webs of support that can step in if new challenges arise?
Answers to questions like these could be critical to schools’ student support strategies long after the learning recovery agenda fades. They could shape how schools move beyond the one-teacher, one-classroom model (and one-counselor, hundreds-of-students model) that has dominated the last century.
2. Rebooting career services
Ironically, the notion of “learning recovery” was hardly a topic of conversation in higher education circles. That’s not surprising. Widespread, rigorous data on postsecondary students’ outcomes remain a pipedream of policy advocates.
But declining enrollment and looming doubts about the value of college are pushing some institutions to pay more attention to graduate outcomes. Core to that conversation is whether a college degree ultimately pays for itself, and for whom. Does going to college guarantee a good job? And is access to better jobs equitable across lines of race, class, and gender?
When it comes to securing jobs, many campuses leave students to their own devices. Most offer only a small, underfunded office ill-equipped to tackle opportunity gaps that underlie employment and wage gaps: career services. Average student-to-staff ratios are laughable, with an alarming 1 career services professional to 2,263 students, according to NACE.
This year I’ll continue to watch two different trends among schools overcoming the constraints of traditional career services. First, some colleges and universities are integrating “career services” more expansively across their entire enterprise. These initiatives often sit in the president’s cabinet, like work afoot at Colby College, Wake Forest, or Johns Hopkins, where leaders are putting significant resources behind ensuring all students have for-credit career preparation experiences, access to work-integrated learning and internships, high-touch mentoring, and deeper alumni access.
Promising as these holistic approaches are, they remain the exception rather than the rule, especially at lesser-resourced campuses. In light of that, the second career services trend I’m watching is the rise of more modest programs supplementing on-campus offerings, specifically geared towards expanding students’ networks and providing targeted, personalized guidance on everything from interview prep to industry norms.
These emerging models rely heavily on resources and networks beyond capacity-constrained campuses. For example, Social Capital Academy (SCA), founded by Cal State Fullerton (CSF) business professor and social capital scholar David Obstfeld, offers CSF students virtual, personalized coaching over the course of four Saturday morning sessions. SCA is powered by a cohort of volunteer professionals that Obstfeld has recruited from a variety of employers and colleagues. Another model, CareerSpring, founded by the former head of Houston’s Cristo Rey high school, Paul Posoli, offers an open network of virtual career advisors to first-generation students, as well as job placement services. While these efforts aren’t as comprehensive as college-wide initiatives, they’re poised to scale much faster. They’re also addressing the acute cost that network gaps can exact on first-generation college students’ chances of converting their hard-earned degrees into higher earnings post-graduation.
Together, these trends point to a future of career services that is more distributed and networked, either within or beyond campuses, rather than housed in small, centralized, and understaffed career offices.
3. Scaling well-resourced conversations
One of the reasons the emerging career services models noted above are worth watching is that they are built to scale students’ access to well-resourced career conversations, not just generic career information. I’m stealing the phrase “well-resourced conversations” from Rebecca Kirstein Resch, a Canadian entrepreneur running inqli—an employee engagement platform that helps employees and students alike get answers to their career questions—that came out of beta late last year.
Kirstein Resch’s phrase strikes me as a metric worth considering in the world of networking technologies and guidance more generally. There’s a tendency to assume young people are “more connected than ever,” as enterprise tools from Handshake to TikTok have rapidly gained Gen Z users. But accessing new connections is only half the battle: whether a given connection opens the door to new resources—like information, advice, support, or even job offers—is, arguably, the difference-maker for students. Understanding how young people experience conversations, what resources stick and which don’t, and unearthing best practices for seeding well-resourced conversations could unlock real value as more networked technology tools continue to emerge and scale.
This year I’ll be watching tools and models that are anchored on sparking new and more conversations with learners and workers about their future possibilities, like the models described above—and others like Mentor Spaces and Candoor—and endeavoring to better understand what users deem a helpful conversation and why.
4. Enlisting near peers for far reach
For many of the tutoring, mentoring, or career-coaching models described above, the current assumption is that someone much older and wiser ought to be delivering support and advice to students. But strong and growing research on the power of near-peer coaches and mentors challenges that assumption.
Near peers are those who are close in age and experience to students. Students certainly benefit from expert faculty and professional staff with more experience; but they are also, in some cases, more likely to trust the advice of their peers as credible messengers with whom they can relate.
Trust isn’t the only advantage near peers may have. They also offer a promising path to scale in a human capital-constrained system.
Take COOP, a nonprofit helping underemployed, low-income, first-generation college graduates break into tech jobs. COOP hires recent program alumni who have successfully secured full-time employment as part-time paid coaches. COOP’s founder Kalani Leifer summed up the insight guiding its approach: “What’s exciting is how quickly someone can go from receiving to providing social capital.”.
Leifer’s sentiment could push schools to reflect on how the skills, knowledge, and resources students are gaining could be reinvested back into their institutions. In other words, what if students were appreciated as experts in whatever content or skill they just learned or experienced? How might they be given opportunities to share that expertise back with the students that come after them?
Unlocking the power of near peers could supercharge the reach of “high-touch” efforts that seem impervious to scale. In Leifer’s estimation, unlocking that value has been a game changer: “The only reason we’re combining incredibly high-touch support with lower costs is that alumni do everything for each other,” Leifer said.
This year, I’ll be digging in on how exactly near-peer models work: how they determine readiness and support for those near peers, how near peers are compensated, and where traditional schools and colleges might adopt near-peer models themselves. My gut is that these models are growing much faster in the postsecondary space—where near peers are a known driver of retention—than in K-12 schools where age-based cohorts tend to keep students further apart. But I’ll be testing that hypothesis while also watching how schools and colleges are using tech tools—like NearPeer, MentorCollective, and Alumni Toolkit—to better coordinate and scale near-peer connections.
5. Pairing cash and connections to drive upward mobility
More coaches, tutors, mentors, career conversations, and near-peer connections could all help schools better serve students, especially those on the wrong side of opportunity gaps. But after looking at research on economic mobility and racial wealth gaps, I’ve become increasingly convinced that efforts to increase mobility would get further faster by pairing connections with cash. (For more on why these “currencies” matter so much, check out Stephanie Malia Krauss’ great book Making it).
Investing in both relationships and resources has research in its favor. Earlier this year, Raj Chetty and his team at Opportunity Insights made headlines with a new study that revealed the significant role that cross-class connections appear to play in increasing economic mobility. The media’s blunt takeaway was effectively “befriend rich people to get ahead.” For me, however, the more powerful insight was that a well-resourced network supports mobility.
Connecting young people from low-income households to wealthy peers and mentors is one way to foster well-resourced networks. Another might be building tight-knit networks and infusing them with resources at the same time. To that end, this year I’ll be looking more closely at models like Uptogether (formerly Family Independence Initiative), Union Capital Boston, and a newer startup, Backrs, that all provide their participants with financial resources at the same time they expand access to support and career networks.
Understanding what can arise at the intersection of building cash and connections is an exciting frontier in policies and practices aimed at helping young people from low-income households move up the income distribution ladder. There are many existing connection-only interventions, such as mentoring programs, and many cash-only interventions, such as scholarships and ESAs, as well. If these models could start supplementing their approaches with cash and connections respectively, existing efforts to address opportunity gaps might make more headway.
Looking ahead to 2023, education systems could remain stuck in a vortex of capacity constraints perpetuated by ongoing COVID concerns and a looming recession. Together, these five trends offer an alternative reality: opportunities for education systems to broaden their networks, capacity, and reach—and their ability to ensure that more learners thrive this year and beyond.