If your family has money in America, the odds are that one day you will too. And education will likely play a big role.
In all likelihood, you will go to a good preschool and have an enriching home environment, attend high-quality elementary and secondary schools your parents choose for you, and go on to college. If you need extra help along the way—a tutor or assistance applying to college—your family or school will help you find what you need. You will spend summers engaged in enriching experiences tailored to your interests. When it comes time to find a job or internship, you likely will have a social network that can connect you to opportunities. And if you veer from the traditional education pathway, your family will help you find your footing by providing you with counseling and other services.
But if you have few financial resources, the odds will be stacked against you. And education will likely play a big role.
If there is availability, you might attend Head Start or another early childhood program. But if not, or if the program you attend is under-resourced and below quality standards, you may start school without the vocabulary and social-emotional skills you need to thrive in the classroom and read well by third grade. You might attend a good elementary school with high-quality teachers. But if not, you could find yourself in a school that struggles to hire and retain good teachers, where many students have experienced trauma, go to school hungry, or need services that the school can’t afford to offer. If you need a tutor, an afterschool program, or something enriching to do over the summer, you might not get it. And although you might like to go to college, your guidance counselor (if your high school has one) may be juggling nearly 500 students and unable to offer personalized support to help you through the process. If you do graduate from high school, but have no college degree or professional connections, you might have trouble finding work that will pay enough to live on. If you do manage to apply to college and gain acceptance, your limited financial means, and work and family responsibilities, could cause you to drop out without a degree but with plenty of student loans to pay back.
The numbers confirm this story with discouraging consistency. The privilege of wealth, when combined with race and other demographics, confers not only major advantages in your upward life trajectory, but also the ability to take risks and recover from mistakes.
Children who have never lived in poverty are 10 times more likely to complete a college degree by age 25 and twice as likely to be consistently employed as young adults, compared with children who grew up persistently poor. And, children who grow up in poverty and manage to beat the odds and earn a college degree still see a substantially smaller increase in their lifetime earnings, compared to their peers from upper- or middle-class families.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The following sections examine the ages and stages on the journey from birth to adulthood through the lens of how learning happens, what children need to develop and thrive, the value of providing comprehensive supports along the way, and the importance of putting families and learners in the driver’s seat.
We strive to ensure that every young child in America enters the K-12 system ready to learn with the skills, mindsets, emotional supports, strong adult relationships, and stability they need to succeed in school and in life.
WHO WE ARE
The America Forward Coalition includes organizations engaged in on-the-ground work, serving early learners, their families, and communities as educators, advocates, case managers, and organizers. Some of our organizations provide coaching and development opportunities for early educators, while others run center-based or family-based high-quality early education programs. And some of our organizations support students and teachers in classrooms in underserved communities by leveraging community members around them, including college students and experienced older adults.
WHY WE CARE
What happens in the first years of life has an impact across a lifetime. Experiences from birth to age 8 affect the development of the brain’s architecture, providing the foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health.
WHERE LEARNING HAPPENS
Early learning begins at home through a wide range of experiences in varied settings. Engaging and playful learning experiences help young children make sense of the world around them; develop social and cognitive skills; mature emotionally; and gain the self-confidence, self-control, and critical thinking skills required to engage creatively and effectively in new experiences and environments. Connecting with others through caring, consistent relationships grounded in trust—and through dynamic experiences that develop our youngest learners cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically—allows them to thrive today and puts them on a path to success for the future.
Children from low-income families, especially those who have experienced trauma, face the greatest risk of having adverse childhood experiences impact their long-term development and growth. Without early interventions and opportunities for engaging, interactive, experiential learning and responsive social interaction, children will not develop the “learning to learn” skills they need to be ready for and succeed in school. Many early childhood programs are woefully under-resourced and pushed to adopt too narrow a programmatic frame, focusing only on academic goals rather than the needs of the whole child. Too many children begin life with unfavorable social and economic circumstances that follow them into adulthood. Their families are afforded few choices, and those they are offered may lack in quality or fail to meet all their needs.
Children who live in the most challenging circumstances can make the most significant gains in their cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development if they have well-supported families and access to high-quality early childhood development and education environments and services that prioritize safety and belonging, include trauma-informed approaches, and emphasize family engagement. Substantively rich curricula and playful instructional experiences, positive relationships, and the intentional development of foundational social and emotional skills in early childhood (such as self-regulation) make a profound difference. Well-designed facilities and integrated supports, including educational media and other technological solutions, also play an important role in increasing learning, ensuring equity, and encouraging all-important family engagement.
America Forward Coalition organizations employ a range of specific strategies that can change outcomes for low-income young children.
For example, the Institute for Child Success’ Hello Family initiative seeks to improve outcomes for young children and their families by providing a continuum of evidence-based services for all children born in the city of Spartanburg, South Carolina, from prenatal care through age 5. With initial federal funding from the Social Innovation Fund, the Hello Family initiative is a Pay for Success financing model, in which private investors provide upfront capital for the delivery of services and are repaid, plus interest, by a government or philanthropic payor if mutually agreed upon outcomes are achieved. The initiative encompasses three programs: BirthMatters, which provides community-based doulas to educate and support young low-income mothers through home visits and other supports, from the time mothers are 24 weeks pregnant until each baby is 6 months old; Family Connects, which provides nurses to visit mothers and newborns in their homes regardless of income, assesses families for potential risks, and connects them with community resources; and Triple P (Positive Parenting Program), which offers community-level communications campaigns, along with individual sessions with families, to equip parents with the skills and confidence they need to be self-sufficient in helping their children realize their potential. Hello Family measurement outcomes include reductions in cesarean-section deliveries, neonatal intensive care unit admissions, low birth weight births, infant emergency medical care utilization, and substantiated cases of child maltreatment, and increased breastfeeding at birth.
Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors, a program that serves and honors parents of young children, similarly focuses on the primary role that families play in the development and education of young children. Findings from a rigorous evaluation reveal how, with relatively few resources, an evidenced-informed, culturally relevant, and well-managed effort can make a difference in key parenting behaviors associated with academic success. The program has set ambitious outcome goals that include leadership development for parents, developed through a 10-week program that focuses on how to foster children’s learning, respond to children’s emotional needs, keep children physically healthy, and advocate for children’s well-being beginning at home and into school. Participating parents gain knowledge about high-quality child care and education settings, and improve their ability to plan and set goals for their children. Parents also gain an appreciation for their role as models for their children. Importantly, evaluation evidence shows these practices appear to be sustained over time.
Children’s Aid, which serves more than 1,000 children through home-based and center-based programs in New York City, also recognizes the value of providing targeted interventions to children during their earliest years of life. While helping children develop a greater sense of self, a respect for others, and an enduring love of learning are the guiding principles of its work with children ages 0-5, Children’s Aid also ensures that parents have the resources, knowledge, and supports they need to navigate the first stages of their child’s development. The Children’s Aid model is characterized by high-quality, research-based curricula; low student-to-teacher ratios; professional development and academic coaching for staff; a built-in mechanism for engaging parents as partners in their children’s development; and ensuring children and families receive wraparound supports to meet their full needs. Early childhood families also benefit from the added value of year-round services with extended day options and healthy meal services.
Targeting 3- and 4-year-olds, AppleTree operates preschool charter schools in the District of Columbia, enabling over 3,400 children to develop the social, emotional, and cognitive foundations they need to thrive in school. Research shows that classrooms using AppleTree’s Every Child Ready program see statistically significant gains in students’ academic performance in early math and language and literacy skills as a result of the instructional method, which emphasizes multiple domains of learning, including early science, math, and social-emotional development. Compared to non-AppleTree peers, AppleTree alums recognize 25% more letters in kindergarten, score 20 points higher on oral reading tests in first grade, and score 70% higher in oral reading tests by second grade. AppleTree makes its approach available to other programs through personalized, ongoing professional development.
Acelero Learning provides early childhood education and family engagement services, all of which are focused on closing the achievement gap for thousands of Head Start children and families across the country. Like AppleTree, Acelero Learning provides direct services, serving 5,000 students in four states. Students tested after two years in Acelero programs reach gains that are nearly double those of the best national sample on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT). These are among the largest-known recorded gains for a Head Start program. In addition, Acelero supports other Head Start providers through its Shine Assist program, which offers hands-on training, access to Acelero’s proprietary tools, and the use of its Shine Insight data system.
Combining advocacy with service delivery, Let’s Grow Kids works statewide to secure affordable access to high-quality child care for all Vermont families. By providing child care programs with strategic grants and customized expert support, Let’s Grow Kids increases the capacity of the high-quality early care and learning system statewide, and its focused efforts working with the early childhood educator workforce are growing a pipeline of qualified early educators with clear pathways to advancement. In addition, the organization mobilizes Vermonters from all walks of life to call for policy change and increased investment to create and sustain a high-quality birth to age 5 system. In 2019, this work led to state policy change that expanded financial support for low-income families accessing child care, and it secured increased scholarship funding for early educators.
Other innovators similarly develop a pipeline of future early childhood educators while adding capacity to classrooms. With support from AmeriCorps, Jumpstart recruits work-study college students and other volunteers to provide high-quality services to children in Head Start and other community-based preschools twice a week over a 20-week period. By providing students and volunteers with training, coaching, and support, Jumpstart ensures that its members provide children with high-quality, developmentally appropriate experiences and supportive interactions. Jumpstart’s curriculum provides deep focus on key areas of oral language development, including specific attention to social-emotional language skills. Results from a recent comparison study found that Jumpstart children make 1.5 times greater gains in important literacy skills compared to those who don’t receive the Jumpstart program. An added bonus: Three out of four Jumpstart Corps members plan to pursue careers in education or public service, and many choose to pursue a career in early education and care.
Encore.org’s Gen2Gen initiative similarly seeks to bring new human resources to support young children, their parents, teachers, and caregivers by asking older generations to stand up for younger ones and creating a new norm for later life. When older adults spend time with young children, research shows multiple benefits for both. As part of its effort to engage leaders and activate people age 50+ to step up and help kids who need champions, Encore.org inspires and supports innovators finding new ways to tap experienced talent to help children thrive. Encore.org’s newest initiative, Early Childhood Legacy Corps, shines a light on the best innovations and encourages their adoption across America.
Recognizing the importance that physical environment plays in supporting the quality of early learning programs and healthy early childhood development, Rhode Island Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) operates the Rhode Island Child Care and Early Learning Facilities Fund, which since 2001, has invested $20.6 million in planning and developing 164 high-performing early childhood facilities serving over 10,000 children in neighborhoods across Rhode Island. This innovative public-private partnership prioritizes support for projects that expand access to affordable, quality child care opportunities for low-income and high-needs children and families, while helping to develop the business capacity of early learning providers.
Multiple systems and government programs are intended to help young children living in poverty, including Head Start, the Child Care Development Fund, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Maternal Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), state and local public schools with pre-K programs, the child welfare system, and tax credits. AmeriCorps and the Higher Education Act also support early childhood programs by providing adult support and professional development.
1. CREATE AN “EARLY CHILDHOOD ACCELERATOR FUND.”
Support universal high-quality early childhood programming in persistently poor communities.
Imagine an early learning system that has a place for every child, including those whose families cannot pay, and is responsive to every child’s diverse needs. It starts by recognizing the primary role that families play, and uses culturally appropriate and effective ways to help them support children’s learning, understand their options, and make choices for their children. It offers every child a learning environment that is right for them, whose quality is supported through ongoing teacher professional development and aimed at cognitive, social, emotional, and other skills that lead to school-readiness. The system is organized based on clear, measurable outcomes agreed upon by members of the community, including families of young children, who provide expertise and leadership in the system.
To increase the number of places with universal early childhood programming that looks like this, we need an Early Childhood Accelerator Fund that makes grants to states, in partnership with specific communities that have high percentages of families living in pervasive poverty. Communities receiving funding would be those that are ready to advance this vision using the federal, state, and local public and private resources available to them, based on a plan to provide universal access to quality programs for all low-income children. Plans should include measurable goals, developed in conjunction with local families; engage a wide variety of early childhood programs; and identify an “accelerator” institution that will work with all providers to improve their quality based on evidence-based practices. They should take into account the needs of the whole child, and integrate trauma-informed practices to support young learners’ cognitive, social, and emotional health and development. While every plan would be uniquely responsive to individual community needs, each would also build on a growing base of knowledge, informed by innovation and research, so that all communities can adopt effective practices that invest in and engage our youngest learners.
2. STRENGTHEN THE EARLY CHILDHOOD WORKFORCE.
Fund a comprehensive strategy to expand, diversify, and raise the education levels of early childhood teachers, particularly those working in federally subsidized programs.
A growing body of evidence links well-trained and supported early childhood personnel with the achievement of positive developmental outcomes for children. The science of early learning clearly indicates that the work of lead educators for young children of all ages requires the same high level of sophisticated knowledge and competencies as K-12 teachers, yet salaries lag far behind. Teachers with four-year degrees employed in Head Start and many public pre-K programs earn between 60% and 70% of the average kindergarten teacher salary. In addition, teachers with college degrees, men, and bilingual teachers are in particularly short supply.
Greater efforts are needed to strengthen the recruitment, preparation, retention, and support of those working with young children and their families (including home visitors, preschool staff, and community health workers). A comprehensive strategy should:
Provide two years of free education to individuals with bachelor’s degrees who agree to work in Head Start or a federally subsidized child development center for two years, with a bonus for teachers who are bilingual. Fund a national recruitment campaign on colleges, targeting men and campuses with high percentages of Black and Latinx students.
Expand federal work-study funding, national service, and volunteer opportunities to allow college students, recent graduates, community members, and older adults to serve in early education classrooms, providing added capacity to implement high-impact approaches.
Develop a Head Start AmeriCorps program to enable Head Start parents to serve in their children’s centers as AmeriCorps members eligible for Segal AmeriCorps education awards, allowing them to earn a college degree or other credential.
Tap older adults as a talent pool for early childhood programs by authorizing an Early Childhood Legacy Corps to provide financial incentives for older adults to serve in early childhood programs and create a pathway to the professional and paraprofessional early childhood workforce.
Adopt salary scales, student loan forgiveness, or tax credits to make teaching in early childhood programs financially comparable to teaching in elementary schools.
3. FOCUS EARLY LEARNING RESOURCES ON PERFORMANCE AND RESULTS.
Improve program quality by linking public funding for early learning to achievement of measurable outcomes, while improving data systems and supporting program evaluation.
Too often, national programs for early learning focus on input measures and compliance without a similar emphasis on achieving successful outcomes. Federal early learning law and policy should prioritize performance and outcomes, rather than mere compliance. We suggest the following:
Set clear, measurable goals and outcomes for all federally funded early child care and education programs, including but not limited to clearly defining whole child school-readiness metrics and parent engagement.
Give providers flexibility to administer programs with fewer input-driven requirements as long as they meet specific outcome measures, and provide additional funding to those programs that have strong positive outcomes.
Leverage existing programs such as Preschool Development Grants, Child Care Development Block Grants, and the charter school program to provide incentives to states and communities to create high-quality charter preschools that are designed to improve school-readiness outcomes.
Award federal training and technical assistance funding, including Head Start assistance funding, based on the performance of training and technical assistance providers.
Increase demonstration authority and promote the development of a strong evidence base; for example, increase funding for Head Start research, demonstration, and evaluation from 0.25% of total appropriations to 1%.
Support efforts to strengthen and simplify data systems, including efforts to grow capacity to manage and implement new data systems that allow data sharing between and among early learning settings, K-12 schools, postsecondary education institutions, and external partners in order to allow for high-quality evaluation and continuous improvement of programs while maintaining student privacy protections.
Leverage administrative data to track longitudinal outcomes, and build evidence by continuing to track the impact of early childhood programs by measuring third-grade reading and math scores, and other long-term measures such as reductions in child welfare and justice involvement, the attainment of postsecondary credentials and employment, and parental employment.
4. PROVIDE DEDICATED FUNDING FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD FACILITIES.
Improve the physical space of early childhood programs to encourage healthy development.
Space matters: A facility’s layout, size, materials, and design features can improve program quality and contribute positively to child development while a poorly adapted and overcrowded environment undermines it. Public funding should be available to support the acquisition, construction, and rehabilitation of early childhood facilities serving low-income children.
Early learning alone is not an effective equalizer—but expanding access to high-quality early learning opportunities, in all the settings where children learn and grow, is a critical place to start. So, too, is readying families to become educators and advocates for their children, and in doing so, preparing families to play these roles throughout their child’s education.
We strive to ensure that all children growing up in America, regardless of their backgrounds, receive a high-quality education that enables them to thrive as youth while preparing them to pursue the higher education, training, national service, or work experience they need for meaningful employment and engaged citizenship.
WHO WE ARE
Organizations in the America Forward Coalition provide diverse supports to school-age youth, both in and out of school, in thousands of under-resourced communities across the country. Some of us provide pipelines for more and better-prepared teachers and leaders, while others mobilize volunteers or national service participants to bolster the human capital available to schools. Some of us run charter schools or alternative schools that re-engage young people who have left high school without a diploma, while others transform under-resourced traditional public schools through interventions that address social, emotional, and cognitive barriers to student success. Many of us provide critical student and family supports and improve access to outside providers, while others provide expanded learning opportunities for students. Some of us ensure that students, families, and teachers have roles not only supporting learning, but also in developing the education policies that govern practice. We work in elementary and secondary schools, afterschool and summer programs, and college access and success initiatives.
WHY WE CARE
America will never be a place where everyone has an equitable chance at success until all children can receive a quality education and the supports they need, both in and out of school, to thrive. Our nation needs the valuable perspective and energy of our youth today, and will need the prepared workers, responsible community members, and engaged citizens that children will eventually become. Quality education for everyone is a crucial component of creating safe, healthy, civically enfranchised, and economically secure communities, and foundational to a just society.
WHERE LEARNING HAPPENS
Learning can take place in any environment, not just formal classrooms. What happens in school matters immensely, and should foster the cognitive, social, and emotional development of the child—advancing academic goals—and promote the acquisition of essential workforce, civic engagement, and life skills. What happens outside of school matters just as much—families, after-school programs, volunteers, and community-based organizations are critical to ensuring that our young people thrive. Learning happens best when social, emotional, and cognitive development and growth are connected; when the unique educational needs of each child can be met; and when children are healthy, safe, and well nourished.
Too often, schools are de facto segregated by race and income, with many students facing challenges outside of school that follow them into the classroom. Too many schools that serve children facing the greatest challenges are neither resourced nor designed to respond adequately to their needs, and operate in systems that make it difficult, despite the best efforts of educators, to assemble or develop skilled teachers, and provide the academic rigor, comprehensive supports, and positive school culture that will enable students to learn and succeed.
Children who live in the most adverse circumstances can achieve their potential, with optimal cognitive, social, and emotional growth if they have the opportunity to attend education programs that deeply understand their experiences and are centered on supporting them in safe, equitable, inclusive environments; have dynamic, personalized learning experiences based on rich instruction and the development of critical skills and mindsets (such as skills related to perseverance and independence); have access to consistent, caring relationships with good teachers and other caring adults in their lives; can engage in dynamic learning opportunities outside of school; and receive the comprehensive, integrated supports they need. Expanding opportunities for the voices of teachers, families, and students to be heard increases the odds that policies will be effective and that change can be sustained.
America Forward Coalition members have shown that children facing great challenges can succeed when this network of support is provided inside and outside of school. Our organizations offer schools and families support in a wide variety of ways.
For example, PowerMyLearning advances educational equity by enabling students, teachers, and families to work as a team. Its Family Playlists are a new form of homework that “light up” the whole triangle of learning relationships: Students first practice a skill being taught in class; they then teach that skill to an adult family member; and then that family member provides feedback to the teacher on whether their child seemed to understand the skill. Family Playlists put families in the role of teammate and supporter, rather than enforcer, and help teachers track family participation throughout the school year. Results of the program rollout were unprecedented: 91% of families participated in Family Playlists, and 84% of participating families chose to submit personal feedback to their child’s teacher that was filled with pride and emotion (e.g., “I enjoyed working with my son on this assignment; I am very proud of my son’s accomplishment”). The intervention also demonstrated a significant improvement in the learning relationships between students, teachers, and families, with 100% of participating families agreeing that the program helped them understand what their child was learning in school. Importantly, one study found that Family Playlists had a statistically significant impact on students’ state math test scores, equivalent to four months of additional learning. Another found that PowerMyLearning schools outperformed comparison schools in math proficiency by an average of 7 percentage points each year.
Springboard Collaborative leverages out-of-school time to help close the literacy gap. Recognizing that children spend 75% of their waking hours outside the classroom, and that parents’ love for their children is a great, but underutilized resource for education, Springboard Collaborative leverages the common purpose and complementary skill sets of parents and teachers:
Teachers are the experts on instruction. They know what their students need to make progress, yet the classroom setting makes it difficult to individually support every child.
Parents are the experts on their children. While teachers change annually, parents accumulate a wealth of knowledge about their children as learners. Moreover, they are uniquely positioned to personalize learning and read with their children in a one-on-one setting.
These competencies form the basis for a sustainable partnership in which teachers share instructional strategies with parents in exchange for the commitment that families will use these strategies at home and return with meaningful observations. Using this framework, Springboard Collaborative coaches teachers and family members to help their kids read on grade level, with offerings that combine personalized instruction for pre-K through third grade, workshops to train parents to teach reading at home, and professional development for teachers. Program results demonstrate the power of this approach. In a single summer, participating students replaced the typical three-month summer reading loss with a 3.7-month reading gain, and in a single academic year, Springboard Collaborative helped struggling readers achieve a 4.1-month reading gain in just 10 weeks of instruction.
Engaging community members in support of learning is another way to expand resources that will improve education outcomes. For example, Reading Partners mobilizes over 10,000 community volunteers, ranging from high school students to retirees, to provide thousands of elementary school students struggling with reading with proven, individualized reading support. A diverse group of AmeriCorps members recruit, train, and provide on-site support to volunteers to work one-on-one with students twice a week, following a structured, standards-based, research-based curriculum. On average, Reading Partners students more than double their rate of learning while in the program, with 85% meeting or exceeding their primary end-of-year literacy growth goal. Importantly, rigorous research studies of the program model have demonstrated that Reading Partners students make larger gains in literacy skills than their peers who receive other reading support services in schools, with English language learners making the largest gains. More recent research indicates that Reading Partners students also may be gaining important social-emotional learning skills while in the program.
City Year similarly brings together diverse, talented teams of young AmeriCorps members to serve in schools full time, building positive near-peer relationships and providing holistic supports designed to keep students in school and on track to high school graduation. In partnership with school districts, teachers, and principals, City Year seeks to ensure that students in systemically under-resourced schools are prepared with the skills and mindsets to thrive and contribute to their communities, and works to create learning environments where all students feel welcome, build on their strengths, and fully engage with their learning. To do this, City Year AmeriCorps members serve as student success coaches who help students to cultivate social-emotional and academic skills by tutoring students, helping them stay focused in class, organizing schoolwide events, and running after-school programs.
According to research, schools partnering with City Year were two to three times more likely to improve in math and English than similar schools without City Year. Nine out of 10 teachers agree that City Year AmeriCorps members help to foster a positive learning environment for their students. And City Year helped two-thirds of students identified as needing support in key social-emotional skills linked to college and career readiness. An added benefit: Through their work in schools and communities, City Year AmeriCorps members not only make a difference in the lives of students, but also acquire valuable skills that prepare them to become the next generation of civically engaged leaders.
MindRight also harnesses the power of near-peer and community support using technology-enabled on-demand social-emotional coaching to teens dealing with stress and trauma. Working with schools and other partners, MindRight coaches, who are young professionals, former teachers, community members, and college students, communicate with students over their phones, utilizing evidence-based cognitive behavioral practices and mindfulness. Unlike crisis response, MindRight coaches reach out to teens proactively every day to help prevent crises, and they stick with youth during and after a crisis if one occurs. Although still in the early stage, data show that students who use the program show improvement in psychological well-being, which is also proven to lead to improved academic performance, with 97% of users reporting improved stress management.
While families and community members play important roles in education, teachers have the most direct, sustained contact with students and considerable control over both the material taught and the climate for learning. Therefore, improving teachers’ knowledge, skills, and dispositions through professional development is a critical step in improving student achievement. Research shows that well-qualified teachers and high-quality teaching can close the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers.
Leading Educators is one of several America Forward Coalition members supporting the quality of teaching. It helps education leaders build sustainable environments where teachers and students thrive, providing the time for teachers to lead and learn, the tools they need to teach every student to high levels, and support to focus on the initiatives that matter most. The program challenges educators to identify and work through implicit biases that shape expectations for students’ abilities, so teachers can create classrooms where every student has an equal opportunity to learn and grow. Leading Educators helps educators to use what they’ve learned to lead regular school-based planning and practice, both through direct facilitation and modeling strong, grade-appropriate teaching for peers. Each partnership is customized to the specific strength of the district and its schools, drawing from evidence-based teaching and professional learning methods.
Although teachers have much to contribute regarding education policy, for too long, teachers have been treated as subjects of change rather than as agents of change. Founded by public school teachers, Educators for Excellence (E4E) is a growing movement of more than 30,000 educators, united around a common set of values and principles for improving student learning and elevating the teaching profession. These values include respect and professionalism, a solutions orientation and growth mindset, and diversity and inclusiveness.
E4E teachers work together to identify issues that impact our schools, draw upon their personal experiences to create solutions to these challenges, and advocate for policies and programs that give all students access to a quality education.
Principals are the instructional leaders of schools and, as with teachers, recruiting and retaining talented, diverse talent for this essential role can be challenging. Working hand in hand with partners, New Leaders cultivates diverse and talented educators, providing high-quality leadership training that prepares them to elevate instruction across their schools, accelerate student learning, and build a brighter future for their communities. Two-thirds of New Leaders principals are people of color, well above the national average of just 20%, and three-quarters remain in their districts for more than three years, compared with just 50% nationally. Research confirms the quality of leadership offered by New Leaders principals: 85% delivered achievement gains across classrooms they supervised, with results realized during the training year, and the RAND Corporation recently cited New Leaders as the principal preparation program with the strongest evidence of positive impact. And they remain committed—New Leaders alums overwhelmingly work with America’s highest-need students: 78% of students served are low income; 87% are children of color.
America Forward Coalition members are also playing leadership roles helping whole schools and school systems incorporate evidence-based practices that foster student development and academic achievement. For example, Turnaround for Children connects the dots between science, adversity, and school performance by translating research from the science of learning and development into integrated systems, structures, and practices for schools to enable each and every child to thrive, particularly those who have been impacted by significant adversity. Building on 17 years of experience working with schools and a deep understanding of this research, Turnaround’s tools and services—for educators and school and systems leaders—help catalyze positive developmental relationships and learning environments filled with safety and belonging. They also initiate the intentional development of the critical social-emotional and cognitive skills; mindsets; and habits necessary for healthy, whole-child development and academic achievement, no matter what obstacles a child may have faced.
Transcend takes another approach to school redesign, helping communities move away from our current 150-year-old “industrial model,” which perpetuates inequity by taking a one-size-fits-all approach, defining success narrowly, emphasizing compliance and passive learning, and neglecting the varying needs of all students. Transcend does not advocate for one single, new model of “school.” Rather, it sees the need for two different processes: one that helps communities arrive at their “why” for change by exploring the science of learning, future trends, and the experiences of children traditionally at the margins of school; and another that helps communities create, test, codify, and spread a diversity of new school models designed to address these urgencies. These models include public-private partnerships to bring local businesses into a high school focused on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math; school communities with radically different schedules and routines to support students’ social-emotional learning; and schools where students and their families define their purpose and chart a path toward that purpose.
Still other America Forward Coalition members run nonprofit, public charter schools, developing high-impact educational models and, in some cases, sharing their innovations with other schools. For example, Match Education operates high-performing urban public charter schools as well as a unique graduate school of education that trains teachers for high-poverty schools. Drawing from this applied work, Match codifies and shares its strongest content and practices as open education resources to serve educators in all schools—charter, district, private, and parochial. Since launching this platform in 2016, known as Match Export, over 1 million educators in the United States and abroad have downloaded Match’s content. Match Education also incorporates Match Corps, an AmeriCorps program, into its charter schools to ensure that every student receives tutoring support. These programs operate with two key mindsets: to achieve “jaw-dropping results,” and to craft “genuinely inventive solutions to important problems” that can influence the entire public school sector. While its charter school students are selected by lottery and mirror the general population of Boston public schools (most are Black or Latinx, most come from low-income households, about a third are English language learners, and many arrive with math and literacy skills below their official grade level), Match sends from 75% to 90% of its high school graduates to four-year colleges and an additional 5% to 10% of its high school graduates to two-year colleges.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the primary federal education program impacting school-age youth, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is the primary program focused on students with disabilities. A wide variety of additional federal programs and public systems also affect low-income children. For instance, AmeriCorps members serve in a quarter of low-performing schools. Additional federal programs fund school nutrition, child care, substance abuse prevention, mental health, and programs for homeless children. The child welfare, health care, and juvenile justice systems all have significant impacts on school-age youth, and school-age youth are also highly affected by systems that may involve adults in their families, including the criminal justice system and policies affecting people who were formerly incarcerated.
5. SCALE CATALYTIC PARTNERSHIPS FOR STUDENT SUCCESS.
Recognize and resource innovative nonprofit organizations that partner with or operate schools to improve outcomes for low-income students.
Effective schools create partnerships that result in joint efforts to improve teaching and learning; leverage additional resources, talent. and expertise; catalyze innovation and problem-solving; and increase the rate and level of student progress in line with the school’s vision for educational success. They acknowledge that students don’t leave their lived experiences at the door when they come to school, and embrace a comprehensive approach to supporting students’ cognitive, social, and emotional development, as well as their mental and physical health.
Through the successful efforts of the America Forward Coalition, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) reflects the important role of effective community partners and intermediary organizations by providing both states and districts with the authority to engage partners across a range of programs. It includes specific requirements that states and local districts work with external partners in the development and implementation of programs under Title I, the largest federally funded educational program, which provides supplemental funds to school districts to assist schools with the highest student concentrations of poverty to meet school educational goals.
America Forward continues to elevate the importance of partners, and proposes the following four-point plan to further support and encourage effective partnerships with external partners:
Create a transparent marketplace of external partners. To enable states, school districts, and schools to find the interventions and partners best able to advance their goals, a readily available clearinghouse of vetted information, incorporating evidence from the What Works Clearinghouse, should be available, including programmatic costs, qualifications, and a process for engaging potential partners.
Make capacity-building grants to nonprofit organizations with strong evidence. Few public funding streams provide direct support to nonprofit organizations that work in education. These organizations need access to growth capital in order to expand, even if earned income is available from schools and other sources. Growth capital grants should be available for nonprofits that provide evidence of success, along with operational grants to enable programs to operate in under-resourced schools.
Provide model data-sharing agreements. Data on student achievement and other outcomes are essential to enabling both schools and external partners to offer tailored supports, assess progress, support continuous improvement, and conduct evaluations. In addition, these data allow for the high-quality evaluation and continuous improvement of programs, helping to ensure that limited resources are invested effectively. Federal policy should ensure that external partners have reliable access to student data, so long as adequate student privacy protections are in place.
Offer incentives for coherent school design and aligned services to schools. Schools should be encouraged to create a coherent blueprint of their mission, vision, and instructional practices to enable alignment both within the school and with external organizations. We should encourage local organizations serving school-age youth and their families to work closely with schools and align services where possible. Federal and state programs should incorporate incentives for coherent school design work as well as for local organizations to partner with education institutions to improve outcomes for youth and their families.
6. ENSURE ALL STUDENTS HAVE EFFECTIVE TEACHERS AND ATTEND SCHOOLS WITH STRONG EDUCATIONAL LEADERS.
Fund innovative strategies to recruit, train, and retain diverse educators.
Effective teachers and school leaders play an outsized role in students’ ability to succeed in school. Unfortunately, schools in high-poverty urban and rural areas struggle to recruit educators, especially teachers of color, with STEM and special education teachers in particularly short supply. High teacher turnover consumes economic resources that could be spent on other priorities: Filling a vacancy costs $21,000 on average—at a national cost of more than $7.3 billion per year. Half of all teacher turnover occurs in 25% of public schools, predominantly in high-poverty urban and rural areas serving the children who face the most barriers to educational success. These shortages are even more damaging as they can negatively reinforce the achievement gap.
Ensuring that every school has a strong, diverse pipeline of educators, retains those teachers and leaders, and provides them with the support and professional development necessary for them to thrive requires a significant shift in national priorities and paradigms. In addition to existing federal programs for teacher preparation and support, strategies should include investing in alternative teacher preparation programs with proven outcomes, leaning into the powerful pipeline represented by national service corps members, and funding professional development providers with strong track records. All new educators should receive induction, coaching, and mentoring assistance during their first two years on the job; receive regular assistance from a rigorously selected, trained, and supported coach or mentor; and be prepared to work with students who have learning and attention issues. Specific attention should be given to the induction, mentorship, and support of teachers and principals of color in an effort to retain them, as teachers of color tend to serve in more under-resourced schools and have higher rates of turnover than their White counterparts. Programs such as student loan forgiveness that are intended to incentivize teachers and school leaders to work in high-need, rural, under-resourced schools and high-need fields should be strengthened and expanded.
7. FACILITATE THE ABILITY OF FAMILIES TO EXERCISE POWER TO INFLUENCE THEIR CHILDREN’S EDUCATION.
Recognize parents as full educational partners, providing the information they need and opportunities to play a leadership role in education decisions that affect their children.
All families have dreams about what they want for their children. Too often only affluent, educated parents are in a strong position to make choices or exercise power to support their child’s path through the education system.
However, research shows that parents across all demographics are more expansive in their ideal approach to education than the system that serves them. Parents see academics and preparation for college and career as the floor, not the ceiling, and focus more on the development of holistic skills that make students capable of self-sufficiency, social connection, and productivity. Or, put more bluntly, they tend to think that teaching algebra and ancient history should not preclude the teaching of critical life skills that will empower their children to thrive in the 21st century. They believe that children learn in different ways, and not every education approach works for each child at any given stage of their education.
There are many ways that school systems can adapt to engage parents as educational partners, and to facilitate their ability to make choices for their children, and ultimately exercise their innate power as agents of change—setting the agenda for change, creating that change, and sustaining it in their communities.
This starts with calling on and incentivizing school systems to provide options along with transparent, easily understood, and accessible information to enable families to make informed decisions and advocate for changes on behalf of their children, school, and school system; finding ways to assess and report learning for a broader range of areas that parents value; developing significant leadership roles for families to have a voice in setting education priorities and in governance; and enabling families and students to have access to the students’ own data to inform their personal choices.
8. PROVIDE A TEAM OF NATIONAL SERVICE CORPS MEMBERS FOR EVERY HIGH-POVERTY SCHOOL.
Maximize the impact of AmeriCorps members in and outside of the classroom while expanding this diverse pipeline of informed and motivated educators.
AmeriCorps members currently serve in one out of every four low-performing schools by offering extra help in and out of the classroom; coaching, tutoring, and mentoring students; supporting service-learning; managing volunteers; helping students apply to college; and serving in other ways. Every school serving high percentages of low-income students should have the option of fielding a team of AmeriCorps members to address their priority needs. Not only do AmeriCorps members provide needed support for classroom teachers, but they also often go on to become professional educators who have experience serving in high-need schools.
9. EMPOWER SCHOOL DISTRICTS TO DEPLOY FEDERAL DOLLARS TO LINK FUNDING TO OUTCOMES.
Technical assistance and other incentives are needed to help schools implement Pay for Success strategies.
In 2015, with support from the America Forward Coalition, Congress broke new ground by authorizing the use of Pay for Success for the first time in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), authorizing state and local educational agencies to tie dollars to outcomes relating to safe and supportive schools and student physical and mental health through the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Program. And yet, in the four years since these provisions became law, very few districts have actually used these new provisions. Districts are not used to funding based on results, and they need help to achieve scalable systems change. We need to provide stronger incentives, funding for staff, and capacity and technical assistance to execute pathbreaking Pay for Success projects within the K-12 system, and forge strong community partnerships to change the way these dollars are allocated.
10. HARNESS THE POWER OF TECHNOLOGY FOR EDUCATION.
Employ education technology and data systems to improve education outcomes, including providing necessary training and making technology available on an equitable basis.
Technology has opened new possibilities to improve learning and measure progress, supporting personalized learning and data-informed systems change. However, access to technology and knowledge about its effective use as a learning tool are inequitably distributed. To address this challenge, we propose four priorities.
End the digital divide in schools and at home.Without access to high-speed bandwidth and devices both at school and at home, teachers and students cannot realize the potential of technology-enabled learning approaches. Over the last few years, federal policy has dramatically increased the number of school districts receiving Wi-Fi funding, and today, 99% of schools are on a clear path to delivering enough bandwidth for digital learning in every classroom. To maintain this progress, and provide ongoing support for Wi-Fi in every district, the FCC should renew the E-rate program and make it permanent. Additional support should be made available to make technology acquisition by under-resourced school systems more equitable and to ensure that schools can provide up-to-date technology and related learning tools that students need.Digital access at home remains a significant barrier to equity in education. Many students still do not have adequate access to the internet at home, and a “homework gap” exists between students whose internet connections at home are slow or non-existent and those who have home connections with adequate speed. One in five teens doesn’t have reliable access to an internet-connected device, and rates vary by students’ race and ethnicity, with Native, Black, and Latinx students experiencing lower rates of internet access than White students. Access also differs geographically, with remote rural locales experiencing the highest percentage of students with either no internet or only dial-up access at home. Finally, one in four students living in poverty has no access to the internet. Innovative strategies and funding are needed to expand out-of-school technology access for students.
Use data to track and improve outcomes while ensuring student data privacy.A rich array of data provides critical information about individual student and educator performance as well as school performance, culture, and climate. Data offer educators and policymakers the opportunity to discover the gaps in student learning by providing a snapshot of what students should know, what they do know, and what can be done to meet their needs. Educators who are trained to use data can make more evidence-based instructional decisions. Student data can also enable external providers to align and evaluate their efforts to improve outcomes, provided it can be shared safely with appropriate privacy protections. Data also can enable students and their families to make informed educational choices and advocate for necessary changes at the student, school, and system levels, provided students and families receive training to help them understand the data and how to use it, and data is made consumer-facing and user-friendly.ESSA requires that rates of postsecondary enrollment be reported at the state, district, and school levels for the students in the year after they graduate from high school, with data disaggregated by race and ethnicity, disability status, English learner status, and status as economically disadvantaged. We propose adding college persistence and completion rates to required data, and making new linked data sets available to researchers so that we can better understand what’s working.Finally, in order for data to be used productively for all of these purposes, privacy protections and access protocols must be developed. Policymakers should engage students and families as well as teachers and other educators in developing rules relating to data collection, secure storage, access, and ultimately deletion of student data, recognizing that students and their families—not schools or government—are the rightful owners of individual student data.
Support professional development for teachers to use technology to support personalized learning opportunities for students.
New technologies and educational software have the potential to transform the traditional classroom and create dramatic shifts in approaches to teaching. Technology allows educators to “personalize learning,” accommodating unique learning styles and paces. Adaptive learning software is beginning to replace textbooks in the classrooms, and students are working directly with computer programs targeted to their needs. In this way, students can engage in unprecedented levels of self-paced, self-directed learning.Even in a technology-infused environment, interpersonal relationships and skilled educators remain essential. With more data available to track each student’s progress, educators can gain actionable insight into where their students are struggling and where they can accelerate. In addition, with technology providing ubiquitous access to information and calculating power, success in our rapidly changing environment no longer requires memorization, but instead demands facility with technology and the ability to think, learn to learn, and critically assess information and analyze a situation. Teachers must be prepared to support these skills.
Make educational technology platform data available to researchers.With the multitude of education technology providers, massive valuable data exist that could dramatically increase knowledge about the effectiveness of specific educational approaches. An incentive fund to encourage companies to open up the back end of their platforms so researchers can access data and run experiments could vastly increase knowledge about how people learn. With more access to data, experts can conduct higher-quality studies and more easily share their methods and results. Researchers can also test their ideas on much larger samples and find more generalizable results—and spend their time and energy developing and executing research instead of creating a platform to run their research or recruiting a broad sample of students.
11. END THE SCHOOL-TO-PRISON PIPELINE.
Use innovation and evidence-based strategies to improve school safety and stop the practice of referring students, including a disproportionate number of African American, Hispanic, and Native students, and students with disabilities, to law enforcement for minor behavior infractions.
In the last decades, schools have dramatically increased engagement with law enforcement, including placing more than 10,000 police officers in school buildings. While little evidence exists that these practices have in fact increased safety in schools, they have contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of student arrests. In a single academic year (2011-12) more than a quarter million students were referred to law enforcement, and half were expelled due to minor infractions such as disruptive behavior, violation of dress code, displays of affection, or defiant behavior toward authority. During that same time, more than 3 million students were suspended at least once. These disciplinary actions can have lifelong consequences: Research shows that a student is 23.5% more likely to drop out of school after receiving exclusionary discipline.
Students from two groups—racial minorities and children with disabilities—are disproportionately represented in this group. African American students, for instance, are 3.5 times more likely, and American Indian and Alaska Native students are twice as likely, to be suspended or expelled than White students. In fact, more than 70% of students arrested in school-related incidents or referred to law enforcement are Black or Hispanic, and although they represent approximately 1% of the student population, Native students account for 2% of all school arrests and 3% of all incidents referred by school staff to law enforcement. Students with disabilities are similarly overrepresented, and racial disparities are even starker for students with disabilities. One in four Black children with disabilities has been suspended at least once, versus one in 11 White students. Zero-tolerance policies, which set one-size-fits-all punishments for a variety of behaviors, have fed these trends.
While safety at school is an essential part of a quality education, policymakers should pursue evidence-based strategies to increase school safety while breaking down the school-to-prison pipeline. We propose a four-part strategy:
Restore questions through the Office of Civil Rights’ Civil Rights Data Collection efforts that focus on school discipline and disaggregated data by demographics.
Require, as a condition of federal/state funding, that all school resource officers be trained in social-emotional capacities and reverse zero-tolerance policies.
Create a school-safety innovation fund that provides funding to test, evaluate, and scale effective behavior and safety-related practices, with special priorities for initiatives developed by students, families, or teachers.
Keep youth out of the criminal justice system altogether. Give priority in existing federal justice grants to applicants that propose a community partnership approach to reduce behavioral issues that increase a young person’s risk of interaction with the criminal justice system.
Over the years, policymakers have looked for the “silver bullet” that would make our education system work for everyone. We now know there’s no single reform that leads to transformation. But we do see three common practices: (1) paying rigorous attention to data to measure equity, track outcomes, and inspire continuous improvement; (2) engaging nonprofit and community partners to bring expertise, comprehensive services, and caring adults to the classroom and beyond; and (3) recognizing the primary role that families play in student success. By scaling these practices, it is within our reach to ensure that every student, regardless of income, zip code, racial identity, or ability, receives a first-class education that opens doors to economic prosperity and a successful future.
We strive to ensure that all emerging adults, especially those with fewer resources, are equipped with the skills, education, and supports they need to secure good jobs, and become contributing members of their communities, able to support and nurture families of their own.
WHO WE ARE
Every day across the country, organizations in the America Forward Coalition use innovative methods, informed by data and research, to help young people move along their own unique pathways to become successful, contributing adults. Some of us work with secondary school students, exposing them to careers and mentors, motivating them to stay in school and go on to college. Others offer opportunity youth who are neither employed nor in school a second chance to gain the education and training they need to get back on track. Some of us help students persist in postsecondary programs by providing the extra supports they need. And some of us offer national service programs where young adults develop essential workplace and civic participation skills while helping others.
WHY WE CARE
The period of “emerging adulthood”—the late teens and early 20s— is a critical developmental stage where adolescents become more independent and explore various life possibilities. During this time, brain structures continue to develop and enable complex forms of thinking. What happens during this period often determines whether a young person becomes a productive working adult, able to support a family and contribute to the community—or faces a lifetime of challenges.
WHERE LEARNING HAPPENS
While learning happens through formal postsecondary education and workforce development
programs, other experiences (such as internships, service opportunities, and employment) play equally important roles.
Emerging adulthood is a time where inequality and inequity deepen as privileged young people receive vastly more supports, educational opportunities, and career connections than do young people from low-income backgrounds who may have not only fewer resources and supports, but also less exposure to career pathways and awareness of resources that can help them find their way. Too many emerging adults don’t have the resources they need to secure higher education or training that leads to work with a living wage. Each year, 1.2 million low-income or first-generation students enroll in college, but only a quarter of them will leave with a related first job or enter graduate school. Once they fall off a traditional pathway, it’s hard to get back on. While some adults do find their way back into education, it is often only after they have assumed financial and family responsibilities that are hard to balance with traditional higher education programs. Today’s postsecondary students are older, more diverse, working full or part time, raising families—and often struggling. In addition, whole categories of people, including court-involved individuals and DACA recipients, are excluded from many parts of the postsecondary education system.
Exacerbating the unfairness and complexity of these systems, numerous policies make it extremely difficult for organizations serving young people to work across programmatic silos. Policy treats the spheres of education and workforce development as entirely separate universes, despite their obvious connections, which not only makes it hard for students to find opportunities that are right for them, but also makes it difficult to access the disjointed supports they need to participate fully. As a result, the most under-resourced young adults often lose their way, unable to pursue their dreams, likely putting their children at risk of a similar future.
America Forward Coalition members have shown that career exposure, intensive college advising, inspiring service opportunities, and internship experiences can motivate students to graduate from high school and help them make well-informed education plans, including applying to and attending a postsecondary program that will help them achieve their personal goals.
America Forward organizations help emerging adults thrive. For example, Genesys Works gives underserved students the opportunity to succeed in a professional work environment while still in high school. Students receive skills training the summer before their senior year of high school, and then work 20 hours a week at a paid, year-long internship at partner companies. Throughout the year, students receive more than 60 hours of guidance and counseling on appropriate college and career pathways as well as support from alums who have walked a similar path. Almost all program participants enroll in college, with a 70% completion rate, a much higher rate than their peers. Research shows that for every $1 invested in Genesys Works, there is an economic return of $13.45.
College Possible takes a different approach to make college possible for low-income students through an intensive curriculum of coaching and support, grounded in four key pillars: near-peer coaching by AmeriCorps members; research-based curriculum encompassing topics such as finding a best-fit college, academic preparation, financial planning, and personal development; a peer support network among students; and commitment to college success. After high school, College Possible students receive coaching through the transition to college and are supported all the way through college graduation. Depending on the college they attend, students receive in-person coaching on campus or technology-based coaching, and coaches connect them to resources on campus. While 97% of College Possible students (nine out of 10 are first-generation college students) are admitted to college, rigorous research shows that College Possible students are 20% more likely to enroll in college and four times more likely to earn a degree compared to their peers. In 2016, College Possible launched a partnership model called Catalyze, to build the capacity of higher education institutions to support the success of low-income students.
Because getting to college is just a first step, some America Forward Coalition members focus on helping first-in-their-family college students persist in college by providing remediation, coaching, extra supports and services, and access to internships and employer connections. Such a shift in our mindset regarding higher education is critical if we are to reduce the number of students who are unable to complete their postsecondary education program, are saddled with historic amounts of debt, or graduate unprepared for the rigors of the global economy. Meeting these challenges requires new strategies to make postsecondary education more responsive to the needs of all.
For example, Single Stop uses state-of-the-art technology and a network of nonprofit network partners to connect college students to existing nonacademic resources through a unique one-stop shop. Students benefit from an office that assesses student needs, directs students to available resources, assists with application processes, and brings valuable services to campus, such as public benefits and free tax services. An evaluation of Single Stop shows that students who use the service are more successful in college than their peers who do not; they are also more likely to attempt more college credits, giving them a boost in completing their college programs.
Beyond 12 takes a different approach to helping low-income, first-generation, and historically under-represented students graduate from college. Through a longitudinal student tracking platform and a personalized student coaching service, Beyond 12 provides students with the academic and social-emotional support they need to succeed in higher education. By collecting and sharing longitudinal data that crosses K-12 and higher education, Beyond 12 also provides actionable feedback to high schools and programs about their college preparatory efforts, improves the retention work of colleges and universities by sharing data-driven insights gained from supporting students, and influences the national conversation about student success. Eighty-two percent of students coached by Beyond 12 who entered college in fall 2011 have persisted to their fourth year of college, compared to 59% of first-generation college students nationwide.
We also know that some young people don’t graduate from high school, or graduate but can’t find a job or a way to pursue further education or training. America Forward Coalition organizations provide these opportunity youth with support navigating and translating cultural cues and meeting the expectations of a workplace. Mentors and a strong peer group can help, as can work-based learning in bridge-building jobs that offer work experience coupled with training, coaching, and transition assistance, leading to success on the job and building a bridge to the next one.
For example, Year Up provides training and bridge-building work experience to enable opportunity youth to move from minimum wage jobs to meaningful careers in just one year. Year Up students spend six months in the classroom learning the skills employers are looking for, including technical, professional, and communication skills, and then engage in a paid internship with one of the 250 partner companies, applying their skills and gaining critical work experience, typically in technology-related positions. As a result, 90% of Year Up graduates are employed or enrolled in postsecondary education within four months of completing the program, and their earnings are 53% higher than those in a control group. Year Up has also invested in empowering others to serve opportunity youth by helping employers design and implement inclusive talent strategies. Year Up’s Grads of Life initiative encourages employers to hire opportunity youth through a national media campaign.By focusing on both young people and employers, Year Up helps bridge the opportunity divide. In addition, Year Up has launched a new initiative to create a lower-cost version of its model that can be delivered with and through other organizations who learn and implement it.
The experience of serving others, building leadership skills, and participating in program governance also provides important motivation and builds young peoples’ ability to succeed as adults. YouthBuild programs provide opportunity youth with the chance to achieve a GED or high school diploma while they acquire construction and other skills through service, such as building affordable housing in their neighborhoods. While YouthBuild has a dedicated funding stream at the federal Department of Labor, it also participates in AmeriCorps, which enables members to earn money for college. For many YouthBuild corps members, receiving the AmeriCorps education award enables them to purposely plan for postsecondary education, influences their new and lasting identity as service-givers rather than service-receivers, and positions them as community leaders. While all YouthBuild corps members are low-income young adults, many of whom left high school without a diploma and about a third of whom have been court-involved, they leave the program in a different place:
74% obtain their high school equivalency credentials, high school diplomas, and/or industry-recognized credentials.
54% go on to postsecondary education or jobs.
73% of those placed retain their placement for at least six months.
In addition, recidivism rates within one year of enrollment for all court-involved YouthBuild students averaged 11%, far below the national average of 44%.
The numerous systems that serve emerging adults point at different goals and connect to different state and federal agencies, leading to a disconnected, uncoordinated system. These include secondary and postsecondary education institutions; workforce development programs; and national service programs including YouthBuild and other youth corps, community-based organizations, and programs set up to serve special populations, such as youth transitioning out of foster care. Young adults are also affected by the juvenile and criminal justice systems, health care, and programs for young children and their families, which often include emerging adults in their role as parents.
Each of these systems provides elements critical to create the conditions for opportunity. However, the necessary elements are rarely assembled together, in adequate dose, with proper sequencing, and for a sufficient time period. We have invested heavily as a nation in some elements, and neglected others altogether. Any effort to change the circumstances of those now left out of the economic mainstream—and reverse the negative impact on our overall economy—demands that we rethink the way we invest public resources. We must learn from what works and apply that knowledge to enable students, youth, and adults from all backgrounds to succeed economically. The success of America Forward Coalition organizations working with emerging adults tells us that it is possible to achieve these goals and forge a pathway from poverty to economic prosperity.
12. CREATE THE FIRST-EVER INTEGRATED STRATEGY FOR EMERGING ADULTHOOD.
Link and coordinate systems that serve older youth and young adults to improve workforce and other outcomes.
No city, county, or state has a fully integrated strategy for emerging adulthood. Neither has the nation. An integrated strategy would connect the main systems that move students from school to career, or high school to college and then career, with the supports that young people need, especially those who need help their families can’t provide. Such a strategy would build on the federal Performance Partnerships initiative to set education, employment, and other goals; identify data sources to track progress; and allow for flexibility and innovation to improve results. Those communities that achieve successful results would receive greater flexibility and more funding. To aid in this effort (subject to appropriate privacy protections), the federal government should amend law and regulations, and access protocols to permit federal, state, and local workforce and education agencies, state and local workforce boards, nonprofit workforce development organizations, social enterprises, and certified postsecondary institutions to have access to the National Directory of New Hires, unemployment insurance wage records, and IRS wage data.
13. CONNECT SECONDARY EDUCATION TO POST-SECONDARY OPPORTUNITIES AND CAREERS.
When young people have a purpose in mind that animates their education, they are more likely to work hard and complete high school and make informed choices about postsecondary education. To make career counseling and postsecondary planning more equitable, we offer the following proposals:
Challenge communities to ensure that every high school student develops a well-informed, well-supported career plan and has informed, individualized college admissions counseling.Solve for inequities in access to information to enable all young people to set goals for their future and act on them effectively.Too often, responsibility for helping students plan for their futures rests with overstretched guidance counselors, leaving students who don’t have outside resources without the knowledge they need to make informed choices. School districts, schools, employers, and nonprofit partners should be challenged, and incentivized, to work together to provide students with career awareness, opportunities for enriching activities, service experiences, and internships, as well as individualized college admissions and financial aid counseling. Research shows that low-income and first-generation college students often make choices during the application and decision process that are unlikely to lead to the best outcomes, a result of disparities in access to reliable information and guidance. Students need help selecting appropriate higher education options that relate to their career goals, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), applying for scholarships, understanding financial aid packages, learning how to access and receive disability services, selecting a postsecondary institution, and accessing the additional supports that help prepare students mentally and emotionally for the postsecondary experience.
Make college and career information as easy to access as consumer information in other areas.Demystify postsecondary institution outcomes to enable students to make informed decisions about their futures.Many students and their families struggle to make informed decisions about where to attend college, often due to lack of information about how to pay for college and uncertainty about the institution’s track record of graduates moving onto successful careers. Today, information on costs, outcomes, supports, and accommodations at different institutions is not standardized, oftentimes not reported, or presented in a disjointed manner that makes comparisons across institutions difficult if not impossible. To address this challenge, higher education institutions participating in student aid programs should be required to provide clear, consistent, complete, and actionable information to students and families on postsecondary outcome disaggregated by race, ethnicity, financial aid status, major, financial aid offers, and available support services and accommodations.
14. RADICALLY INCREASE COLLEGE COMPLETION.
Although college completion rates are on the rise, they are still disturbingly low. Only three in 10 students at public colleges and universities will graduate in four years; the number increases to just six in 10 after six years. Black students, students who are low income, and students who are first in their family to attend college all graduate at even lower rates. Many will leave higher education without a degree but saddled with debt they can’t pay off. The following policy strategies can address this root cause of inequality:
Incentivize institutions to develop plans to increase completion rates, drawing on the expertise of students who face barriers to completion, including low-income students, students with disabilities, and students who are first in their family to attend college.
Too often, responsibility for helping students plan for their futures rests with overstretched guidance counselors, leaving students who don’t have outside resources without the knowledge they need to make informed choices.
Once they are enrolled in higher education, under-resourced students face a host of new challenges. Many students need practical supports, such as transportation or personal technology. For students with disabilities, access to accommodations can be an enormous issue upon entering higher education. Only 17% of young adults with learning disabilities receive accommodations and support in college, compared with 94% of students in high school. Other students may need more traditional academic supports to help them deal with the increased rigor of postsecondary coursework. Many students continue to struggle with feelings that they are out of place in college and do not have support systems to help them cope when experiencing academic and other challenges. One out of four of today’s higher education students is also raising children, half are financially independent, and two out of three work while they attend college. For the increasing number of “nontraditional” students—older students who are working, commuting, and caring for their own children, and who are rapidly becoming the norm—the difference between success and noncompletion may be access to basic needs such as affordable housing, food supports, and child care.
A competitive grant fund should support the planning and initial implementation of comprehensive college completion plans for individual or groups of higher education institutions in a community. All plans should be developed in conjunction with today’s students who can speak to the challenges they face as well as possible solutions. Plans should also include partnerships with evidence-based nonprofit providers to provide academic and nonacademic supports and services (or strengthen those already in place), and address practical barriers like affordable child care, transportation, food, and housing to ensure that all students—especially low-income students, students with disabilities, and first-generation college students—persist and complete their program of study for a degree or certificate. Nonprofit partners are a growing part of the postsecondary support system to provide under-resourced students with the holistic, continuous, and intensive supports needed to increase college completion. All too often, these effective providers cannot access public funding to take these effective approaches to scale. That should change.
In addition, higher education institutions should allow prior documentation of a disability—such as an individualized education program or a 504 plan—to serve as sufficient documentation for the purposes of qualifying for disability services.
Finally, a Pell Success Award premium should be paid to accredited and certified postsecondary providers that achieve specified retention, completion, and job outcomes among Pell-eligible students.
15. REDESIGN COLLEGE WORK-STUDY TO MAKE STUDENTS READY FOR THE CURRENT AND FUTURE WORLD OF WORK.
Direct a minimum of 50% of work-study grants to support service and other career-related work experience.
Increasing relevant, meaningful opportunities for students to explore and prepare for careers in their fields of interest will lead to improved completion rates and increased employment after graduation. Federal policy should encourage institutions of higher education to partner with nonprofits, community organizations, and businesses to provide informed career counseling and hands-on learning experiences that get students out of the classroom and enable them to apply what they are learning to real-world challenges, creating strong linkages between classroom knowledge and career-focused applications. Toward this end, at least 50% of work-study grants should support extramural internships; service-learning, career-related work experience; as well as service year opportunities for eligible students, including Pell recipients. These experiences will provide opportunities for students to strengthen their resumes, link learning to experience, enable students to gain college-level learning through their service, and provide human capital to help other students access and persist in higher education.
16. MAKE STUDENT AID MORE FLEXIBLE AND LIMIT STUDENT DEBT.
Provide grants to address financial emergencies for higher education students and enable graduates to reduce their debt by doing a service year or working in targeted fields.
Nearly half of today’s higher education students are supporting themselves and are struggling financially—and students from under-resourced groups remain far more likely than their peers to accrue substantial student loan debt or drop out prior to degree completion. Recently, North Carolina put in place Finish Line Grants to cover costs that might otherwise force community college students close to achieving a postsecondary credential to drop out. Grants like these should be broadly available. For example, financial aid packages should include “financial shock” grants, individual grants of $500-$1,000 that help support students experiencing financial setbacks (such as unanticipated medical expenses, transportation, child care, and unreliable employment schedules).
To reduce the burden of student loans, students should be able to reduce their debt across all federal loan programs by doing a service year or taking a high-need public service job. Students studying to earn credentials and degrees in essential fields predicted to experience worker shortages such as teaching, early childhood,
and nursing should receive free or reduced tuition, provided they agree to work in high-need communities after graduation.
17. REDESIGN THE WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT SYSTEM WITH THE GOAL OF ALIGNING EDUCATION AND TRAINING WITH CAREER PATHWAYS TO HIGH-GROWTH SECTORS.
Tie public funding to workforce outcomes.
All career and technical education programs, including those based at community colleges, should be aligned to local high-growth fields, including those in the public and nonprofit sectors. Programs should have access to the data that will enable them to report on a set of positive labor outcomes, including increases in salary/wages, job promotions, and new employment tied to training. Public funding should be tied to outcomes, with effective programs receiving the highest levels of support.
18. TAKE CIVILIAN NATIONAL SERVICE TO SCALE, INCLUDING PROGRAMS THAT SERVE AS “CIVIC APPRENTICESHIPS.”
Recognize the role that national service plays in workforce development, especially for the nonprofit sector, through increased funding and inclusion in “future of work” strategies.
National service has played an important but poorly understood role in developing America’s workforce in several ways: (1) providing “bridge building” work experience to youth and young adults that teach essential workplace skills (21st century skills) and build their professional networks; (2) providing a reliable employment pathway to the nonprofit sector and other specific career fields through “civic apprenticeships” that combine skill development with a motivating social purpose; and (3) building the capacity of programs that assist others in preparing for and finding employment. In addition to expanding existing national service programs such as YouthBuild and AmeriCorps, communities that develop plans to integrate national service into their workforce development and higher education strategies should receive extra funding to scale positions. National service should be recognized as a form of workforce development and considered as part of all “future of work” strategies.
19. STIMULATE THEDEVELOPMENT OF INNOVATIVE POST-SECONDARY MODELS.
Develop and recognize an alternative outcome-focused accreditation option.
To receive access to federal student aid, colleges and universities must be approved by accreditation agencies that tend to focus more on inputs than outcomes and are slow to promote innovation. An alternative accreditation model would encourage disruptive innovation in the higher education sector by granting access to federal student aid to new entrants in exchange for a focus on outcomes rather than inputs. An outcomes-focused system would encourage lower-cost models with stronger completion and career placement results, and grant short-term provisional accreditation that would be continued only if programs achieve specific outcomes, thus protecting critical taxpayer dollars.
20. LAUNCH A GRAND INNOVATION CHALLENGE TO HELP WORKERS SUCCEED WITH AUTOMATION.
Use a national prize to stimulate development of better ways to prepare workers for high-demand jobs.
Human skills—defined as leadership, growth mindset, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, teamwork, computational thinking, etc.—are skills that complement machines and position workers for the future workforce, but are also the skills that are least valued, tested, and designed for in our education system. Use a portion of existing workforce funding (1%) to build on progress already made in the field and accelerate change through a grand innovation challenge to raise awareness of the skills most valued by employers, and to catalyze an ecosystem and market for effective delivery of the human skills competencies to help workers succeed with machines.
21. TEST A GUARANTEE OF FIRST “JOBS” TO EMERGING ADULTS.
Provide supported opportunities to all young people in a community to reduce inequities in the employment marketplace.
A first job teaches workplace behaviors and skills, and develops the pride that comes with a paycheck, while time spent unemployed as a young adult leaves a “wage scar” that lasts into middle age. By marrying a call to action to private- and public-sector employers with growth in youth employment, opportunity youth, and national service programs, every young person (and people whose jobs have been eliminated) who steps forward could be offered a first (or next) job that develops their skills, resumes, and professional networks. To increase the odds of success, incorporate a career acceleration course that empowers young adults with the skills they need to succeed when they begin, provide mentoring and social services to see that every participant has the support they need to succeed, and offer tax credits to incentivize the participation of private-sector employers.
22. ACCELERATE INNOVATION AND RESULTS.
Expand Pay for Success strategies and innovation funds to increase college and career success.
A wide range of new approaches are emerging to support under-resourced students through the college application process, provide integrated supports post-enrollment, accelerate time-to-completion strategies, and form tangible connections with career opportunities. Many current practices at the federal, state, and institution levels would benefit from fresh approaches that incorporate recent innovations and best approaches to achieve better outcomes. Outcomes-based payment models and innovation fund approaches could simultaneously build evidence for an array of new strategies that actually move the needle on these challenges, accelerate the adoption of innovations, and scale supports and services proven to be effective, as could reforms in numerous federal aid, workforce development, and other education programs.
Through the work of results-oriented innovators, America Forward has learned the power of leveraging effective partnerships to create person-centered, flexible systems of support that are able to respond to the changing needs of under-resourced students. Our goal is to apply these lessons more broadly to the postsecondary education and workforce systems.Any effort to close the “skills gap” and change the circumstances of those now left out of the economic mainstream—as well as reverse the negative impact on our overall economy—demands that we rethink the way we invest public resources, and learn from and expand proven programs and practices that work to enable students, youth, and adults from all backgrounds and all regions to succeed economically.