2022 marked a confusing year in the world of education innovation. As a friend and school leader said to me a few months ago, “Innovation is dead, right?”
She was half joking while perfectly summing up something in the air last year in schools: a pandemic hangover mixed with ongoing, day-to-day challenges of running complex systems. Together, these made many “new” approaches to education feel too overwhelming to even entertain.
Lurking behind that, a surreal dynamic was unfolding across both K-12 and higher education: as emergency closures subsided, schools quickly regressed to their pre-pandemic approaches, despite new or worsening challenges at their doorstep. That re-entrenchment makes good sense given the resilience of traditional business models. Yet, it doesn’t match up with new realities like stark learning gaps, worsening mental health crises, significant enrollment declines, and a cooling job market. Business as usual is a rational response for a taxed and weary education system, but it’s also risky in light of all the ways the world has changed.
Given this tension, in the year ahead, I’ll be watching innovations that explicitly add new capacity and connections to the mix, at once expanding schools’ ability to innovate and also upping the relationships and resources available directly to students. Here are five on my radar:
1. Building relationships that power recovery
Arguably the top theme of this year in K-12 circles was learning recovery. I’ll be watching programs that are recruiting volunteers and staff beyond teachers to help students accelerate their learning. Significant ESSER investments are powering new tutoring programs. At the same time, the National Partnership for Student Success is calling for districts to enlist a broad array of supports, such as success coaches and mentors, to rally around students. Aligned with that vision, the Biden administration just made a major investment in the Americorps Volunteer Generation Fund. In sum, the next year will offer a powerful testbed for what it takes to build out a network of “people-powered supports” that supplement classroom teachers and school counselors.
This presents a huge learning opportunity for the field. The rightful focus on these interventions is moving the needle on learning—in particular, upping the pace of learning–for students who fell the furthest behind during the pandemic. But they also offer an opportunity to ask questions about the upsides of students having more relationships—with tutors, mentors, and coaches—at their disposal. What developmental assets are students gaining through these additional relationships? What’s motivating non-teacher adults to partake in coaching and tutoring? How are schools effectively brokering communication between teachers and other supportive adults? And which relationships tend to outlast interventions, remaining in students’ lives as part of their webs of support that can step in if new challenges arise?
Answers to questions like these could be critical to schools’ student support strategies long after the learning recovery agenda fades. They could shape how schools move beyond the one-teacher, one-classroom model (and one-counselor, hundreds-of-students model) that has dominated the last century.
2. Rebooting career services
Ironically, the notion of “learning recovery” was hardly a topic of conversation in higher education circles. That’s not surprising. Widespread, rigorous data on postsecondary students’ outcomes remain a pipedream of policy advocates.
But declining enrollment and looming doubts about the value of college are pushing some institutions to pay more attention to graduate outcomes. Core to that conversation is whether a college degree ultimately pays for itself, and for whom. Does going to college guarantee a good job? And is access to better jobs equitable across lines of race, class, and gender?
When it comes to securing jobs, many campuses leave students to their own devices. Most offer only a small, underfunded office ill-equipped to tackle opportunity gaps that underlie employment and wage gaps: career services. Average student-to-staff ratios are laughable, with an alarming 1 career services professional to 2,263 students, according to NACE.
This year I’ll continue to watch two different trends among schools overcoming the constraints of traditional career services. First, some colleges and universities are integrating “career services” more expansively across their entire enterprise. These initiatives often sit in the president’s cabinet, like work afoot at Colby College, Wake Forest, or Johns Hopkins, where leaders are putting significant resources behind ensuring all students have for-credit career preparation experiences, access to work-integrated learning and internships, high-touch mentoring, and deeper alumni access.
Promising as these holistic approaches are, they remain the exception rather than the rule, especially at lesser-resourced campuses. In light of that, the second career services trend I’m watching is the rise of more modest programs supplementing on-campus offerings, specifically geared towards expanding students’ networks and providing targeted, personalized guidance on everything from interview prep to industry norms.
These emerging models rely heavily on resources and networks beyond capacity-constrained campuses. For example, Social Capital Academy (SCA), founded by Cal State Fullerton (CSF) business professor and social capital scholar David Obstfeld, offers CSF students virtual, personalized coaching over the course of four Saturday morning sessions. SCA is powered by a cohort of volunteer professionals that Obstfeld has recruited from a variety of employers and colleagues. Another model, CareerSpring, founded by the former head of Houston’s Cristo Rey high school, Paul Posoli, offers an open network of virtual career advisors to first-generation students, as well as job placement services. While these efforts aren’t as comprehensive as college-wide initiatives, they’re poised to scale much faster. They’re also addressing the acute cost that network gaps can exact on first-generation college students’ chances of converting their hard-earned degrees into higher earnings post-graduation.
Together, these trends point to a future of career services that is more distributed and networked, either within or beyond campuses, rather than housed in small, centralized, and understaffed career offices.
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