Funders Seek K-12 Innovations; Status Quo Need Not Apply

Innovation refers to products and activities that break new ground or usher in new ideas and methods. In the field of K-12 education, there seems to be widespread agreement on the need for innovation, even if there is less consensus as to what constitutes innovation.

With the growing recognition that a high school diploma is no longer the guarantee of admission to the middle class that it once was, funders large and small are looking to educators, researchers, nonprofits, and advocacy organizations to come forward with new ideas that will, in the words of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, “do school differently.”

For funders such as Carnegie, “doing school differently” means introducing new practices, programs, and systems that not only improve student achievement, but increase college readiness and access; maximize learning opportunities for underserved populations; and leverage new research and technologies to improve education systems.

For supporting educational innovations, Carnegie, the Ford Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation are among the most prominent funders. Yet, while these foundations are united in their desire for innovative approaches that will transform K-12 education for the better, each takes a different approach to “innovation.”

Of the three funders, Carnegie is perhaps the most comprehensive. Its Pathways to Education Opportunity program supports a variety of cutting-edge education ideas through a series of subprograms. Forward-thinking educators and organizations with ways to “do school differently” should submit proposals under Carnegie’s New Designs subprogram. This initiative is looking for promising school models that combine inputs of technology, personnel, money, and other resources in new and different ways.

Be warned, however — while Carnegie values thinking “outside the box,” it’s important to do your homework as well. For the New Designs subprogram, this means boning up on the most promising practices in educational research and looking for ways to incorporate those into new school designs. Carnegie prefers programs with a strong research base.

For the Ford Foundation, meanwhile, doing school differently means taking a hard look at the structure of the school day and school year, and coming up with ways to maximize learning opportunities. Ford believes the current education status quo – with its 6-hour school day and 180-day school year – is not sufficient to prepare today’s young people for the demands of the modern economy. Considering that K-12 education in 21st century America continues to operate on a school year that was designed around the needs of a 19th century agricultural economy, this funder’s misgivings have some merit. For Ford, innovation means a longer school day that incorporates new and different learning opportunities, ranging from foreign language study to internships designed to prepare students for careers. Its More and Better Learning Time program reimagines a school day that starts at 7:30 a.m. with breakfast and extends until 6 p.m. In that day, there is instruction in the core subjects; foreign language; college and career preparation; and enrichment in the arts, athletics, and advanced academics.

MacArthur’s approach to educational innovation is more targeted and focuses on harnessing the power of the Digital Age to improve learning. For this funder, new technology has the potential to transform how young people learn, think, and interact. MacArthur's Digital Media and Learning program has funded research on young people and digital media, as well as programs to develop learning environments that make greater use of this technology.

These foundations are among the giants in the field of educational philanthropy, which means grantseekers should expect nothing less than fierce competition for grants. Interested organizations should introduce themselves to foundation staff and carefully review the funders’ guidelines before submitting proposals.

The process of securing funding is time-consuming and competitive, but for ideas and projects that are well thought-out and innovative, the efforts can be rewarding!