Want Kids to Get Jobs? Teach Them to Think: A K-12 Funding Strategy Gains Steam

These are interesting times in K-12 philanthropy. Even as big reform funders like Walton and Broad double down on charters, lots of other approaches to boosting student outcomes are gaining traction among ed funders.  

We’re watching all this very carefully, looking at which ideas are attracting the biggest piles of chips. Education nonprofits and school districts should also pay attention, because the sooner you see which way things are going, the sooner you can grab your place in line with key funders — that is, assuming your work is aligned with their priorities. 

One fast growing thread of funding we’ve written a lot about lately are the new investments being made in learning. Newer ed funders like Mark Zuckerberg, Laurene Powell Jobs, George Lucas, and the Sandler Foundation are keenly focused on the challenge of how to help students learn in better ways — ways that are tailored to who they are, and as importantly, that teach the creativity and critical problem solving skills they’ll need to succeed the 21st century labor market.  


Another trend we’re watching is the growing number of funders backing efforts that connect young people early to the worlds of work and careers. A few ideas inform this push. One is that too many young people, especially low-income kids of color, never get starts in the work world in empowering ways. The sooner kids make that connection, the better chance they’ll have in life. Second, employers complain ceaselessly about the huge mismatch between what students are learning at all school levels through college, and the skills they actually need to succeed on the job. Closing this skills mismatch strikes many funders as an easy way to expand opportunity. Third, the ability of a young person to access the world of work is where the rubber hits the road with social inequality, a topic of rising concern to funders. If you have relatives who are connected to work and career, it’s a lot easier to find a way in. If not, this world can seem very mysterious, with lots of closed doors. 

We’ve written about the growing number of funders who are keen to expand school-to-career pathways for disadvantaged young people. Some have an eye on ensuring the transition to work after college. Some are focusing earlier, at the K-12 level. Together, they are pulling various levers, including underwriting paid internships for low-income students, connecting young people with career mentors, and — a very popular strategy — backing partnerships that get schools and employers in a given region on the same page about educating tomorrow’s workforce. Corporate funders worried about STEM skills are all over this last approach, as we often report.  


But before you conclude that a new philanthropic plot is afoot to turn America’s schools into a factory for obedient workers with a fresh push for “tracking” just around the corner, consider this: Some of the same funders worried about the school-to-career transition are tackling the learning issues that increasingly preoccupy other funders. In many kinds of careers, you don’t get very far by simply taking orders. You need critical problem skills and creativity more than ever to succeed, especially given how fast the economy and technology is changing. 

The Barr Foundation is a good example of a funder putting these points together. It just unveiled a new direction for its education work, with the goal “to connect all students to success in and beyond high school.”

I previewed this new direction for Barr in an earlier article, noting that the foundation’s president, Jim Canales, had been deeply involved in such work at the Irvine Foundation. Irvine’s Linked Learning program aims not just to prepare students to graduate from high school ready for college, but also to acquire the “skills needed to thrive in the workplace.”

What does it mean, in practice, to prepare students both for college and for work? 

Well, as Barr sees it, this means “broadening the definition of student success to include competencies as well as mastery of academic subjects.” It also means backing the development of “new high school models and programs that are flexible and conducive to innovation, and that move away from an outdated, one-size-fits-all approach to secondary education.”

That all sounds cool, right? Barr is another funder that wants our schools to reinvent themselves—rather than teaching to the test until the bell sounds, they should be educating kids who can think for themselves and thrive in the real world. 

This is the same stuff we’re hearing from Lucas, Zuckerberg, Laurene Powell Jobs, the Nellie Mae Foundation (which Barr will be working with), and many other funders. 

Can we now call this a major movement? Looks like it.