Relentless pursuit of an equitable world

The Optimist

Preparing American students for school next year

The strangest school year in memory is about to end. How do we get ready for the next one?


Many K-12 school districts are finishing classes this month and turning their attention to next year. What is the Gates Foundation doing to help them prepare?

We don’t know exactly what the fall will look like for schools. It will surely vary by location. Some districts will open schools with social distancing measures. Others may begin the year with remote learning or a hybrid approach. At the foundation, we’re focused on supporting states and districts as they make the decisions that are right for them. We’re working with partners like The Council of Chief State School Officers and other organizations to provide general guidance and tools for states and districts as they make critical decisions related to instruction, social and emotional supports, and administrative challenges such as scheduling with safeguards in place.

Beyond that, there are a few challenges we’re focused on in response to this new environment.

One is making sure students don’t fall too far behind before the next school year starts. Some estimates suggest that in the fall of 2020, students will return with roughly 70% of the learning gains relative to a typical school year, and only 50% in mathematics—which is nearly a full year behind what we’d see in normal conditions. To try to push back that trend, organizations we work with are adjusting their programming. For example, the Silicon Valley Education Foundation’s Elevate Math program is shifting from an in-person program to a virtual summer program.

We also know that digital learning will continue to be an important part of the education system—even after this year. So we’re investing in quality online curriculum and content providers such as Illustrative Mathematics and Zearn as they expand digital access to their content.

Finally, the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the inequities that had already existed within our education system. For instance, we know there are tens of thousands of students across the country who never logged in to remote learning sessions, many of them because they didn’t have access to the technology to do so. That’s an issue that needs to be addressed nationally, and we’re working with partners like Education Superhighway to support districts with their remote learning infrastructure and provide technical assistance.


A few weeks ago, Governor Cuomo announced that the foundation would be working with the State of the New York to “reimagine” education in the wake of the pandemic. Can you describe what that effort might look like?

Based on our long history of programmatic work in New York State, Governor Cuomo requested our recommendations for education experts to advise the state about how best to adapt their schools to a post-COVID-19 world. We also have our own insights to share from years of working with partners in the state, like New Visions for Public Schools and Teaching Matters. There is obviously intense demand for technology-based solutions and technical assistance right now, but we’ve learned over many years alongside our partners that technology is just one tool. To drive improvement in student outcomes, many pieces need to come together—everything from making sure schools are using a high-quality curriculum, to providing educators with the professional development and support they need to bring that curriculum to life for students, to how schools are supporting their students through key transitions on their learning journey.

Now more than ever, teachers are showing their resourcefulness, flexibility, and genuine devotion to students and families. We hope the work can build on those bright spots and ultimately drive improved and equitable outcomes for New York students.

How do you think college will be different as a result of this pandemic?

An immediate change might be that there are fewer colleges. The pandemic has unfortunately shaken the financial stability of many institutions, and some are facing the prospect of having to close.

What impact will this have on incoming and current college students? With fewer options available, it might mean that students—especially low-income students, rural students, and students of color in particular—may drop out or choose not to go at all. Early projections show that 20 percent or more of current and incoming students may forgo their studies in the fall.

That’s why advising support for students is so important right now. We’re building on work we’ve done with partners such as the College Advising Corps, AdmitHub and CommonApp to provide virtual advising support for first-generation students. They are innovating in real time, reaching more than 170,000 students through text and through other digital tools, and connecting them to an advisor if they need more information.

Beyond that, I think the pandemic is highlighting two important points: The need for colleges and universities to understand their students and the support they need, and the need to focus on quality digital learning.

While this time has been incredibly challenging for students, there are inspiring examples of colleges and universities whose investments in student supports and flexible online course options are putting them in a better position to meet students’ needs right now.

Georgia State University is one. They were able to convert 50,000 students this spring to entirely online instruction, and 98 percent of their students are signing on to their classes. Their emergency aid alert systems, developed over the past decade to proactively engage at-risk students and provide them with micro-grants to help them stay on track, allowed them to distribute 25,000 emergency aid grants in 24 hours using stimulus dollars. They’ve done the work to understand their students and their needs and how to be responsive, and what they are doing now is truly inspiring.

The second point, unsurprisingly, is the shift toward remote instruction accelerated by this pandemic. Quality digital learning has never been more important. We’ve been investing in this area for years and know that there is no “silver bullet” or platform, but there are key lessons about how digital learning can support quality teaching and learning.

We’re expanding our partnership with Every Learner Everywhere—a digital learning network—to provide support to faculty and administrators seeking high-impact digital learning practices and courseware construction. And we’re also working with partners like Digital Promise to identify the most urgent digital challenges and needs facing low-income and first-generation students and students of color right now.


Beyond education, how else is the foundation’s U.S. Program helping the country face the economic downturn and contribute to the recovery?

Our Economic Mobility and Opportunity program has been working with partners on new efforts sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated economic downturn. The strategy is focused on helping a wide range of actors, from mayors to county leaders to private funders, more effectively focus resources on the most vulnerable, including lower-income communities as well as those of color.

For example, last week our partners at Opportunity Insights launched a tool that shows, in real-time, how different geographies are being affected by the pandemic. It illustrates, for instance, where businesses and households are suffering the most dire consequences, and that information can inform local and state officials, as they develop strategies for recovery.

We‘re also working to improve access to various social safety net programs. For example, we’ve invested in organizations like Code for America, Benefits Data Trust, and mRelief. They are working with states to reduce processing times and increase uptake and adoption of essential benefits.

Our aim is to help ease the burden on the people disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

About the Interviewee

Allan Golston
Allan Golston, President of U.S. Programs at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, leads the foundation’s efforts to advance educational opportunity and student achievement in the United States.

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