Insights Gained from an Equity-Centered Strategic Learning Initiative

From May 2020 to September 2021, Mathematica partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Catalyst:Ed, and nine K–12 education grantees to launch the Capacity Building for Strategic Learning initiative. The goal of the initiative was to provide grantees the learning support and tools needed to embed equity into their organizational goals, learning, and practices and enhance organizational strategy.

Mathematica and Catalyst:Ed worked closely with these educational nonprofit organizations to learn about the grantee experience, provide resources that matched their strategic learning needs, and generate evidence that could provide funders deep insights about why investing in capacity building matters.

Learn how grantees and funders can work together in new ways to advance educational opportunity, discover through grantees’ own words how the initiative empowered them, and explore resources that can inform your own strategic learning efforts.

Strategic Learning

The Case for Equity-Centered Strategic Learning

In this blog post, Mariana Preciado, senior program officer for K–12 Measurement, Learning and Evaluation at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, makes the case for why funders need to give grantees time and space to improve and how an equity-centered strategic learning approach is the clearest path to advancing educational equity.

How Capacity Building for Strategic Learning Empowers Grantees

In this video, grantees talk about how the initiative changed the ways they center equity into their respective organizations. They also share how participating provided space to convey their learning needs, learn from peer collaboration, and better understand why capacity building matters. The video features:

  • Nadya Chinoy-Dabby from Pivot Learning
  • Tami Hill-Washington from Turnaround for Children
  • Luke Kohlmoos from Instruction Partners

The Impact of the Initiative: Grantees Share Their Stories

"One of our core values as an organization is to be data-driven: to make strategic decisions based on data analysis and interpretation with the goal of increasing our impact and advancing knowledge. Given our mission and values, equity in data collection and interpretation is crucial.

EduDream helped us examine our knowledge-sharing practices to ensure equitable access to information and to continue to foreground equity in data collection and interpretation when seeking to improve our knowledge sharing over time.

Practically, this involved the key data equity principles of including stakeholders in the design and measurement process and ensuring equitable representation in stakeholder engagement efforts.

Not only are we better prepared to measure equity in our new network, but we have also begun examining existing survey instruments to continuously improve our equitable data practices and learning."

"Our work focuses on setting standards for social and emotional learning (SEL) programming; understanding and advancing implementation in states, districts, and schools; and conducting research linking SEL to student adjustment.

Our recent research-practice partnership with Kathryn Kennedy Consulting sought to learn how best to center equity in a redesign of our school-based SEL implementation survey. Although a longer version of the SEL implementation survey had been created years prior, the intent of our redesign was to make it more accessible, seek and capture diverse practitioners’ voices and perspectives, and explore how responses may differ based on various characteristics.

In late fall 2021, we will begin collecting survey data from teachers of pre-K to 12th grade all over the United States to understand more about high quality SEL implementation and how it is related to a host of equitable practices. Our partnership with Kathryn Kennedy Consulting and our bidirectional equity-centered model will inform the creation and refinement of future tools. Sharing these lessons with the larger field and making our processes and practices accessible to a wide, diverse audience will help move the field of equity-focused SEL forward."

"Our mission is to ensure that students of color and students from low-income households have equitable access to America’s most academically intense high school programs and succeed at the highest levels.

COVID-19 caused massive disruptions—both in the schools and districts where we partner and in our own organization. Like many, we embraced the early experience with the requisite “big pivot” language. And like others, we slowly learned that survival was a much more prescient focus. As part of our participation in the Capacity Building for Strategic Learning cohort, we built a pilot playbook with DesignEdEngagement. Our playbook was based on the idea that we wanted to incentivize and structure our own disruption—that is, to focus on racial equity, we needed to develop equity-centered strategic learning as an ongoing process of trial and error.

The playbook details a process for incubating, developing, selecting, funding, and implementing new ideas. Staff can use it to surface and pitch their own ideas, and it ensures we maintain a laser focus on the ways we must remain vigilant in the face of change. With this playbook, we are codifying our desire to be innovative and taking responsibility for our own evolution.

It is time for organizations, funders, and partners to take risks—perhaps to risk it all. We cannot tolerate more decades of intractable inequity, of one-step-forward, two-steps-back-progress. The only way we will change the education system and ensure that young people receive access to culturally relevant content is to fund and promote our own disruptive practices that change the way we function every day. We can’t change it all, but we can start with ourselves."

"Our mission is to work shoulder to shoulder with educators to support great teaching and accelerate student learning and to ensure equitable access to great instruction for students in poverty, students of color, students learning English, and students with disabilities. To do this, we help leaders understand what is happening inside of classrooms, make a practical plan for improvement, develop teacher and leader capacity to carry out the plan, and support follow-through.

When the pandemic upended most of our typical routines and processes with our partners, we used the opportunity to review which of our practices were helping us realize our aspirations and which practices needed to evolve. We shifted our attention toward more equity-focused data to better understand what the pursuit of equity means for our organization and engage our partners more deeply in conversations about inequity.

We can use information we already have—demographics; social-emotional data; family surveys; and work completion, attendance, and other academic data—to identify the student profiles that are likely to need the most support. But it’s what we do next that matters most. Equipped with this information, we can work to articulate the challenges those students face, uncover and acknowledge the assets they bring, and design solutions to best support them.

By adjusting what we do with the information we gather, we open more avenues for inclusive and dynamic problem solving. Over the next couple of years, we hope to have a more comprehensive understanding of what our role should be in the pursuit of a more just student experience."

"New Profit is a social venture philanthropy that provides unrestricted grants, paired with advisory support, to entrepreneurs and their senior teams.

Our Capacity Building for Strategic Learning initiative focused on building capacity for capturing and synthesizing data. As we have grown, our information systems have not kept pace and our ability to integrate multiple sources of information about our portfolio supports has been strained.

For New Profit, centering equity means asking ourselves daily how equity might surface in the processes we create, the information we collect, the conclusions we draw, and the actions we take, even when none of those efforts is about equity per se.

The Capacity Building for Strategic Learning initiative has enabled us to analyze our existing systems and plan for new information infrastructure that will meet our current and future needs. We’ve also examined where we needed to capture different information or to analyze existing information differently to ensure that our processes from pipeline development through investment, support, and exit were optimized for equity.

Not all of these capacities could be implemented within one brief engagement, but the effort to plan with intention and identify the range of opportunities to promote equity through information can pay dividends in the future."

"At Pivot Learning, we work with educators to provide a rigorous, relevant, and inclusive public education for all students by developing instructional coherence and improving teaching and learning. Together, these efforts ensure that educators in schools and districts have the skills, knowledge, support, and materials to deliver high-quality instruction to every student every day.

Our Capacity Building for Strategic Learning–funded work focused on refreshing our organizational theory of change (TOC) to develop a clear, digestible TOC with which we can also enhance our impact.

Our approach incorporated three features that were central to successfully developing this TOC:

  • We must bust our silos to work together. Our programmatic distinctions were not meaningful to our district partners, and they actively inhibited our ambitions for impact.
  • Defining our work requires openness to changing it. That meant creating opportunities for every staff member to provide input, explicitly reflecting on prior work with partners, and being open to being surprised by the priorities that emerged.
  • Digging deeper on educational justice is our #1 priority. Although educational justice has been a core Pivot value for years, our new TOC embeds that value throughout: our programs and projects are designed to fulfill the needs of historically underserved students and their educators, our outcomes explicitly incorporate educational justice, and we use specific language that communicates our vision for educational justice."

"Turnaround for Children translates the science of learning and development into tools, strategies, and services for educators so they can help all students reach their full potential as learners.

In early 2020, we as staff at Turnaround for Children were making our way through the complexity of what becoming anti-racist truly meant, both individually and collectively. Our initial efforts felt performative and had not been as impactful as we desired. We focused on recruiting, but not successfully retaining, BIPOC talent; brought in leading experts from the field to discuss equity with staff; and formed a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) committee without a clear focus or function.

And then the dual pandemic hit. In what I refer to as our “family business meeting,” the gloves came off and things got real. The pain, frustration, and trauma bestowed on us hit was especially hard for Black people and was a reminder of the world Black people discreetly navigate through daily living and working with the duality of what it means to be Black in America. We were surviving in a white supremacist culture that most of our white colleagues did not have to pay much attention to because, in reality, it is a world that is built by and designed for them.

Tami Hill-Washington

Tami Hill-Washington, Turnaround for Children

PHOTO BY: Brian Hatton

We prioritized creating shared definitions and language to use when discussing our equity work and rituals; creating a charter for our DEI committee, which had a clear intention and function; and exploring how our individual identities and experiences either promote or dismantle white-dominant norms.

As a result of the initiative, awareness among staff heightened, and they became more vocal, inquisitive, and unapologetic about questioning how we show up individually and as an organization leading with equity through our internal processes, policies, and structures.

In our strategic plan, we decided to make the implicit explicit and name that equity is the work and the through line to our organizational strategy. The Capacity Building for Strategic Learning initiative grant was instrumental in giving Turnaround the autonomy needed to center DEI in our strategic learning, build equitable practices, and increase the organization’s internal equity consciousness."


Visit this web page to learn more about the Capacity Building for Strategic Learning initiative and access resources that can help you facilitate your own strategic learning activities.