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Startups tackle civil rights disparities in new ways

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Jun 22, 2016

This month, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights released its semi-annual report titled, 2013–14 Civil Rights Data Collection: A First Look. The report draws on the Civil Rights Data Collection survey, with data ranging from  student discipline rates, early learning access, teacher and staffing disparities, and gaps in access to advanced courses.

The data confirms what test scores already tell us: the education system is failing to function as society’s great equalizer.

Amidst the reams of distressing statistics, two figures stood out to me: first, according to the report, 27 percent of teachers are absent more than 10 school days per year for reasons unrelated to school activities. These teacher absences fall disproportionately to students at schools serving low-income minority populations. For example, Black students represent 15 percent of all students, but 21 percent of chronically absent students who attend schools where more than 50 percent of teachers were absent for more than 10 days. The second startling statistic was that 21 percent of high schools and approximately 850,000 high school students nationwide do not have access to any school guidance counselor. This pattern likewise falls disproportionately along racial lines: for example, Latino students are 1.4 times more likely than white students to attend a school with a law enforcement officer but not a school counselor (while Asian students are 1.3 times as likely and black students are 1.2 times as likely).

This data illuminates limited access to consistent learning and guidance in underserved communities. It also suggests that low-income minority students have disproportionately limited opportunities to forge supportive relationships with adults. This is troubling if we look at the crucial role that relationships can play in students’ success: for example, an America’s Promise survey published last year found that compared to young people who graduated on time, young people who left school without graduating were twice as likely to report that they reached out to “no one” for help and half as likely to have reached out to a teacher for help.

One way to address these gaps would be to scramble for funding to fill them with more of the same: hire more teachers and more guidance counselors. Teacher absenteeism and guidance counseling gaps, however, present a ripe opportunity for innovation. Lack of access to learning, and in this case, supportive relationships, reflect an enormous pocket of nonconsumption in education—a circumstance in which students’ alternative is nothing at all. Our research shows that across industries, these pockets offer a foothold for disruptive innovations to take root. And disruptions in how we deliver new teaching and counseling opportunities, in turn, stand to fundamentally alter how we organize access to student-adult relationships and school-community ties across the education system.

Education entrepreneurs appear increasingly clued into these opportunities. For example, Parachute Teachers, a Boston-based startup, brings community members into local schools as substitute teachers. Similarly, EnrichED in New Orleans strives to connect schools to people in the community to fill both substitute teaching and guest speaker slots with guest teachers and guest ambassadors. These models align supply of community-based adults with school-based human capital demand, which unlocks not just a larger pool of adults to fill substitute-teaching slots, but also allows students to connect with adults they otherwise might never meet. In other words, both of these companies are utilizing existing community resources not only to address teacher absence, but also to leverage these gaps in the market to build out new models to connect students to adults and experts in their communities.

Startups are also cropping up to address stark guidance counseling gaps. As my colleague Katrina Bushko has written before, schools are turning to innovative mentoring organizations, many of which use technology, to scale access to college guidance. For example, brEDcrumb matches college students and young professionals with current high school students for one-on-one virtual mentoring. These mentors guide their mentees through the college admissions process by lending step-by-step guidance and personal advice based on their own experiences and networks. Models like brEDcrumb not only stand to alleviate the guidance counseling predicament facing nearly a quarter of schools, but, like Parachute and EnrichEd, they can also diversify students’ networks by connecting them to adults beyond their school’s four walls.

By targeting teacher absenteeism and lack of guidance counseling head on, startups like these are aiming to provide opportunities for students that our traditional system can’t offer. Over the longer term, the question facing these companies will be whether they can generate viable business models that deliver new forms of human and social capital to schools and students. On the one hand, schools may not be willing to spend precious dollars on outside-of-school relationships. On the other hand, these efforts stand to tackle chronic gaps in access and quality that schools will need to address if they are going to drive equitable outcomes forward. Moreover, the fact that many of these tools leverage lower cost delivery models and are powered by technology platforms suggests that their approaches may prove easier to scale than traditional analog approaches. In turn, these new models may stand not only to address human capital gaps that perpetuate long standing inequality in our system—they may also offer a way forward for a system that connects students and adults in promising new ways.

Julia Freeland Fisher

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.