What We’ve Learned from our Focus on Excellence and Equity in Education Innovation

May 3, 2022

By Frances Messano, President

Over the past seven years, NewSchools has been intentional about centering racial equity and investing in leaders of color. Along the way, we’ve heard rumblings that some white leaders believe they shouldn’t apply for funding because their chances of receiving a grant are lower. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here at NewSchools, we believe that to spur excellence and innovation in education, we need to fund the best ideas from everyone. Supporting a diverse set of innovators is key to this goal. Through our sustained commitment to advancing excellence and equity, we have demonstrated that there is enough room and resources for everyone, that equity can unlock excellence, and that we need to build a broader coalition for change. It’s time for a new conversation, and I hope that by sharing what we’ve learned, we can help shift the dialogue and create a new path forward. 

There’s enough for everyone

Our experience has taught us that more can mean more for everyone. In 2014, the last year of our previous strategy, NewSchools funded a total of 31 white leaders. Last year, we funded a total of 42 white leaders. In addition, we supported 98 leaders of color, up from 7 in 2014. Our total investments and average grant sizes also went up. In 2021, we provided $33 million in funding, increasing our investment spend by 4.7 times, and our average grant sizes increased by 45% since 2014. All leaders, regardless of their background, have received more funding from NewSchools at higher levels.

While expanding access to capital for leaders of color, we were able to fund more white leaders at higher amounts. Our focus on equity and excellence has created new possibilities. We have raised more money, supported more leaders, and cut bigger checks. Our experience reminds us to embrace an abundance rather than scarcity mindset. We all benefit when we expand access to those who have been overlooked or left behind.

Equity can drive excellence 

In 2015, we made diversity a key part of our investment strategy, both as a standalone investment area and as a cross-cutting priority. Prior to this shift, Black and Latino leaders only represented 18% of the NewSchools portfolio, but 90% of the students served by the schools and solutions we funded identified that way. Since that time, we have invested in 495 schools and organizations, 64% of which are led by leaders of colors. When we launched this focus, we got many questions about whether we could prioritize diversity and quality, in terms of innovation and results. The underlying assumption was that diversity and quality were somehow at odds with each other. We reject this premise. Research has demonstrated that increasing diversity improves student outcomes, spurs innovation, and strengthens organizations.

We have seen these positive results play out in our portfolio as well. For example, across the NewSchools portfolio, students who attend schools with at least one founder of color outpace other students in meeting or exceeding their math growth goals (64% versus 56%). This is just one of the many data points that shows that diversity can increase quality, that equity can unlock excellence. Schools committed to excellence leverage diversity to drive better student outcomes. We will continue studying these trends over time and adding to the research base. 

We need a broader coalition for change

NewSchools is committed to growing our multi-racial community of innovators focused on ensuring that all children have the best chance in life. Our continued focus on diverse leadership is key to this goal. As we prepare to make a new round of investments this year, we will maintain our focus on excellence and equity in both the leaders and ideas we fund.  

The only way that we will solve the pressing challenges facing education today is by building a bigger tent and a broader coalition – one that is multi-racial, multi-generational, and bi-partisan. We don’t need more frustration or more divisiveness. We need bold leaders working together to ensure students get what they need most right now: Schools and solutions that accelerate student learning, provide social-emotional and mental health support, and put equity at the center. The only way we will get there is together.

I challenge us all to imagine the possibilities for our schools and communities if we spent less time on the zero-sum thinking that has stalled our collective efforts for decades. Imagine what we could accomplish if we put our differences aside and worked towards a shared vision for change. A focus on excellence and equity can improve outcomes for students, educators and innovators. Now that we know better, let’s do better.