Rethinking What Constitutes Impact

Phil Buchanan, Sonya Kendall Heisters, and Jen Vorse Wilka

Foundations and individual donors need to reconceive impact in a way that puts hearing firsthand the experiences of those they seek to help front and center.

If any area illustrates this point, it is education. After all, listening to students should not be a radical idea — especially now, with more young people enduring depression, stress, and anxiety.

But it certainly felt like a radical idea back in 2008, when Fay Twersky (then of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and now president of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation), Valerie Threlfall (now president of Ekouté consulting), and one of us (CEP President Phil Buchanan) were seeking support for the idea of YouthTruth, a national student survey designed to provide actionable feedback to school and district leaders. Critic after critic, including many at foundations from which we were seeking support, pushed back on the very idea that a mechanism to listen to the candid perspectives of young people was valuable.

While some funders did step up with significant support, the challenge more often than not was for us to prove that student perceptions were linked to some objective measure of “impact” or student “outcomes,” which at that time usually meant test scores. One foundation leader we pitched said that he thought student perceptions were “orthogonal” to impact, which caused Phil to surreptitiously look up the word on his phone and then recognize the meeting was not going well.

To that leader’s credit, he and the foundation he led ultimately became supporters of YouthTruth. But his initial resistance typified a perspective that still today remains too prevalent across areas of philanthropic work: a perspective that denies the voice and even the legitimacy of the very people we should care about the most — the people we seek to help.

Yes, it is true that research has now shown a relationship between student perceptions and test scores. That’s fine and good and important to understand. But we believe that how students are experiencing their schools, peers, and teachers isn’t just some lesser measure — a mere “leading indicator” of some “ultimate outcome” deemed more important. It is, instead, its own kind of vital impact. If ever that was clear it is now, in the midst of a global pandemic and the significant upheaval it has caused for so many students.

In a survey we conducted last fall and early winter of 62,996 secondary and 22,174 upper elementary students, we found a huge numbers of students — nearly half — reporting feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious as a barrier to their learning. The numbers are significantly higher for girls and for those who identify as non-binary.

Amazingly, students’ perceptions of how much they are learning have nonetheless rebounded to pre-COVID levels, even for those who are in all-remote or hybrid formats. This is a testament to the heroism, creativity, and commitment of both teachers and students to overcoming barriers. Depressingly, if not surprisingly, we found those barriers are especially numerous for Black, Latino, and Indigenous students.

But while we can celebrate the resilience of both teachers and young people amid great challenge, we must also focus on the emotional toll the pandemic has taken on them. The challenge of distance learning, judging by our survey results, has been not just about the academic learning but also about the social and emotional (as well as logistical) elements of life. Nearly half of students in remote learning environments say they’re not getting enough time to interact with their friends. And while students report teachers are available for academic help, less than half say “there is an adult from school who would be willing to help me with a personal problem.”

As teachers get vaccinated and schools that have been all remote or hybrid welcome students back to campus full time, it’s crucial to keep these issues of emotional well-being front and center, and to continue to listen to those whose perspectives matter most. This is impact too! Education funders, which have too often operated as if education could be boiled down to numbers derived from inevitably flawed (not to mention gamed) tests, should better recognize the multidimensional impacts of schools.

While this is accepted wisdom among many education practitioners, donors and foundations too often continue to define impact too narrowly — often seeking to reduce it to a single number in their search for some elusive analog to ROI (return on investment).

Look, we’re not arguing against seeking to assess learning progress through tests. Testing has its place and can provide helpful baseline information. What we’re suggesting is that it should not be the only metric or put on a pedestal as the be-all and end-all.

We are arguing for a more nuanced and more thoughtful approach to how we assess — in education and in philanthropy. There are hopeful signs of shifts in how donors and foundations are thinking about these issues — for example in the efforts of the funders that are a part of the Fund for Shared Insight. But we have a long way to go.

Now, a moment when we all can recognize the emotional toll of the pandemic, would be a good time to finally give perceptual data about peoples’ lived experiences the reverence and care it deserves.

Phil Buchanan is president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) and co-founder of YouthTruth. Sonya Kendall Heisters is deputy director of YouthTruth. Jen Vorse Wilka is executive director of YouthTruth. Follow YouthTruth on Twitter at @Youth_Truth.

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