About four and a half years ago, I got off a plane and checked voicemail on my cell phone to find a message from Fay Twersky, then Director of Impact Planning and Improvement at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (now Senior Fellow at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation). Fay had been talking with me about the potential for CEP to help bring the voices of intended beneficiaries – those whose lives a foundation and its grantees seek to touch – more to the fore. The gist of her message was, “let’s try it” – and her idea was to focus on education and student voice.
The concept, as it evolved, was to create a mechanism for schools, districts, charter management organizations, and funders to hear from high school students in a way that was rigorous, comparative, and authentic. We would use student surveys to heighten decision-makers’ understanding of what students thought was working – and what needed improvement.
CEP’s Board of Directors asked the tough questions – the right questions – about whether this made sense for CEP, but ultimately decided, unanimously, to take this project on as a “proof of concept” that beneficiary voice could really matter.
The argument for doing it was pretty simple, based on answers in the affirmative to these questions:
- If we believe that the voice of grantees, declined applicants, and other stakeholders – all the populations we at CEP had been surveying for funders over the years – matter, how about the people who should matter most of all?
- How about the people whose lives funders aim to improve?
- Do we think funders and grantees can learn from this perspective in ways that will lead to better, more effective strategies?
- Aren’t we then obliged to try this?
So we went out looking for someone to lead this effort and, after an exhaustive search, found Valerie Threlfall, who signed on for a role that was about as ambiguous as it gets. She would explore the landscape and see what was out there. If – and only if – we saw an opportunity to contribute, we would then pilot something in a small way. And then if – and only if – that worked, we would expand it.
Four years later, YouthTruth, a CEP initiative that also has its own very clear and separate identity, exists as the largest and most successful undertaking I am aware of to bring beneficiary voice front and center to both funders and grantees. Nearly 100,000 students from 215 schools in 28 districts and networks have been surveyed and, this year, YouthTruth has expanded from school-level feedback about topics such as academic rigor and school culture to teacher-level feedback as well. Through a partnership with The New Teacher Project, we are surveying an additional 60,000 students to gather their perspectives on hundreds of teachers.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided significant early funding. New grant funders are now signing on to support YouthTruth (more on this in a future post) and we are beginning to see districts paying for the survey as well as regional funders supporting districts’ participation.
What is most meaningful is that schools are making changes on the basis of what they are learning.
Valerie has made YouthTruth a reality, working with an excellent team of CEP staff (which currently includes Caredwen Foley, Whitney Ivie, Mike Nguyen, and Jen Vorse Wilka, and whose past members included Joe Lee and Rachel Niederman) and with the support of funders, advisors (an active advisory board played a crucial role, especially in the first year), and CEP board members. Many other CEP colleagues have also contributed in major ways, especially Kevin Bolduc, Ellie Buteau, Alyse d’Amico, and Paul Heggarty.
But YouthTruth is what it is because of Valerie. Now, after much careful consideration, she has elected to transition into a different, half-time role at CEP and YouthTruth following her maternity leave in mid-May.
As a result, we are actively searching for a new leader for YouthTruth as we enter a crucial next phase. Earlier this year, we embarked on a comprehensive sustainability planning effort for YouthTruth – outlining how we would reduce the per-school costs of the project and decrease its reliance on general philanthropic support. It is, therefore, a key moment in the project’s development and an exciting time for us to transition the leadership to someone who can build on Valerie’s amazing work and take the project to the next level. It’s a terrific opportunity.
If YouthTruth succeeds in the way I believe it can, it will have a transformative effect. It will bring students’ voices to school leaders and funders across the country in a credible way that will lead to better decisions, just as has happened at the schools where YouthTruth has already been implemented.
I believe, and research increasingly shows, that there is a link between student perceptions and student outcomes. Really, how could there not be? Yet it’s amazing how often the talk of education reform occurs in rooms of adults, without any real data about students’ experiences from their perspective.
YouthTruth can change that.
If it does, it will be because of the people who are working on it in the future. But it will also be because of Fay Twersky’s initial vision (and ongoing support – she continues as an advisor to the project still) and Valerie Threlfall’s leadership in making it a reality, without which YouthTruth would not exist today.
What Val has accomplished is a testament to her leadership ability, her management skill, her powers of persuasion, her passion and commitment, and her incredibly hard work. I am grateful for all she has done.
Phil Buchanan is President of CEP.