ESG Turns Ten: A Look Back and a Look Ahead

Tuesday, November 1, 2022
Matt Gandal
President & CEO

This fall marked an important personal and professional milestone: a full decade since I founded Education Strategy Group. 

Even though I knew that the world would look different ten years in the future, the landscape we find ourselves navigating in 2022 is more dramatically changed than I ever could have imagined back in 2012. I never would have predicted the upheaval and disruption that a global pandemic would cause; nor the intensity and polarity of the U.S. political landscape; nor that, despite our best efforts, individuals of color and those from low-income backgrounds are being left further behind. Last week’s NAEP results illustrated the profound impact that the past few disrupted years have had on students across the board, including drops in mathematics and reading achievement and the widening of gaps between racial groups. 

It feels in many ways as though the challenges we face have never been greater. But through it all, the principle that drove me to establish ESG ten years ago remains steadfastly at the core of all our efforts: to build a stronger and more equitable society by expanding economic mobility through educational attainment. Today, I believe more firmly than ever that a commitment to that principle is what our country needs if we want to realize the full potential of every individual and preserve our democracy. 

I’m incredibly proud of what ESG and our partners have achieved in the past ten years, and I think we have learned some invaluable lessons that should guide and inform our efforts moving forward. As we mark the ten-year milestone, I felt inspired to look back on the road that brought us to this point and to reflect on what that journey might mean for the next decade. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way, each of which holds importance as we navigate the waters of 2022 and beyond. 

Building stronger links between education and the economy has never been more important. 

At the heart of all of the work we do and have done at ESG is a deep belief that the way to expand economic mobility and build a more equitable, prosperous society is through educational attainment. This belief drove our early work to bring career pathways to the fore, including leading the New Skills For Youth initiative alongside CCSSO and Advance CTE, and more recently the New Skills Ready Network. We helped establish career exploration and preparation as necessary for all students, not just those in CTE programs. And we challenged states and districts to rethink the traditional measures of performance in our high schools, moving from an over-reliance on assessments and graduation rates to a new set of Momentum Metrics that value pathways to and through higher education into careers. 

In higher education, we helped states establish attainment goals, working alongside organizations like SHEEO, to drive up the numbers of their citizens with postsecondary credentials of value and close gaps across different groups of learners. We learned a great deal about which strategies were moving the needle, and how best to close equity gaps, and created academies to allow states and institutions to learn from each other. We also focused more deeply on adult learners, a population whose numbers are increasing at colleges but who were not always set up for success. 

Coming out of the pandemic and into another election cycle, the health of the economy is a top issue for voters and political leaders alike—and it will likely remain that way for some time. Our ability to connect the dots between the education strategies we believe are most critical and the economic health of communities will be essential. This is true for all populations in all states and communities; and it’s especially true for traditionally underserved populations who rely on our education systems to level the playing field and expand opportunity and mobility. It’s also time we acknowledge that “underserved populations” are found in both urban and rural settings; we need strategies for supporting learners in both. Perhaps this is one way our education systems can help address the political polarization in this country.

This work requires both urgency and empathy. 

When I founded ESG in 2012, I was newly off a stint in the Obama Administration’s Department of Education, during which significant extra resources had been dedicated to education reform via a federal stimulus package. We incentivized bold ideas through grant programs like Race to the Top and I3, and the pick-up rate was significant. Yet that work taught me that it is much easier to pass policies than to implement them. The implementation and capacity challenges across the field, even despite significant available financial resources, stood out to me as an area of significant need and opportunity. 

Today, education leaders once again have significant federal resources at their disposal, but they are also facing dire capacity challenges. Educators and leaders at both the K-12 and college levels are exhausted from more than two years of pandemic-related curveballs. 

At the same time, students are in serious need of support to make up for multiple years of interrupted education. This year’s NAEP data quantifies the huge impact that the pandemic has had on kids’ learning. Not only were there major drops in achievement across the board, but the data also show a growing gap between the lowest and highest performing students, and reverses what had been long-term trends of narrowing achievement gaps. And fewer students are continuing onto higher education, even though the data show clearly that the high school diploma doesn’t open the door to good jobs. Enrollment drops, both in first-year enrollees and overall, are persisting more than two years into this crisis, and that means dangerous things for our economy and for individuals’ economic mobility.  

To address these challenges, we must bring both urgency and empathy to our work. We cannot let our foot off the gas when it comes to making meaningful improvements in student success, but we must also acknowledge that capacity challenges are real. Leaders will need cover and support to drive change. Much like I experienced a dozen years ago in working with leading states and communities to rebound from a crisis, some will be prepared to move more aggressively. We should work with those leaders to advance innovative ideas, while encouraging others to move as well. Mandates won’t work as well as incentives. And we must think creatively about sources of capacity, which will need to come from both within and outside of the formal education system. 

Education should be a uniter, not a divider.

This one is hard, but I believe in it. We live in polarized times, yet within education there are issues and ideas that resonate across the country and the political aisle. Education to career pathways is one. I’ve seen leaders of every stripe coalesce around this agenda, leading to significant progress. Red and blue states and urban, suburban, and rural communities are all working to advance meaningful pathways from K-12 to and through postsecondary and into good jobs because it’s responsive to the needs of their citizens and their economies. 

Moving forward, I’m hopeful that we can continue advancing this work in a bipartisan or even non-partisan way. The power of high-quality pathways is that they are responsive to state and local economic conditions, while helping to build a stronger education to workforce pipeline nationwide. How refreshing that governors in California and Florida, and mayors in Dallas and Detroit are pursuing similar work, with the opportunity to learn from one another. 

I’m under no illusions here. Public schools and colleges are public institutions, and they will always be influenced by politics. But we have an opportunity—and I would say an obligation—to keep an agenda so important to our future out of the political crosshairs. We’ve all seen highly impactful reforms in education that seemingly had broad support become politicized and lose momentum. I sincerely hope we can learn from those experiences and keep this important work of building stronger pathways from education to the workforce above the fray.  

After a decade of hard work, it can be hard to feel a true sense of satisfaction when there are still so many daunting challenges we need to address. Yet looking back and looking forward, I’m feeling energized and hopeful. As a country, we’ve shown the resolve to weather once-in-a-century economic and public health disasters. And we’ve come out the other side re-committed to improving the vitality of our communities, and the individuals and institutions that make them unique. The team here at ESG is prepared to keep leaning into this work and we take heart in knowing that there are so many other organizations and leaders across this country—the partners who have helped us have meaningful impact over the past decade—ready to do the same.