One year ago, we launched A-Street with the goal of investing in entrepreneurs and ideas capable of reimagining teaching and learning. We launched at a difficult moment for schools and families, as the full extent of COVID’s impact was not yet in focus but grounded in a spirited determination to find opportunities for breakthrough.
The 2022 NAEP scores now provide a stunning measure of this need and of what is at stake for American public education. Twenty years of progress have been erased in math and reading proficiency. Proficiency in math among Black students declined by 13 points, nearly three times the loss experienced by their White peers. Those for whom the stakes are highest and who could least afford to fall further behind did just that.
To the close observer, these latest facts are a sobering reminder of a simple truth well known and broadly accepted: too many schools have been ill-equipped to truly serve students well. This is not for lack of will, effort, or talent, but for the dearth of truly effective strategies and tools that work at scale. A-Street is built on the promise of finding solutions to this problem – tools that work harder for the educator, envelop the highest-quality content, radiate high-utility and real-time data, and bridge digital functionality into the classroom in the right ways. Doing so will require care and nuance. Doing so is about more than just helping classroom teachers – it is about restoring confidence in schools and their ability to truly meet students’ needs.
As we organize for action and source solutions, we find special resonance in the thinking of Professor Richard Elmore, Harvard’s late and respected professor of education. Professor Elmore teaches us that improving the effectiveness of teaching and learning requires a reconsideration of the essential relationship between student, teacher, and content. It is this relationship that A-Street seeks to fortify as we look for solutions that are coherent. Coherent tools build on the presence of a high-quality core curriculum and leverage technology as an enabler of, not a replacement for, excellent teaching. They are thoughtfully designed, rigorous, and connected holistically such that they create a central user experience for the teacher and the student – one journey that builds from minute to minute, day to day, and unit to unit.
As the new school year launches, as the COVID reality normalizes in classrooms, and as students prepare for life in the information economy, we see an opportunity to address the flaws of an aging system that too often explicitly excludes families and students of color, institutionalizes economic inequity into the education system, and belies America’s essential heterogeneity. With a portfolio beginning to take shape, this opportunity for renewal will anchor A-Street in the year to come, as several pronounced themes guide our investing:
What happens in American classrooms in the coming school years is certain to have long-term implications, not just on learning but on the social mobility we count on schools to enable. In partnership with families, educators, entrepreneurs, and aligned investors, we are here – one year into a journey we know has just begun – to do our part to unlock a generation of opportunity and progress.
Tom & Marc
For more than thirty years the Walton Family Foundation has invested in ideas and leadership to improve our nation’s education system. For the last eight of those years it has been my privilege and honor to lead these efforts, working side-by-side with courageous educators and entrepreneurs, determined organizers and advocates, and a board as generous as it is patient and focused.
Our collective endeavor has been to center the work on two simple ideals: that every student deserves a great education; and that every individual can accomplish the extraordinary when given the opportunity and resources. Over these years, we’ve made exciting progress and more than our share of mistakes. Such is the work of doing hard things worth doing.
This past year, we’ve been reminded of the importance of our work as never before. Parents, educators and more schools than we can count have responded to the COVID-19 disruption with creativity and moxy. But the pandemic has also laid bare what many of us have long known — that our public education system is barely hanging on, failing far too many of its families and teachers, and in need of transformation.
In a recent survey, 25% of classroom teachers said they plan to step away from the profession. Those who do return have their work cut out for them: reports of learning loss are staggering, compounding concerns about America’s global competitiveness, at a moment when we are reminded yet again of the importance of numeracy and literacy in achieving social and economic mobility. And as dramatically as the world has evolved outside the classroom over the last quarter century, inside the classroom the returning educator and student will find things much as they were when I started teaching in 1995.
So now has to be the moment. For big leaps forward in how students learn, and for what teaching and learning can look like. For lifting up the teaching profession by providing more coherent solutions that reorient teachers to their most sacred task: the human-centered work of facilitating community building and knowledge acquisition. Now has to be the moment to advance digital-forward tools that lean into the surging digital access, leveraging breakthroughs that can transform at long last the Industrial Age classroom and into the modern laboratory of learning. Most critically, now has to be the moment to advance equity.
To help catalyze and energize that moment, I am stepping down from my current role as K-12 Program Director at the Walton Family Foundation to launch A-Street, a $200+ million privately sponsored investment fund with a strategic focus on seeding and scaling innovative K- 12 student learning and achievement solutions for students, families, and schools. I am doing so because I believe this moment represents a historic inflection — one long in the making– for transformation. I will transition to support the foundation as a senior advisor on an ongoing basis.
Despite the significant progress made in the last two decades, daunting challenges remain in addressing educational disparities between rich and poor students and communities. Studies in recent years have documented the sharp decline in intergenerational mobility, with Black Americans being the least likely to match or exceed their parents’ economic prosperity. As the future of work shifts toward artificial intelligence, automation, and outsourcing to foreign countries, the financial security of, and accessibility to, America’s middle class has never been more in doubt. In this new world, opportunity and stability will belong to young people who can adapt, think critically, continue learning new skills, thrive in collaborative environments, and lead teams. We need breakthrough innovations in teaching, learning, and measurement to ensure that education can be a true engine of mobility for all students, especially those living in poverty.
To fuel that innovation, A-Street intends to invest in a mix of early-, growth- and late-stage ventures, with a current focus on digital-first instructional materials in curriculum and new paradigms for student assessment. Although A-Street plans to focus primarily on companies operating within the U.S. K-12 market, the Fund may also invest outside of the K-12 spectrum when potential breakthrough applications could benefit the primary and secondary school continuum.
Though we will operate with all the rigor and ambition of a traditional closed end investment fund with aspirations for market rate returns, it is intended for A-Street’s profits to revolve to A- Street or support charitable causes. And while the fund has been generously seeded by interested members of the Walton family, it will be held and operated independently of the Walton Family Foundation.
The road ahead for A-Street won’t always be straight and clear. But now has to be the moment for boldness, for focus, and for breakthrough.
To the entrepreneurs and the idea-makers: we look forward to supporting your vision. Now is the moment for your big thinking, new approaches, and finding common ground that advances progress.
To our fellow investors: we are eager to learn from you and work with you to solve hard problems that are bigger than any one of us.
To our critics: resistance alone will not fashion the more equitable schools we need. We welcome your scrutiny and invite you to bring your ideas for solutions to the problems we all see.
As A-Street navigates forward, we’ll stay centered on what’s at stake: a quality education for every student in America as a promise we must keep in order to unlock our collective promise.