Leveraging technology to enhance the interactions among students, teachers, and parents so that all students can succeed.
The New Idea
Elisabeth imagines a nation that helps children succeed by supporting them in all the places where they learn, particularly in their homes. Her idea is to create a home learning environment sector to break the cycle of educational deficits in disadvantaged families by engaging low-income parents as their children’s learning partners, connecting classroom learning with the home, and creating educational opportunities for the entire family. She co-founded Computers for Youth (CFY) to improve middle-school children’s home learning environment through computer-based education. Since 1999, CFY has provided a free home learning center (a refurbished computer equipped with award-winning educational software and tailored web content), training for parents and teachers in how to use the computer to strengthen children’s math and reading skills, Internet access, and technical support. In its first decade of operation, CFY served 15,000 high-poverty families in 45 schools in three U.S. cities.
Elisabeth’s idea and CFY’s work are based on three principles. First, all families want their children to succeed. Low-income parents value their children’s academic achievement just as much as high-income parents. Second, all families can play a role in their children’s success. The factor in the home that most strongly influences a child’s intellectual development is cognitive stimulation—not the education or income of the child’s parents, as is commonly assumed. Finally, all parents can be powerful contributors to their children’s education. Families can harness the power of technology to improve their children’s lives. When provided with a computer designed as a simple yet dynamic home learning center, children can become self-directed learners, avid readers and mathematicians, and informed community members. Parents are drawn in to what their children are learning and become true partners in the process.
Across the U.S. approximately 2 million low-income families have a middle-school-age child. Elisabeth recognized that these children spend most of their time at home, the place where they interact with the adults most interested in their success (their parents), and where they have perfect attendance. Based on the demonstrated impact of CFY, Elisabeth is moving forward to build a home learning environment sector—increasing the “supply” of organizations doing this work while also increasing “demand” for this work from governments, foundations, corporations, and individuals. Having developed and replicated a model that works, Elisabeth and CFY are now poised to institutionalize the home learning environment as the third leg of the nation’s education system.
As a nation, we have long recognized the importance of the home learning environment for very young children. Each year, private foundations and government invest millions of dollars to help improve the home learning environment of low-income families (e.g., by providing books and television programming). Yet as children proceed through school, our nation’s attention to the home learning environment dissipates. This drop-off is steepest just as children enter their pre-teen years and advance to middle school.
The middle school years put considerable strain on the relationships among students, parents, and teachers. Children begin to withdraw from academics and demand more autonomy. Parents begin reducing their involvement in their children’s learning because they view their children as more grown up and they feel less capable of helping with increasingly complex homework assignments. Research shows that low-income parents are less likely to monitor school assignments, know the names of their children’s teachers, or attend school functions. Many low-income parents who had negative experiences when they were in school may feel intimidated by their children’s questions about algebra or essay writing.
School systems spend less than two percent of their budgets on increasing parent involvement or improving the home learning environment for their students. Failure to invest in the home learning environment of middle-school children is a missed opportunity of under-appreciated significance. Parenting practices can account for as much as 25 percent of the achievement differences between higher- and lower-performing students. Across the country, there is a significant drop in test scores between the 5th and 6th grades, particularly in math. For example, in California, 6th grade is the year with both the largest drop in the percent of low-income students scoring at or above the proficiency level in math (from 49 percent in 5th grade to 27 percent in 6th) and the widest spread between low-income students and their wealthier peers (31 percent). A presidential panel examining the talent pipeline for today’s workplace recently stressed that many students are stumbling in middle school, missing many of the building blocks for algebra—the gateway to degrees and careers in science and technology.
Through a rigorous selection process, CFY chooses public middle schools in low-income communities and targets 6th grade—the first year of middle school—to intervene just as children’s disengagement from family and school begins. All sixth graders and their parents receive a free home learning center, which they are trained to use at CFY workshops before taking home. By the end of three years, almost all the families in the school have received the same training on how to use their home learning center to improve achievement in math, English, science, and social studies. This creates a “network effect” that harnesses the capacity of the entire school community to enhance learning. From their separate homes, students can work on projects together, share research, and exchange ideas. On their own or with their parents, students can play the interactive software games, such as engaging simulations, designed to help them in all their core subject areas. Teachers can assign homework that requires internet research or encourages the students to use the educational software package. The combined effect of school support, engaged parents, and all students getting the same types of computers and multi-media learning material, is powerful.
CFY’s workshops improve parents’ confidence by offering them strategies for learning activities at home and by modeling these behaviors. Research has shown that parental involvement at home impacts children’s education far more than typical school-driven parent activities (such as volunteering). In schools that draw fewer than 15 families to PTA meetings, each of CFY’s Saturday workshops draws more than 100. These are supplemented by additional training for families. The CFY home learning center is designed to support parents who may have little education: the software provides the subject-matter content so the parent can focus on providing the motivation. To build a strong home-school partnership, CFY works directly with principals to set school-wide goals and trains teachers to create powerful links to at-home learning. In 2006 CFY became an approved professional development vendor of the New York City Department of Education.
Since 1999 CFY has built a solid foundation from which to grow. It has improved the impact of its home learning centers by building relationships with top educational software companies, including Riverdeep and Scholastic. Each software program is tested by students before it is added to the curriculum. The most popular programs engage the students in simulations. The CFY model is low-cost and highly leveraged, making widespread adoption easy and likely. CFY’s cash outlay is $230 per family. For every dollar donated to CFY, a low-income family receives $3.30 of value. This is accomplished through public-private partnerships that secure in-kind donations of award-winning software and large quantities of hardware. Transforming a donated computer into a CFY home learning center costs approximately $90—an industry-leading figure. The computers are customized to eliminate features likely to cause breakdowns. CFY has received more than 18,000 computers to date from 300 donors, including Goldman Sachs, Time Warner, and Wells Fargo. It has grown its funding base from $10,000 to $5 million, and raised the growth capital required to support the launch phase of branch offices in five cities. CFY’s funding sources include private foundations, high-tech companies, financial firms, law firms, government, and more than 1,000 individuals. The plan is to have all branch offices funded locally by 2011. Earned income will support a new affiliate program.
Elisabeth has built a research department of such high regard that the Educational Testing Service sought them out as a partner. CFY publishes and presents its findings at leading education research conferences. CFY has shown significant results, including improved math scores and class effort. Ninety percent of participating parents say they feel more confident in helping their children learn. Elisabeth has also developed a strong team with expertise in education, community development, and technology, giving CFY a unique capacity to convert much of the time children spend at home into prime time learning.
A five-year expansion plan (2006 to 2010) successfully began with achieving 40 percent growth in New York City where CFY serves over 2,000 families. CFY also opened a branch office in Philadelphia and established the program at three schools in the first two years. They began laying the groundwork for local fundraising, obtained a state government grant, and formed an honorary board including the former governor, the CEO of the Philadelphia School District, and the CEO of Wireless Philadelphia. In 2007 CFY launched the program in Atlanta as part of a demonstration project led by their headquarters staff. BellSouth donated 275 computers, which they refurbished through a partnership with Tech Corps Georgia (which has merged into CFY). They teamed up with Tech Bridge, an Atlanta-based citizen sector organization that offers volunteers and in-kind assistance; gained significant media attention for the project; and began building a local board. By 2008, CFY was serving more than 4,000 families per year; had reached 45 schools since inception; and had opened an office in San Francisco, hiring a State Director charged with serving Los Angeles and the Bay Area. This expands the branch office footprint and allows CFY to tap the West Coast’s technology-friendly talent and excitement. CFY’s direct-service sites provide “laboratories” for ongoing testing and modification of the model.
Now Elisabeth is at a turning point, poised and ready to achieve systems change. CFY has launched an affiliate program to increase the supply of organizations serving the home learning needs of middle-school children in high-poverty families and grow a diverse national “movement” that will demand and shape home learning policy. The goal is to build a network of affiliates in all fifty states. To match staffing with strategy, the same CFY staff member is responsible for both the affiliate network and advocacy. Affiliates in every state will help engage their elected representatives in redefining existing federally funded home learning programs to include middle-school children and build federal support for the home learning environment sector. Currently, more than 90 percent of K through 12 tax dollars are focused on the classroom. Elisabeth plans to create a groundswell of demand to shift resources to the largely untapped capacity of the home learning environment to enhance the success of low-income children.
CFY is jumpstarting affiliate recruitment by partnering with existing networks of companies and organizations that refurbish old computers for the low-income market. The first affiliates are in Florida and Delaware (a public school district and a faith-based community organization). The system has three tiers: Tier I organizations pay a membership fee to purchase one or more CFY products and services. Tier II organizations buy more components of the program over a longer period. CFY will cull prospective affiliates from this cohort. Affiliates (Tier III) enter into a formal agreement with CFY to use the brand and the full complement of tools, training, and methodology.
Elisabeth grew up in a suburb of New York City. Her father was a psychiatrist, her mother a professional volunteer who served on the school board and was president of the League of Women Voters. Both parents taught Elisabeth to give back to the community. Elisabeth opted for athletics and music, areas in which success was based on merit. She started up and played in jazz bands, played and coached soccer, and used these avenues to define herself through performance.
When Elisabeth entered middle school in one of the best public school systems in the nation, she did poorly in math and began to question her ability. Today, she feels lucky: the exercises her math teacher gave her to complete at home with her mother helped her regain confidence, “own” her own learning, and get back on track. This “math rescue” turned out to be critical for her future. She became an engineer, earning four degrees from MIT. After college, she became a math teacher herself while a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ghana. She saw that math became easy for her students when they practiced and were unafraid. She also became interested in economics, wondering why one village thrived while another didn’t. She went back to MIT to study international development in the urban planning department and technology and policy. She then went to work at the World Bank (1994 to 1996) as a rural infrastructure specialist and traveled extensively in Africa.
While serving as a White House Fellow for Vice President Gore (1996 to 1997), Elisabeth built a program that placed federal agencies’ surplus computers in schools. She was excited about the potential of computers for engaging students in their learning, particularly in math. Yet she discovered that schools did not give students enough time on the machines to fully engage and increase their performance. It was then she became convinced that placing computers in the home, not the school, held the greatest potential for improving students’ achievement and enabling them to “own” their learning.
In 1999, Elisabeth joined forces with Dan Dolgin, a private investor who shared her belief in the power of technology and the importance of a strong home learning environment. Dan was searching for an entrepreneur who could make his idea a reality. Elisabeth was searching for a platform to execute her idea. Author David Bornstein describes Elisabeth as “the classic entrepreneur painstakingly focused on the details of implementation, even as she has a vision for deep social change.”
Elisabeth is the first to say that as new ways to access software emerge, the computer “box” will become irrelevant, but the computer was always only a means to an end: To transform the home learning environment so that low-income students and their families will gain the power to change their lives through the time-honored path of education.