How the Education Strategy Group Delivers Top-Notch Reports and Microsites on Workforce Development and Education

By George Lorenzo – Published July, 7 2021 in Workforce Monitor – Subscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

The Education Strategy Group is an education consulting firm founded in 2012. As noted on its website, ESG’s mission is to “help communities, states and, ultimately, the nation deliver a high-quality, coherent education and training system to enable economic mobility and prosperity.”

We talked with President and CEO Matt Gandal to better understand the dynamics of this modern, completely virtual company (pre-pandemic through today). ESG has a staff of about 25 professionals located across the country, effectively working remotely, yet together, to consistently publish informative reports and web pages on a wide variety of topics related to workforce development (WFD) and education.  

Wide Range of Staff Expertise & Experiences
“We believe that you should work where you live and live where you work, and we can connect to each other virtually,” Gandal says. “We have people who have worked in governor’s offices in different states, in higher education systems, in K-12 education agencies, and in foundations. So, based on their experiences, they bring knowledge right to the table of places doing good work. And then we put in honest hard work in terms of research as well.

“We do a fair amount of work with business roundtables and chambers who are active in education, as well as at the state level,” Gandal continues. “We’ve worked in over 30 states since we were founded. We spend a lot of time on state policies, and we’re extending the work now more into cities.” 

In short, the ESG keeps researching, writing, and publishing (we can relate). They consistently post new and updated content on their website’s resources section that features clear explanations of WFD/education efforts. 

Aligning High School and College Advising
ESG’s most recent undertaking is a well-designed, graphically pleasing, and detailed microsite with access to freely downloadable support documents, titled “Making the Connection: Aligning Advising to Improve Postsecondary Access and Success,” released on June 17, 2021. This project, made possible with financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was authored by Lauren Norton and Ryan Reyna with the help of a relatively large team of inside- and outside-ESG experts. Prior to joining ESG, Norton served as an Innovation Strategist at the District of Columbia Public Schools, and Reyna served as Director of the Office of Accountability and Data Management at the Delaware Department of Education.

This effort “makes the case for prioritizing alignment of advising across K-12 and higher education, offers a vision for achieving that alignment, and lays out concrete action steps and resources for the many stakeholders who have a role to play.” Those stakeholders include state and federal governments, K-12 districts and schools, higher education, non-profits and college-access organizations, and philanthropies.

Gandal explains how across the K-12 through higher education spectrum, educators spend their time developing high-quality educational pathways that lead to credentials of value for students to ultimately earn high wages in high-demand careers.  However, as ESG got deeper into the research on advising, evidence showed that students of color and low-income students were typically not the beneficiaries of those high-quality pathways.  “And when you start peeling back the onion as to why,” Gandal says, “it oftentimes comes back to the advice they’re getting or not getting in terms of the choices they’re making and the opportunities they’re given to enroll in courses and programs beginning in high school. And that trend then continues all the way through college. And when you ask people in education where we really need to make the biggest improvements, oftentimes counseling in high school comes up first. We need a better system for high school counselors.” 

In addition, an underlying problem is the misalignment between high school and higher education advisory systems, which should be intentionally connected to help students seamlessly progress into college. In most cases, however, the two systems “are not mutually reinforcing advising,” Gandal claims.

The Making the Connection microsite offers clearly defined steps in an advising-system-building process, from “Why Advising Matters” to “Take Action,”  and also features an eye-opening section with directories that highlight specific examples of institutions and agencies, labeled as “strategies in action,” who are making positive headway in the advising arena. The examples are listed by sub-topics ranging from advising structures and capacity, to college and career exploration, data use, and social capital. Links to outside initiatives and case studies that outline the substantive work being accomplished at places across the country is a helpful feature used in the vast majority of ESG’s work. “We do want to connect people to other places doing great work and always make that a bulwark of what we put forward,” Gandal says.   

Other ESG Initiatives
The ESG has six key focus areas, each with their own set of informative and expansive resources:

  1. Postsecondary Transition – The goal here is to align K-12 and postsecondary expectations to help students move into and through higher education. “Students of color and those from low-income families have been particularly harmed by weak handoffs between K-12 and higher education systems.” 
  2. Pathways to Work – Focus is on “high-quality opportunities like work-based learning, early postsecondary opportunities, and industry credential attainment embedded along the way.”
  3. Postsecondary Attainment Strategies – Works “to improve postsecondary attainment through the development of specific and ambitious goals, scaling of high-impact strategies for student retention and success, and the strengthening of direct connections between higher education and the workforce.”
  4. Credentials of Value – Identifies “high-value credentials and design strategies that increase the number of learners who complete them. This work is particularly important given the rapidly-changing labor market during the post-pandemic economic recovery.”
  5. Work-based Learning – Goal is “to build out work-based learning models and define quality for the continuum of work-based learning experiences, and provide the support to execute them.” 
  6. Adult Learners – Focus is on helping “adults to have access to timely and affordable credentials on their schedule with the holistic support to pursue education while balancing numerous other responsibilities such as work, family, and children.”

On the Near Horizon
Current research plans for the ESG involve a deep dive into “social capital,” or what’s also called “network capital,” which, according to Wikipedia, means “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively. It involves the effective functioning of social groups through interpersonal relationships, a shared sense of identity, a shared understanding, shared norms, shared values, trust, cooperation and reciprocity.”

Gandal says this is another missing ingredient within the misalignment between K-12 and higher education systems. Social or network capital mostly benefits well-to-do students who have ready-made, born-into access to important networks that can help them with career advancement through the support of their family’s connections and relationships. “But low-income students and students of color don’t have access to such relationships and the exposure that comes with those relationships,” Gandal explains. He adds that K-12 and higher education systems, in partnership with their communities, need to work together to understand what the door-openers are to those important social capital relationships and figure out how to provide that kind of capital directly to the students who otherwise wouldn’t get it? 

“There’s been some early creative work in how you would measure access to social capital,” Gandel says. “But no one has yet figured out how the system would expand access to it? What are the ingredients of that strategy? Who are the players that need to be part of it? So, I think it’s going to be cutting edge and not easy to figure out. But that’s what makes it exciting. So, that’s around the corner for us.”

For more on social capital, also see our summary of “5 Steps for Building & Strengthening Students’ Networks,” published in May by the Christensen Institute. 

Intermediaries Needed
Finally, Gandal notes that nothing can truly get accomplished if we rely only on “inside-the-systems” professionals to make things happen. Intermediary capacity and partners who are outside of government, and outside the K-12 and higher education systems, need to be brought in and utilized to support the work that needs to be completed at scale. He says that ESG emphasizes building intermediary capacity in the field to drive everything from the building of quality curricula, to establishing metrics and data analysis, to advising, etc., with the goal of finding the right organizations that can best deliver and partner within those systems. 

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