Can Market Value Assets Better Prepare Students for College and Career?

Dan Tesfay and Osvaldo Avila

Through its Real World Learning initiative in the Kansas City metropolitan area, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is working to ensure that all students in participating districts graduate from high school with a diploma and at least one market value asset (or MVA).

MVAs are designed to prepare students for further education and employment. They can include such activities as completing an internship or employer-sponsored project, earning an industry-recognized credential, engaging in an entrepreneurial experience, or earning college credits. MDRC is the learning and evaluation partner on this project.

In this episode, Leigh Parise talks with Dan Tesfay, senior program officer at the Kauffman Foundation, and Osvaldo Avila, research associate in MDRC's K-12 education policy area. They discuss what it takes to create partnerships between school districts and industries to develop MVAs and what they hope to learn from MDRC’s evaluation work.

Leigh Parise: Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? Welcome to Evidence First, a podcast from MDRC that explores the best evidence available on what works to improve the lives of people with low incomes. I'm your host, Leigh Parise. Career and technical education aims to connect what students are doing in school more directly to work and ongoing education after they graduate high school. Through its Real World Learning initiative in the Kansas City metropolitan area, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is working to ensure all students in participating districts graduate from high school with a diploma and at least one market value asset (or MVA).

An MVA is designed to prepare students for further education and employment and can include activities such as completing an internship or employer-sponsored project, earning an industry-recognized credential, engaging in an entrepreneurial experience, or earning college credits. MDRC is the learning and evaluation partner on this project.

Joining me today is Dan Tesfay, senior program officer at the Kauffman Foundation, and Osvaldo Avila, research associate in MDRC's K-12 policy area. We discuss what it takes to create partnerships between school districts and industries and what we hope to learn from the evaluation work. All right, welcome, and thank you for joining me, Osvaldo and Dan.

Dan Tesfay: Thanks for having us.

Osvaldo Avila: Yes. Thank you, Leigh.

Leigh Parise: All right. Dan, let's get started with you. It would be great just for you to give us a little bit of the big picture background. So tell us about the Real World Learning initiative. What would you say are the ultimate goals of the initiative?

Dan Tesfay: I think I'd start by sharing that Real World Learning is based on the idea that experience is a great teacher. I think we all know this intuitively. I think we know this when we see a baby walk into a new environment and their eyes light up, and there's that sense of fear and shock for a minute, and then they start to engage more deeply. We know this in our professional work, ourselves, when we're tackling big challenges that are open-ended and sometimes nebulous. It pushes us, and through that process we become more confident. We build social capital. We also have a chance to think deeply about whether the work we're doing is something we want to do more of, or something we would like to do less of. I think it's a great teacher.

We also know that when things get hard and we're looking to, let's say, grow our teams, that we use experience as currency. We look for those who are experienced to help us in the work that we're pursuing. And so Real World Learning’s based on that idea. If we know that, we know it's important to us, we know it's important to our children, our communities. Is that something that also helps to counter that age-old question that high school students ask us? Which is, “What is the point of this?”

And that's the softer answer to “What is Real World Learning? What's the case for Real World Learning?” When we think about a tangible goal, Kansas City–area school districts have really adopted common language and a community framework for thinking about these types of experiences. That has shown up in 31 school districts agreeing to participate and all really focused on this idea of market value assets that you mentioned in the intro. For us, those market value assets include work experiences, which are internships and what we call client connected projects. Also, industry-recognized credentials. And over time, we hope to align those more closely to our local labor market here to make sure that they actually function as currency. Entrepreneurial experiences, which are really, really important to the foundation, given its history in catalyzing entrepreneurship research and understanding and ecosystems across the country. And then the last one is college credit, recognizing that there's still value in college credit. So this is not a no-college strategy; I think sometimes these things are pitched as a dichotomy and that's certainly not our intent. Within that, there's agreement about the kind of workforce as we think about those market value assets, the criteria.

Everyone is working furiously to ensure that every student in the Kansas City area graduates with one or more of these assets by 2030. Part of the work with MDRC is also helping not just on the learning, but just the very basic measurement, as we step into this completely new realm where our systems aren't set up for this. We've learned a tremendous amount along the way.

Leigh Parise: I really appreciate the way that you describe that. You didn't get immediately into the weeds. You just describe it in ways that I think people will really be able to relate to—like, when you think about your own experiences, and the ways that you've learned, and how these are opportunities to help students gain confidence and social capital and have opportunities for critical thinking and reflection. I think that's huge.

You said something that I have to pick up on: Thirty-one school districts are using common language and a common framework. I would love to hear you talk a little bit about how you got that to happen because I am certain that that was not a minor undertaking. It'd be really interesting for people listening to get to hear a little bit about what it looked like to actually get everybody on the same page and moving in the same direction.

Dan Tesfay: Yeah. I'll start by saying I can take almost no credit for that. I think that this is the culmination of at least 10, maybe [more] years of work in the realm of Real World Learning. I have to certainly acknowledge that there was a lot of this work already happening. And in some ways, market value assets were just an attempt to make sense of the coolest stuff happening in Kansas City, to make it in a package that people could understand, and then to ensure that there is equitable access and completion across the region.

So we have two sites for CAPS—the Center for Advanced Professional Studies. I have to give a shout-out to PREP-KC, the local nonprofit that actually pioneered the market value asset language. They graciously agreed to allow the foundation to work with that framework to bring it to more school districts. There were employer-sponsored Real World Learning programs, Spinning Up—[I’m] thinking of Entrepreneurship KC, thinking of BrandLab, thinking of in-house skills and credentialing efforts like SNAP-IT.

And then, of course, we had a lot of activity in the summer internship space, and that has also grown and [been] sustained through the work with Pro X, which is a relatively new—but, I would argue, just a continuation of what was already going on—attempt to really streamline those efforts across the community. There was a rich understanding of the value of these kinds of experiences, and there were bits and pieces, and the question is, How do you bring it together and create a movement from it?

And so I'll start with what I know, because I've been involved in this work for about five years. My colleague Donna McDaniel was here at the foundation as an educator in residence. She had been really carrying this charge for many, many years and started to meet with a few local superintendents over breakfast, and said, “What do you think about creating a network around this? What do you think about a common language?” They'd already done some work around portraits of a graduate, so some of the school districts were already thinking about the skills and experiences and competencies, and how they could really innovate and get approval for that through their boards and leadership teams.

The superintendents loved it. It was kind of a funny organic thing where Donna meeting with a couple of superintendents became 6 or 7, became 10 or 12—and then all of a sudden, the first cohort, we had 15 school districts who said, “We like this and we want to make this change.” And I think we [offer] support in a number of ways at this point that have helped to sustain that effort. We do a lot of convening work. We have communities of practice where we have educators, sometimes 150, 200 come to event spaces and break out into topical areas and grapple with some of these questions like, “How do I do a client-connected project? How do I drive more buy-in and adoption within my school?”

We have supported the school districts with catalytic funding and that's mostly for ensuring that they understood that we're committed to this at some level. So they would probably tell you the funding is too small. (laughs) And I think they would be probably right when you think about the Herculean effort of getting 100 percent completion here. But I think it's enough to say that we're in this together. Then, of course, there are other elements like creating resources, curating resources, sharing, things like that. And, of course, the data and evaluation work that MDRC anchors.

Leigh Parise: Thank you. That's great. You talked about what the market value assets are. You talked about work experiences and client connected projects, industry-recognized credentials, entrepreneurial experiences, and college credit. How did you decide these are the places where we're going to focus, these are going to be the four MVAs that we want to make sure that students are able to access.

Dan Tesfay: Feels bad saying it on Evidence First: There's a little bit of art to this. We recognized that it was happening. We could see and hear parent testimony. We could hear from the folks who are leading these programs that...I mean, a good example is, think about an alternative school you know. We have an example at Liberty Academy in the Northland where they do a lot of this kind of leaving-to-learn, project-based…They're certainly learning but it's focused on community connection and things like that, and the principal is telling us the kids don't want to go back.

They're in an alternative program. They don't want to go back to the comprehensive high school. So what does that mean? When you have the sort of students who have been cast aside and they're finding more value in an experience in an alternative program, why wouldn't that also be an option inside of a comprehensive high school? I think there was understanding that it's important that everybody sees enough of their work in the framework and that provides an opportunity to raise the bar a little bit.

We have a lot of conversations where we have a program, a project, something—the district leaders will come to us and say, “Does it count?” And I think everybody's a little uncomfortable with that arrangement, but there's a lot of value in the conversation where you're saying, “Hey, what if you did this instead? What if you took this amazing program and you added a capstone? What if you added three touch points where the student has to pitch or work with an employer?”

It's little tweaks where all of a sudden you have an outside perspective. You might have a new contact that a student is working with. You might have something that's really transformational by just changing small, small things. When we looked at the evidence base, it was recognizing that our college enrollment and completion gaps are just enormous, and that we had to try and do something different in high school that we feel will set up a better system of on-ramps and off-ramps and a really connected ecosystem that can benefit the city and also all the students within it.

I guess since then I would say we're encouraged by evidence that's starting to emerge—some of the work you all have been involved in and even the last podcast in the series, I think, the IRC studies, the work around stackable credentials out of the Virginia Community College System. Massachusetts has done some really interesting work around industry-recognized credentials. The big-picture-learning longitudinal study that looked at leaving-to-learn, internship-based results for 1,900 students from their network of schools and found higher college enrollment. In some cases, models that people would think of as the inverse of that.

[There are] still challenges with completion but a lot of self-reporting from students that they feel confident, they feel prepared, they feel much better as public speakers, critical thinkers, a lot of those kinds of skills that our employers tell us are really important. I think there was art in creating the framework and now our task is testing the hypothesis and ensuring that we're doing it with fidelity and that we will find ways to be flexible enough to adapt it over time.

Because I think we've seen this enough: We go all in on something; we're inflexible because we have to be for the purposes of data collection and evaluation. We either like it or we don't and then the next thing pops up. And I think the secret sauce here might just be the connectedness and the space for the conversation, the willingness to listen—all anchored in the community agreements, which can change.

Leigh Parise: Yeah, I really appreciate that. You joked about being on Evidence First—maybe I shouldn't say we're leading with art—but it's really clear from your response that you were being responsive to the experiences and the needs that you were hearing and seeing in the community and people who are familiar with education in Kansas City, thinking about what was happening a little bit more broadly, continuing to pay attention to that broader evidence building, and thinking about how that work that you're doing fits in with that. I think this is actually a good point. I'd be really curious to hear you talk about why you wanted to bring MDRC into this work.

I was fortunate that I got to be involved in some of those early conversations many years ago. You talked about needing to be flexible over time and thinking about the data that you can collect but it'd be great for you to say a little bit about the role that you were hoping that MDRC would be able to play.

Dan Tesfay: Sure, yeah. I guess I'll start with the theme of the conversation, which is MDRC had experience in the kind of emerging work that we were really excited about and we were using to inform our next moves around Real World Learning. When I think about summer internship programs like YouthForce NOLA, CareerWise—I think there are others—and the deep connection in history in both CTE programs and also in postsecondary models that were more focused on two-year and shorter-term credentialing. So we recognize that this was a new frontier on some level but there were bits and pieces we could learn from in having an evaluation partner like MDRC.

The MDRC team was excited about the idea of building something new in partnership with our community in the same way that we were. This work is hard. You're creating new data from frameworks that people have just started to wrestle with, and you're navigating how school systems are set up and trying to understand who knows what and how that manifests in information that can be used to really continue the momentum and help us learn and reflect.

That's not a small task and so you have to be passionate about it. We felt that, working with the MDRC team. So how did it show up in the beginning? I think MDRC—Osvaldo in particular—recognized early on that because this was big, we needed to spend a lot of time getting really clear. You see this a lot. Real World Learning is lightning in a bottle because everybody can see themselves in it. But that doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want, necessarily, when it comes time to learn and evaluate.

Leigh Parise: Great. Thank you. Osvaldo, people can't see this but you've been sitting here nodding along to a lot of the things that Dan has been saying, as we're sitting on the Zoom. It would be great to hear if there's anything that you would add to what Dan just described in terms of the role that MDRC has been playing. Then if you want to talk a little bit about how you see this fitting into some of the broader work that MDRC either has done or wants to do more of.

Osvaldo Avila: Yeah. One, I think Dan was giving such an amazing and clear summary that I almost wanted to jump in just to say, “Yeah, yeah, what he's saying.” (laughs) Second that. But no, the work that we were doing or initially started to do with Kauffman and the region was driven by this idea—how do you develop an evaluation framework or a data collection strategy where you could get 31 districts to buy into this idea of, like, “Hey, you all have your own data systems but we'd like you to tell us to collect data this way. And if you can tell us who's done this MVA and how much time they've spent,” sort of like asking, “Would you buy into this?”

I think what Dan has clearly highlighted is when you invest so much time with people—and it really was being initially just spectators sitting in on conversations with individual districts. That's what it was like: “Hey, you guys are doing this amazing. What if you added this piece? And if you added this mentor piece, could you tell us how this stuff is progressing? And here's MDRC, who can help you think of the data collection strategy or a survey that you could use to help assess the growth in a student's development and XYZ skill sets.”

So I think a lot of that was really driven [by], how do we work with [and] understand where they're at, and then move the region in a direction that they want to go in so that we have these common metrics? To be able to say, “Hey everyone's saying this is important. Can we talk about it in two, three years when students have graduated and gone on and done other things beyond high school?” It fits in nicely with our K-12 policy area ethos, I'd say, because of the type of staff we have here at MDRC. Many of the K-12 staff are former educators before their careers at MDRC. You have practitioners who have spent time in the field working with nonprofits.

So when we get these opportunities to work with the Kauffman Foundation, the 31 school districts, you get excited, like, “You're going let me collect data and you're going to let me sit in on some of these meetings and help folks understand where they're at, where they want to go. And if they want to try something a little more risky, let's do it. Let's pilot something. We're all for it.” And so I think you get that burst of energy to really collaborate with the foundation and with the school districts, and still be flexible enough to be, like, “Okay, you're not there yet but you're telling me you want to move in this direction. So how do we get there?”

From an organizational perspective, when I think of research, MDRC, and the wider spectrum, equity always comes to mind. I think it sets a central piece of our narrative now: How do we become a more equitable research organization? A big part of that is investing in how we proactively work with program partners, whether that's a foundation, a CBO. How do you work with them early enough to design and execute an evaluation plan that allows us to work collaboratively with folks, to learn, hear diverse perspectives from those who are implementing and experiencing those programs?

I think the type of work that we've been able to do and the relationships that we've been able to build with the foundation and the 31 school districts is pivotal to that. You can't really speak to certain dynamics that exist within schools, across schools, diverse student populations, if you're not in there understanding what real barriers are presented and what facilitators are helping the region progress and grow these market value assets year to year.

Dan Tesfay: Yes to everything Osvaldo said. I want to call out what I think was a really good approach up front. So you have the logic models, right? And then you start to say, “All right, what's the data collection around this?” And Osvaldo and his team built out the performance measurement framework. Stop me if we're going to talk about this in a little bit, but in the first cohort, with 15 school districts, we scheduled one-on-one meetings with each of their teams [that] are responsible for that type of data collection. I think we were very honest and genuine and basically saying, “This is new and we would love to know all of these things but we're not going to punish you if you can't do these things. We understand that this is a pilot. We understand that this is going to be many years of work."

I think having that tone is so crucial when you are not living the day-to-day in those seats, because everything you ask is an additional burden. I very much appreciate that approach early on, and Osvaldo and Yvonne's willingness to take that approach as well. I think sometimes it's like, you know, clean data is better than not, and you want to draw a hard line and say, “We need it this way, on this timeline.” That's not the way the world works, especially now that we're coming out of the pandemic and folks are tapped and there's turnover and you're losing institutional knowledge and all those things.

So I think laying the foundation that was collaborative and flexible—absolutely rooted in equity—was important.

Osvaldo Avila: And it showed, especially early on. Folks would be transparent. They would come to us and be like, “This is the best I can give you right now. This is not going to be perfect. These IDs are going to be off by X or Z or these credits may or may not be...” But the idea was to encourage “Where is everyone?” So when we go back to strategize, we can devise a framework that speaks to where folks are currently. It really has been a pleasure—over the last two years of working with so many districts—to get that level of transparency. Because I'm telling you right now, you don't always get that when it's strictly an impact evaluation and you're just wanting to get XYZ data by this deadline and we're done.

This really does create a fluid conversation around—as Dan was saying—the logic model, the performance measurement framework, and how we cycle around and iterate these processes.

Leigh Parise: Yeah, and I have to give credit, Dan, to you and your team at the foundation. I remember when we had really early conversations, you said, “This work is getting off the ground. It's really not in a place where we need somebody to evaluate it yet, but we see value in having a research thought partner come in on the front end so that they can be in some of these conversations.” And clearly you invited MDRC to really be partners in that and helped us to build the relationship and the trust with the districts and really get their input to help to shape the kinds of questions that we were asking and the kinds of information that we were going to try to pull together and present back to them—as they themselves were also trying to do best by their students and open up these kinds of market value asset opportunities for more and more students over time.

Osvaldo, I'm curious. You talked about that one of the exciting things was getting to have some opportunities to support districts who were interested in taking some risks or doing some things a little bit differently or being able to have some deeper conversations really focused on equity. I wonder if there's any particular example that you could point to, to help people understand the kinds of things that you're talking about there.

Osvaldo Avila: Yeah. We actually just started communicating with one charter school in the region. And there they've got these client-connected projects. They're doing these surveys for students—some pre- and post-surveys—looking at their perspective growth and certain essential skills. They're collecting information on the employer partnership in terms of how they're assessing these young people's experience, going through and working with them. They just reach out, like, “Well, we have all these data. We're expecting to collect this much information.” How do we synthesize this? How do we analyze?

That's our bread and butter. That's where we come in. And so it's really exciting just to hear folks want to get help and then want to share information with us so that we can in fact help them synthesize whatever it is that they have so that they can better show the results that they're hoping to see in the projects to their charter school district or the larger region as a whole.

Leigh Parise: Thank you. All right. Dan, in some of your early description of what this initiative is about, you talked about the goal of getting all students into at least one MVA by 2030. I'm curious, Osvaldo—or Dan, either of you can probably give some insights here—how's it going so far? I credit you for playing the long game and it's, I imagine, really tempting to say, “We're gonna do this, and then by two years all these amazing things are gonna happen.” But 2030 is quite a way down the road from where you started. How's it going so far? What are some of the highlights of things that have been successful or that have been surprising on the positive side? And then, of course, I'll want to ask about challenges or advice that you have for others too. But let's start with how's it going, what seems to be working well so far?

Dan Tesfay: Yeah. So, oh man, there's so many directions you can take that question. I guess I'd start by saying—this is reiterating Osvaldo's last point—the collaborative is so strong that there are 24 data sharing agreements in place. To me, that is just mind-boggling, as a person who benefited from just being in this seat at the right time as Real World Learning was starting to take off, because I haven't seen anything like that in a small region like ours that's highly fragmented with tons of school systems.

So I always just say, if there are a thousand challenges and things we're frustrated by, how incredible is it that you have district leaders saying, “We will push this through. We'll work with our school boards. We'll work with our legal teams and we will share data to this trusted third party, because we believe so much in this work that we want to see it succeed.”

Really interesting to see this idea of a client-connected project, which for us is 24 hours [and] is a project that is sourced from a local employer. So they're saying, “I'm struggling with this. Can I send it out, pitch it out to a school, have some kids grapple with that challenge, make a recommendation, create a deliverable, pitch it, get feedback?” That wasn't really a thing. I mean, project-based learning was a thing, but client-connected projects weren't really; it wasn't something we've seen a lot in our scans and our understanding of the landscape. And so that's been neat, to see it take up a larger share of market value assets. By and large, we're still a college credit–heavy region, just like I think most of the country is. So that's the majority of market value assets. I think there's a lot of interest and some growth in industry-recognized credentials, which is great.

As we think about challenges…they're the persistent questions around equity. What's really difficult about this kind of project is you might see, for example, really high rates of students earning entrepreneurial experiences in certain segments of the city. And it forces you to really dig deeper and to think, What's the qualitative role of this going forward? Is an entrepreneurial experience good or bad, if we start to see it and we start to see associated equity gaps within that?

It's brand new and we don't want to rush to judgment and decide that it must be a lower-quality experience without understanding that. At the same time, we want to pay attention to every gap as we think about growing and scaling this, because we understand that there's conversation about this being the next thing. I think a lot of people are searching for something new. And if we can help not just Kansas City but also our states and the country learn from this, that's a good thing. We certainly don't want to sit on information where we know there are equity gaps and things to solve for.

So that's part of the challenge of this. It's new and so you try to anchor in the existing data or your current paradigm and then you have to ask yourself, “Am I doing right by that?” I think our evaluation team here at the foundation has really been encouraging as we think about the next phases of this, to bring even more of a race equity lens. I think that's going to manifest in more qualitative work, even more listening, more engagement. I think the great thing is we have the convening set up to be able to to have more of that. We're really thinking a lot about launching a principals fellowship and that would be an amazing format to start to have equity conversations that are data driven in what we know.

Leigh Parise: Osvaldo, I want to give you a minute if there's anything you want to jump in with there, because I know that you and Yvonne—who's working very closely on this project as well—have done a lot of thinking with MDRC's equity collaborative. If you have anything to jump in with there, I want to give you a chance.

Osvaldo Avila: Yeah, yeah. Just to add—and I might just be reiterating what Dan said—one, you just have to tip your hat to the superintendents and the leadership at each one of these districts: how thoughtful they've been with the data that we've been able to provide, but also how forcefully they've been willing to address any piece that feels like there might be inequity or inequitable access to whatever MVA. And really targeting and having those hard conversations, like, “Hey, we see this trend. What have you guys been noticing? What have you all been doing?” And just addressing and having those conversations one-on-one with the convenings that they have—one, that continues to happen and continues to be more of the dominant narrative. Two, from the data collection perspective, you really do see the five MVAs being dispersed across districts through the population.

Clearly there's always the question around—and this has come up often: Do they have equal value across the board? If a student completes one or the other, do they have comparable skill sets to go out and be successful beyond high school? I think the Kauffman Foundation has done a great job at outlining the type of skills that would be expected of each MVA and in those conversations—as Dan was saying—specifically on client-connected projects, you already had existing strong relationships in these schools, doing great work with employer community partners. It was really about elevating these partnerships.

Like great, you have an employer speaking with someone once a semester. What if you had a mentor that came once every other week and worked with the students and there was a culminating project? So it's taking a lot of great ideas that schools already had, and elevating them to the point where you now have...or you can arguably say, “[This] client-centered project is almost like an internship and provides the same type of qualities and skills that a student's going to need to go beyond high school.” I think for our work, in terms of being a good evaluation partner, that's where we really start to come in and think about how we might make those type of assessments, so that folks know what it is that students are getting from any one of these five MVAs.

Leigh Parise: Mm-hmm. Great. I'm sure that the partners appreciate that a lot. All right, so I wanna wrap us up in a couple minutes, but Osvaldo, from the learning perspective, what are some of the interesting questions that are coming up as part of this work? Or do you feel like there's already key things that we've learned that you could share?

Osvaldo Avila: I spoke a little to that, about the value. The other learning piece—and I would admit, initially I was a little skeptical as to what extent many of these MVAs could be scaled. And at least early on in these first couple years—I think Dan alluded to this—is the growth of client-connected projects and some of these other MVAs. I was, like, “Wow, folks are thinking critically and growing these different MVAs within their district.” Each district has its own strategy. They're not necessarily going to grow all five MVAs, but you do see a trend and an emphasis of each district either giving more MVAs in one particular area or the disbursement of the five MVAs across the board.

And I think that's really interesting to see and monitor, given the initiative's ultimate goal is that by 2030, every student is graduating with an MVA. So when you see the senior cohort increase their graduate MVAs, when you see specific districts growing MVAs in the 9th and 10th grade, it's like, okay, students are getting exposure earlier. There's just a lot of promise in terms of the coherence of the regional perspective and what's growing and the development that's happening—not just for seniors, but from 9 to 12. And I know there's probably even a grander vision [for] middle school, elementary school, but right now, you at least see it through the whole 9th to 12th grades.

Leigh Parise: Dan, anything that you want to add, in terms of interesting questions that are coming up or things that you feel you're learning that you would want listeners to hear about?

Dan Tesfay: I would love to make sure that folks have access to the website and the recently launched social channels (which students are running), to really understand what it looks like. I think it's important to understand the type of crazy innovation that's happening once you start to look beyond the numbers. You think about things like a school district and for this age buying a building and then having students run a coffee shop out of it—fully functioning. Shawnee Mission School District also has a restaurant on site. You can go and order lunch and have a business meeting in their center.

So there's really cool stuff. When you listen to students, you let them engage more deeply in a way that's really connected and authentic. I think from a learning perspective—as we think about where we go next—I think there's movements we're watching and things we have to solve for to really build and sustain our ability to learn as a region. I think the first is—and you all may be seeing this or even benefiting from it in the career and technical education space—the state movements toward P20W Data Systems. So having linked data that runs from preschool all the way into the workforce and how important that will be as states rethink accountability. And, especially, flexibility within that to allow school district leaders and local leaders to innovate. I think it's going to be really important.

The second is how those P20W Data Systems benefit regions through localized data collaborations. And so when I think about this work and what we've learned, some of what keeps me up at night is that Osvaldo is doing so much himself, right; the MDRC team is doing so much. How much better would it be if we had a local common data charter, and all the organizations agreed and we streamline the data collection effort and we built in quality checks on the back end.

Then I think the last one that really can't be overlooked is the front-end technologies. So you start thinking about things like learning and employment records, verifiable credentials, digital badges. That is a way to really scale this language. We're just amazed at the progress. I can't say that enough, but in some ways we still struggle with...School systems are huge, I think we have 21,000 teachers in the Kansas City region.

You're not going to get 21,000 people understanding the same concept or on the same page without a way to get that word out in a way that's common. I think digital badges represent a really amazing opportunity from that perspective, especially when you start to think about experiences as currency. So, like I said earlier, we look for people who are experienced. We think about that as being really important when we're looking for candidates for jobs, people we want to work with, all of that.

I think it'll be something we're paying a lot of attention to. And that's something we do quickly or without engagement but certainly seems to be a large opportunity in front of us with the momentum and the common agreements that are already in place, to think about how the technology and those front-end tools can grow those numbers of market value assets even faster than we've seen in the first few years.

Leigh Parise: Yeah. It'll be exciting to see—even just over the next five to seven years, by the time you get to the end of this—whether there's some real progress on that front too, to help to really target the energies that people have focused on, understanding the data and thinking about feedback for districts and for you all about how it's going. It's exciting to think about.

Dan, Osvaldo, thank you so much for joining me today.

Dan Tesfay: Thanks for having me. It's been a blast.

Osvaldo Avila: Yes. Thank you, Leigh. This was fun.

Leigh Parise: Thanks so much to Dan and Osvaldo for joining me. To learn more about Real World Learning visit If you liked this episode, you may also want to check out our earlier interview with Matt Gianni on industry-recognized credentials in Texas. Did you enjoy this episode? Subscribe to the Evidence First podcast for more.

About Evidence First

Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? MDRC’s Evidence First podcast features experts—program administrators, policymakers, and researchers—talking about the best evidence available on education and social programs that serve people with low incomes.

About Leigh Parise

Leigh PariseEvidence First host Leigh Parise plays a lead role in MDRC’s education-focused program-development efforts and conducts mixed-methods education research. More