Reflecting on 2020, Looking Ahead to 2021 and Beyond

When I became president of MDRC 18 months ago, I asked my colleagues how MDRC should evolve to have the greatest possible impact over the next decade. MDRC has had a clear mission for nearly 50 years: to learn what works to improve opportunities for people with low incomes and to ensure that those solutions help improve policy, practice, and people’s well-being at scale. With the need for science, truth, and evidence never clearer than it is today, we have embraced two directions to amplify our impact on societal change: making more visible our longstanding technical assistance efforts and embedding a clear focus on racial equity in our work.

Those who have known MDRC for a long time may think of us as primarily focused on understanding the impact of programs and policies, because that is where we have done some of our most pathbreaking work. Yet our history also includes many examples of operating large-scale demonstrations of new ideas and then helping systems adopt and implement them at scale. In fact, our multidisciplinary staff—many with years of experience running programs, delivering services, or teaching—have long been engaged in providing robust technical assistance that translates evidence into policy and supports strong program implementation on the ground.

Today, you might have noticed that we are writing more often about how our technical assistance is helping implement new approaches or expand them to new contexts. Much of this work is taking place in long-term learning partnerships with programs, institutions, and public systems designed to meet the service providers’ need for information. This often means learning about how well a new strategy is working while also building our partner’s own capacity to use data to answer questions about their organization’s performance over time. These kinds of partnerships bode well for creating the robust implementation systems that we all know are needed to effectively scale solutions, whether they’re operated by nonprofits or by public agencies.

In our work with community college systems, for example, evidence-building partnerships are transforming the way these systems support students with low incomes to complete school. We’ve worked with the City University of New York for more than a decade to evaluate and replicate its dramatically effective CUNY ASAP program of student supports and to disseminate the results. We’re now testing a variety of low-cost models of student support programs to provide effective options to community college systems around the country. We’ve worked with the College Promise Campaign and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) to learn how student supports can bolster completion rates for College Promise participants. We’ve partnered with multiple state systems and colleges on new assessment methods that can increase the number of students gaining early college credits instead of languishing in pre-credit developmental education. And we are working with The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) on a strategy to scale effective student success initiatives through a federal and state funding approach.

A second direction at MDRC is our multiyear investment in embedding racial equity more deeply in all aspects of our work. We established an Office of Outreach, Diversity, and Inclusion in 2017 as the foundation for internal improvements in how we staff and manage ourselves as an organization. And an Equity Work Group is providing guidance to teams about how each stage of a project—from the conceptualization of the problem to the selection of outcome measures and the interpretation of results —can be conducted with a stronger focus on equity. While we have often sought the perspectives of program participants in our projects, we know that groups who have been systematically excluded from opportunity in the United States have not been adequately centered in defining what progress looks like or how our research is designed. We are only partway on this journey and look forward to sharing what we are learning over time.

Of course, our perspective on all these issues has been affected by the past year of heartbreaking mortality from COVID, unprecedented economic crisis, raw police violence, and anti-democratic extremism, all hitting Black and brown communities much more severely than other Americans.

Beginning in spring of 2020, we listened carefully to our many partners on the ground—from local school districts and nonprofit providers to large government agencies—to learn how we could be helpful to them as the pandemic unfolded. We quickly distilled relevant knowledge and evidence into short actionable briefs that provide profiles of program innovations during the pandemic, tips and strategies for delivering services remotely, and policy options for recovery. More recently, we’ve developed a series of “Ideas and Evidence 2021” policy memos with ideas for the new Administration and Congress in early care and education, the child tax credit, housing, community college, and more.

In the end, 2020 was a year of contradictions—a searing spotlight on egregious inequality and injustice with seeds of hope for lasting change in a post-COVID world. Like others, we have observed that even as nonprofits, philanthropy, and public systems struggled to respond to the crisis, they also produced promising innovations. Benefit systems eased eligibility and enrollment requirements; service providers pivoted rapidly to virtual program delivery that may prove useful in the future; and criminal justice systems reduced their use of bail and incarceration. Many of these emergency reforms have found ways to reduce inequity in ways that could have staying power.

Looking forward, we are energized by knowing that MDRC will be part of ensuring that positive changes made in the heat of the pandemic don’t disappear in its aftermath. Alongside our many partners, we’ll be helping the country build knowledge and evidence as it enacts bold reforms, so that we all continue to learn from innovation and changed policies.

Document Details

Publication Type
Issue Focus
March 2021
Knox, Virginia. 2021. “Reflecting on 2020, Looking Ahead to 2021 and Beyond.” New York: MDRC.