The mission is our why: The wins and the pains of scaling Future Forward nationwide

by Kate Bauer-Jones and Nick Masada, March 20, 2023

                                                                                                                                                                                                Future Forward is a research-based early reading intervention that has multiple empirical studies analyzing its impact over the last decade in schools and districts around the country. These studies, using the gold-standard method in program evaluation called randomized control trial (RCT), provide a significant body of evidence demonstrating that the Future Forward model is effective at accelerating student learning. As the graphic below illustrates, Future Forward aligns with best practices from the field, such as the National Student Support Accelerator’s Quality Standards, by integrating high dosage one-on-one tutoring during the school day with family engagement. We provide a support system for struggling elementary readers through a multi-tiered model that influences multiple aspects of their daily educational experience, with the ultimate goal of ensuring all students read at grade level.


Future Forward’s Alignment with National Student Support Accelerator’s Quality Standards


Infographic demonstrating how Future Forward aligns with National Student Support Accelerator’s Quality Standards.


From its inception in Milwaukee nearly two decades ago, Future Forward has served students using professional tutors (equivalent to paraprofessionals) who are supervised by a certified teacher or experienced youth-serving professional. The Future Forward program:

  • is freestanding (meaning it is not dependent on a particular classroom curriculum),
  • uses dedicated staff and resources, and
  • works with the full collaboration of school administrators and classroom teachers.

Instructional Coordinators work alongside professional Family Engagement Coordinators, who connect regularly with parents and caregivers with phone calls, text messages, newsletters, home visits, and fun monthly family events—all designed to develop and cultivate families’ skills related to supporting their children’s reading and overall academic success.


Future Forward’s history and growth

Over many years, Future Forward has grown from a local partnership between a community-based organization and the local school district in one city to a national program serving thousands of children and families each year in schools across the country. In 2010, the program was awarded an early phase Education Innovation and Research (EIR) grant from the Department of Education; an evaluation of that project provided significant evidence of program impact. Additional early phase EIR findings in a study published in 2018 indicated a statistically significant impact on reading achievement and literacy, with the greatest effect found for students entering the program with the most significant literacy needs. Students enrolled in Future Forward also had fewer absences in a school year and were less likely to be chronically absent than their peers who didn’t participate.

A five-year longitudinal study following up on these results found a sustained impact on reading achievement, as well as a notable 30% reduction in student placement in special education services. Data during these early years and beyond has shown that Future Forward is effective at accelerating student learning, and schools that partner with us report high satisfaction with the program because it is quick, clear, and apparent to see how effective the model is in accelerating their students’ learning.


Infographic summarizing the evidence from multiple studies to date about how Future Forward supports student success.

Building off of this solid foundation, in 2017, Future Forward was awarded a mid-phase EIR grant to replicate its work beyond the Milwaukee Public School system and continue the evaluation of the model’s effectiveness. As Future Forward began to scale beyond our original local community, the program outgrew its initial local partner and moved to work in a larger education nonprofit with a footprint around the country: Education Analytics.


The COVID era

Despite school shutdowns and disruptions in learning brought about by COVID-19, which significantly impacted both program delivery and evaluation, Future Forward never stopped serving children during the pandemic. The shift to virtual learning provided an opportunity to design innovative approaches to tutoring and family engagement.

We found some of these changes to be ineffective, and we subsequently discarded them. For example, conducting tutoring sessions virtually while a kindergarten student was receiving childcare in a preschool setting was not an approach we found to be effective. Other COVID-era innovations have been incorporated into our model longer term. For example, providing families and caregivers access to family events virtually, in conjunction with or in addition to in-person events, was a fantastic addition to our model that we continue today.

Primary evaluation for the mid-phase EIR award that Future Forward received was scheduled to occur during the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years. Despite those years being highly atypical in nearly every aspect of peoples’ lives, modified research studies (available here and here) were still able to detect positive effects from Future Forward on student learning. In 2021, the program was awarded a $14.5 million grant in a third round of EIR funding (an “expansion grant”) as Future Forward pledged to focus those funds on sustainability and scale in rural communities. In the program’s rapid scale since that time, we have also refined our model to better serve partner school districts, who cover the cost of the program through federal funds and COVID relief dollars allocated directly to schools and districts.

Infographic displaying the timeline of Future Forward’s growth from 2004 up to the present.


Scaling up: Challenges & solutions

With rapid scaling in recent years, the program has had the opportunity to further explore creative adaptations to our service delivery model, some of which have been more effective than others. One challenge we encountered in the past was working with community partners who oversaw the hiring of direct service staff. Because the community partner added an additional layer between Future Forward and district staff, this sometimes hindered our ability to build strong relationships directly with school and district staff. We adapted our model to mitigate this challenge by hiring a temporary staffing agency to provide tutors and staff to schools across the country. This presented its own set of challenges, however, because Future Forward had all the responsibility of staffing for the district but no control or direction over the hiring process. We found this adaptation led to a lack of clarity around who team members worked for, and we decided it would be best to shift the model again.

To facilitate this shift, EA and Future Forward decided to reevaluate our legal structure and relationship and shifted the Future Forward program to operate as an independent LLC, wholly owned and operated by Education Analytics. This allowed Future Forward to contract with a Professional Employer Organization (PEO) to directly hire and employ school-based implementation staff ourselves. Directly hiring hundreds of team members very quickly through the PEO has also had its challenges, but it has provided the program control over the quality of the staff we hire and facilitated clearer relationships between the Future Forward program and the school sites where we work.

Another change to the program (that we’re still assessing whether to continue permanently) is shifting our intervention from a full school year to a semester of work with each student. Evidence in prior years has indicated that the most significant impact from the program occurs in the first few months of intervention, so this change would enable us to both serve additional students more rapidly and lower the cost by increasing the number of students and families Future Forward can serve in a year—all while maintaining the level of effectiveness we have demonstrated in the past.

During this time, we have also formalized the way we work and communicate with school and district staff, building a “Gradual Release Model” that seeks to increase school ownership and management capacity to deliver the intervention with fidelity, without the need for significant oversight from Future Forward leadership staff. A key aspect of this innovation includes the formal naming of a “liaison” role in every school we serve to act as the primary conduit for communication, information gathering, and dissemination. Since this is the first year we’re implementing the liaison role, we’re still evaluating the effectiveness of this strategy.

Finally, we are working with a software engineering firm to build an online program management platform. This platform will provide all members of program management with real-time implementation outputs (things like the number of home visits, the total number of tutoring sessions, the number of family events attended, etc.). Whereas we currently have to collect these data manually and enter them into a Google spreadsheet, the platform will enable our staff to make rapid shifts to program delivery when the implementation data indicate it’s necessary, so that they can ensure the best possible outcomes for the students being served.

Infographic summarizing the five key changes Future Forward made during the scale up process including shifting staffing models, becoming an LLC, shortening invention to a semester, formalizing their “Gradual Release Model,” and developing a new software platform.



What’s next

The sizable need for Future Forward’s services throughout schools and communities across the country creates a sense of urgency to get our service delivery model right. Building organizational culture while growing significantly is particularly challenging. Small changes become magnified without clearly defined organizational norms and values to guide those changes. We are working hard to execute our program, continue our growth, and support the evaluation of Future Forward while also defining and addressing our organizational culture and values.

Future Forward’s Mission is to help young children develop the skills they need to become confident, successful, joyful readers by providing individualized tutoring combined with expansive family engagement.

Future Forward’s Vision is to be known as the leading provider to quickly and expertly help young children of all backgrounds, particularly children from low-income households, have the academic tools necessary to be successful, skilled learners.

While Future Forward has experienced noteworthy growth in recent years, our commitment to continuous improvement and ongoing refinement of our service delivery model to provide the highest quality services to its partner districts and communities remains consistent. We are currently aggressively seeking support from philanthropic leaders in the education sector to grow our impact even further. We are in the process of discussing the potential to expand in the states of Texas and California—two states that would dramatically increase the reach of our program. Finally, we are in the midst of converting our current LLC to a non-stock corporation and filing for our own nonprofit status, so that we can continue to create a fiscally sustainable and long-lasting organization.

At Education Analytics, Future Forward has continued to grow to the point where EA’s incubation has positioned the program to consider independent operation. The demand for effective interventions with demonstrated impact was (and continues to be) significant, and Future Forward is proud to be an evidence-based program that continues to improve as we scale.