Kevin: According to the 2021 teacher spending survey, on average, teachers spend $750 of their own money on learning materials each year, with 30% of teachers stating they spend a thousand dollars or more. Why are teachers having to pay more and more out of pocket for classroom materials? How can teachers get the supplies they need more efficiently? Do teachers in low-income communities need different kinds of support? And what can we do to combat inequity in school funding? This is What I Want To Know.
Kevin: And today, I'm joined by Alix Guerrier to find out. Alix Guerrier is the CEO of DonorsChoose, a nonprofit organization that connects donors to public school teachers who need materials for their classrooms and students. With firsthand experience in teaching and extensive background in crowdfunding and finance, Alix has a unique perspective on classroom funding. He joins us today to discuss how we can support our nation's teachers. Alix, welcome to the show.
Alix: Oh, thank you for having me. It's such a pleasure to join you here.
Kevin: You got this bug to help teachers. What drew you to that work?
Alix: I am the product of public schools in New Haven (Connecticut). I went to New Haven Public Schools K through 12. I'm very loyal to the city of New Haven, enjoy going back, and can acknowledge that it was a public school that had a fair number of challenges. And when I got to college, frankly, I found myself unprepared and really confronted with the different experiences that different students can have when they come from different backgrounds. And so actually, that moment, really my freshman year, was the moment when I started to question, well, what am I going to do? And maybe this education problem, I guess as I saw it, was something for me to contribute efforts to.
Kevin: Well, and you obviously were blessed. As you said, you went to public schools in New Haven. And just candidly, you mentioned New Haven had challenges. It's the home of Yale University. And there are walls around a lot of Yale, but when you leave those walls of Yale, you are in really a challenged community. It must have been a tough reality to see how celebrated Yale was on the one hand, yet within steps of the university, there are these challenges.
Alix: Yeah. New Haven had a lot of the challenges of sort of post-industrial urban centers: a lot of poverty, quite racially diverse, and the presence of this amazing university that not only was a research center and brought all kinds of talent but also art and a cultural center. And it really was, in some ways, two different worlds, two very different worlds: one fancy Ivy League, gothic architecture, and then another, again candidly, dangerous, a lot of gang violence. In my high school, there were shootings. There was actually a shooting every year that I was there, of one kind or another.
Yeah, and both of those realities lived on at the same time. I went to a fancy school. I went to Harvard undergrad, and it was still a pretty rude awakening. I mean, I'll admit, I went there thinking, hey, I'm kind of a big deal. I've taken these classes. I was at the top of my class graduating, and yet I got to college and realized, oh, wait a second. I really didn't have any of the preparation that a lot of these other students are coming with, including some basic stuff like how to study really, and how to write and how to read, and then not to mention the sort of breadth of exposure that they had, as I started volunteering in an afterschool program that ran out of a housing project in Boston. And then that activity would end up being a major thing that I did throughout my four years. I ended up directing that program, and that was the beginning of really what shifted my thoughts from academia.
Kevin: I can't tell you how many times, Alix, that I've spoken to valedictorians and salutatorians around the country who grew up in neighborhoods similar to yours, and they found themselves similarly situated as you, where they were a big deal in the school they went to, but they were vastly unprepared. And a lot of that, and it gets back to our conversation, is about the resources that were made available for them. And I've always thought that in many schools, teachers have become adept at, sometimes by force of circumstance, teaching to the middle. But those who are somewhat behind, or those who are accelerated learners as you are really don't always get a chance to get the support they need. And I'm sure that when you worked in that program while at Harvard and helped those young people, you could see more of those similar circumstances.
Alix: Yeah, 100%. I mean, students are built to learn. Okay? I mean, especially, take any kindergartner, first grader. No matter where they are, they are oriented to learning almost 24/7. They just have a mind that will absorb whatever is provided to them in whatever environment. And the richer the environment is with different kinds of stimulus, different examples, different kinds, then that is exactly what they'll learn.
Kevin: Well, basic question ... Actually, it provides the answer to the question of why DonorsChoose. I mean, you worked in finance for several years, for folks like Citigroup and Citicorp and McKinsey, and as you said, you found your way back to your passion when you took this role at DonorsChoose. Talk about why you did that, and then talk about DonorsChoose in this mission.
Alix: I joined as CEO in April, so I'm still very new in this role, but I have been a fan of DonorsChoose for years. It was founded back in 2000. And by the way, I was also a classroom teacher, so I taught high school math, which I mentioned only because, in my heart of hearts, I still consider myself a high school math teacher. That's probably the truest expression of my personality. I was in the classroom at the same time that our founder, Charles Best, was in the classroom, but I wasn't aware of DonorsChoose, in part because it was still in New York at that time, and I had already gone to grad school by the time it started to really expand. So, I was never a user of DonorsChoose, but I certainly was aware of it, and then the teachers that I had worked with loved to use it.
And so I knew that, one, it had this incredible just brand and loyalty among users that I thought was really exceptional. And actually, a team from the University of Michigan did some really rigorous research looking at basically the impact of DonorsChoose over several years from 2012 to 2018 in the state of Pennsylvania in particular and found a causative link between getting funded, and one, student outcome, so greater student learning, as well as maybe even less surprisingly, teacher satisfaction, and so a dramatic impact on the tendency of teachers to stay in the classroom when they get the resources that they need. So, the impact was another thing. And then the third was, over the last few years, the decision on the part of the leadership of DonorsChoose, including our board, to focus on equity. And I'll just give them credit because I know that they actually started this work in 2018 and 2019, so even before the nation, and in fact, the world's attention turned to racial injustices due to the murder of George Floyd and others in June of 2020.
So, they were already starting to work on this reorientation toward equity, but decided to pull out what had been implicit in the mission and make it explicit. And DonorsChoose is focused on equity, on racial equity, on socioeconomic equity, and putting that into practice. So, all these things added up the scale. The fact of this impact and the equity orientation added up to make it possible for me to say, "Oh, this is an incredible organization to be a part of."
Kevin: Oh. And by the way, when you talk about teacher surveys, just about every teacher survey conducted anywhere, any school district in America shows marginal teacher satisfaction. And even now, it's gotten worse.
Alix: Oh yeah.
Kevin: And one of the big issues they point to is not just teachers’ pay, which is huge, but just the resources, the fact that teachers have to reach in their pocket. Some say its estimate is $750, some teachers a thousand, but there are instances where teachers reach in their pocket for $2,000 or $3,000 a year to supplement teachers’ supplies for students. The mechanics of how you work: you say you've been in 87% of these school buildings. What are the limits that you place on what you give to individual teachers?
Alix: Imagine that you just sort of, I don't know, left the planet and then came back and were looking around at different professions. And then here's the only one where you will send a certificated, highly educated... You need not only a college degree, but then a certificate. You need training. It's critically important, and you place them into the work environment with just immediately take a class and the barest of supplies, where even pens and pencils, you may need to go out of pocket to buy, right? I mean, there's no other profession that is like that. So in terms of limits, we try to be as open as possible. And so they're able to request on DonorsChoose really all kinds of materials. So, certainly, it's sort of what you might think of as traditional educational supplies, so books and those sorts of materials, art materials, STEM equipment, technology for the class, furniture for the class, trips, school trips, and also professional development for themselves. We don't then send cash to the teacher, but actually, those resources, those supplies, et cetera, we actually procure ourselves through our partnerships with lots of vendors.
Kevin: So Alix, let me ask you this, because we've had a number of shows talking about teachers and where they are in terms of their frustration with the system. So much of this is about focus and prioritization, and it's just universally the case in every school board meeting that very little time is spent on classrooms and academics, that it's on building these supplies generally for the school district, some of the politics, rules and regulations, but there's very little focus and discussion on the classroom needs of teachers. What are some of the things that your staff reports back that they hear from teachers about this prioritization issue?
Alix: You have described exactly one of the core problems that we're trying to address, which is the amount of attention and support, and then response to the needs that teachers have for the actual act of teaching in the classroom. What we've heard from teachers is that — well, if we focus on this sort of post-2020 era, so sort of coming back to in-person — one of the things that we've heard is that in an era where, again, contrast it with most other professions, where the workplace and our expectations of the workplace are changing, and organizations across industries are increasing flexibility, expanding the different ways in which professionals can come to work. In fact, in most school districts, it's an attempt to go as far backward as possible and come back, and it's not going to work. So, this is one of the things, flexibility, that actually the rest of us realize we actually need, and the world is changing, and this is not being provided.
The second is that even within the confines of just everyday in-person learning, the needs for resources are different. So, one of the categories that I mentioned before is classroom furniture, flexible seating. The reason that as a category has really increased in the number of requests on our platform is that teachers know, "Hey, both for health reasons and lots of reasons, just mental health and wellness for the students, I need to set up an environment that is different for students, and they need different ways to sit together and different ways to sit apart safely."
Kevin: A superintendent said to me, I heard this directly several weeks ago, that he'll be glad, and this echoes the point you were making earlier, Alix, he'll be glad when we go back to normal. But I gently said, "Well, that normal that you were talking about no longer exists." And we had some back and forth. And he conceded that there was a push for change in the wake of the pandemic, and he also conceded that some of it was good, but people are used to doing things the way they want to do it, particularly in a bureaucracy that's been as entrenched as a school district.
Alix: No, absolutely. And I think just to make sure that we understand, we can roll the tape back to 2019 and understand that certainly before the pandemic, we were essentially already operating on a sort of starvation level, I mean, really with the barest minimum of resources. And so, as was the case in a lot of other arenas during the pandemic, like a lot of folks said, we were all hit by the wave, the same wave, but we were in different-sized ships, right? Basically, every kind of inequity was magnified, right? Every kind of inequity was magnified during this time.
Kevin: Let me ask you this. And this is one last question, Alix. This is what I really want to know. Thinking of what we've been talking about, what needs to be done on a systemic level to ensure that teachers get the resources they need. And by the way, with all due respect to you and your board, so it puts you almost out of business. What can we do to ensure the system changes to meet teachers where they need to be?
Alix: Yeah. I would be happy to work ourselves out of the need for existence and just to see that all teachers have what they need. I think that there are a couple of different ingredients here, none of which is sufficient on its own. Honestly, I would start with the nature of how we reward and promote this profession. There are a lot of reasons that teachers are underpaid. You made reference to it before. Some of it is sexism, historical sexism, and the fact that this has historically been a female-dominated profession. That legacy continues, and teachers are just dramatically underpaid. So, this is one. Beyond that, in addition to that, not only changing how we respect and pay teachers, because actually, those two things go together, in terms of the mechanisms for providing resources to schools, we just have a system that systematically allocates resources away from some schools and toward other schools.
EdBuild published research that suggested that if you divide the country's schools into two equal groups in terms of the number of students that they serve, so two sort of halves, but one is the sort of white population, the schools that serve majority white, and the other is schools that serve majority non-white students, you'll actually see, even though it's student for student, that the white majority schools receive 23 billion in additional funding. Again, same number of students, despite serving the same number of students. And so this is something that needs to be changed at the systemic level, just the allocation of resources, the provision of these rich environments that we were talking about even in the beginning of this conversation.
Kevin: Yeah, well said. Alix Guerrier, appreciate your work as the CEO of DonorsChoose. Thank you so much for joining us on What I Want To Know.
Alix: Well, Kevin, thank you so much for having me. It's been such a pleasure.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want To Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education, and write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want To Know.
Alix Guerrier is the CEO of DonorsChoose, a nonprofit organization that connects donors to public school teachers who need materials for their classrooms and students.
With firsthand experience in teaching and an extensive background in crowdfunding and finance, Alix has a unique perspective on classroom funding.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.