How DonorsChoose Improves Education
The problem: State education budgets are shrinking while the number of low-income schools in the public education system is growing. As problems go, it's a hefty one and there are no easy answers.
The voices in the debate range from wealthy charter school champions who eye the issue from 30,000 feet to the public school labor leaders on the ground, and discord dominates the agenda on all sides. The one thing everyone can agree on is that while education is vital to the country's future, it also costs a pretty penny to educate a child from K through 12. Even those who doubt that economics is a driving factor in the achievement gap between middle class and poor students have to acknowledge it's hard to teach (and to learn) without access to resources.
It's somewhat ironic that the voices least often heard in the debate are those of the individuals best placed to talk education reform. Test scores can tell you a lot about the average student, but it's only the teachers who know what actual students need.
While reformers take to the airwaves to talk theories, it's teachers who are there in the classrooms doing the best they can to make up for the scarcity of not only technology but in many cases basic supplies in low-income schools. DonorsChoose founder Charles Best was one such teacher, photocopying pages from Little House on the Prairie for his inner city students because there just weren't enough books. The experiences he had at the Bronx public school where he worked inspired him to explore crowdfunding to help his fellow educators get access to basic supplies.
From there, DonorsChoose grew from Best working on his off hours to a 64-person philanthropic powerhouse that has attracted millions of dollars in investments. Last year alone it funded 90,000 projects, some asking for nothing more than the cost of a packet of paper and others in the high five figure range. Since its inception, DonorsChoose has helped fuel the education of more than 10 million students.
The obvious power of the organization lies in its ability to put supplies into the hands of teachers and students to promote academic success. Technology is a common request on the site. While there's no single device that one could call the silver bullet that will save education, technological literacy is now clearly vital to both academic and career success. Christel House Academy, a K-12 charter school for the underprivileged on the south side of Indianapolis, benefited from $26,876 raised via DonorChoose (along with a technology partnership with T-Mobile). Once one of the worst schools in the state, Christel House Academy now boasts a 96% attendance rate and scores above the state average.
Playing a Unique Role
But while attendance and grades are good, true reform is better. DonorsChoose has played a unique role in building awareness of the inequality in US schools by making the needs of individual classrooms public. When a teacher isn't asking for iPads but rather for paper dictionaries because the money to put a simple dictionary in every English classroom just isn't there, it's hard to keep denying that everything in our education system is just fine. One of the smallest requests funded in 2013 was literally $5 for a package of Post-Its. And the dictionary example? Is real. A teacher in one troubled Chicago school was nearly fired for disclosing the extent of her school's need by posting her request. When that happened, Bent said in a Forbes profile, it showed him the real potential of DonorsChoose.
The true power of DonorsChoose to change the school system in the US for the better may actually lie in its ability to promote awareness of just how segmented the public education system really is. As the site continues to grow, more people who might have written off “failing schools” as the fault of administrators and teachers or even students will realize that in low-income areas both groups are fighting an uphill battle.
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