Spotlight Exclusives

Data from the Front Lines: Turning Educator Insights into Strategies to Tackle Educational Inequities

Kyle Zimmer and Becki Last, First Book Kyle Zimmer and Becki Last, First Book, posted on

The private sector has become adept at harnessing market data to understand their consumers, their interests and motivations. The impact of this research is undeniable. Listening to customers allows brands to remain relevant, obtain competitive insight, identify market opportunity, avoid failures, and increase revenues.

Unfortunately, the social sector has, for the most part, failed to consistently incorporate this essential perspective.  For nonprofits, the primary use of this kind of research — including the voice of people on the front lines — has been to measure impact – a retroactive approach that is slow, ineffective, and often bent to support the priorities of funders.

The field of education is one of those that has largely failed to effectively harness input from the front lines – particularly from formal and informal educators serving children in need.  In recent columns, such as “The way to improve educational practice at scale is to invest in R&D,” Michael J. Petrilli, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, underscores that “despite all the talk about data, we are largely flying blind when it comes to educational practice. . . It’s not just that we don’t know enough about ‘what works,’ we don’t even know what’s going on.”

The need for aggregated real-time feedback from practicing educators is particularly important to further educational equity for children growing up poor or near poor—numbering more than 31 million children in the U.S. alone. Today more than HALF of the students attending U.S. public schools are from low-income households—meaning educational equity is no longer a marginal issue, but a critical mainstream issue.

Understanding and responding to the needs expressed by educators serving children in under-resourced communities is the driving force for First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise focused on furthering educational equity. The organization currently serves more than 400,000 educators serving children in poverty—and is growing by 1,000 per week. What is unique about this network is that it harnesses the input of educators serving children in need ages 0-18, not only in schools and classrooms, but in early education, before- and after-school programs, homeless shelters, food banks, health clinics—anywhere that serves families in need.

Over the last decade, the organization has built a powerful feedback and research enterprise that captures the collective voice, aspirations, concerns, and critical needs of formal and informal educators serving children in low-income, high needs communities.  This research arm, called First Book Research & Insights, consistently captures comprehensive input and findings from these this previously fragmented group, providing data on the unique and urgent needs and potential solutions and strategies to further educational equity, along with feedback to refine those solutions.

With input gathered through one-on-one interviews, third party focus groups, web analytics, user survey responses, site visits and other means, this broad educator network has provided information on what they and the children they serve are facing, and what is happening in classrooms and programs across the country.

In the process, it has become clear that:

1. Educators want to be stakeholders in program development and resource allocation.

Educators are eager to add their voice and report about their on-the-ground experience and needs. When First Book sends a 20-minute, un-incentivized survey to a portion of its network, the organization often receives more than 1,500 fully completed surveys within the first 24 hoursHundreds of members opt-in to be considered to participate each time First Book reaches out to recruit educator participation in focus groups.  

2. Educators positively respond when they are invited into the process, especially when organizations implement changes based on their feedback and insight.

First Book was initially founded to address the lack of access to books for children in low-income communities – “book deserts,” such as Washington, D.C., where in one of the poorest neighborhoods, researchers found 1 book for every 830 children. But with educators reporting hunger, chronic stress and other issues as barriers to education, the organization expanded beyond books to include items like school supplies, devices and digital resources, sports equipment, and basic needs items such as winter coats, feminine hygiene products and hygiene kits. Not surprisingly, the most demanded resources are those that have been sourced or curated based on educator input. Regularly reporting back to educators to let them know how their input has been integrated and acted on contributes to future engagement and a relationship of trust.

3. Educators’ insights can steer innovation in powerful new ways.

Data from educators has revealed critical barriers impeding learning, enabling First Book to develop strategies and resources to address what is happening in high needs schools and programs. The organization uses that data not only to continually innovate its products and services, but to inform requests to the funding community. This input can yield unexpected results, essentially redirecting much-needed funding to address the most critical issues. One prime example:  educators responding to a First Book Research & Insights survey identified that mental health issues, including poverty, substance abuse and social and emotional learning (SEL), have a greater negative impact on education than physical health issues, including lack of access to healthy food, housing instability and asthma. This critical input served as the catalyst for First Book and funder Molina Healthcare to collaborate with outside SEL experts, resulting in the expedited development of and increased educator access to a broad range of expert-informed SEL resources for the classroom and home learning environments.

4. Collectively, educators can inform and transform the broader social sector working to support the nation’s most underserved and at-risk communities.

Input provided regularly from thousands of educators not only enables First Book to respond to issues facing educators working with children in need, but also to further understanding within the broader social sector, arming the sector with information to develop new resources and refine existing services and strategies for children and families in poverty.

While the concept of “education for all” is advocated as a basic human right, it is clear that poverty is jeopardizing children’s futures, and our own.

Aggregating the powerful voice of educators on the front lines, and creating solutions shaped through continuous input from educators is essential to increasing opportunities for more children to succeed. Their success is crucial to the future of their communities and our nation.

Kyle Zimmer is President, CEO and Co-founder and Becki Last is Senior Vice President of Network Engagement at First Book.

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