Social-Emotional Learning, Furniture, and Books: What Products Teachers Want Most

Staff Writer

What products do teachers need most for their classrooms?

The education crowdfunding site DonorsChoose.org has some insight into this question.

On the platform, teachers create projects requesting resources or experiences (like field trips). Anyone can donate to teachers’ projects, and once a request is fully funded, DonorsChoose sends educators the materials. The organization estimates that teachers at 81 percent of public schools in the country have posted a project on the site.

With the rise of sites like DonorsChoose, it’s now financially and logistically possible for teachers to make their own decisions about what tools to introduce to the classroom—without input from district leaders, who have historically controlled the purchasing process.

In a 2016 survey of about 1,300 teachers by the Education Week Research Center, almost half said they didn’t need anyone’s approval before introducing a new ed-tech product. For education companies, these teachers could be an inroad into schools.

This week, DonorsChoose released its 2018 classroom funding data. So what tops teachers’ lists?

Social-emotional learning is a growing focus for educators on the platform—the number of projects that mentioned the strategy increased by 100 percent from last year. This data point mirrors results from a 2018 Education Week Research Center survey, which found that social-emotional learning is on the rise: Nearly 90 percent of district leaders said they had already invested in related products, or were planning to do so.

Classroom furniture was another area of growth. The number of related projects jumped, from about 75,000 in 2017 to around 112,000 in 2018. At one point this past year, teachers’ requests exhausted the platform’s suppliers’ stores of furniture, said Ali Rosen, the senior director of pre-K-12 partnerships at the organization. “It surprised us, and it surprised the marketplace,” she said.

DonorsChoose also found that interest in STEM education, computer science, and robotics is continuing to grow.

But the most-frequently requested item remains the same—books. The top two titles this year were two young adult novels: Wonder, which deals with themes of difference and belonging, and The Hate U Give, which addresses racism and police brutality. Teachers, said Rosen, “are trying to diversify their libraries to offer students books that reflect their own experiences.”

Effect of Matching Offers

The platform has also expanded its reach this year.

DonorsChoose has always grown more rapidly in urban areas, said Rosen. The nonprofit doesn’t run advertising campaigns, so the main way that teachers find out about the site is through word of mouth. Educators are more likely to hear about the platform from a colleague—or see a fellow teacher’s shipment boxes in the hallway—in an urban school, where there are just more people in one building, she said.

But this year, the number of teachers in rural areas creating their first projects increased by 53 percent—and Rosen thinks most of that growth can be attributed to one very large, high-profile donation.

“In March, we had this amazing one-time event happen where Ripple, a cryptocurrency company out of San Francisco, decided to fund every project on the site,” said Rosen. The $29 million contribution was the largest corporate gift DonorsChoose has ever received.

The offer drew in teachers who may not have used, or even heard of, the site before, she said.

In general, donations or matching offers from companies and philanthropies can entice teachers to list projects and make it easier for those projects to get fully funded.

“Because those companies and foundations and philanthropies partner with us, you don’t have to have a personal network [of donors] to use the platform,” said Rosen.

And matching offers can influence teachers to buy products they might not have otherwise considered for their classroom.

A study from Texas State University also found that, in some cases, teachers created projects specifically designed to be eligible for matching funds from companies and foundations. One teacher said that if an organization was offering contributions for science materials, for example, she would create a science-focused project.

This effect could influence which types of projects seem most popular on the site.

While only 10-30 percent of all projects listed on the site at any time are linked to a match offer, Rosen said, she acknowledged that this promise of extra funding can “play a role” in teacher decision-making.

“If I’m a teacher and I have limited time, and I know that I have a list of 10 projects that I want for my classroom, I might say, ‘Okay, I’m going to bump those two ideas [that have match offers] to the top of my list right now,’” she said.

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