Forward in 2021: The promises of K12 education, tech, and America

Bronze statue (“Forward”) of woman with arm raised. Smartphone is photoshopped in her hand, screen has BenchK12 company logo.

This post is part of BenchK12’s The Playbook, a quarterly update shared with those interested in K12 education, Enterprise/Edtech/Future of Work startups, and women-founded companies. Follow or subscribe for more.

With the new year upon us, you’ve no doubt reflected upon the year that shall not be named; what was lost, gained, and learned.

Here at BenchK12, we’re ready to move forward.

I had a different post that I was working on (and will definitely share in the future), but when the truly terrifying events of last Wednesday happened in D.C., a different message needed to be shared. Fair warning, this isn’t entirely the light and bright introduction to BenchK12 I had planned, but I hope you’ll read on and join us in building the lighter and brighter future that we know is ahead.

Even for those of us who have been paying attention, begging others to take heed, it was no less jarring to watch the violence, desecration, and tragedy unfold in Washington. As I shared with many of you on LinkedIn, I hope that what we witnessed were the dying gasps of white supremacy and toxic masculinity that have always been a part of our nation but have truly come to define our national headlines and discourse over the past four years. However, to make that hope come to fruition, each of us — particularly those of us who are White Americans — must work with intentionality to make it so in our corner of the nation, in the work we do every day.

As an educator, and now as the founder of an Enterprise Edtech SaaS company, this national context in which we are building BenchK12 directly impacts our mission, trajectory, and goals. We are thinking about it in every aspect of our company: from our values and culture, to our partners, and the product. Here’s how we’re seeing the national context playing out:

Biases that we know exist nationally, continue to play out in our ability to staff classrooms and teach our most vulnerable students:

  • White and Asian teachers are more likely to have their absences covered than are Black and Hispanic teachers. (Annenberg Institute at Brown University)
  • Those teaching bilingual education or students with special needs are significantly less likely to find coverage. (Annenberg Institute at Brown University)
  • Subs “tend to avoid schools that have a significantly lower average achievement, more minority students, higher suspension rates, and more middle school students.” (Fordham Institute)

Classroom teachers and substitutes are mostly women who are required to be highly skilled and experienced, but wages don’t match:

  • The average U.S. substitute teacher is required to have at least an Associates’ degree, but lives in poverty. (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • The majority of teachers are women (76%) who have earned a postbaccalaureate degree (a.k.a more than a Bachelor’s) (58%) and have more than a decade of experience (63%), but, on average, make $57,900 annually. (National Center for Education Statistics)

Women know how to run startup tech companies with big returns on investment, but struggle to find investment partners:

  • Women-founded tech companies received only 2.3% of venture capital last year, down from 2.8% (an all-time high!?) in 2019. (Crunchbase)
  • Women-founded startups generate a 78% return for every dollar invested, compared to 31% from men-founded companies. (Boston Consulting Group)

But here’s the good news: now that we know the problems, we are naming them, so we can confront them. And we see several signs that we’re ready to do that nationally, in technology, and in education.

BenchK12 is working to resolve the wage disparities in educator pay and biases in staffing in a few critical ways:

  • Empowering schools with better technology that cuts their absence management and substitute placement costs by more than 50% over traditional temporary staffing firms so that more money can be spent on pay and other mission-critical needs.
  • Building the first common app for substitute teaching that streamlines the application process, vetting/verification, and certification for new substitute teachers in your state or local education agency. This means more access to more teaching opportunities for every sub on BenchK12.
  • Using a demand pricing model to reward substitute teachers who are highly skilled, experienced in critical shortage areas, and have great reviews to ensure that great educators are always available when schools need them.
  • Building out our data insights so that we can continue to help our schools identify good and troubling trends that are actionable with one click.

Nationally, we are excited about more funding to help our K12 schools in this work and the newly nominated Education Secretary:

  • $82B in stimulus for education was recently passed. Granted, this isn’t the $175B that the House HEROES Act called for, but every indication from the Biden Administration and the 2021 Congress points to additional funding in the works in early 2021. (FutureEd)
  • Nominated U.S. Education Secretary, Miguel Cardona, sees education as the great equalizer and throughout COVID-19, technology was a major component of his equity agenda. We anticipate that it will continue to be as he takes office and sets the national education agenda for the next four years. (NEA)

When it comes to leveling the investment playing field, we’re doing what we can: keeping our heads down and working, taking any and all feedback and introductions, and getting creative:

  • Potential school partners! Do you like what you’re hearing and want to get behind Bench? All we need from you is a non-binding letter of interest/intent. We have a few investors who are excited about what we’re building, but they want to see your excitement, too. Think of it as a petition for better edtech companies/vendors. If you email me right now, I’ll shoot over a Docusign to you or I’ll drop everything and jump on a call with you to discuss more.
  • For school partners that are looking for a new revenue stream, ask us about our equity partnerships. Your State or Local Education Agency can own a piece of BenchK12 through its private foundation, get our platform, and get other perks for being a founding partner school.
  • We are seeking out grant funding at the Federal level and privately for our school pilots. If you are in private philanthropy, we’d love to talk with you more about how our mission and vision aligns with yours and/or how you can sponsor one of our school pilots.
  • As a pre-seed company, we need investment partners who aren’t afraid to bet on women with bold, achievable goals and we need your support early (and often). We truly want partners who believe in us, this work, our vision, and can help us make an impact for good in education (and your investment portfolio). Bonus: For those that want ’em, we’ll get you those early-in bragging rights.

Last, but not least (and this bears repeating), I am so proud to be working with my co-founder, BenchK12’s Senior VP of Technology, Shawn Tamaribuchi, on this endeavor. She is an incredibly thoughtful, creative, and intentional leader. I encourage you to get to know her more by reading her post and/or reaching out to her for a virtual coffee. Shawn is new to education, but has been passionately committed to working with those on the margins to realize their technology, fitness, and artistic dreams for as long as I’ve known her (and that’s been a few decades now!). Please welcome her to the world of K12 education; she’s excited to join us!

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading and considering everything I’ve put in front of you today. We hope you’ll continue to join us on this journey in the coming months and years and that in your corner of the world you’ll keep making “good trouble”.

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Brooke Barrett

Brooke Barrett

Founder/President, BenchK12. Educator running a tech startup with early pit stops in legal, public policy, & community development.