Distance learning: When over 20 million students in the US alone were forced to switch to remote learning due to COVID-19, it became clear that many were not set up for success — particularly students from already underserved communities. With distance learning continuing for many communities, we need to ensure that all teachers have resources and support to teach in this new digital environment and that students have the resources they need to keep learning.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Hannah Peter.
Hannah Peter is a Program Manager at Google.org, Google’s philanthropy, where she focuses on education initiatives. Drawing on her experience as a former Pre-K teacher, Hannah works to connect nonprofits with Google resources including grant funding and volunteers to help close equity gaps in education and increase access to high quality learning opportunities. Previously, Hannah was a Director of Partnerships at DonorsChoose, where she oversaw a portfolio of philanthropic partnerships.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
Istarted off my career as a Pre-K teacher in a Head Start classroom. I loved my students, their families, and my fellow teachers. I got to be a part of so many amazing moments with my students as they started to become little people who were curious about the world around them. However, I was stunned by how many challenges I faced in my classroom — a lack of school funding, inadequate access to social services for families, low pay for teachers — were echoed by teachers across grades and communities. I was passionate about finding ways to address these shared challenges, which is why I joined the team at DonorsChoose where I worked with foundation and corporate partners to help public school teachers access resources for their students. My work at DonorsChoose led me to Google.org where I have the opportunity to work with organizations that have a variety of missions but are consistently focused on creating a more just, affirming education system that helps nurture the creative, collaborative leaders of tomorrow. It is a privilege to do this work.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Where to start, where to start! Teaching, particularly at Head Start, leaves you with many interesting stories. I’ll save those for another day. When I was at DonorsChoose, I worked on a campaign called #BestSchoolDay where 58 funders from Ashton Kutcher to Serena Williams dedicated $14M+ to fund 11,000+ classroom dreams. This funding structure was called Flash Funding — because in a flash, thousands of teachers would have their DonorsChoose projects funded — and Google.org had originally launched the model with DonorsChoose a year or two earlier. I had the immense honor of coordinating the campaign, which was our first time bringing together that many donors or moving that much funding to teachers in a single day. There were moments where I really didn’t think we could pull it off (I specifically remember crying in a conference room making my gazillionth vlookup). But we did. The most powerful moment of the campaign was hearing profound relief from teachers who no longer had to dip into their own bank accounts for pencils, books, Kleenex, and other classroom resources. The lesson I took away from that experience was immense gratitude to be in a field focused on making the world a better place. It made all of the hard moments and endlessly long days feel well worth it.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Back in March, as part of Google.org’s broader $100M Google.org COVID-19 relief efforts, our team created a $10M Distance Learning Fund to help teachers and parents around the globe keep learning going for students, particularly those from underserved communities.
The fund’s first grant was $1 million to help Khan Academy provide distance learning support to parents and teachers and high quality digital learning opportunities to students. Along with the grant, Google volunteers helped localize new COVID-19 specific educator resources into languages like Mandarin, Hebrew, and Bulgarian. Khan Academy has seen huge spikes in teacher, parent, and student registrations during the pandemic and they’re serving 18M+ learners a month from communities around the globe. I am inspired by the way the Khan Academy team has been flexible and thoughtful in adapting their model to meet the immediate needs of teachers and families. If you’re curious to read more, we wrote up a conversation with Sal specifically about how they’ve pivoted during this time.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?
I personally believe the ultimate authority in education are teachers. They are the experts on their classrooms. I am a huge fan of teachers and through my work, I have had the benefit of learning from many teachers in many contexts.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
It is impossible to give a single rating to the US education system. There are students today who are having a 10/10 experience. But far too many, particularly our Black, Latinx, LGBTQ, or neurodiverse students have inadequate access to high quality learning opportunities or do not have their identities affirmed in their classrooms and are being left behind.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
It is hard to generalize because so much of education is specific to the state, district, school, classroom, teacher, and student. A couple of trends I would offer:
- In many communities, classrooms offer a space for students to have food, stay warm in the winter, and interact with caring adults. They are a lifeline for students who are experiencing incredibly challenging circumstances.
- Despite inadequate pay and not being appreciated enough, incredible teachers all across the country are showing up for their students and making them feel important and cherished every single day.
- I am optimistic about a range of “community-hub” models for schools that are being developed around the country. In this vision, schools not only provide academic instruction to students, they are also integrated with students’ medical providers and other resources to make sure the needs of the whole child are being addressed. If a student has a cavity and has not been sleeping, their teacher will know and can adjust expectations or provide additional supports.
- I think there are really important conversations happening right now about the role of public schools in the US — what should they be offering students? What is the balance between academic subjects and life skills? How can they be a driver for more equitable communities?
- Coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, I think there was an initial renewed appreciation for the work teachers do amidst spectacular challenges. It has been disheartening to see that wane a bit and I hope that we will continue to see teachers celebrated for adapting to an entirely new job almost overnight.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
- Distance learning: When over 20 million students in the US alone were forced to switch to remote learning due to COVID-19, it became clear that many were not set up for success — particularly students from already underserved communities. With distance learning continuing for many communities, we need to ensure that all teachers have resources and support to teach in this new digital environment and that students have the resources they need to keep learning.
- More funding: Most public school teachers and schools do not have access to adequate funding to support teaching and learning. This was a challenge in the classroom, but the switch to virtual learning made this an even bigger issue. Through our distance learning fund, we dedicated $2M to teachers at high poverty public schools to help them send educational care packages — books, food, pencils — to their students to ensure they could continue learning.
- Inclusive classrooms: Classrooms can offer students space to celebrate and explore their backgrounds and to imagine and encourage futures that are just and equitable. To help create affirming classrooms for diverse students, Google.org helped fund the #ISeeME campaign to support Black and Latinx teachers, as well as other teachers who are in search of materials to make their classrooms more inclusive.
- Equitable access to STEM and Computer Science (CS): Access to advanced STEM and CS courses is not evenly distributed. For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, only 2% of students of color take AP STEM courses. STEM occupations are among some of the fastest-growing and highest paying and offer pathways to opportunity. All students should have equitable access, be encouraged to join, and receive the support needed to succeed in these courses.
- Pre-K!: As a former Head Start teacher, increasing access to high quality Pre-K is close to my heart. The benefits of Pre-K have been written about from increasing school readiness to decreasing incarceration rates. It is an incredibly important intervention particularly as we think about making our schools more equitable. A critical step to get these experiences to more students is to appreciate and pay Pre-K teachers more so that it is a sustainable career path.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
As I mentioned before, STEM occupations are among the fastest-growing and highest paying, and contribute significantly to our nation’s economy. Pathways to STEM careers start early: students who take advanced STEM courses in high school are much more likely to major in equivalent subjects in college and specifically, Black and Latinx students who take advanced Computer Science (CS) in high school are 7–8 times more likely to major in CS in college. But unfortunately, access to advanced STEM and CS courses is not evenly distributed.
Last year, through a $10M Google.org grant, The Kapor Center and Equal Opportunity Schools, alongside many other organizations, launched the Rising STEM Scholars initiative to place and support 3,000 Black, Latinx or low income students in Bay Area AP STEM and CS classrooms. The project started in 15 schools across the Bay Area and, within the first year, the number of Black and Latinx students taking AP STEM classes doubled. As we’ve worked to increase access to these courses, we’ve learned it is critical to: provide data insights on equity gaps at the school level, coach schools to address these gaps through practical actions and support, and provide professional development opportunities for teachers around identity- affirming STEM instruction.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
With careers in STEM growing rapidly and representing many of the highest paying professions, it is critical that we ensure all young people have access to these roles. Today, 20% of engineering graduates are women and women represent an even smaller slice — 16% — of the engineering workforce. It is not only good for the future of the women who get involved in tech but also good for the world at large. When there is more diversity of perspective and experience in the room, the solutions get more creative and relevant to a broader cross-section of users.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
Women make up half the U.S. college-educated workforce, yet only 25% of computing professionals. Our 2016 research with Gallup found that girls often report not seeing people who look like them involved in CS, are less likely to be encouraged to pursue CS, and are less likely to be confident they can learn CS. While in-school CS courses may increase access to CS for girls, we need to make sure that we encourage them to pursue CS, show them how it is connected to their passions, and make the courses engaging once they are filling a seat in the classroom.
It is also critically important that we look at intersectionality. While there is a huge gender gap in CS, the reality is even more bleak for Black and Latinx girls. All of the above issues are compounded by fewer in-school learning opportunities and even less representation.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
Both are critically important and can reinforce one another. For example, for the last couple of years we worked with SocialWorks (an organization founded by Chance the Rapper focused on supporting the Chicago community), Chicago Public Schools, and Scratch to offer learning opportunities at the intersection of computer science and art. Ultimately, through this creative exploration, students coded the official video game for Chance the Rapper’s hit song, “I Love You So Much.” Finding the thing that makes students tick and connecting that to learning objectives is one of the most effective ways to introduce any new subject and encourage students to pursue further exploration. The more choices and entry points we offer students the better!
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Pay teachers more!
- Ensure that schools and teachers create spaces that affirm and celebrate diverse student identities by increasing the diversity of the school workforce and creating more inclusive classroom resources and curriculum.
- Improve school resourcing — supplies should overfloweth. No more kids bringing in reams of printer paper and boxes of tissue to start the school year and no more teachers spending hundreds of dollars on school supplies. Teachers should have access to training, PD, and all the support they need.
- Reimagine schools as community hubs where many social services intersect to address the needs of the whole child and their family.
- Alongside academic knowledge, ensure we are providing students with the opportunities to develop the skills they need to be happy and successful in life and career.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Maya Angelou is an inspiration to me. In particular, her quote: “success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it” helps keep the important things in life in perspective. It is easy to be distracted by false signals of success — your job title, owning a home, a specific degree or certificate — that can’t offer true happiness if you don’t like how you are showing up in the world.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Beyonce. We are lucky to be alive during the reign of the queen and her foundation, Beygood, is doing so much to make the world a better place.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!