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Fighting education inequality across the US

Teach For America is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing an excellent and equitable education to all children. The organization recruits, trains, and places 3,500 teachers--known as corps members--per year in under-resourced schools in every corner of the US. The teachers are passionate, committed, and often far away from the Teach For America headquarters in NYC.

Bridging the distance

With such a distributed workforce, Teach For America needed a way to foster communication, collaboration, and a network of support among teachers, staff, and alumni. For years, however, the organization’s technology was not up to the task: most correspondence was done by email, which hindered discussion and idea sharing, and not everyone could access the resources they needed when they needed them.

Modernizing education IT

Compounding the situation, Teach For America’s many IT systems operated independently of each other, requiring multiple passwords and tedious login processes. It needed to modernize its IT infrastructure—to bring together its disparate software systems and offer a streamlined, secure, consistent user experience. The organization looked for an identity solution that would also protect the vast amount of personal data Teach For America held.

Best-of-breed technology

Okta offered a sophisticated and easy-to-implement answer to both challenges: a single portal through which users could access all workplace productivity apps, and better data protection controls. Okta’s extensive library of pre-built integrations allowed Teach For America to quickly and easily deploy new collaboration tools, including Zoom, Box, and Slack, to teachers across the country. The quick exchange of information has created a tight-knit community of teachers and staff hundreds of miles apart.

Night and day

Okta has helped Teach For America transform and secure a Zero Trust work environment. With fewer issues logging in, better access to communication tools, and more support for innovation, the benefits of Okta are felt throughout the organization. It all adds up to a marked increase in productivity—giving teachers and staff more time to focus on work that matters.

Fostering community and collaboration through technology

Teach For America uses technology extensively as it works for educational equity across the US. The organization has partnered with Okta to connect its network of staff, alumni, and more than 6,000 teachers, fostering a culture of innovation, collaboration, and open communication. Okta helps Teach For America give everyone instant access to the information and resources they need, including Zoom, Slack, Box, and other ground-breaking applications. In addition, Okta ensures all personal data is safe and secure.

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In this new world with Okta at the center of our identity, we've been able to reduce technical barriers significantly—we can verify people's identity very quickly and allow them to work and access user tools as they see fit, from anywhere.

Sandeep Chellani, CIO, Teach For America

Benefits

  • Increased productivity due to a unified, streamlined user experience
  • Reduced IT friction and increased visibility into system access
  • Improved collaboration and communication among corp members, alumni, and staff
  • Better data management and protection
  • Stronger security posture with a Zero Trust framework

Every child deserves an excellent education

Teach For America is a non-profit organization with a clear vision: one day, all children in the United States will have access to an excellent education. “Right now, your zip code defines what opportunities are going to be available to you and where you’re likely to end up, given how the education system is structured,” says Sandeep Chellani, the organization’s chief information officer. “We want to break that model.”

Teach For America recruits, trains, and places teachers in under-resourced public schools in urban, rural, and native communities for a minimum of two years. The selection process is rigorous, and 3,000 individuals demonstrating outstanding leadership potential are accepted into the program annually.

That means that Teach For America has over 6,000 teachers working in the program at any one time, but their commitment and passion for the program doesn’t stop at the end of two years. Teach For America alumni often continue to engage with the organization—and in efforts to fight education inequity—well after their first assignment. After almost 30 years in operation, Teach For America has a network of 60,000 corps members and alumni.

It’s a large and vibrant network that is working for change in every corner of the country. Headquartered in New York City, it’s crucial that Teach For America supports all of its corp members, mentors, and staff through open communication, access to the latest teaching technologies, and opportunities for collaboration. Doing that effectively and securely is a constant challenge.

“We're now catering to a generation of millennials who want access to applications in a very quick, one-click way on their devices,” says Harpreet Bajwa, managing director of business solutions at Teach For America. “Our teachers need constant access to data and resources so that they can change and improve their strategies. Our needs are constantly evolving.”

A consistent experience for all users

To meet the needs of its team—to ensure no teacher is ever left feeling isolated and unsupported, no matter where they are—Teach For America needed to establish a consistent and accessible experience for its users and administrators.

“We’re super distributed,” says Kris Gamache, senior managing director of Teach For America’s IT Business Analyst Group. “We wanted a common platform, a common experience, and have that work the same no matter where you are. That's a big X factor in our ability to collaborate and work as teams.”

It’s also been a factor in productivity. For years, Teach For America had been adding new IT systems as needs arose. Much of the software was designed in house, but each piece was independent from the others. “It meant that we were managing a separate username and password, and a separate password refresh cycle across 15 to 20 different systems at any given point in time. We had a lot of pain points around that,” says Gamache.

According to Gamache, many people would keep their usernames and passwords on sticky notes around their desks, or forget them frequently. With so many passwords, each one requiring a different reset method, the result was “a lot of chaos” at the help desk. “It was like death by a thousand cuts. When you put it all together, it was a big problem,” says Gamache.

Teach For America needed a way to streamline its systems. Instead of IT “getting in the way of our core members, it should enable them to innovate and be as effective as possible,” Gamache says.

Shifting to the cloud

Teach For America knew the key to streamlining its technology was to centralize it—and the most cost-effective way to do that was to move toward more cloud-based applications and platforms.

“We were building the software, we were hosting the software, we were updating the software. That was not scalable and it also wasn't the best use of our organizational resources,” says Chellani. “We recognized that we needed to get out of the infrastructure business as much as possible.”

Teach For America started to move away from on-prem infrastructure with Office365 and Box, its two anchor cloud technologies for email and storage. Then another challenge became apparent: each application or platform, whether on-prem or cloud-based, came with its own security policies. “The policies all looked different,” says Bajwa. “Everything had its own security lock with its own flavor and it was hard to keep track of. It was the classic problem of multiple different systems integrating with the shared system—so multiple points of failure that take a long time to fix.”

Teach For America’s identity solution was no longer sufficient. “It just wasn’t going to support us in the ways we needed it to, to be able to move our users to the cloud and have them access cloud applications quickly and easily. We needed a new solution,” says Chellani.

Protecting personal data

With a large and distributed workforce and the amount of personal information the organization holds, data security was another concern for Teach For America. “It's an everyday challenge to make sure that the right people are accessing the things they're allowed to and that information doesn't get into the wrong hands, either inadvertently or through malicious intent,” says Chellani.

“We have to do a lot to protect our data. We have to be very diligent about knowing what sensitive information we have in what systems, and make sure it's locked down, encrypted, and accessed by only the people who need it. It's a multi-dimensional challenge that we must work on every day,” Chellani says. Any identity solution they considered would have to meet their security challenges and protect their data.

Searching for a solution

Keenly aware of the need for a new identity solution, Chellani and his team narrowed their options to three key providers: Okta, OneLogin, and Microsoft, “based on the maturity of the organizations, the capabilities they provided, and their strategies for the future,” says Chellani. Okta emerged as the obvious choice to combat the organization’s identity challenges, and to partner with them to support future growth.

“We were impressed with Okta because of their vision for identity, where they were going, and the talent that they had in the organization,” says Chellani. Okta also had experience in modernizing education IT and providing solutions specific to the challenges educational institutions face. “Their product aligned with our needs. We have received benefits that we never imagined, including advanced security, better deployment of technology, and easy access to new cloud solutions.”

Okta’s extensive library of 6,500+ pre-built integrations was exactly what Teach For America was looking for to address its primary pain points. It enabled Teach For America to connect the software its teachers and staff use every day, and streamline access via a single portal.

As an added benefit, Teach For America’s mission aligned with the Okta for Good program, Okta’s commitment to strengthening the connections between people, technology, and community. “Okta for Good speaks to the importance that Okta gives to philanthropic organizations,” says Chellani. “We typically work with organizations who believe in our mission and are focused on making the world a better place. Having those partners makes our jobs a lot easier and enables us to make a bigger impact.”

Teach For America decided to take advantage of Okta’s Workforce Identity Products including Single Sign-On, Adaptive Multi-Factor Authentication, Lifecycle Management, and Universal Directory. “A single username and password now provides access to all the workplace productivity apps that our staff uses,” Chellani says. “That directly simplifies the end user experience.”

Okta’s solution also ensures the right people have access to the right apps and resources. “Identity is critical,” Chellani says. “It informs who I am and what applications I would have access to. That in turn impacts our workplace productivity and our work effectiveness.”

Well-planned rollout

When it was time to rollout Okta across the organization, the Teach For America IT team did so gradually. Every staff member was given an Okta account and set up with SSO login, and access to Office365 and Box.

“Once that was done, we started a slow progression of adding additional applications to Okta,” says Gamache. Launching the suite of cloud solutions for staff, including Zoom, Slack, and Box, was done with low investment and quick turnaround. “I would say we probably added four applications a year for the next couple of years. We kept building it out over time.” Although Teach For America looked to Okta as an identity and collaboration solution first and foremost, security has been an important part of the package—more than Teach For America expected.

“We were suffering from a lot of phishing attacks on our staff, and we had to take aggressive action to encourage staff to change their passwords or lock down systems,” says Chellani. “We didn’t initially implement Okta’s Multi-Factor Authentication, but as the need for it became clear, we were able to roll it out to all 2,000 of our employees very seamlessly because Okta was already in the center of everything we were doing.”

Securing a perimeter-less workspace

More recently, Teach For America experienced another phishing threat. The organization requested assistance from Okta, and soon became an early tester of it’s new password sequencing feature—now, an authentication factor must be met first, and the password entered second. Quick innovation and fast implementation solved an immediate security concern.

Through Multi-Factor Authentication and other security features, Okta supports a Zero Trust environment. Zero Trust eliminates the traditional idea of having a “trusted” network perimeter, replacing it with secure identity management: each user must have secure access to shared applications and data regardless of their location, device, or network. For an organization with cloud-based applications and workers as spread out as Teach For America’s teachers, this approach to security is a necessity.

“Zero Trust is our reality, and it has been for a while,” says Chellani. “Our staff spend a very small percentage of time in their office. They're either at schools, or working with our partners, or meeting with our donors, or working from home. In our previous iteration of technology, we were using VPNs and other burdensome ways for people to have to work with us.”

Today, Chellani says, Okta reduces that burden by quick and sophisticated identity verification, freeing staff to work securely and efficiently from anywhere. “Now, you don't have to worry about passwords or security or VPNs or whether you have everything set up on this particular laptop to do the work you need to do. You can be on any device doing everything you need to do.”

Okta also gives Teach For America increased visibility into who’s accessing what system when. “We can see who's using what and what they're getting into, and can monitor and control it pretty tightly,” says Chellani. “I think of Okta as the digital keys of the current workplace.”

Best of breed solutions

Teach For America wanted to empower its staff, alumni, and corps members to become more effective educators. Choosing best-of-breed technology—instead of opting for a traditional all-in-one technology stack—allowed Teach For America to provide collaborative teaching tools that make all their users more productive. As facilitated by Okta’s integrations, this approach enabled better knowledge sharing and more time focused on education than on managing legacy providers.

Teach For America selected Box, Slack, and Zoom as the optimal best-of-breed tools to enable collaboration across staff, alumni, and corps members. Leveraging the plug-and-play integrations available in the the Okta Integration Network, Teach For America was able to rapidly deploy and secure new systems and applications to teachers across the country. The combination of these solutions has created near instantaneous access to applications, regardless of device, and ultimately has resulted in a stronger community across Teach For America’s broad and geographically distributed user base.

“Let’s say I was a coach, and I had to start a quick session with my teacher,” says Bajwa. “I would quickly access Zoom via Okta. Within the Zoom session, I would start up a Box document and directly collaborate on that. Okta has opened up a community of knowledge holders who share what they know. Quick exchange of information, just-in-time information.”

While managing multiple applications across a vast user base may seem like a challenge, Okta’s Lifecycle Management product makes this process simple and secure through automated application assignment and revocation across a users’ lifecycle. “We now have a very streamlined process for providing access to new users, giving them all that they need in their onboarding process, including access to these critical apps even on the first day of their work. Okta has enabled that,” says Bajwa. “That also applies to exit. When the date comes for a user to exit our organization, they have their access taken away at the right points in time, which is really important from a security standpoint.”

Before and after Okta: ‘night and day’

In the six years Teach For America has been working with Okta, it has enjoyed organization-wide reduction in IT friction and user frustration. Productivity has increased, as has Teach For America’s ability to use the latest cloud-based applications, to everyone’s benefit.

“Every individual user benefits from our rollout and continued use of Okta,” says Gamache. “They're like, ‘You saved me five minutes in my day,’ but when you total up that across all of our staff on a daily basis that's enormous. It's the number of productivity hours that people get back.”

Christin Friley, senior managing director of people, analytics, and technology, agrees. “From a staff experience perspective, it's been night and day. Now it’s really easy for people to get access to the things that they need. They don't have as many issues logging in, which for us is really powerful. They can focus more on doing their jobs and making an impact for kids and families and the communities that we serve.”

As for the Teach For America help desk? “It’s fielding a lot fewer questions about user accounts, passwords, and password resets,” Friley says. She also notes that because Okta integrates seamlessly with the applications she uses, the data she receives is more accurate and useful than the information she received before Okta streamlined operations. It’s now easier to interpret data, and make informed decisions from it.

The boost in efficiency is also felt in the human resources department. “The provisioning and deprovisioning used to be manual processes; our admins are getting that time back as well. There’s a lot more automation in place which makes things simpler,” says Gamache.

Building community through the cloud

Enabling Teach For America to keep pace with the latest teaching and teamwork technology, including Zoom, Slack, and Box, has helped make the organization feel close despite geographical distance. “Okta has really helped us bring that culture of collaboration, communication, and a tight knit community back into our space,” Bajwa says. It’s a culture that also supports teacher initiatives.

“A lot of our staff love to create and innovate. When they find technologies and tools that work for them, they say, ‘Hey, would you be able to integrate this with Okta?’” says Bajwa.”If you have an idea, you have a problem, we have to find quick solutions. Okta helps us do that.”

Looking ahead, Chellani predicts that Teach For America’s IT will be entirely cloud-based within three years. And along the way, Okta is facilitating a better, simpler, and more exciting way of working and learning. “You can be on any device, doing everything you need to do, with anyone in the organization. It’s freeing! Okta brings everything to your fingertips,” Chellani says.

That innovation through technology, facilitated by Okta, ultimately benefits the students at the heart of Teach For America’s mission. “I don’t think people learn from lectures; they learn from experiences.” “We need to create an environment where students have multiple ways of learning, and have ways to engage that help them fully appreciate their potential and the different things that they can aspire to in the future,” says Chellani. “There’s a lot of potential for Teach For America and Okta to continue to partner and unlock innovation and progress.”

About Teach For America

Teach For America works in partnership with urban and rural communities in more than 50 regions across the country to expand educational opportunity for children. Founded in 1990, Teach For America recruits and develops a diverse corps of outstanding leaders to make an initial two-year commitment to teach in high-need schools and become lifelong leaders in the effort to end educational inequity. Today Teach For America is a force of over 60,000 alumni and corps members committed to profound systemic change. From classrooms to districts to state houses across America, they’re reimagining education to realize the day when every child has an equal opportunity to learn, to grow, to influence, and to lead. For more information, visit www.teachforamerica.org.