Kevin: I'm Kevin Chavous. Welcome to "What I Want to Know," a show based on curiosity and conversation with those who drive our local economies, and the schools in our communities. Can we be better? I think so. This is "What I Want to Know."
I think it's fair to say that of all of our public institutions, education, and especially K through 12 schooling, has a special and sometimes tattered history within each of us. The very foundation beneath our feet was laid by the educators in schools in our communities, with the best of intentions for our respective growth and development. But I want to know more. I want to understand why it is that we seem reticent to speak of the challenges our industry faces, without fear of retribution. Can we ask compelling and necessary questions about how to best support today's teacher in tomorrow's schools? Can we look at the results of our system's decisions that have either created or lessened gaps of achievement in opportunity? So, I've decided to dig deeper, to learn about the inner workings of the system with scholar Rick Hess, and a trailblazer you probably haven't heard of but should, Talia Milgrom-Elcott of 100Kin10.
Well, let's talk about teachers. Without question, they're among this nation's most precious resources, yet they're in a period of transition. The pandemic has asked all of us to take a look at teachers, how we recruit them, how we provide professional development and training. No one knows this area better than my next guest. Talia Milgrom-Elcott is the founder and executive director of 100Kin10. Now, this concept was birthed from a State of the Union address from former President Obama in 2011, where he issued a clarion call. He said, "I want 100,000 excellent STEM teachers in 10 years." And guess who answered the call? My next guest. Talia, welcome to the show.
Talia: Thanks so much. It is great to be here.
Kevin: So, tell me what motivated you to take on the charge that the president issued when he said he wanted 100,000 excellent STEM teachers?
Talia: It was one of those moments when you hear a call deep in your bones, and that call is so clear. We have an economy and a planet desperate for more STEM, desperate for people who have STEM skills, and know-how and passion to come not just fill our jobs, but save our planet, save the future for human beings. And right now, just a tiny fraction of our kids ever have that opportunity.
Kevin: You know, it's one thing to say, "That's a great idea. I'm gonna do it." But what led you to the point where it resonated with you so much? I mean, so much of this is about purpose and passion and heeding the call. What led you to that point where you just felt this is what I gotta do?
Talia: You know, he made that call in 2011. It was a complicated time. It was a divided country, and both sides of the aisle stood up and applauded. We knew we needed teachers. We knew we needed all kids to have these opportunities. I'll tell you what else, though. We knew it wasn't going to happen, that there would never be a coming together of all the different people who would need to respond to make something like a 10-year call come to life. And it was that space, the space between knowing it was necessary and it being possible that I couldn't tolerate, and I just thought, this is a moment where someone needs to step in to make it possible to deliver on this for our country, and I also knew I could not do it alone. If a president couldn't do it, I certainly couldn't do it.
Kevin: Yeah, well, let's think about what led him to make that call. Many people don't realize that, you know, many, many years ago, we were the nation's leader, not only in education, but also in math, science, physics, technology. We drove the world's innovation in those areas. But something happened along the way. You know, math became a chore to far too many of our kids. We had fewer and fewer people skilled in the sciences teaching in elementary school, these courses, and I remember in D.C. public school, 80% of the math teachers that taught elementary school kids didn't even have an expertise in math. So, to execute on this, how did you get it going, and what was that process like?
Talia: Not that long ago, when I was a kid, Barbie was quoted to say, "Math is hard." That you could literally buy a Barbie that would tell you, "Math is hard." And we are pretty clear about who was good at science and who got to be an engineer. And to be honest, they didn't look like either of us. And you're right, teachers were not prepared. Teachers were asked to do impossible things, and weren't supported to do them. They never got support in math. Many, many elementary school teachers did not have any math training, let alone science or technology training.
So, all of these things were happening. It's in that context that President Obama issues this call, because he understands that the future of this country is totally tied up in whether our kids get STEM opportunities and can lead the world. And I knew I couldn't do it alone, but that it needed to happen. And so, the first thing I did, I had the privilege of being at Carnegie Corporation of New York, the International Foundation, at the time. Carnegie has a deep, century-long focus on teachers, and a commitment to teachers as the pillars of democracy. And we had taken up a focus on STEM as a way of bringing transformation to education in public schools in America. And sitting in that space, knowing I couldn't do this alone, but that we needed to see this call delivered upon, I set out to build a network.
We started with 28 organizations from across every sector, and we asked them not just to come to a meeting. We asked them not just to say, "We think STEM is important." We asked them to commit their own resources, their own power, to achieving this goal.
Kevin: And how's it going? I mean, now, 10 years later, how far along are you?
Talia: So, at the nine-year mark, our partners, which grew from 28 organizations to more than 300, more than 10 times from where we started, have prepared more than 93,000 teachers.
Kevin: Oh my goodness. You are almost there.
Talia: We are almost there. We are going to hit this goal despite a pandemic, despite unbelievable, unprecedented turmoil, we're going to hit this goal on time, this year, our 10th year.
Kevin: Wow. That's incredible. So, let me ask you this. How much of what you're doing is about recruiting people who have never taught into the teaching profession?
Talia: Ah, so, I think you understand it's about both things. So, these hundreds of organizations are recruiting and preparing new people, and that 93,000, those are all new people into STEM teaching. They might be elementary school teachers certified in STEM or in math. They might be high school teachers teaching engineering, or something really specialized. Or they might be working with all kids. They might be doing it in Spanish or in other languages, and we have more than 100 partners working on keeping those teachers supported, thriving, and in classrooms, teaching kids.
Kevin: Recently this superintendent shared with me, to make this point, that she had a teacher that she said was horrible in her school district, a small school district in a southern state, and she said she let the teacher go. The teacher went to a neighboring school district and became one of the best teachers in that school district. And she said the lesson she learned was fit matters. Where you place a teacher, and the environment that you surround the teacher with, it all matters.
So, talk to me about this idea of making sure that we set up our teachers to maximizing their potential.
Talia: The first thing that you're saying, which is spot on, is nobody goes into teaching as a life choice, as a career, to fail their students. It just doesn't pay enough, and it's really hard. So the first thing is to acknowledge that we have people, and I think we're seeing it now for the first time, in our homes, in a different way, because of the pandemic. We know that teachers will go to the end of the Earth to support their students. We literally have stories of teachers driving 70 miles to give lessons to a kid, standing outside of their home using a whiteboard to explain something that had been complicated. So we know that teachers are trying to do their best, and we know that we have created environments in which it is very hard to do that.
Actually, will share that we spent about 18 months listening to thousands of teachers, and others all across the education system, including people who had left teaching, to ask them why it was that we continued to struggle to get and keep enough great STEM teachers for all of our kids and all of our schools. And one of the things we heard is that we don't have opportunities, "we" being teachers, for professional development during the school day. We don't have opportunities to collaborate during the school day. And you know what they told us? They said there is no one in the building who is accountable and cares about my success.
Talia: We have so often created schools where we think it's either about focusing on students, or focusing on teachers, adults or students first. As opposed to understanding that people who don't thrive can never create environments where our children will thrive. We must be committed, we must create schools where adults can thrive, so that students can thrive.
Kevin: Wow. So much, too much, of American public education is in the proverbial either/or box, and the collaboration matters. You talk about a couple of things that I'm struck by. People talk about data-driven instruction. They talk about the power of data, but you also believe in using data to guide your work. Talk about that.
Talia: I mentioned that when we started this, 10 years ago, we had 28 organizations, and what we believed was all we need is to get more great organizations to make commitments to this goal, and then we'll get there, and it'll be fine. Great organizations, unleash them, and they're going to obviously get to the goal. We did that for about a year before we realized that that was not going to be enough, and we needed to pay attention to what we were hearing from them, so, data that comes from numbers, and data that comes from conversation. We were talking to a hundred incredible organizations at that point around the country, and they said to us, "We are trying, but it is like we are walking through molasses. We are battling an uphill battle. If you can't support us to connect with each other, we will all be like little atoms going about our own business. But what we want to create, what you need us to create in 100Kin10, is a place where we can learn from each other, build on each other's successes, not repeat each other's mistakes, and solve problems together that we cannot solve alone."
Kevin: What advice would you give to ed schools about the whole process of developing teachers?
Talia: Do you remember what I said about how we listened to thousands of teachers and others in the education system and were able to distill from that a few key challenges that are the biggest-leverage, highest-opportunity places to affect the STEM teacher shortage, and actually the teacher shortage in general? One of the most powerful ones that came out, out of more than 100, was that people becoming teachers, teacher candidates, never get taught in the ways that we expect them to teach. So, they are taught often in lectures, and then we ask them to go in and do hands-on, project-based collaborative work in their classrooms and with their students. But they're never experiencing it. So the answer to your question is right there. Teach teachers the way we want them to teach our kids.
Kevin: We get so caught up in making sure that folks know the material, know the best practices, when at the end of the day, this relationship built between teacher and student is at the core, and the only way great teachers become great is to be able to exercise that experience. They have to live it out day to day, and you're not going to get that by reading a textbook or taking a test on it. So, let me ask you this. Give me some examples, some real life examples of transformation. Change can be scary, and especially if you're beaten down and you're told that, you know, you're not doing enough, or you deal with kids who have suffered from the trauma of poverty, and you're reaching into your pocket and you're paying for supplies because you're in a school district that can't fund you the way you need in terms of resource allocation. What are the examples that you can share, or one or two, where the transformation took place, teachers were re-energized, and they were able to blossom in helping kids?
Talia: In this pandemic, teachers have never been, I think, more challenged. You talked about not having the money to pay for printing paper and other materials for their classroom. In this past year, they didn't have the money to pay for the basic protective equipment to help them feel physically safe. But at the same time, the whole world saw how important teachers were, and how complex and multifaceted their jobs were, from the emotional well-being of our kids, who come home from school feeling pretty happy most days, and on top of that, they've learned something, neither of which is true in most homes in this country most days during this pandemic. And in that context, we have heard the most amazing stories. So, one of our partners is a science museum, and they used to do professional development with teachers. They would come in and they would do all kinds of amazing hands-on things, and then they would bring their students into the museum. But of course, none of that was possible anymore.
And so, the museum pivoted, and they prepared kits for their teachers. They packed them into pizza boxes. They drove them house to house, to deliver these hands-on science kits to their teachers, using only the most basic materials that you could find around your house. They taught them these hands-on projects. The teachers went off and bought the materials for their kids, delivered them, and did these hands-on projects, and what they came back and said is, "We've never seen our kids more connected. Kids turn on their video for the first time in months. We saw smiles. We saw this spark of, 'Aha!' that is why we went into teaching in the first place."
I have this optimistic hope and feeling that when we return to schools and we return kids to classrooms, we're going to see much more active learning partnerships between teachers and kids, doing projects together that are relevant to what they need to know, relevant to what kids care about, and in which kids are engaged in their learning in a way that we did not see before the pandemic.
Kevin: Yeah, I think you're right. The relationships matter. And to that end, as we close out, I'm going to extract a promise from you. You're going to reach that goal of 100K over the next several months. Keep doing what you're doing. The world, the country, needs your voice, and so do the teachers you serve. Talia, thank you so much for joining me.
Talia: Thank you so much. I have been honored to be in conversation with you.
Kevin: This global reset that we're going through clearly involves education. And if it involves education, it involves teachers. Speaking about the need to upskill our teachers, and to just understand the general state of teachers' qualifications across the board, I'm so pleased to be joined with resident scholar and director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, my good friend Rick Hess. Rick is a noted educator. He's written well over 10 books. I've read many of them. He's taught at places like Harvard University, Georgetown, UVA, but more than anything, he is a big thinker. Rick, thank you for joining us on "What I Want to Know."
Rick: Hey. Kevin. Great to be with you, and great to see you, my friend.
Kevin: Oh, yeah. It's been a long time. So, I'm reminded of this old school movie, so I'm dating myself now, "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." So, what's eating Rick Hess these days when it comes to education and what's happening?
Rick: You know, one, that we've got millions of kids who we've locked out of their schools, even though all of the evidence tells us that sensibly handled, those kids can be in schools, with educators and friends, getting the instruction they need, but also the emotional-social support they need. I've got my little first-grader 30 feet away from us as we're doing this, watching six and a half hours of screen every day. Not the way I think we want kids to learn, if we can do better.
But then the other, bigger thing, I'm so frustrated at how little problem-solving I've seen, how little creative thought I've seen, about how do we actually get kids, the schools, the supports, all of the teaching and learning that we need them to have throughout this entire process.
Kevin: Well, and I don't want to get into the politics, because you and I can go back and forth, but I've gotta dabble a little bit in it, Rick. How much of this lack of problem-solving that we see in school districts really speaks to the politics? I mean, look, we know the decision-making on whether or not kids even go to school has this political overlay. What are your thoughts on how we deal with that?
Rick: Yeah, so the politics is real, and you and I were joking before we went on that we go back to when you could talk about these things in terms of the problem instead of the politics. I think, you know, the inertia, the, "This is what we do, and so we do it," isn't really political at all. I think it's about inertia, it's about habits of mind, it's about routines and incentives. It's about people feeling nervous. Do anything that hasn't already been pre-approved and done by somebody else. So, I think when we talk about how do we make sure we're connecting with kids who have fallen off the grid? How do we make sure we're getting alienated high schoolers, or frustrated 4th-graders?
That's what I'm talking about, and I don't think the obstacles there are political. I think the obstacles are that we have educators who either don't know how to do anything other than what they always do, or have ideas, but don't feel empowered to run with those ideas.
Kevin: You know, I'm glad you corrected me on that. I think you're right. I think that we are so systematized that we're used to the systems. And, you know, Rick, Grace Hopper said it best. She was a noted computer scientists and later a Navy Rear Admiral. She said, "The most dangerous phrase in the human language is 'We've always done it that way.'" And nowhere is that more evident than schools. To that point, let's talk about the general state of teaching. I mean, the pandemic has created this global reset, as we all know. How has it impacted teaching? And I want to get to where we go in terms of making sure that teachers can move forward with this new reality.
Rick: Yeah, you know, I mean, I think two things are true at once. I think it is undeniably true that the teacher associations, and that the profession as a whole, to my mind, this has not been their finest hour. I have seen police and firefighters, healthcare professionals, and grocery workers doing their job every day, and I've seen us explain that "Well, schools aren't essential enough to figure this out." On the other hand, I think it is also true, simultaneously, that hundreds of thousands, even millions of teachers, have been busting their humps, trying to do the right thing for kids. That they have been doing stuff they were never trained to do, that they're not supported to do, that they have been figuring out on the fly. And a lot of them have done an impressive and admirable job, and these things can exist at once. So I think that's where we've gotta start.
But the real question, I think, especially for folks like you and me, for policymakers, is how do we put educators in a position to do their best work? How do we give them the tools and the resources? And for me, this starts by saying what is it the teachers do all day? And we've got them spending a lot of time doing things that I think frustrate them, and don't make great use of their skill sets, rote stuff, and paperwork, and tracking, and dealing with balky tech systems that they have no training in problem-solving. And we're giving them far too little time and support to do the stuff that they can do powerfully and importantly, which is actually connect with children at a human level.
So, for me, the starting question's, "How do we rethink the ways in which we set up educators to do their job?"
Kevin: In the midst of this reset because of the pandemic, I have this thesis that you will have a more educated consumer as a parent, because they now have a true window into what's going on in classrooms. And some of it's good, some of it's bad, some of it's ugly, but do you think that will accelerate school districts' willingness to get rid of antiquated systems and to create an environment where teachers can focus on the things that matter, as opposed some of those rote things, mundane things, they're used to doing?
Rick: I think it could go either way, honestly. I think that pressure, saying, "Wait a minute. Why is my kid in school six and a half hours a day, when I'm only seeing two hours of actual learning with my kids at home?" will absolutely create some of that healthy pressure. On the other hand, one of the things we've seen any system does when it gets transparent is you tend to batten down the hatches. And so, I think there's a real concern that schools will say, "Well, we're gonna kind of give you a lot of buzzwords and explain that it's procedure, because that's how we defend ourselves against parent questions and transparency."
Kevin: Well, and, you know, the challenge with that, because so many teachers, young teachers in particular, who have a lot of talent, and this sort of old-school Peace Corps spirit, they wanna make a difference, they wanna change the world. They get frustrated by those mundane tasks. So, what would you tell an enterprising superintendent who wants to break through that logjam, but still it meets resistance, maybe even sometimes from school boards, or their administrators?
Rick: Go small rather than go big. So, first off, we gotta keep in mind that all of us who work in and around education tend to be passionate. I mean, education is just filled with people who care a lot, which is in one level, great, right? Like, I mean, I wish, you know, the folks who come out to help with HVAC were as passionate about their work as people in education are. But the problem with passion is it can make you really enthusiastic, really disinclined to listen, really impatient, and so we tend to get a lot of reform that goes big, huge, doesn't have time for the nuts and bolts. And I think that's where we lose the thread.
So, we do these big reforms, and instead of actually asking ourselves, "What are teachers doing? What are they spending their time on? How is this actually landing for kids?" we talk about systems, and cool, new, big things. And I think the stuff that sticks, the stuff where we really figure out how to do it, and then we can grow it in a way that we understand it, is when we start small. We start by saying to those teachers, "What are you doing? Let's track it."
This is what Doug Lemov, for instance, did so powerfully in his "Teach Like a Champion" work. Let's get small, let's get nitty-gritty, let's figure it out, because then we can explain it, and then we can help people see why it makes sense. And so, the one piece of advice which I think we've gotten wrong much more than we've gotten right over 20 years is I think there's been a huge incentive on the part of policymakers and foundations and advocates to go big, and we've gotta really be encouraging leaders to kind of start at the other end of the spectrum.
Kevin: Yeah, back to the basics. Online learning. You've got a 6-year-old going through it now. I've talked to countless parents. I have a granddaughter who's four, who, when I witnessed one of her online sessions, she was in the middle of a conversation with other four-year-olds and a teacher, and she just said, "I've gotta go. I'm going to play with my baby brother," and she walked away from the computer. And the teacher handled it well. What do you see will be the impact of the virtual learning experience? Some people feel school districts may default back to a hybrid existence, but what does the future look like in terms of the virtual education service delivery option?
Rick: You know, and this gets us back to what educators do well. You know, the point's been made, if a computer can do something as well as a person, you ought to let the computer do it. There's a reason that ATMs are so useful. They're convenient, they're efficient, they're relatively cheap, they're there 24/7, you don't have to worry about business hours.
So, look, when we unpack what teaching and learning entails, Bror Saxberg and I wrote a book on this about seven or eight years ago, about learning engineers. We said, "Look, let's think about the elements of learning. There's demonstrating a lesson, there's giving kids a chance to practice the lesson, there's giving them feedback on the lesson." And when you think about how this plays out, say, on a high school football team, or in a high school orchestra, you see it naturally. Some students are working with a position coach. Some students are watching on an iPad, they're watching the plays diagram. So, technology is not a replacement for good hands-on instruction, but technology does some of these functions. It lets you see it more precisely. It lets you get more reps in practicing something, and if done well, it then gives the adults, the coaches, the mentors, the teachers more time to connect with you, to really speak to you, to put a hand on your shoulder.
So, what's the right way to think about it? If school districts are using this as an easy way to deal with kids who don't like coming to school, they're just making life easy on themselves. You know, if kid's disconnected, or if kids are being disciplined, or if kids are ill, and school district's like, "Ah, we'll just plug them into a computer for six hours a day," that is a profound failure. On the other hand, if we say, "Look, we know some children need a lot more time to learn, we know some children learn this way better than that way, we know teachers are stronger at some stuff, but we can use our time better," if we integrate technology as a force multiplier, to help teachers do their job, I think it could make a profound difference.
Kevin: Wow. Let's change gears. You know, most of the action, in terms of education policy and funding, is in the states. But the Secretary of Education, the federal government, can play a major role, particularly the bully pulpit. So, let's assume that the Secretary of Education, maybe he's already done it, but let's say he calls Rick Hess and says, "Rick, tell me the things I need to focus on." What would you say?
Rick: I would say a couple things to focus on are, one, let's make sure we're talking about what the problem is we want to solve for kids. For all kids. We've fallen into these categories. We talk about Black kids, or we talk about Latino kids. Let's talk about what it is we want for all kids. And then let's talk about the other supports, the other resources that we need to do in order to make this happen for every child. One is we need to make sure we're talking inclusively.
The second is that we gotta remember that schools exist in a free country partly because of their civic mission. This is not something on the side. We want schools that create citizens, children who appreciate both the blessings of liberty, and understand the obligations to hold their nation to account. And that has to be something that's at the heart, the beating heart, of every school and every classroom.
And then third, what we've been talking about, that doing school better does not mean doing school more. It doesn't mean more resources poured into the same activities. It means asking ourselves, "In order to solve these problems, if we're gonna spend $700 billion a year, if we're gonna hire thousands of adults in this community to work in education, how do we spend these dollars? What jobs do we need these adults to do? How could technology help? How can partners help? How can community mentors help?" Let's approach that as if we're spending $200 million in community X this year on education. Let's imagine somebody rolled a wheelbarrow with $200 million in small, unmarked bills, rolls them in front of the school board, and said, how do we start? What would you do?
Kevin: Wise words, and wise approach. Rick Hess, thank you so much for joining us. This has been a pleasure, my friend.
Rick: Kevin, thanks for having me. Great to be with you.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review, too. Explore other episodes, and dive into our discussions on the future of education. Join the conversation, and let me know what you want to know, using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media.
For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know.”
Dr. Fredrick (Rick) M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on K–12 and higher education issues. He is the author of Education Week’s popular blog “Rick Hess Straight Up” and a regular contributor to Forbes and The Hill. He also serves as an executive editor of Education Next..
Rick has a master’s degree and doctorate degree in government, in addition to a master’s of education in teaching and curriculum from Harvard University. He also has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Brandeis University.
Talia Milgrom-Elcott is the founder and executive director of 100kIn10. Under her leadership, what began as a call in President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address for 100,000 excellent STEM teachers in 10 years is becoming a reality. Over the past several years, she’s led sessions or been a featured speaker at the White House, Scientific American, U.S. News STEM Solutions, the National Institutes of Health, and the Yale School of Management. She has been published or profiled in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, the Smithsonian, CNN Money, and U.S. News and World Report.
Talia’s work was called out as “the most important effort” in STEM teacher preparation by The New York Times in 2013; was celebrated on-stage by President Clinton as his favorite commitment to come out of CGI America, and was applauded by President Obama in a personalized video address to the 100Kin10 network in 2014. In 2015, she was called a “leading STEM communicator” by the White House.
She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. Talia clerked for Judge Robert Sack of the Second Circuit Federal Court of Appeals and was the first Workers’ Rights Legal Fellow at New York Jobs with Justice. In law school, she spent an extensive amount of time at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society and wrote about the role of public/private spaces and institutions.
What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.