Kevin: Twelve years ago, former President Barack Obama focused his State of the Union address on education, calling for the training of 100,000 new teachers of science and mathematics. By 2021, that 100,000 goal had been achieved, but there was still work to be done. And in 2022, the U.S. Department of Education announced this YOU Belong in STEM initiative designed to bring equity and high-quality STEM education to America's schools. What challenges do we face in bringing high-quality STEM education to our nation's classrooms? And how can we ensure that STEM education is helping students understand the problems of today and tomorrow? This is What I Want to Know. And today, I'm joined by Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten and Talia Milgrom-Elcott of Beyond100K to find out.
Kevin: Cindy Marten is the Deputy Secretary of Education in the U.S. Department of Education. A career educator, Cindy has been a teacher and administrator, and most recently, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District. Talia Milgrom-Elcott is the founder of Beyond100K, an initiative to continue to develop and grow new STEM teachers in schools across the country. She has worked with the New York City Department of Education and led several education-focused nonprofits. Today they're here to talk about the YOU Belong in STEM initiative as well as how we can best keep our STEM teachers in the classroom.
Cindy and Talia, welcome to the show. You both have demonstrated a strong interest in STEM, but I want to start with you, Cindy. As a teacher, is this what led you to understand how important STEM really is?
Cindy: First of all, thanks for putting this conversation together. This unifying force and ongoing sustained effort is so important. This is my 33rd year in education, and I could see the importance of STEM specifically, probably 14 years in, where I had worked in a couple of different settings in my career and I found myself at an intercity school in San Diego with a thousand students, pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. One hundred percent were qualified for Title 1. Eighty-five percent were English learners at a border town. And in other school environments I had worked in, we had science labs and all kinds of hands-on, minds-on learning. And when I showed up at that school, it wasn't the primary thing that the school was doing.
When we built a science lab and had a specific science teacher integrate science throughout the school day and then had a science lab and science teacher, I saw what it did for students specifically. What I realized is the importance of a wholly integrated, hands-on, minds-on approach and what happened to students when they got that opportunity. Light bulbs turned on, and I saw the kinds of learning experiences that they were able to take throughout the school day, not just in the science lab but throughout the school day. And I just think this idea of creating these kinds of learning conditions should be everywhere for students.
My philosophy is you harness the elements that work, use what's working, expand and grow more of what's working. What happens now is we don't have that everywhere for every child, every day in every classroom. What we can see is some kids on some days, in some schools, in some classrooms have rich, rigorous, robust, meaningful sense of belonging and academic rigor in a STEM environment because it's been intentionally designed that way. And then, in other places, it's not there. It's just completely missing. We want to address that missing piece. And I just wake up every day inspired that we have American people who want to see things like this happen. And I've seen firsthand what it can do to change the trajectory of a student's life.
Kevin: Talia, I want to come to you on this because Cindy alluded to the fact that we've got two of you together. We rarely have two people at the same time, but the deputy secretary is in the government; she understands this work. But you all have developed this partnership, and a lot of it's been based on your work over 12 years ago when President Obama said he wanted to have 100,000 new STEM teachers. You reached that goal, but that's not enough. Talk a little bit about what you have done in terms of once you reached the goal of 100,000 new STEM teachers, but then realizing there was more to be done and how you came together with the Department of Education.
Talia: I love everything about that question and also that it's rare to have two people on together because it is something I felt so clearly from the department and from our work that the real challenges that we face to actually solve them will require a partnership. That sort of myth that the hero can come in on his white horse and solve the problems; it was always a fantasy. Our biggest problems have always been solved by people working in collaboration and together. That's what you're seeing here, but it's also what you made possible, Kevin, by inviting us both on together. So, everything about this is real, and I love that.
So, when President Obama put out that call, actually the clearest thing we understood first and foremost was how necessary it was. And that was what the deputy secretary was getting at and what you were saying as well. It was essential to have an American population that was capable of taking on these huge opportunities in STEM. The fastest-growing industries are in STEM; the highest-paying sectors are in STEM. If we're ever to address wealth gaps and income gaps, it will be because all of our young people have access to incredible STEM careers. And then, if we're ever going to solve our biggest challenges from climate change to pandemics, to energy and beyond, it will be because so many more of our students from every background have access to STEM opportunities. And what we know is that that won't happen unless they have great STEM teachers.
So, that was the first thing that became clear when President Obama put out the call. But the second thing that was clear is that we couldn't do it alone.
Kevin: Now, is this the birth of YOU Belong in STEM and that initiative? Talk about that from your perspective. And then Cindy, I'd like to hear your perspective from the government's point of view because that's really why I wanted you all on. This is such a unique opportunity. And frankly, it's exciting for the country.
Talia: So I'll tell our part of the story, and Cindy will tell hers, and together we'll see something, I think, really beautiful and powerful. So we asked 10 people to tell us their story. We prioritized young people of color from communities that have been most excluded, most pushed to the side in the STEM fields all the way from the earliest grades through the workforce. More than 600 young people in a few months stepped up to share their stories.
I'll share just a few of them. Sarah told us a story. She was from Texas, and she says she was often the only African-American or the only African-American female in her advanced placement STEM classes. She felt isolated in those classes and often questioned whether she belonged. When she got to college, even though she sort of knew that she was good at math and at science, she didn't believe that she belonged in those classes, and so she didn't major in any STEM field. So that was Sarah's story.
But then we have stories from young people, including Efraim who wrote and said he had gotten the lowest score on his state math exam when he was in third grade, and his teacher told him he would never amount to anything. His mother moved him to a new class. And in that class, the teacher cared about every student. She would come around to make sure every student understood. She had puppets that she made and all these ways to make math relevant. He says it was this teacher in third grade who turned his life around — told him he was going to be something. And now, he's majoring in math and in computer science in college, and he says he is one of the few African Americans in his program, but he hopes that his being there will inspire others after him. And it wouldn't have been but for that teacher.
And so we heard these stories, more than 600. What came back from them is that in almost every story, a student talked about an experience of belonging or not belonging. When we coded those stories, the correlation between belonging and persisting in STEM was so strong, and it was a teacher more than anyone else who created that experience of belonging.
Kevin: And Cindy, how do you actualize that from the government's point of view?
Cindy: Well, I love the way Talia talks about it because she brings a student's voice here, and she brings a single story. And I think the best and most important sustaining thing that we can ever do is start with a single story and understand the voices of our youth, and to get to 108,000 and get to the 10-year goal and say, "Okay, but we're not done. Now what do we need to do next? What's the next step? Why don't we talk to the students? Why don't we listen to their stories?" Because what a novel idea! And so when Talia said, "You'll see sort of the magic that happened," how do we operationalize this at the federal level, when I just said the most important thing is to localize it and make the story local?
We've got a real big challenge to solve here. I mean, a lot of people in education have a good time talking about what the problem is. I call it admiring the problem. They can talk about it all day long. They can name it; they can give statistics around it. They can say, "This is what we need to do," but they're short on solutions. But when you build something that's based on belonging like Talia just said, and you understand that we've got to create eco-localized ecosystems that meet the local needs with the local student voices, this idea of belonging, how do you cultivate the STEM talent that's needed for the jobs of the future? And so, if that's the value proposition of creating systems where people see themselves inside a workforce where they hadn't seen themselves before, where you've created a sense of belonging, it's very clear. The science of learning and development tells us we cannot learn when we don't feel like we have a sense of belonging.
And [we need a sense of] belonging in our classroom, in our communities, but in a broader sense of this country and what this country is endeavoring to do, that we've built a system that allows you to live your best life and become this contributing member of this beautiful dream that we're all creating for one another.
Kevin: I think that's very powerful. I'm struck by, Talia, your sort of relating the partner development when you were reaching the original goal. For something like this, even to ferret out the belonging, community by community, you've got to have strong partners. And you ended up having 300 partners. I'd like you to talk a little bit about how you're approaching this idea of going to the next level and finding the right partners who can help, like you both have been saying, and the old environmental slogan, “think globally, act locally.” I mean, who are the folks we need to be partnered with, you need to be partnered with to make this happen?
Talia: I think that is a piece of it, that we share our own local stories. We actually did the uncommissions so that we heard from folks in 30 states around the country and the District of Columbia. We know how important it is to hear our own neighbors, our own people and their stories and to know this is true here; this is not just true somewhere else.
The second thing I would say about finding those partners is that we have always believed of the people working with kids and supporting teachers, that they will go to the end of the earth for the communities they serve. These are folks who love their students and want the best for them. No one gets up in the morning and thinks to themselves, "How can I do wrong by my students today?" And so, people are getting out of bed day in, day out for salaries much lower than we all would say they deserve and are showing up on behalf of their students.
So we start with that place. And actually, I heard it from Cindy too; it's an asset-based frame. We start from the place of believing that the folks working with our teachers and our students want the best for them. What they're lacking sometimes is skill or opportunity or resources or support, but we really believe in them, and we believe that they are the experts. And so we ask them, "What commitment can you make to this challenge from your amazing assets and resources? How can you contribute?" And then we ask, "What do you need to hit that goal, and how can we support you to do it?" And I will say that that frame just transformed. It transformed our work with these partners, but it transformed the field.
So often in education, people are told all the ways they're wrong. I've seen it close up. What I have been a part of where we said to teachers, "We swept them out of classrooms." We all remember that cover. Who wants to be the person who is worthy of being swept out of a classroom? And what kind of teaching do you do? How do you treat your students when you have been treated that way? So I would say that turning that around and saying to partners, "We believe in you, and we know that you want to do the right work, and we are here to support you."
Kevin: That's powerful. Cindy, do you have some thoughts on the partnership and how you move forward with that?
Cindy: Yeah, I think you said it right when you referenced that old environmental slogan about “think global, act local.” How local can the federal government actually do this local work when that's not even our role? But what Talia just narrated is this idea that we listen to voices and this sense of voice and agency at the local level. The federal government can have our convening power, our granting authority. We do things like bright spotting where it's actually working and working well and the kinds of things we want to see more of. We lift that up; we can name that. And then there's this ability to make the work that matters most to students, that's embedded with a deep sense of belonging and hands-on, minds-on learning and the great teacher pipelines that get people into the STEM fields. That all happens in ways that are sustainable, scalable, replicable, systemic, and systematic when we bring these people together with their own voices, and instead of us finding everything that's wrong.
We actually believe in this methodology called appreciative inquiry. It's also called positive deviance by a researcher named Jerry Sternin. The idea of positive deviance or appreciative inquiry is what you appreciate appreciates; it grows. What you pay attention to is what grows. So we decided to pay attention to student voices. We decided to pay attention to where there's a sense of agency on the ground. And so what people can say, "Well, why partner?" We can't do it without partners. The partners are the ones that have their fingers literally on the pulse of what's happening in the local community. So we can be global and local at the same time. And positive deviance allows you to... The model is deviant behavior, meaning different from the norm, yielding a positive result.
So where in this country has demography not determined a student's destiny? Because that is true in some places; it's just not true everywhere. And the prevailing narrative is demography does determine your destiny in our country, unfortunately. And if you live in the wrong zip code or didn't win the lottery to get into the right school or don't have parents who can help you navigate the school that's right for you, your chances for success in becoming the contributing member of society you're meant to become become diminished. But if it's working in some places where some students have been given really challenging backgrounds, very challenging life circumstances, community circumstances, what have you that typically stands in the way and it's not, and that student is thriving, we unpack that and say, "How'd they do that? And let's share that story because when it can happen..." And that's why these partnerships with industry leaders and everything Talia's done to bring people to the table, not to admire the problem, but to move the needle and make a difference, make things change and happen on behalf of our students.
Kevin: I want to throw a curveball out there because we talk about K through 12, the STEM problem, and we also talk about the fact that our inability to make sure kids feel like they belong in this field at an early age leads to us not having kids qualified to take STEM programs in college or even have jobs in the STEM field. What role can colleges play in this notion? Because, for that one child you first referenced, Talia, who didn't have a sense of belonging in high school and she didn't even have it in college, and we see that as the case, I do think that colleges need to be a part of this solution. I just want to get both of your thoughts on that. Cindy?
Cindy: Well, on two levels, the colleges are part of the solution. First, it's preparing the educator workforce. And so, it’s just the colleges that prepare teachers. We can start with that and make sure the teacher college prep programs are designed in ways that when teachers come into the profession, they're prepared to teach in ways that have inclusion and belonging, and they're based on the science and learning and development. It's not just the content of science, math, literacy, like what you're teaching, but you leave college prepared to enter the teaching workforce, not just knowing what the content is that you have to teach, not just knowing best pedagogy of how to teach it, but learning who you're teaching and learning how to design your lessons based on the learner in your classroom. And so schools of education can help with that.
And then brought more broadly are our students graduating from our systems. It's not just a college proposition. It's not just “get the colleges ready.” It's starting in kindergarten, starting in preschool with makerspace labs, developing a creative mindset, problem-solving mindset, math and engineering mindset. We'll get into the A in STEM, which usually we'd say STEM and not STEAM. But putting an A [arts] in there and calling it STEAM, like starting very early. And these college and career pathways begin at the earliest stage, where students begin to learn their affinities, the things they care most about, the things that they get excited about. And that's not being decided for them, and they're not being tracked into a certain field or college or career pathway. It's actually being started from the very beginning, helping to understand, unlocking the genius and the success of each student. So these college pathways can start, like I said, at the earliest ages, but then we want to see career-connected learning and unlocking pathways to success in middle school and high school.
Kevin: Yeah, I couldn't agree with that more. In fact, in my company, we introduced career pathways to students in an online setting in middle school and have these dual degrees. I think the synergies are clear, and I'm so glad to hear you talk about it. Talia, what are your thoughts on this?
Talia: I'll double down on one thing that Cindy said and then add another perspective. So, remember that our colleges are the places where our teachers are prepared, almost all of them. There's such an essential role, and yet there is not often that coordination between districts and the universities that prepare almost all of their teachers, even to the extent that, right now, most districts and states don't know what their future pipeline will be and don't have a sense of what their need will be, what the attrition or the growth will be.
Education's the only sector in this country that does not have access to that basic pipeline information. So you think to yourself, "Well, how would we imagine we would actually prepare enough teachers in the specific subjects where we need them if we do not know where those will be?" And so, there's just a huge opportunity here to create some of that infrastructure that will give us access to that kind of information, give our universities access to that information, and then to support the kind of partnerships that would really match need, supply and demand, need and opportunity.
I'll also just say we talked about sort of connectedness across. My daughter is a ninth grader in an early college high school, a public high school here in New York City. So very much like her first two years are called ninth and 10th grades, and the second years are called year 1 and year 2. They take college classes, and you can finish with an associate’s degree before you go on to whatever happens next. So obviously, I’m a huge fan as a parent of that approach and very grateful that New York City's public schools offer it.
Kevin: So, I have one last question. This is a big question. Keep in mind that there are many school leaders and superintendents who watch this show, and that is, when you did the original 100,000 new teachers in 10 years, you had a clear goal; you had clear timelines. What does success look like with this YOU Belong in STEM initiative? What are the goals? And that's on the sort of global level with what you are doing day to day, but if you are a mid-size school district superintendent, how could they measure their progress toward this YOU Belong in STEM initiative? I'd like you both to talk a little bit about that because, while you're developing this national approach, there are a lot of school superintendents, Cindy, you know, who will hear this and say, "I want to do something about this tomorrow." So if you both could ... First, Talia, you could speak to it. And then Cindy, I'd love to get your thoughts.
Talia: I love this question. It really does go to that “think globally, act locally” mantra that you offered for us. So, we have said in the first decade, we proved it was possible to prepare a huge number of STEM teachers despite a decline in teacher preparation generally, and that you could motivate hundreds of organizations to take part in this even if it wasn't their primary goal beforehand. Our hope now is that two decades from now, we will have ended the STEM teacher shortage once and for all. And to do that in two decades, our goal for this decade is that we need to prepare 150,000 teachers and retain 150,000 teachers who wouldn't have stayed otherwise. Bringing our retention levels much closer to countries with healthy education systems. We lose about 8% of our teachers every year. Healthy countries lose 3%. So, if we did those two things together in this decade, we'd have reduced our STEM teacher shortage by a third, making it very viable to imagine that you could end it in the next decade.
That's the sort of bigger picture. But how do you do that in a local place, and how does that relate to belonging? So we've had two more parts to that goal. One is that by the end of 10 years, everyone who's preparing a teacher as part of Beyond100K is preparing teachers who represent the diversity of their communities. It's a local and actionable goal. We know who our students are. Our teachers need to reflect that brilliant diversity as well. So it's a goal over 10 years that by that tenth year we can do that.
Cindy: Yeah. What success looks like, let's start with first of all, who we serve most: our students. I'm going to center it back onto our parents as well. When Talia just talked about teachers feeling a sense of belonging in the ecosystem in their schools and the community and knowing what they're there to contribute and create; it's also our parents. And in my two years in this role and 30 years up until I started in this role, listening to parent voices, "What do they want most? What does success look like to a parent?" Parents want students to feel a sense of belonging. Parents want to feel like they belong in the school community and that their students are getting the support that they need because it's kind of a cliche, but the parent is the student's first teacher. And so, we’re centering some of our well-designed plans with teacher and parent and student voices at this local level and creating these systems.
What does success look like? Well, ask our parents. Are our students getting what they need when they need it in the way that they need it? And a parent's definition of what a student needs and a teacher's definition, that happens when you have ongoing parent-student relationships. Talia has just talked about what her daughter is getting and why it matters to her. And as a parent, she believes there's success. And she just described success for her daughter as the learning conditions and the sense of belonging and the sense of rigor. Everything Talia wants for her child, she's getting as a parent. But also, as a national leader in this space, we can say our big goals around YOU Belong in STEM, ensuring every single pre-K student through higher ed has access. So, the major goal is access. We can count success as going into every single community and saying, "Is there access to rigorous, relevant, joyful STEM learning?"
And the third part of the STEM initiative is just encouraging education, serving institutions, schools, nonprofits, philanthropy, business, all to be figuring out how to leverage their networks and their dollars, how to take our role. And the federal government is investing the American Rescue Plan dollars, but the federal, state, local funds in STEM education with a holistic community-based approach. But you're going to start with the teachers, the students and the parents' voices designing this locally and leveraging this massive investment in a way that's going to get these outcomes, that get the hands-on, minds-on, rigorous, joyful STEM learning, get people into the field, to stay in the field, and leverage the dollars in a way that gets a real impact.
Kevin: Wow. Powerful stuff. You all have work to do, but …
Talia: I was just thinking that.
Cindy: We're here for it. We're here for it. We're all rolling up our sleeves.
Kevin: I have no doubt. Deputy Secretary of Education, Cindy Marten; Beyond100K, Talia Milgrom-Elcott: Thank you both so much for joining us on What I Want to Know.
Talia: This was such an honor and pleasure.
Cindy: Absolutely. Thank you so much for hosting this.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want to Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. And write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want to Know.
Meet Cindy and Talia
Cindy Marten is the U.S. Department of Education's Deputy Secretary of Education. A career educator, Cindy has been a teacher, administrator, and, most recently, San Diego Unified School District superintendent.
Talia Milgrom-Elcott is the founder of Beyond 100K, an initiative to continue developing and growing new STEM teachers in schools nationwide. She has worked with the New York City Department of Education and led several education-focused nonprofits
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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.