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Transforming Education: Fifth in a series

TRANSFORMING EDUCATION TODAY
(Fifth in a series of interviews with education leaders)
Featuring Paul Thomas
 

Note from Chuck Cascio: Given the difficult issues facing educators today in the USA, I have been running a series in which I contact established educators and request their insights, in their own words, on a number of vitally important education issues. Readers who would like to comment on the views expressed may email me at chuckwrites@yahoo.com. My Twitter handle is @ChuckCascio. Not all comments will be responded to by me and/or the individuals interviewed, but all will be read and, if appropriate, forwarded to others engaged in meaningful education reform. I am pleased to present as the fifth interview in this series of the views of education entrepreneur Paul Thomas (www.docentlearning.com  Email: docentlearning@gmail.com), whose profile follows: 

Paul Thomas is the Chief Learner for Docent Learning. Paul started out as a high school math and computer science teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology in Northern Virginia. Since then, he has spent the past 26 years developing research-driven curricula for small startups, public corporations, and nonprofits. His work includes dozens of courses for virtual, blended, and traditional classroom contexts as well as a dozen textbooks. Paul attended Hunters Woods Elementary (VA), Herndon Intermediate (VA), and South Lakes High School (VA) before attending MIT and George Mason University.

Help spread the word with: #Transform Education

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>>>Recalling your own life as a student, going back as far as you would like, what do you remember as the most positive and most negative educational influences for you personally?

     I had one great teacher in middle school and a long list of great teachers in high school who were positive influences on me as a person and as an educator. Kathy Leis taught me French in 7th and 8th grade. She knew her stuff and was great at teaching it, but her love for her subject and the connections she made with her students were what created a lasting impression on all of us. Madame Leis still inspires me to connect with students and help each student know that I see them, value them, and believe in them. 

     Thanks to the all-star cast of teachers who were assembled to open South Lakes I had amazing teachers for math (Jerry Berry, Katherine Rowe, and Celeste Penkunas), English (Tim Isaacs three times), History (Dave Rousch twice), and Science (Lisa Wu (nee Lyle), Carolyn Lavallee, Leon Hawkins, and Faye Cascio). Each had a passion for their field that was absolutely infectious, and they cared about us students so much. I’ve spent every day of my professional life trying to be as kind as Jerry, as passionate as Carolyn, and as good at conveying big ideas as Faye.

     The lone negative influence I can think of is my 7th grade math teacher. I won’t name the teacher or go into details except to say that they were not happy to be teaching math. They cared only about answers (and not at all about how anyone thought). The most enduring thing I carry with me from that teacher is having seen the form on which, when asked if I should take Algebra in 8th grade, was the reply, “NO!!!!” I counted the exclamation points.

>>>Can you identify an educator (or educators) who provided you with uniquely positive insights into subject matter as well as teaching style? If so, please explain what made them unique.

     Faye Cascio was (and is) remarkable. She did such an amazing job of conveying the big ideas of biology that I still remember a stunning amount of what she taught me. The way she wove stories with the content to make everything such a beautiful, coherent whole has stayed with me to this day. Literally. I still have my AP Biology notebook on a shelf. I’ve thrown away every other notebook from SLHS and MIT and GMU, but I have kept that one.The others worth noting are Jerry Berry and Katherine Rowe. Jerry was as kind and affable as Katherine was tough and strict. No two teachers could have been more different, but both were amazing. When I taught Algebra II/Trig at Thomas Jefferson, I leaned heavily on the methods Katherine showed me. When I taught Computer Science at TJ, I did it as a team with Jerry. Each influenced me profoundly.

>>>What inspired your career as a leader in education?

     My mother was a teacher who became an administrator, and it was through her that I realized that there were other ways to make a difference in students’ learning besides teaching them directly. I was also lucky to work on summer projects with an authoring team led by Saul Garfunkel, who had a real passion for re-thinking what we teach and how. 

>>>What do you see as the major challenges in education today?

     One major challenge is the perceived battle between equity and out-dated ideas of “merit.” So many people are stuck on the idea that standardized test scores are the be-all and end-all of merit. I disagree with the implicit assumption that the point of our public education system is to make the absolute best and brightest achieve as much as they can. Rather, I believe that our public schools have to help every student acquire what my friend and mentor Bror Saxberg would call “the academic keys to the kingdom.” 

     As a culture, we focus so much on the students who aspire to attend MIT, Stanford, and the Ivies, but I think we should spend more time on everyone else. Those at moderately and less selective public schools, those at community colleges, and those who get sucked into the relentless maw of for-profit universities. Our education system has driven more students into higher ed, but we haven’t improved 5-year graduation rates, and this has saddled poorly served students with crippling debt. We need to do better by the middle 80%.

>>>Has the remote learning that started as a result of the pandemic become entrenched as a new direction that education will take and, if so, could it have a positive impact?

      The pandemic has disrupted K-12 education. I think one upside is that it has helped teachers and students explore new ways to work. Students need to master more than the specific content standards for their courses. They also need to learn how to communicate and collaborate. They need to learn critical thinking and how to be creative. Ultimately, students need to be able to do all these things in digital contexts, so I think that adding digital tools to teachers’ and students’ toolboxes is a good thing.

>>>Are standardized testing and traditional roles to teaching and evaluating in need of transformation and, if so, what should they look like?

     Our assessment methods need to be transformed, but I think that transformation is underway. More and more colleges and universities are moving to test-blind and test-optional admissions. Still, the battles continue. 

     A few thoughts: First, people who want to keep old admission tests aren't defending some true idea of merit, but rather “a particular idea of merit.” People with the time/gumption to prepare their kids for standardized tests think that eliminating them is an attack on some grand idea of merit. What if MIT, Stanford, Stuyvesant, TJ, and other super-selective schools set minimum GPAs and generalizable measures of high academic rigor, and then selected randomly from the resulting pools? No preference for race. No preference for test-prep. Universities could set aside some slots for recruited athletes. GPA and rigor are FAR better predictors of future success than standardized tests.

     One last thing: Subjective measures of student success are very susceptible to teachers’ explicit and unconscious biases (e.g., “NO!!!!”), so as a fan of equity, I tend to lean toward objective measures of student goals and learning. That said, I don’t think standardized assessments should be used to fire or pay teachers. They can still provide valuable information and set standard benchmarks.

>>>What do you consider to be the appropriate line between politics and education--including the role of Federal, state,and local governments as well as school boards--in establishing standards, content, and policy, particularly in K-12 public education?

     I believe that state boards of education have reasonable roles defining standards and corresponding assessments. The federal government should support education research, and then assemble and disseminate guidance on what works. When it comes to specific content and policy, that should be driven primarily by local school boards. 

>>>Who should have the final say in what is taught in schools?

     Educators.

>>>What can be done to encourage people to go into teaching or other areas of education?

     No teacher goes into the profession expecting to get rich, but most know that job security and a pension often help compensate for the low salary that goes with their calling. Should they get paid enough to live reasonably close to their school? Yes. Not every school district meets this low bar, but even this low bar is not sufficient.

     We need to respect the professionalism of educators. Everything we do to diminish their professionalism pushes them away from teaching.

     When we ask them to make unreasonable exceptions for our kid, we push them away. When we ask to review every lesson plan and resource they will use for a year, we push them away. When we put their health and safety at the bottom of our priorities, we push them away. When we say that we will judge them based on how affluent and educated their students’ families are, we push them away. When we give them insufficient resources to do their jobs, we push them away.

     We need to stop pushing educators away. We need to show that we appreciate and respect them as people and professionals.

>>>What makes you optimistic about education when you look ahead for the next 3-5 years and what concerns you the most over that time period?

     I see some organizations identifying problems and trying solutions. Colleges are dropping the SAT. Selective high schools are dropping test requirements. High schools are creating ways to prepare students for careers – not just college. More blended instruction/learning.

     I also see young teachers coming into the profession with great energy, ideas, and passion. They are going to do great things and create amazing relationships with students. 

>>>What would you consider to be the single most important key to positive transformation of education in the US?

     Funding. Having school funding driven by state laws, and ultimately by local taxes creates massive inequities in educational outcomes.

Copyright: Chuck Cascio and Paul Thomas; all rights reserved.

Email your thoughts: chuckwrites@yahoo.com and/or docentlearning@gmail.com