“5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System”, with Author Flip Flippen & Penny Bauder

Some of our curriculum, particularly in mathematics, bores kids to tears. Failing to learn algebra and applying abstract concepts are the most common points at which kids abandon a STEM education. I am a big fan of experiential hands-on exposure to math and science that relates curriculum to practical application by answering questions like: What […]

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Some of our curriculum, particularly in mathematics, bores kids to tears. Failing to learn algebra and applying abstract concepts are the most common points at which kids abandon a STEM education. I am a big fan of experiential hands-on exposure to math and science that relates curriculum to practical application by answering questions like: What can you do with that? What does it mean? Why should I learn this? How does my cell phone work? We need to make math engaging and exciting; it is the pathway to STEM.

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 Flip Flippen. Flip is the lead author of multiple books including the New York Times best seller The Flip Side: Break Free of the Behaviors That Hold You Back, and Your Third Story: Author the Life You Were Meant to Live. Flip is the founder of Flippen Group, one of the fastest-growing educator training, corporate talent, and team development companies in the United States. Recognized as one of the top leadership thought leaders in America, Flip presents keynote speeches and leadership development events worldwide. Flip earned a bachelor’s degree from Stephen F. Austin State University and a master’s degree from Texas A&M University. He invested the first 16 years of his professional life as a psychotherapist, opening a free outpatient clinic for at-risk youth and building a 500-acre residential treatment facility for boys in Central Texas.

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?

Iloved second grade! At the end of the year, my teacher said, “Flip, you and a few other boys from your class have been chosen to return to 2nd grade in our leadership program where we’d like you to help all 1st graders entering the 2nd grade. We’ll need to get your parents’ permission, meet with the principal, and you’ll have to learn to be a leader.” My parents quickly signed the paperwork and I became a leader in the 2nd grade.

Many years later, as I was starting college, my mom said, “It is so good that you are starting with your age group since you were held back in the 2nd grade.” I responded, “I was not held back, I was put in a leadership program!” Turns out, I had failed the 2nd grade because I couldn’t read! Who can have a teacher so amazing that they can look at a failing second grader and see a bright future in a little boy? As I said, I loved second grade. It was the best two years of my life!

That is why I do what I do. I have tremendous respect for educators. They can call out greatness in others. Like my second-grade teacher, I see in people what so many others don’t see yet and I wanted to create a framework in schools to help young people reach their potential.

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?

There are so many great stories, but a true highlight was when the Commissioner of Education, Skip Meno, called and asked me to expand my education work well beyond its reach at the time. He wanted to meet with me about teaching leadership skills to high school students across Texas. I was very skeptical of how it would work, but because we had so much success working with at risk kids, it was difficult to turn away the opportunity to do that with more young people. That is what led us to creating Capturing Kids’ Hearts® training and ultimately becoming one of the leading providers of educator training in the U.S.

Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I always want to be well prepared for whatever we are doing whether that be a training session, speech, or TV interview. The appearance may be that we are spontaneously going through our processes, but our team always does an immense amount of preparation prior to ever showing up. But as is the case in life, there are always surprises.

One day, I was conducting a training for a good-sized group of teachers in a very rural area. This group was amazing to be with for so many reasons. The training was going well, and all of the teachers were very engaged in the process. Then, in walked a lady selling tortillas. What’s a person to do when a lady selling tortillas shows up unannounced, unexpected and certainly intrusive? You buy tortillas! Sure, it’s a little disruptive but you go with the flow.

Believe it or not, though, that was only the prelude. After everyone was finally engaged again in the training session, we heard very unfamiliar sounds coming from outside the door. First, only one goat poked his head through the door, but he was quickly followed by a good many other goats as they made their way through the group, across the room, and out the other door with their gentle herdsman behind them. Apparently, this was a much shorter route to the next pasture than going completely around the school.

Lesson learned: sometimes you just have to go with the flow and embrace the surprise!

To this day, the group of teachers in that room are one of the most amazing group of educators we have met, and they are the most flexible we’ve ever met by a long shot.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One of our primary areas of focus is teacher satisfaction and retention. We have built a portfolio of resources to equip teachers in their efforts to become the best they can be. Though this mission is not new to us, some of the products and services we provide are newly evolved and will continue to evolve as challenges in the classroom change. Our Capturing Kids’ Hearts® training program ensures that teachers are well equipped to teach and engage with the kids of today. We are also training teachers to facilitate our LeadWorthy™ course, which focuses on leadership, business, and professional skills. This program is impacting tens of thousands of high school students nationally through in-class exercises, on-campus services projects, and live arena events. Today, thousands of those graduates are across the globe making a difference, and we are honored to have had the opportunity to play a role in their stories.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?

Others might say I’m an authority because I am trained as a Psychotherapist and have worked with thousands of people in my life. But I would describe myself as a learner. I learn from the dozens of educators who work in our organization, from the thousands of clients we serve, and the children with whom we get to work. We are constantly learning from everyone we interact with about how to be better and how to serve in ways that most effectively meet evolving needs.

Flippen Group is engaged with hundreds of campuses each week. That is a huge amount of presence and contact with educators and that’s where we learn the most. We learn from educators, who, in our case are also our customers. How better to know what goes on with students than to be near those serving our future generation of leaders directly? So yes, we are authorities, but it’s because we are students and we are obsessed with learning and coming alongside the people working inside schools.

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?

That depends on what part of the system we are talking about. Schools are tasked with addressing far more needs today than ever before, including physical safety, social services, mental health, nutrition and many others — and they are rising to that challenge.

In terms of academics, we are either struggling or stagnant in too many areas. While there are pockets of excellence — our best students can compete with any students in the world — there are also far too many campuses and districts where children are not being taught effectively to master fundamental concepts. I am particularly concerned with the lack of access to rigorous coursework and instruction in underserved areas.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

Meeting Physical Needs: Schools are tending to more needs in very specific ways than we ever have before. We can argue about where a school’s responsibilities should begin and end, but most educators are committed to solving problems, whether that be transportation, nutrition, health and wellness, or after-school programs. Schools have become an integral and successful part of the social safety net for families.

Social and Emotional Support: With regard to social support of students, we are among the best in the world. School connectedness is a huge focus for many schools today, and it has yielded great results. Many schools are making intentional and systemic efforts to involve students and families in the school community and foster a sense of place and well-being. It is an effort that does not generate much attention, but we see it across the country in our educational practice.

Rigor: As we’ve learned more about how to improve academic rigor for the benefit of kids, we’ve realized that relationships are at the center of building trust and respect in the classroom. This allows us to appropriately challenge and differentiate instruction with students. The motivation for kids to learn is driven in many cases by expectations set by teachers and their administrators. When teachers believe their students can accomplish something and work together to meet goals, students rise to the challenge.

Foundation of a Free Society: Our system is open and available to everyone and we educate the most diverse population in the world. It is a foundational truth that the strength of our country stems from an educated public, the foundation of a free society. We are also offering more choices to families within public education through portfolio district models, creation of special purpose academies, pre-apprenticeship and career pathway development. We are not close to where we want to be, but I see a nation slowly moving away from the rigidity of attendance zones, where a student’s future can be determined by their zip code. We are making deliberate choices to bring about more equity of opportunity for kids.

Special Education: Most compelling to me is that kids with disabilities are served more effectively now than they ever were in the past. Parents with children of special needs carry a big burden and schools are working to support them where possible. For example, we identify dyslexic students early in elementary school, by second grade in many cases. Compare that to my own personal history where I struggled throughout my entire education because I wasn’t diagnosed with Dyscalculia until I was 42 years old.

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?

Preparing and Supporting Teachers: There is a rapidly growing crisis in education. We have a qualified teacher shortage. We lose too many talented teachers in the first five years of their career due partially to compensation, but more broadly due to a myriad of pressures stemming from the lack of institutional and administrative support, poor professional development and the perception that they are not valued. Teachers want to work in an environment where there is great leadership supported by coherent systems. In too many of our schools we lack classroom management protocols that support high performance. I am also concerned that we have very traditional teacher preparation curriculums that do not address real world challenges, particularly teaching the critical skill of connecting with students.

Emphasis on Content Mastery: We need to meet students where they are and let them progress at their own pace. The current system, at least through middle school, ties content mastery to age. We double down on that rigidity by insisting on an A-F grading system that harshly punishes early failure and robs hope from students who often start several grade levels behind their peers. Kids leave school when they have no hope for recovery. Let’s be honest as educators about how this is negatively effecting students, including the impact on high achievers who are stuck being instructed at the lowest common denominator level. I am not suggesting we do away with real measures of achievement and hand out participation ribbons, but I am suggesting that we recognize where students start, celebrate gains in achievement and hold educators accountable for producing those gains. We should cease labelling schools as failures that meet kids where they are and show significant improvement in achievement.

Mental Health Support (diagnosis, referral and treatment for students): Teachers and school counselors are not mental health professionals, and at times we inappropriately force them into that role. Administrators and counselors often know who the most at risk kids are, but we are not always equipped with a system for referral and treatment. Thus, we don’t always provide the support the teacher requires.

This problem is solvable, and we have addressed these problems successfully for students with some disabilities, but not necessarily for students suffering from serious mental illnesses and pathologies. We have seen success through relatively low-cost programs relying on tele-health and mental health consortiums and we should expand on those models.

Rewarding Great Teachers: We want to compensate teachers well and I am in favor of improving overall compensation. But more importantly, I would advocate for a system that rewards excellence. We should move away from a system based only on longevity that also differentiates pay based on skills, demand, willingness to work in challenging environments and teaching performance. Teachers deserve to be rewarded for doing an amazing job, including compensation based on fidelity in process that leads to improved outcomes. Great teachers tie learning to purpose and create memorable experiential learning, but we rarely provide financial incentives for such behavior. I realize that this is not an easy problem to address, particularly in states where contracts are collectively bargained. But there are a number of school districts that have gone down the path of differentiated compensation with great success. That should be the norm, not the exception.

Lighten the Administrative and Regulatory Burden: Despite the constant broad-brushed refrain of “reducing bureaucracy,” both the federal government and the states are increasing regulation in public education instead of decreasing it. Education is the classic example of “we do it because we have always done it that way.” Curriculum, professional development, daily reports, the length and structure of the school day, and the semester-based calendar are just a few aspects of an educator’s day determined by decisions made far away from their classroom. Educators should be allowed to do what they know is best without the constraints of government control. Campus leaders should be empowered to make decisions based on student needs, not adult needs, and, yes, we should have human resources frameworks that not only allow recognition of excellence but also recognize performance deficiencies and allow campus leaders and administrators reasonable opportunities to address those deficiencies.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

That you have asked this question is a very good sign of the emphasis we put on STEM when discussing and considering education policy. STEM receives time, attention and exposure in almost all schools. While we are doing reasonably well, there are several ways we can improve student engagement.

Some of our curriculum, particularly in mathematics, bores kids to tears. Failing to learn algebra and applying abstract concepts are the most common points at which kids abandon a STEM education. I am a big fan of experiential hands-on exposure to math and science that relates curriculum to practical application by answering questions like: What can you do with that? What does it mean? Why should I learn this? How does my cell phone work? We need to make math engaging and exciting; it is the pathway to STEM.

We should expose all children to different careers; it lets them start to discover what options are out there. But this needs to be tied to educational outcomes. What do I need to learn to be an engineer? A software programmer? An electrician? A physician’s assistant?

Lastly, we have some great examples of business taking an interest in education through internships and pre-apprenticeship program or even just exposure events, but we don’t have nearly enough engagement from business. Employers talk a good game of being supportive of public education, but they don’t always follow through and make practical contributions to the system. We have historically low unemployment in a nation that is not producing enough skilled workers. Part of that is due to a disconnect between education and the needs of business.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

Women bring a rich diversity of thought and experience to what has traditionally been a male dominated subject environment. We value the ability of scientists, mathematicians and engineers to be able to think differently and adapt, and women should be equally represented in those roles. My wife Susan is CEO of the Flippen Group and holds a degree in computer science. Through most of her academic career at Texas A&M, she was one of very few women in her classes. So, how many talented women engineers, IT professionals, doctors, accountants, mathematicians did we lose out on from previous generations because we have historically not encouraged girls and women to pursue math and science?

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?

Better than we have ever done, but not good enough. Girls and women need exposure, mentors and access to rigorous STEM coursework. We tend to still choose the path of least resistance when educating underserved populations, and STEM is academically challenging. There are two big influences that help girls to pursue STEM: exposure and mentorship. Exposure helps open a student’s eyes to the doors a foundational STEM education will open, and a good mentor can help them see that there are women who are just like them that are successful in the fields in which the student has an interest. The more women STEM professionals we produce today, the more mentors for the next generation we will have tomorrow.

However, I don’t want to limit this response to girls. There are other underserved populations, particularly in poor and minority neighborhoods, that do not have the same access to rigorous curriculum and coursework that more affluent neighborhoods insist upon, including access to upper division science coursework, computer science and Advanced Placement. I feel strongly that we should be opening the door to STEM for the underserved, including women. And when they attain that education, there needs to be opportunities for them in the marketplace.

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?

Our fundamental goal should be to create a system that empowers people to take themselves into the workplace and deploy their skills and talents. What acronym we use to describe such a pathway is less important. I firmly believe that a foundational education in math and science creates opportunities across all disciplines. To the extent that the integration of arts and humanities increases a student’s capacity for creativity, communication and abstract thought, all the better. But the key is rigor in either STEM or STEAM. Whatever course of study a student pursues must lead to adding value to society in some form and there must be a demand for those skills. It’s counter-productive for people to think they have an opportunity and then find themselves woefully unprepared. Taking advantage of what life offers requires meeting high standards and a seriousness of purpose. Those two components should be imbued at every step of public education.

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?

I built our company around one major theme: “If you have a child’s heart, you have a child’s mind.” Relationships are everything. They are the key to unlocking high potential. Children’s success is our foremost goal every day. With that core belief let me share with you what we see would be helpful.

1. Compensate teachers based on their fidelity to execute the processes that get results. Administrators should be held responsible for identifying the processes that achieve results, and then staff should be paid for executing those processes with excellence. Teachers need to be provided the training, process and resources they need aligned to the desired outcomes. Even when we get the first part of the equation correct, we typically fail at the second. It’s only fair to expect amazing results when the work of education should be supported by a regulatory framework that both provides alignment of resources with expectation and lowers the extraneous burdens that overwhelm today’s teachers.

2. Change the grading/testing/promotion system. Today we have the ability to differentiate teaching and allow students who have achieved mastery in one subject to then promote to the next level. If they have not achieved mastery in another subject such as English, then allow them to continue at that pace until they have. There is no reason for a child to “fail” a grade level simply because they have not done well in all subjects for that grade level. We have the ability to “educate” the child; we should do that outside of the rigid, decades-old framework of grading and promotion that has been handed down to us. For example, there is arguably no greater aggregate waste of resources than children held back and repeating a year when they either lack competency in a single subject or have not been given the academic interventions necessary for them to succeed. On the flip side, students held in place after they have mastered the content and waiting for their peers to catch up is both frustrating for the child and a disincentive to explore their full potential. This is a cycle we need to break.

3. Lighten the regulatory burden that sits on top of educators. Rather than making a bland statement about removing bureaucracy and red tape (although there is plenty of red tape to cut through!), I would charge every state legislature to carefully examine their education code and seek out provisions that are antiquated, defy common sense and, most importantly, fall in direct opposition to teachers being empowered to make decisions about their own classrooms. Such an examination should also include aligning accountability systems to reflect the vast differences in preparation among students and how they are specifically served by their campuses.

4. Establish a strong mentoring program with master level teachers and pay them accordingly to integrate and develop new teachers. We lose too many teachers before their careers ever get started. Some of this is due to compensation or the quality of preparation a teacher received. Both of these variables can be overcome by integration, support (academic, professional and emotional) and instilling a sense of value and belonging. The power of mentorship is one of the most effective tools we have for transforming schools, but we do not implement such programs systemically. Creating such relationships would unlock tremendous potential within the teaching profession.

5. Help people find their true place of service. No one wins when people are in the wrong job. We should be in the business of helping each other and calling out greatness in one another. We need to streamline processes related to terminating based on poor performance, but also encourage personal and professional growth or pursuit of a different career if not in the front lines of serving kids.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I understand the saying that “It takes a village to raise a child” but I would add that it’s the villagers. It’s not the government, the village, or the community, but the people, the individuals who live in the village that make it work. It’s all about people connecting and serving each other. We must get over this idea (which is very comfortable) that someone should do something, but not me. The children in our community are our children. The issues in my community are my issues.

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 🙂

I would like to have lunch with Richard Branson. I think he would be interested in the work we are doing. He is creative, thinks outside the box, challenges norms, and ultimately wants to find solutions. We would have a lot to talk about.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I would love for you to join in the conversations! You can find me on Twitter @flipflippen or on Facebook @flipflippen. For additional content and to hear about some great things happening in schools follow @capturingkidshearts on Facebook or @IHeartCKH on Twitter and Instagram.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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