“5 Things That Should Be Done to Improve the US Educational System” with Dr. Robin Avelar La Salle

The Inevitability Assumption — I believe that the most pressing issue is the widely accepted notion that some students, by virtue of circumstances outside of school, are bound to succeed while others are not. This belief results in decisions and practices that become standard operating procedure in schools and districts across the country. Though very misguided, […]

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The Inevitability Assumption — I believe that the most pressing issue is the widely accepted notion that some students, by virtue of circumstances outside of school, are bound to succeed while others are not. This belief results in decisions and practices that become standard operating procedure in schools and districts across the country. Though very misguided, these policies are often implemented with the best of intentions, but serve to perpetuate longstanding disparities in the quality of education students receive.

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 Dr. Robin Avelar La Salle

Dr. Robin Avelar La Salle is the co-founder of Orenda Education, a California State-approved external evaluation firm dedicated to improving schools and districts predominantly serving under-resourced communities of color. For more than 20 years, Robin has served as Orenda’s visionary CEO where she led the development of the organization’s innovative educational programs designed to empower administrators and educators with the strategies, tools, and training to ensure every student receives a premium education.

Known as an “equity warrior,” Robin’s achievements also include securing and overseeing a highly successful collaboration with leading education nonprofit, Think Together. By partnering with Think Together, Orenda can extend learning beyond the traditional school day to help students rapidly and dramatically improve their academic profiles. Under Robin’s leadership,

Orenda has supported nearly 200 schools and 22 school districts in California since 1997.

With a passion for teaching and improving educational quality, Robin also taught elementary, middle and high school and university students in California and served as the Administrator for Curriculum, Staff Development and Assessment at a school district near Los Angeles. She has held numerous positions in research and consulting focused on advancing academic success for historically under-performing students and is the author of Shattering Inequities, an educational book on how leadership can foster equitable outcomes for the most vulnerable students.

In light of COVID-19 and under Robin’s leadership, Orenda created TLC (Teacher Workshops, Lessons Online and Coaching & Counselor Training) a research-based, equity-grounded model to prepare educators for school reentry in the COVID-19 environment.

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?

I knew I was going to be a teacher since I was four years old. My father was a waiter and bartender who moved to a neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles and didn’t speak English. However, he made sure to tell my sister and I that he had been a teacher in Mexico. He came here in search of a better life, like so many others. When I started kindergarten, my mother worked at the school as a teacher’s aide, so, I naturally felt that education was in my blood. I often coerced the neighborhood kids into playing “escuelita,” which means “little school,” just so I could practice being the teacher. I absolutely loved school!

Let me simply say it was my solace, a place where I could focus on positive things and where I could excel. By the time I was in middle school, it was clear that I was on a completely different track than most of my friends and all of my relatives. Actually, I was one of the only students from my neighborhood in advanced level classes. That is when I first realized that not everyone was experiencing education like I was, and that this was very wrong. I knew, even then, that no matter what else happened in our lives, education was something that no one could take away. A college degree will give us the preparation to better our lives and that of our families and community.

So, two decades later, I became a teacher. Then, my father went back to school and also became a teacher. Shortly after, my sister and my mom did the same. All of us dedicated ourselves to promoting educational justice for underserved communities. To us, this the power of education!

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?

I was a young district administrator serving schools in neighborhoods much like the one where I was raised in. I was ecstatic to be in a position of responsibility to provide every student with a premium education. I made it my personal mission to not replicate the unfair system that I experienced as a student, where adult perceptions about student potential determined the education we received.

One day while in the district office, I overheard a few staff members talking about a 4th grade student with many emotional and learning challenges, who missed a lot of school. They had tried everything they could, but this was an impossible case, a lost cause. The mother was unwilling to help her son and without her, there was no use trying. They tried reaching out to her many, many times and she never responded or came to meetings. She just didn’t care. So, the district team reduced the student’s support thinking it would be used to better advantage on other children.

This troubled me so, that I looked up the student’s address to do a home visit. I was sure I could reason with the mother and get the child the help he deserved. I knocked on the door and when it opened, I froze. I recognized the people on the other side. The child was my nephew and the mother who “just didn’t care” was my first cousin. This was my favorite cousin who was with me all our years growing up, except that she was in the lower track in school with most other students. She left high school, moved to another city and we lost touch.

What I found out that day was that she was embarrassed about her life, so she kept her distance from her family. Her life took a terrible turn when her then 7-year-old son called 911 on his father for beating his mother in front of him. With only one income and now experiencing mental health issues herself, she lost her family home and eventually her job. This is when my nephew began having problems. She did not respond to school messages because it took all her strength just to wake up, take care of her son as best she could, and live another day.

I share this not for sympathy or for dramatic effect. I share it for the deep lessons it taught me that I carry with me to this day. First, “there but by the grace…”. We educators must come to our work with profound humility. Second, the more struggles students have, the more support they need. Not the reverse. And the most important lesson of all — every student deserves the premium education only some currently receive. How might my cousin’s and her child’s life have been different if she and her son experienced the quality education I did? This has become my life’s work. (RIP my cousin.)

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

Yes! This summer we launched TLCan equity model to teach & reach every student in every setting with over 2,000 teachers, para-educators, counselors and administrators. The pandemic has spurred us all into taking education out of school buildings and into virtual classrooms. At Orenda, we leapt into action. We took our two decades of industry and professional experience and research in school improvement work and designed an approach to schooling that uses this moment in our history to actually advance educational equity.

The design includes teacher and counselor workshops in small groups; whole group instruction through lessons online with support for students who need it to learn from online lessons; structured academic coaching as a catch-up plan, and timely talks for students with emotional struggles. These components are high-impact and simple to implement for staff, easy to learn from for students, and straight-forward to support as parents. A major bonus, TLC is designed to work equally well in physical or virtual classrooms. School staff, students and parents learn one system that easily goes between every setting which we know will be fluid for some time. It is one model to teach and reach every student, in every setting!

Currently, Orange Unified School District (OUSD) in Orange County is integrating principles of TLC within their SLICE (Student Centered, Live Instruction, Innovative Learning, Culturally Inclusive, Equitable Choices) instructional model to equip staff with the tools needed to provide an excellent education experience whether it be remote, in person or blended.

585 OUSD educators across 39 sites, as well as the district office, partnered with Orenda Education to receive a minimum of 15 hours of TLC professional education training, with additional coaching support over 5 days and ongoing support planned throughout the school year. Approximately 60 administrators engaged in additional leadership work to prepare to launch and support quality implementation.

This program includes access to toolkits, templates, planning guides and tip sheets that address elements that directly impact an educator’s ability to provide a true, right and just education for every student moving through these unprecedented times.

OUSD teachers, counselors, administrators and other staff are able to meet the uncertainty and fluidity that the pandemic poses when empowered by a strong framework and ample preparation. The TLC framework, available to any school or district, was developed from tried and true models from some of the leading experts in education. This ultimately ensures children receive the best possible education, no matter what curveballs are thrown our way.

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

I not-so-jokingly say that I am an expert in education because after 38 years of doing this work, I have made every mistake possible, at least once, and now I know better! In addition to that, I have a strong research background. I’ve held most positions in education that relate to teaching and learning, from instructional assistant to teacher, coordinator and principal to district office administrator. My doctoral studies in education at Stanford University grounded me in scholarship and disciplined study of educational challenges. I was also a professor of educational administration. The intersection of all of these experiences culminated in published articles and books, including the most recent publication, “Shattering Inequities: Real World Wisdom from School and District Leaders,” written with Dr. Ruth Johnson. If that is not enough, I am mother to four young adult children with very different learning needs who taught me that as much as I know about education, there is always more to learn.

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?

Education in the U.S. is exceptional, for some students. For example, in California, about four million students are faring quite well on most measures. This makes me proud.

The focus of my work is to understand why every student is not equally served by our school system. The preface of “Shattering Inequities” has a true story of Kyle, a student whose life was forever negatively affected by good educators making bad decisions with the best intentions. The fact that this occurred to a student is very sad. And the fact this this has occurred historically and systemically to specific groups of students is tragic. The students most impacted are Hispanic, African American, Native American, English learners, low-income, foster youth and homeless students. In California, this represents two million students.

It is natural to look to circumstances outside of the control of schools to explain why vulnerable students do so poorly compared to students with more advantages. It is true that those conditions impact student outcomes. However, the story of Kyle demonstrates how beliefs we have about certain groups of students result in decisions that either propel or limit student opportunities in very real ways. How would I rate the results of the education system? I’d give us a “needs to improve” because demographics should not determine destiny.

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

  • More students than ever are graduating college and career-ready.
  • The goal to close the achievement and opportunity gaps between vulnerable student groups and their counterparts is now a national priority.
  • The trend is to include more meaningful student, parent and community voices in school and district decisions.
  • A strong commitment exists to providing every student with technology to enhance their education.
  • The climate is ripe for innovation and enrichment in education.

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?

In order to get at the root of what blocks school improvement, allow me to define “key areas” a bit broadly.

  • The Inevitability Assumption — I believe that the most pressing issue is the widely accepted notion that some students, by virtue of circumstances outside of school, are bound to succeed while others are not. This belief results in decisions and practices that become standard operating procedure in schools and districts across the country. Though very misguided, these policies are often implemented with the best of intentions, but serve to perpetuate longstanding disparities in the quality of education students receive.
  • Tracking — This is one such misguided practice. I am more concerned than ever since the pandemic about decisions of who will be brought onto campus, who will remain in distance learning, and what experiences each group will receive. An unintended consequence of these decisions could be that we recreate separate and unequal education, with vulnerable students again receiving the short end of the stick.
  • Leadership Development — The bulk of professional development goes to teachers. Meanwhile, the leaders responsible for supporting and monitoring the education of our children receive a fraction of that support. As a result, leaders are often underprepared. With average superintendent turnover rates of five to six years, and principal turnover rates at three years, we need to prioritize leadership development in order to fortify administrators and other leaders with depth of understanding of the current state of education and the strategies and the finesse to be able to inspire change.
  • Adversarial Relationships — We are all aware of the historic tensions between administration, boards of education, unions, and parents. The truth is that an unhealthy competition for power does often exist among these groups and it hurts students every day. The pandemic has also exacerbated these tensions with public debates about whether or not to open schools that have become mean-spirited and even dangerous in some communities. Most often, teachers’ unions are viewed as self-interested, unreasonable groups most to blame for maintaining the status quo and blocking change. At this stage of my career, and having been a teacher, administrator and parent, I see how oversimplified and futile it is to lay blame on any one entity. This situation is no one’s fault, and everyone’s responsibility to solve.
  • Layering — This is the practice of throwing as many programs at students as possible hoping something will make a difference. This results in schools and districts juggling many more initiatives than they have the capacity to implement with quality. In fact, layering programs one on top of another works against improvement. More than that, it is one of the main reasons that schools do not improve. The most impactful schools and districts carefully select very few initiatives and implement them methodically, with tons of support for staff and students. Then, they ritualistically use a variety of data to measure impact. More is not better. If it were, with all the programs out there, every student would graduate a scholar today!

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

I think we are making headway, gauging by the number of students taking more advanced math and science, as well as the increasing number of technology and engineering-related pathways available for students. To accelerate this improvement, we should: (a) invest in deepening the content knowledge of our teachers, counselors and administrators related to STEM through sustained professional development, (b) ensure that students have exposure to STEM fields through study trips and speakers, especially if they don’t have access to these experiences, except through school, and © make it possible for students to meet and interact with STEM professionals who come from similar backgrounds and schools so that they can envision their future selves being part of STEM world.

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

Here is a clear question of educational justice. STEM fields offer rapidly growing opportunities to advance knowledge and solve real problems, while providing people working in those fields with good jobs and a satisfying standard of living. Simply stated, it is true, right and just that girls and women have the same preparation to be able to access these opportunities.

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?

As with most areas, I think we are making gains. However, in order for these gains to have true social impact, we would be wise to: (a) hire more female STEM teachers that girls can connect with, (b) remove barriers to taking advanced courses that can disadvantage girls, such as using adult recommendations as a primary criteria. Girls and boys may respond differently in STEM classes, in ways that may be interpreted to mean that they are less interested or capable than boys, and © once again, give girls the chance to interact with female STEM professionals so they become excited enough to advocate for themselves to be included in STEM opportunities at their school.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design & new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

Great question! I am a strong supporter of STEAM over STEM. I believe that the humanities and the arts offer society an enriched world view and perspective about life that enhances every endeavor we undertake. These experiences help us appreciate beauty, love language, and develop empathy and social responsibility. Added to science, technology, engineering and math, a background in the humanities influence what problems we identify, the way we think about those problems, and our judgement about which solutions we accept and which we must reject.

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?

Residential Segregation. Today, there exists a high correlation between a student’s zip code and the quality of education they receive. Resisting the temptation to oversimplify reasons for this, let us agree that the net effect is just wrong. If I had the greatest power, I would make it so that all communities had a decent standard of living. With somewhat less power, and within our control, I would ensure that school boundaries were drawn such that we could never again call some schools “rich schools” and others “poor schools.”

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

“What’s your floor?” This question drives my work and my life. Here is how. When I was very young, there was right and wrong, up and down, straight and crooked. I saw the world very clearly then. Age and experience have forced me to see shades, nuance and exceptions I didn’t perceive before. This can make the world fuzzy and can make right and wrong seem more like a continuum than a dichotomy. After a while, “better than yesterday” can feel pretty darn good. And “making an effort” can feel like a reasonable goal.

The danger is that, over time, bad things become normalized. Failure becomes normalized. Complacency becomes normalized. Disrespect becomes normalized, and soon, things you swore you would NEVER accept become OK. I’m sure we can all think of professional and personal examples of that.

In order to combat this, I ask leaders to answer, “What’s your floor?” in their areas of responsibility. In other words, what is your minimum expectation, under which you will not go. Once you define this, the follow up question is, “Does everyone you lead know that?” You see, inequities and unfairness happen when we have not calibrated our floor because then people’s personal beliefs determine what the standard is for acceptable, and that is dangerous. I believe that when we as a society calibrate our floor, agree on a definition of what is true, right and just, all things will be possible.

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 love to meet Eva Longoria and Michelle Obama. I admire their commitment to social justice, and I would love to share the work of Orenda Education — led by a fellow passionate and qualified woman of color.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/robin-avelar-la-salle-13b9544/

Twitter: @OrendaEd

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/OrendaEd/

Instagram: @orendaed

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