“How to improve the educational system.” With Penny Bauder & Dr. Lillian Lowery

The ability of our teachers to adapt to support the continuity of learning has been second-to-none. Our educators overnight made a seamless pivot of moving in-person classrooms learning to online platforms. Also, their ability to tap innovation and technology to better serve today’s students is helping to bring a twenty-first century education to more students […]

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The ability of our teachers to adapt to support the continuity of learning has been second-to-none. Our educators overnight made a seamless pivot of moving in-person classrooms learning to online platforms. Also, their ability to tap innovation and technology to better serve today’s students is helping to bring a twenty-first century education to more students than ever before.

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 Lillian Lowery. Lillian is Vice President of Student and Teacher Assessments at ETS.

Dr. Lowery previously served as a content expert at The Education Trust in Washington, D.C., where she focused on issues related to pre–K through 12 education and fostered collaborations with national, state and local organizations. She also is Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Her prior experience includes leading the departments of education for Maryland and Delaware and serving as a member of the PARCC and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium during the development of the testing programs. Lowery was also responsible for implementing policies for educator licensure and certification.

She earned a Doctorate of education in educational leadership and policy studies from Virginia Polytechnic and State University, a master’s degree in education in curriculum and instruction from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a bachelor’s degree in English education from North Carolina Central University.

Dr. Lowery also has extensive classroom experience including teaching English in the Fairfax County, Virginia, school district, where she was also the department chair; in the Alexandria, Virginia and in the Gaston County, North Carolina.

She has served on the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans and the President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities and is an Education Policy Leader of the Year honoree by the National Association of State Boards of Education.

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 grew up in Gastonia, North Carolina when it was still the segregated south. I was a tenth grader in high school during the first year of complete integration. That year I was fortunate to have a teacher, Mrs. Halloway for English, who changed my life. Mrs. Halloway dressed up as different literary characters to bring their stories, historical context and cultural relevance to life. After entering her classroom, I abandoned my previous dreams of pursuing a degree in English or History and then law. I found my calling, I wanted to be a high school literature teacher. I went on to teach middle school English in North Carolina and Virginia, and later taught at the high school level and then served as a school administrator, at the district county and state levels.

Despite growing up in the segregated south, I was fortunate to be in an environment where they pushed us, and I will tell you that everything was not fair. I had resources, my sister’s high school principal lived next door, my elementary school principal lived a few doors down. When I faced challenges at school, they would make a concerted effort to help to prepare me the night before so that I could go back in there the next day and ask them for what I wanted and needed. This level of support was critical in helping me to be prepared to face adversity not just in school but also in life and played a big role in my career path in becoming an advocate for students as a school administrator at the local, state and federal level.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I spent the majority of my career with Fairfax County Public Schools (Virginia), from classroom teacher to district office administrator. My career path included a position as Minority Student Monitor, my first administrative experience outside of a local school environment.

In response to the growing diversity around the country, while I was the high school assistant principal I was asked to serve as a part of a districtwide team focused on the achievement gap between majority and minority students and economically advantaged and disadvantaged students. It was during this experience that I became acutely aware of the influence that policy, especially budgetary considerations, impact teaching and learning. This opportunity to leave the school-based environment and become more grounded in big-picture comparative data and policy at the federal, state, and local level shaped my leadership goals and advocacy as a high school principal. To this day, data and policy advocacy still influence my decision making.

Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Policy matters, and those closest to students, teachers, school leaders and communities — ALL communities — need to clearly understand how policy shapes all that they do each day and how we support our children.

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

Currently, at ETS we are exploring new ways that we can help educators measure student performance to help bolster learning this year and ensure a seamless transition for students leaving their current teachers and entering a new classroom and grade level in the fall. We believe that this will help to set students up for success while also providing an added level of support to teachers and educators as they prepare to bring students back into the classrooms and start a new phase of their learning.

In addition, I know firsthand the importance of having knowledgeable effective teachers in classrooms cannot be emphasized enough. As the nation has engaged in social distancing by staying at home, our team at ETS has quickly responded to provide remote proctoring so that prospective teacher candidates may prepare for and complete licensure assessments for certification to be ready to employment and prepared to enter classrooms in the fall.

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

I believe I am honored to be called a leader in the field of education based on my experience and my laser focus on achieving measurable results that always keeps students at the center of my work and organizational missions across sectors and positions. My professional experience as an educator includes teaching English at the middle school and high school levels, serving in administrative roles in county, state and national roles and as the cabinet member who lead education policy for Delaware and Virginia. I have held positions from high school principal to Minority Student Achievement Monitor to Assistant Superintendent in the Fairfax County Public Schools, as well as the Christina School District in Delaware. While I was superintendent of the Christina School District, I was at the helm of enhancing the educational programs, improving student achievement, and administering policies for a K-12 district, where approximately 15 percent of the students spoke a language other than English at home. I also am proud to share that the team I led in Christina School District identified and closed a $17.5 million year-over-year fiscal deficit and helped to lead the district back to solvency.

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?

I believe we are making strides. I served as a state commissioner during the time of state collaboration focused on comparability in rigorous teaching and learning no matter which classroom students learned or where those classrooms were located. There was a collective focus on access and opportunity for every child. Positive milestones resulted from these powerful communities of learning including:

  • Higher standards aimed towards college and career readiness
  • New test questions gauge “higher order skills as abstract thinking and communications.”
  • Access to and documentation of differentiated teaching models for students with disabilities and language learners along the same standards-based learning progressions as their general education peers
  • Empowered parental choice
  • Incentives for states to accelerate modernization and improvement of their education policy
  • Achievement gaps among student groups persist just as barriers — be it poverty or unintentional policy decisions — to diversity, inclusion, and equity for all students. Now state leaders are in alignment with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Every Student Succeeds Act, are charged with the equitable distribution of access to learning with less federal direction. Decisions can be monitored and assessed locally with the onus of student achievement resting unequivocally as a state responsibility.

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

Today we are addressing systemic low expectations like never before through advocacy that has begun pushing back on those systems. We are seeing organizations respond with diversity and inclusion research, educational policies and best practices that are helping to shepherd in a new era of access and equality in education for all students and leveling the playing field especially for underserved students.

Education now is student-centered. There is a personal approach to meet students where they are and develop learning to address their needs holistically. In addition to meeting the needs of the whole student as an individual, the federal government has given states flexibility and authority to determine the direction of education at a state-level to best accommodate the needs of students from curriculum to classroom settings to the use and inclusion of technology, et al.

Performance measurement has given us the ability to know where students are and how they are performing in specific areas. These data-based assessments allow educators and schools to identify areas of growth, areas where additional support is needed, to revise lesson plans and support student development. We are moving away from subjective measure to a reliance on performance measurement that provides us with reliable data we can use.

The ability of our teachers to adapt to support the continuity of learning has been second-to-none. Our educators overnight made a seamless pivot of moving in-person classrooms learning to online platforms. Also, their ability to tap innovation and technology to better serve today’s students is helping to bring a twenty-first century education to more students than ever before.

Access will always be an issue close to my heart, and my firsthand experience with ELL students brought this home beyond in both North Carolina and Virginia. Our lessons and educational communities are more inclusive than ever and work to not only include ELL students but their families. The social impact of these efforts is long-lasting and really change the trajectory of students. At ETS, we are working to leverage the Amazon Alexa platform to improve and refine the English-speaking skills of ELL students with skills-based games aimed at Pre-K — 6 grade ELL students. It’s an exciting time to be part of teams working to bring education to underserved students with out of the box approaches.

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?

I believe increasing teacher diversity will help us make progress on one of the most intractable issues of our time: the opportunity gap that separates students by race, ethnicity and income. For years, the opportunity gap has barely budged. But decades of research show that when we add more teachers of color and more men to America’s classrooms, those teachers have a profound and lasting impact on their students. We know that having one black male teacher in early elementary years improves outcomes for black students and all students.

Resource equity: I know firsthand as a former student and educator that students’ success is dependent upon having access to high quality teachers and leaders along with rigorous coursework. We have to do more to level the playing field for students from marginalized communities so that they have every opportunity to learn alongside their middle and upper-middle class peers.

Addressing the disparity in learning: This is emphasized today with the reliance placed on distance learning. We need to bridge the digital divide because we know that this learning gap threatens to leave students from marginalized communities behind. We need to identify how we can support students in need to ensure their access to a quality, world-class education.

Investment in Education: Ensuring education dollars are used efficiently and effectively. We want to see more equality in educational resources, and this can only be achieved by ensuring that education dollars are available in districts where there is the most demonstrated need.

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

We are making progress with putting more of a focus on STEM and engaging our students, but this is a work in progress. I believe the best way that we can increase STEM engagement is by incorporating STEM into every classroom beginning in the early elementary years. As educators there are a few things we can do to provide our students with an entree into the world of STEM. By shifting our language and utilizing words and phrases that we previously reserved for science we can help to familiarize students with STEM vocabulary, processes and ways of thinking. Teachers can also pose questions as scientific experiments. Children are natural problem solvers, and this will help them explore scientific ideas and add an element of fun to all subject areas. Finally, I cannot emphasize the importance of early literacy and the joy and growth that reading to child brings to their future love of reading and expansion of their vocabulary. Today there is an expansive collection of STEM books for students of all ages and many for early readers. I personally enjoy Ada Twist, ScientistWhat Do You Do with An Idea and 11 Experiments That Failed. The amazing part about STEM books is that they encourage STEM engagement, taking risks, planting the seed for an entrepreneurial spirit and most importantly they teach that not only is it okay to fail but that failures are great lessons on our journey and not the end of our path or our destination.

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

I grew up in a single parent household and my mother was singularly the most important influence in instilling the value of a good education in my life. While we faced challenges being black in the south during the early years of integration my mother was careful to not allow these experiences to become barriers in my mind or life. She never limited my potential. I believe that while there are considerable inroads that need to be made in STEM for women — today’s girls and young women are beyond capable and will add both an invaluable and nuanced perspective to the work and fields beyond what we can even imagine.

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?

Historically females have been underrepresented in these fields. Many young people today still think of men when they think of roles like scientists and engineers. I believe that “when we can see it, we can be it.” When our students can see someone like themselves in careers they can aspire to these roles and envision being in those positions themselves. By ensuring that leaders in STEM across sectors who represent diversity are engaged with students we can open up a whole new world of possibilities for all students, especially girls and young women. We need to create pathways to bring more women into these fields by cultivating an interest in STEM in the early formative years of young girls and students. By encouraging girls and young women to pursue studies and engaging them in STEM we are creating a foundation for their future studies and goals. Finally, by disrupting the status quo and redirecting girls and young women from professional roles traditionally held by women to roles in mathematics, engineering, science and beyond, we are creating a new cohort of STEM leaders whose future work will reshape our world.

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 and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

I support STEAM because our students are individuals with individual interests and talents; they are not one dimensional. Also, many of our historically underserved students bring rich cultural backgrounds into the learning environment. However, these same students may not have the resources or experiential possibilities as more advantaged students. Therefore, role models coupled with community support matter. For example, Maya Angelou rose to prominence as an artist with diverse talent despite a challenging childhood. Madame CJ Walker became one of the first black self-made millionaires, merging her STEM talent with her artistic talents for style and beauty. Both of these trailblazers used their talents to further society through entrepreneurial and philanthropic good deeds that began with STEAM.

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 have long been a proponent of weighted student formulas that address the gaps in learning and supports a holistic approach to student learning. One of the most positive aspects of ESSA is the requirement to report how states, districts and schools distribute funding. If done well, local constituents will have the data needed to inform funding policies.

Early childhood education cannot be optional. All of our children need early intervention to develop appropriately. Of course, scaled subsidies may be used for advantaged families, but we cannot lose sight that all students and families need to grow and learn together.

Career and Technical Education is an inclusive approach to career readiness, especially given the ever-evolving machine learning grounded in coding and influencing artificial intelligence. Digital/coding is the new literacy. If our children do not possess these skills, workforce opportunities will be elusive.

Again, I believe increasing teacher diversity will help us make progress on one of the most intractable issues of our time: the opportunity gap that separates students by race, ethnicity and income.

And I would advocate for resource equity to level the playing field for students from marginalized communities so that they have every opportunity to learn alongside their middle and upper-middle class peers. All of our students must learn together with equal access to resources to achieve equitable outcomes no matter what neighborhood or zip code families live in.

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

My favorite quote is from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” Our society seems to identify and then admire the challenges of high expectations and we have become comfortable with mediocrity. President George W Bush reinforced Dr. King’s poignant words as he spoke to the “soft bigotry of low expectations” in his 2000 speech to the NAACP when he marked the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as “No Child Left Behind.” These wise words compelled my belief in, and advocacy for, disaggregated data that illuminate how well society is or is not supporting and growing our children, our nation’s future both educationally and civically.

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 🙂

In an alternate universe, I would love to have lunch with Nelson Mandela. The strength of his intellect and sense of justice sustained him in ways that he leveraged every obstacle put in his path as a teachable moment to the underserved people he led while providing a lesson in moral courage that was a master class for the world. From Invictus, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” Society needs this kind of grace — courage under fire — now more than ever.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Absolutely, please follow and engage with me, I love to discuss everything in the education space on Twitter @dr_lillian and you can find me on Linkedin at Lillian M. Lowery, Ed. D.

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

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About the author:

Penny is an environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur. She’s worked as a climate scientist, an environmental planner, and a wilderness park ranger. Motivated by a passion to raise a generation of environmental leaders, in 2010 Penny founded Green Kid Crafts, a children’s media company that provides kids around the world with convenient and eco-friendly STEAM activities. Today, it’s become a leader in the subscription industry, with over 1 million packages shipped worldwide that have exposed a generation to think about and take a leadership role in sustainability. Penny, her husband Jeff, and her children Rowan and Declan live together in San Diego, California. She holds a B.A. in Environmental Management and an M.S. in Environmental Science. Penny has over 20 years of experience in entrepreneurship, management, strategy and finance. She’s a seasoned leader, an inspiring speaker, an encouraging business mentor, and a creative writer. You can learn more about Green Kid Crafts at https://www.greenkidcrafts.com/ and follow Penny’s stories and updates at https://www.instagram.com/greenkidcrafts/ and https://twitter.com/bauderpenny.

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