Make STEM education a priority as an integrated set of subjects instead of discrete classes. Again, we need to get out of our silos. The more we do this day and day out, the more STEM becomes the norm to students instead of something only for a kid who can afford to go to a special camp or gets chosen to go to a special school.
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 Kathleen Almy.
Kathleen Almy is the CEO and founder of Almy Education. As math faculty with over 20 years of experience in high school and college classrooms, she brings her love of math and helping students succeed in college to every project she works on. She led local, state, and national math initiatives for over a decade before starting her own consulting group. In her most recent position, she led the Illinois transitional math implementation required by a law and affecting over 700 high schools and nearly 50 community colleges. Prior to that initiative, she worked for nearly a decade to implement a non-STEM pathways alternative to beginning algebra known as Math Literacy for College Students. Through that work, she traveled the country providing professional development to support faculty with its innovative pedagogy, worked throughout Illinois to change state-level policies that affected acceptance of the course, and co-authored a textbook, Math Lit, to support faculty teaching the course. Her degrees include a B.S. in Mathematics Education from Southern Illinois University and an M.S. in Pure Mathematics from NIU. She is pursuing a doctorate in education with an emphasis on community college leadership.
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?
Both of my parents were teachers and I loved math. I always knew teaching was the career for me, but high school teaching was not something I enjoyed. I loved teaching college math and still do. As a math professor, I was always trying to find ways to improve math education for students beyond my classroom. I’ve worked on many successful initiatives that have led to real change in math classes, courses, and programs. After leading a state initiative, which was rewarding but very demanding, I decided to go into consulting full time. My father had died, my life had changed, and I was realizing we’re not guaranteed another 1 or 5 or 10 years. If I wanted to do something like run my own business, I needed to make the leap.
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?
A few years ago, I was working at a college with a lot of dysfunction after years of discord and a strike. I was also a part of a state-level committee for math improvement. At it, I learned there was a new law being enacted that was going to affect every high school in the state and every community college. I read the mandate and was surprised to find it aligned with my philosophy and goals. So I took a big risk and went to people at the state level and said, “That law isn’t going to enact itself. I know how to lead math reform and I think you need a faculty member to do that. You need someone who knows the colleges and knows math. That’s me. If you make a position, I would lead the initiative.” It took a few months to come together, but the state did create a position for me and I went on to lead the statewide initiative. I learned more from that job about running a business, both what I did and did not want to do, than I could have ever imagined. I met so many people and had so many new and amazing experiences (and a lot of headaches). It taught me to not wait for the perfect job or someone to come find you and pluck you out of the crowd like Courtney Cox was from Bruce Springsteen. If you want something, go for it. Ask for it. The worst thing they can say is no.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! I’m so excited about all the amazing math faculty from around the country who are consulting for my company and helping create many offerings for schools and colleges. Math is a problem for nearly every high school and college. To make real change in the classroom, you have to have faculty on board. Faculty tend to listen to other faculty more than bureaucrats and policy makers. So as former faculty who knows a lot of great faculty, I put together a team that has many services to help math teachers in the classroom but also schools with their math programs and states with math initiatives. We know how to get things done right. And we are working hard to increase our reach so we can help more schools and ultimately more students. I’m building out a series of online offerings so our reach can be almost unlimited but also affordable to teachers and schools. You don’t need a big grant to benefit from what we bring.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
I taught high school and college math for over 20 years and still do. During that time, I was engaged in every aspect of making math better for my students. Reading research, going to conferences, engaging in reforms, implementing and evaluating change. You name it, I did it. I’ve been called the Energizer Bunny more times that I can count. I was doing so much around the country helping others improve their courses that I was able to get a book contract with Pearson Education because of the authority they saw with my work. That work and book opened many doors and allowed me to be on more committees, boards, and initiatives and have more influence on change and policy. I led multiple initiatives at every level: classroom, school, state, and nationally. In other words, I’ve been in the trenches and worked with hundreds of high schools and colleges. I know where the obstacles are and how to get things done, which is not easy. I do care about research and stay up on it, but I am far more concerned with how policy and theory play out in reality. I had a blog for years called Rebel with a Cause, which describes me well. I don’t follow the traditional playbook for education and education reform. But my passion has served me well and helped me make real change. That’s where most of my authority and credibility come from: I’m real, I’ve been there, and I know how to help others do the same.
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?
On a scale from 1 to 5, I would say we are a 3. There are so many great initiatives, projects, and programs in place or being developed. But often they are in pockets, not at scale. Inequity is still a major issue.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
- Many schools are integrating technology throughout the curriculum, particularly with one to one school initiatives. There is a broad effort to use technology in new ways and allow every student to benefit from it.
- Education is available to every child in this country. We don’t turn away anyone. That makes for a lot of challenges, but the result is that education is not only for certain income brackets or zip codes.
- High schools and colleges are creating more opportunities for dual credit and dual enrollment. The cost of college is always rising. These efforts to allow high school students to benefit from college courses helps the students financially but also in terms of gaining confidence about going to college.
- There is broad financial support for education. That’s not to say that everyone has funding. But federal funds are the norm and philanthropic organizations routinely contribute large amounts of money to schools, systems, and initiatives.
- Teachers are the glue that hold our educational system together. Funding, computers, etc. all are helpful, but the human relationships and shared experiences are still what really matters in terms of learning.
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?
- Math education should be a high priority for improvement. Every student has a math requirement, no matter what age or level they are at. But many teachers feel uncomfortable teaching the subject. Our approach to teaching math has evolved some with technology, but the content has not. It is getting more irrelevant by the day. The world changes so quickly, but education, particularly math education, does not. We shouldn’t make rash decisions but moving at a glacial pace isn’t the answer either.
- Because technology is so necessary to our daily lives, we need high speed internet throughout the U.S. in the same way telephones are everywhere. There are still rural communities that are in dead zones and have little to no access to internet. We live in a global society, so all students in the U.S. should learn about that and experience it firsthand.
- While technology is being implemented, there is still a disconnect between how tech is used in schools and how it is used in “real life” and the workplace. We need a greater connection between the classroom and those outside it so that curriculum stays relevant and students have the skills and attributes employers need.
- Alignment between educational levels (middle school, high school, college, etc.) needs to be prioritized and increased. There is a disconnect between each level of education. We operate in silos, but that’s not how the world works. There is crossover and overlap between all kinds of projects, staff, and resources. Yet we won’t share them or share knowledge across levels. Colleges and high schools have a disconnect, but so do high schools with middle schools and middle schools with elementary schools. It creates problems at every level when students transition.
- College placement policies and practices into college-level coursework need to be truly overhauled. There is a lot discussion about this issue and some colleges are implementing changes that research has shown to work. But it’s slow to happen and nowhere near scale. Placement has a direct impact on how much student aid a student will need, how long they will be in college, how likely they are to drop out or complete, and thus, how many skilled workers we have in the workforce. It seems like a small idea, but its impacts are widespread.
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’re doing a decent job with regards to engaging youth in STEM. There are plenty of programs and camps and initiatives about STEM, but they’re not enough. I suggest the following:
- Make STEM education a priority as an integrated set of subjects instead of discrete classes. Again, we need to get out of our silos. The more we do this day and day out, the more STEM becomes the norm to students instead of something only for a kid who can afford to go to a special camp or gets chosen to go to a special school.
- Increase pay for STEM teachers. The reality is that it’s very hard to find people to leave STEM jobs to work in education with its low pay, comparatively, and difficult working conditions. This is not a popular idea, particularly with unions, but it’s the law of supply and demand. If this changed, we could get more STEM experts working with students. When students see how something really works from someone who has expertise in it beyond the classroom, their engagement increases.
- Modernize curriculum! I cannot say this enough. Our curriculum does not mirror the world our students will be working in. We teach very antiquated concepts and tools because the classroom is so divorced from actual STEM fields. Again, education needs more collaboration and fewer silos. Get the conversations between educators and STEM professionals going and encourage them to participate in curriculum change. The effect is that students get to see real STEM problems solved in the way they would actually be solved, which is engaging.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
As much as STEM is talked about as a priority, the gender lines are very present. I have multiple math degrees and was often one of only a few women in my classes. That should be different in 2020, right? But often it’s not. My daughter is an engineering major and can count the number of women in her classes on one hand. Girls don’t see enough women in STEM fields, so don’t see themselves in them. My children have always seen their parents working in STEM and talking about math and science. It’s their normal. So they immediately had it on their radar as a possibility. They just had to decide if they liked STEM enough to pursue it. Many children don’t have this experience and instead are debating if they’re cut out for STEM, not do they enjoy it. I believe all children should be engaged in STEM early and often, but we need to make more of an effort for girls if we’re ever going to have a real impact on the number of women in STEM. We’re still seen as outliers and we have to prove ourselves. STEM is hard enough as it is; students don’t need additional barriers.
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 we are with STEM in general, I think there is an adequate level of efforts to engage women in STEM. But of course more can be done.
- Expose girls to STEM early and often. This comes back to modern curriculum and an integrated approach to STEM education. What we do in the classroom and how we do it needs to change if STEM is going to be a focus. In other words, make STEM the norm for everyone instead of a special thing for only some students.
- Improve hiring conditions for STEM teachers so we can attract more women from STEM fields to be willing to teach STEM subjects. Engagement will increase when girls see more people like themselves doing STEM.
- Have a real discussion with teachers at all levels about their language and actions regarding girls in STEM. There are often many slight things a teacher does that sends a message that STEM is only for boys. It’s often not malicious, but present, nonetheless. We need to have an open dialogue on actions that can be detrimental.
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?
I guess I would say STEAM. I think it’s silly to have an argument over this. All the subjects matter. What we call the efforts for it shouldn’t. To me, STEAM is just high quality education, which is what we should be aiming for. The reality is that regardless of your chosen field, STEM or not, if you work with other people, you will have to understand human psychology, be able to communicate in multiple ways, write for clarity, incorporate design into whatever you create, and share it via media. This is the world we live in. All of these areas matter. Let’s get away from the STEM vs. STEAM debate and instead focus on bringing education up to speed with the expectations of the workforce. Work backwards from that goal incorporating the tools students need throughout the curriculum and making some tough decisions on what isn’t highest priority anymore.
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?
- A nationwide database of student information would be created. Years ago, law enforcement agencies developed a shared database to help catch criminals. Before, they all worked independently which made patterns hard to detect. The same thing happens every day in education. We need a way to have information on students with privacy standards in place, and that information needs to be shareable in controlled ways. It would make it easier for students to transfer, for patterns of success or failure across programs to be determined, and for education to benefit from big data in the ways businesses do.
- Increase salaries for teachers based on their work and contribution, not student outcomes. It’s hard to attract and retain good talent in education. Teachers need to be paid more when they contribute more. But the reality is some do not work hard, as is the case in every profession. The entire employment side of education (hiring, salaries, etc.) needs to be updated if we want to attract more strong minds into the field of education. I understand where tenure and unions came from and how they can benefit teachers. That’s not necessarily bad, but I’ve seen too many cases where it was. We need to look at our policies and structures in education and measure them against a new bar, “does this benefit student learning?”
- Perform a nationwide audit of how college algebra is used at colleges and universities. This outdated requirement is still the norm in most places and is used to weed out students. We need to truly evaluate what students need from math to have the civic and professional quantitative literacy to succeed. When that happens, we will move towards more requirements of statistics and fewer of college algebra. College will not become dumbed down but instead more relevant and useful. This one requirement is often the determining factor in a student graduating and thus being a contributing member of the workforce or not. It’s absurd that someone’s opportunity to be a social worker is determined by their ability to work with asymptotes.
- Modernize curriculum across the board but start with math. I’m a broken record on this but it’s such a systemic issue. If our schools and especially colleges don’t evolve, they will die from irrelevance and lack of need.
- Focus on learning over teaching. We have antiquated course minute requirements, bell schedules, and a variety of other norms in education that are based on needs from a society over 100 years ago. In little ways and big ones, these structures force certain things, like learning quickly, to be a priority. Grades are everything, but grades do not equate to learning. I’m not saying throw the baby out with the bathwater, but we need to do a systemic audit of our norms to see what works and what’s just familiar. Too many teachers have to worry if they’ve “covered” enough content and struggle to do so at the detriment to learning because of realities beyond their control. Let’s get back to the point of education: learning. We live in an age where the whole world is in a student’s back pocket in their phone. They can Google anything. But the human mind and its ability to process, change, develop, and solve problems will never be replaced. Let’s simplify and get back to the point of school: education.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have two. The Golden Rule is what I live by. Treat others as you would want to be treated. I do all my work through its lens. It’s simple and cliché, but it works if you follow it. Being kind, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, and listening go a long way in getting things accomplished.
My second is “Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard.” It’s from Guy Kawasaki. I love it because it’s factual and ominous. I see far too many people sit at a meeting and think a new idea is what makes change. Ideas are necessary but not sufficient. Real change is messy and hard and happens in the trenches.
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 🙂
Bill Gates. I think he and his wife have tried so hard to make change in education, and they put their money where their mouths are. But they learned quickly how hard that is to do in education. Public education doesn’t operate like a business, for better and for worse. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do know quite a bit about how to get things changed in math and higher ed. I would love to talk with him about what I’ve learned and how his foundation could help.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
They can follow our Facebook page, Almy Education, or our LinkedIn page, Almy Educational Consulting. You can also find me on Twitter at Almy_Education.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!