The pandemic exacerbated the national teacher shortage. We need to attract teachers to the profession and at the same time, diversify the teacher force. Systems get the results they are designed to achieve. Eighty-percent of American public school teachers are White; 76% are women. This does not reflect the demographics of our students, who need to see themselves reflected in their role models. We must do more to recruit and retain more teachers, particularly teachers of color. To do that, we need to center the compelling mission of teaching, foster community and collaboration, provide mentorship, embrace greater work-life balance, and promote teacher voice, choice, and agency in all aspects of school decision making.
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 Michelle Cummings, VP of Content at Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT), the world’s most popular online marketplace of educational resources created by teachers, for teachers. In her role, Michelle leads TpT’s Education Content and Insights (ECI) team, which conducts research to understand education and TpT marketplace trends. Michelle also partners with TpT’s sales, marketing, engineering, and seller operations teams to apply these insights and her firsthand experience to help TpT best support educators.
Michelle joined TpT with an education background of over 30 years, serving as a middle and high school English and social studies teacher, an elementary and high school principal, and a Chief Academic Officer. As an educator, Michelle has been effective in improving student achievement, developing staff, teachers, and leaders, and cultivating community and industry partnerships. Michelle is also the recipient of The School Superintendents Association’s (AASA) National Women in Leadership Award, which recognizes female educators whose talent, creativity and vision are exemplary.
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’ve known I wanted to be a teacher since a young age. In sixth grade, I told my teacher, Ms. Beck, I wanted to be a teacher during a career unit in our class and she arranged for me to volunteer in one of the first grade classes at our school. I’m still in contact with her to this day.
This interest in teaching continued as I went on through my teen years. When my family went on vacation, my mom would arrange school visits at model schools around the country. She attended conferences on education and had shelves of education reform books. By the time I graduated from high school, I had read all of the books written by Ted Sizer, founder of the Essential Schools Movement, which emphasized students’ depth of understanding over memorization. In fact, I chose to attend Brown because he was teaching there. I not only got to learn directly from him, but I also got to intern at one of the first Essential schools in the country.
For the last 30 years I’ve been a teacher, principal and district administrator. Each time I’ve taken a new role it was with the hope that I could support more educators. At Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT), I have the opportunity to do exactly that by helping 85% of the nation’s teachers and many more around the world.
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?
When I was the principal at Walker Elementary School, we built the first barrier-free playgrounds in Portland and San Francisco. That means that a child who used a wheelchair could access the play structure and the play area with their peers. A Kindergartener at the school used a wheelchair and his mom was an amazing partner in the project. As part of the design process, we had typically developing children use wheelchairs to try and navigate various playgrounds with wood chip surfaces and stairs to the structures. They became quickly frustrated and advocated for rubberized surfaces and ramps. Ultimately, the experience not only benefited our student body, but other members of the community as well. When we started getting calls to “reserve” the playground for birthday parties, so that family members who used wheelchairs or parents with strollers and grandparents with walkers could participate, we realized that the impact of building inclusive spaces was broader than we imagined.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
This is a chaotic and overwhelming time for educators who need more support than ever. So, the exciting project I’m working on is figuring out how to provide the right tools and resources so that they can teach at their best. One way we’re doing this right now is through TpT School Access, a subscription service for schools and districts, so that teachers can get access to the instructional resources they need without paying out of pocket. As a former administrator myself, I’m constantly thinking about how we can unlock funds and provide more support for teachers, while saving their most precious resource: time. I’m proud to be able to work on projects like this that help teachers not only survive, but also thrive, even in today’s difficult circumstances.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
With three decades of experience, I’ve seen the education system from many vantage points — as a teacher, as a principal, as a chief academic officer and now from the perspective of an edtech platform that provides high quality classroom resources to millions of teachers. That said, longevity and experience alone don’t create an authority. The true key to being an expert is being perennially curious and a good listener — one must be eager to learn from students, families, educators around the world, and even entrepreneurs outside of education. I bring learnings from these conversations to improve educational opportunities, TpT’s offerings, and to drive future innovation. No one accomplishes anything alone, and I strongly believe our “authority” derives from the achievements of the teams and the people that surround us.
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?
Our educators, and the education system at large, has been mightily strained by the pandemic. Educators have labored to create a new delivery system overnight to support students and families. However, these herculean efforts have been uneven across the country.
The US education system is the only education system in the world that has the audacity to set as its goal for each child to graduate from high school in four years, ready for college and careers. Our system aims to educate each child regardless of the circumstances of their birth, regardless of their first language, regardless of the disability they may experience, regardless of housing or food insecurity. Educators strive to achieve this powerful, “astronaut on the moon” challenge with varied funding levels by state. Yet, even as the US has bold aspirations for its educational system, it is falling short of its potential, especially in the pandemic.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
It is difficult to speak about the US education system as one coordinated national system. There are significant variations by state, by district, and often by school. Each state has its own standards, funding levels, teacher certification, assessments, and graduation requirements. As a result, success in one region might look different in another. With that said, even in the face of extreme disruption, as we’ve seen with the pandemic, the educational system has some significant strengths.
Teachers are national treasures and changemakers. We have seen teachers going above and beyond the call of duty to create a new instructional delivery model overnight for their students and each other. Teachers have adopted new tech tools, developed videos, TV shows, and go live on Instagram and Facebook to reach their students. . Teachers are strong advocates for the health, safety, and the needs of their students. As Danielle, a teacher in Louisiana said, “Teachers are drained and tired, but stoking fires of innovation.”
High school graduation rates have increased, even as requirements to graduate become more rigorous. In the 2017–2018 school year, the national graduation rate for public high school students peaked at 85% (this is up from 70% in 1990). In the same period, many states implemented more rigorous diploma requirements for math, science, and exit exams. Educators have developed sophisticated early warning and early intervention systems to identify and support students at risk of dropping out of high school. We know that achieving high school graduation improves overall outcomes for students. High school graduates are better off economically, physically healthier, and have reduced rates of incarceration. So the rise in high school graduation rates gives us a lot to celebrate.
The accelerated use of digital tools is increasing personalized learning. In a Teachers Pay Teachers poll of 1,000+ preK-12 teachers conducted in July 2020, we found that the vast majority of educators (88%) anticipated using more technology to deliver instruction during the 2020–2021 school year. Additionally, over 90% said they planned to use digital or digitized instructional materials multiple times per week. Teachers’ embrace of technology can largely be explained by the need to transition to blended and distance learning environments, but the effects of this are sure to last well beyond the pandemic. Increased use of classroom technology has the potential to facilitate seamless, year-round education that reduces learning gaps while giving students a more personalized learning experience.
Increased enrollment in early childhood education programs. Before the pandemic, enrollment in preschool was growing across the US. It’s hard to overstate the importance of early childhood education, but study after study has shown that preschool is fundamental for childrens’ social-emotional development. Enrollment going up means improved academic and social-emotional outcomes for children and increased incomes for families. High quality early childhood programs allow parents to return to work, securing a higher standard of living for their families.
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?
There are many more than five areas I would like to see improved, such as free, high quality preschool and free community college, career and technical education, coding for all, and world languages starting in Kindergarten. However, I would prioritize changes that strengthen the three components of the didactic triangle or the teaching triangle. The triangle is one of the strongest shapes in geometry so it’s a powerful image of the relationship between the student, teacher, and curriculum. Teachers are facilitators of learning so in an age where students can learn from anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time, that triangle is infused with so much possibility. Here are ways we can strengthen each of each of the component parts:
STUDENTS: Equity and bridging the digital divide. Access to an education is not yet equal in America; socio-economic status continues to be a predictive factor in school achievement. Our educational system produces disproportionate results with Latinx, Black, and Indigenous students attaining lower graduation rates than their White peers. Providing devices, high speed internet, and digital resources for all students would be transformational and allow students to access personalized, culturally responsive, continuous learning, and guidance year round. In an age where students can learn from anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time, this would be a game changer.
TEACHERS: Strengthening teachers’ voice, choice, and agency and diversify the workforce. The pandemic exacerbated the national teacher shortage. We need to attract teachers to the profession and at the same time, diversify the teacher force. Systems get the results they are designed to achieve. Eighty-percent of American public school teachers are White; 76% are women. This does not reflect the demographics of our students, who need to see themselves reflected in their role models. We must do more to recruit and retain more teachers, particularly teachers of color. To do that, we need to center the compelling mission of teaching, foster community and collaboration, provide mentorship, embrace greater work-life balance, and promote teacher voice, choice, and agency in all aspects of school decision making.
CURRICULUM: Providing educators the content they need to teach at their best. Inspiring and engaging students through powerful lesson design requires both the art and science of teaching. As I learned from one of my mentors, Elliot Washor, students engage in learning if they have a relationship with their teacher, the material is relevant to their lives, and rigorous enough to challenge each student. Crafting such lessons takes enormous amounts of time, planning periods, evenings and weekends. Traditional publishers, many with multi-year publication cycles, are often out-of-date and aren’t nimble enough to meet the changing needs of students. We need to make it easier for teachers to share lessons, learn from each other, iterate quickly. School leaders need to make sure that teachers have a voice in selecting the tools they need to engage their students.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) are so important not just from a workforce development perspective, but as tools to solve problems and understand the way the world works. We can do better engaging young people in STEM. Unfortunately, with the pandemic, the future of the scientific field is at risk. As Erica, a science teacher, shared with me, she’s concerned that in distance learning, if students have less hands-on science opportunities , we could lose a generation of scientists. She recommends taking a “tech rest with a nature quest.”
Implement NGSS. The US took a big step towards improving STEM education when it introduced the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in 2013. Seven years later and we still need to do more to increase adoption and implementation by providing professional development to elementary teachers, as well as middle and high school science teachers.
Hands-On Project-Based Learning. We increase student engagement when we increase the rigor of our curriculum. That means providing more opportunities for students to act as scientists and engage their inborn curiosity. Teachers must give students real world experiments and problems to solve. Wouldn’t it be powerful to ask students what problems they want to solve and give them the resources and guidance to accomplish that? Facilitating project-based learning is a place to start. Teachers are getting creative, identifying new ways to engage students in lab experiments at home via “Kitchen Science” — using household objects and the outside world to learn. For example, Amanda, a pre-K teacher in Florida made a viral video using water, pepper and soap to show how students and parents could conduct a science experiment at home to learn about the importance of hand washing.
Teach Coding and Computer Science in School. Not everyone will or should have careers in computer science, but all students would benefit from exposure to it. Not only does it improve math, writing, and reasoning skills, teaching coding in schools can provide students with a skill for high-demand jobs to work through college or support a family. All industries want to hire tech-savvy employees.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
At the risk of stating the obvious, women and people of all identities should be represented in every field, including STEM. We have a tremendous lack of female STEM professionals. In fact, men continue to dominate STEM fields in most countries across the globe. And yet so many of the biggest problems in the world require a STEM solution — just look at the COVID-19 pandemic as an example. Personal Protective Equipment was previously designed to fit men, creating dangerous conditions for women in health care. Having more representation from people with unique and diverse backgrounds brings richer perspectives, inclusive solutions, and helps to remove bias from STEM spaces. Therefore, we need to engage young women in STEM early, provide them with role models of women in STEM, as well as women teachers/professors. In this way, young women will understand this is a career path that is accessible to them.
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?
Systems get the results they are intended to achieve. To answer this and any question about bias, we must honestly analyze the system with an equity lens and take stock of where we are. We have to look at the achievement of young women in STEM classes and jobs. We must examine barriers to entry, interactions, and reasons women leave STEM professions.
Here are three ways we can increase the engagement of women in STEM:
Disaggregate data based on gender. In K-12 education this data may include girls’ performance on science work samples, state assessments in math or science, enrollment in STEM classes, and achievement on Advanced Placement tests. In college it may include applicants to STEM programs, enrollment in courses, feedback surveys, and STEM degree completion. This is the first step in interrogating the system that produces disproportionate results.
Hire more women to teach STEM. If students have role models and identify with the teachers and leaders around them, it has a huge impact on the possibilities they see for themselves. We need more women teaching STEM; they can show young women that becoming an expert in these fields is in fact possible.
Re-examine pedagogy and curriculum: It’s important for teachers to acknowledge the unconscious bias that happens in the classroom. For example, elementary school girls are often complimented on their appearance while boys are complimented on their problem solving skills. It’s important that teachers have the same high expectations for both boys and girls. Reexamining pedagogy and curriculum includes examining things like how many girls get called on to answer questions in class, if the culture is more collaborative or competitive, how many women role models appear in instructional materials and how we are building the STEM self-esteem of girls.
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 reject the notion that we need to choose between STEM and STEAM. For people to thrive in a society, we must have artists and philosophers alongside scientists and engineers. We will have a bleak quality of life indeed if we don’t. Sometimes all of those qualities come together in one person, like Kate, a science teacher in Oregon who started class each day with a poem. Students must have exposure to a well-rounded curriculum to cultivate the rich talents of each human being — whether that’s in science and math, the arts, or other disciplines. That’s why it’s important that we personalize student learning, so we can support students on their journey of self-discovery and ultimately connect students to their next best steps toward college and careers. It’s important that students have an education about a broad range of topics and that students learn about college, career, and economic realities. In this way, they will know their interests and strengths are valid, viable, worthwhile and valued by society.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” James Baldwin
James Baldwin’s quote rings true for me whether I’m looking personally at the goals I have for my health or broadly at systems of oppression that need to be changed. For example, years ago, after disaggregating course enrollment data by race, we were confronted by the painful truth that honors and AP classes had fewer students of color than expected from the school’s demographics. We engaged in some important conversations to identify root causes then changed our recruitment practices, provided professional development, paid for all students to take AP exams, and conducted family outreach in a new way. Our enrollment data improved significantly. Nothing can be changed until it is faced.
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 🙂
What a fun question. I would love to have a conversation with Oprah Winfrey. She amplifies the voices of people whose ideas make the world a better place. Her SuperSoul Sunday interviews are balm for the spirit. She embodies and promotes a growth mindset and her quality of listening unlocks the genius of others. Yes. I would very much like to meet her.
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Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!