I have become increasingly concerned about the lack of oversight for charter schools in some places, particularly in my home state. There are certainly great charter schools that are doing wonderful things, but these are often the exception. Charter schools in Arizona, which are quite prevalent, perform worse on average than their public school counterparts. They are also often run by for-profit institutions where some leaders have been able to collect exorbitant salaries by siphoning public funding away from children and into their own pockets.
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 Victoria Theisen-Homer.
Victoria Theisen-Homer is a teacher, researcher and scholar of education. She is the author of the new book Learning to Connect: Relationships, Race, and Teacher Education. After completing her Doctorate in Education at Harvard University, she began a postdoctoral research fellowship at Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation. Prior to beginning her doctoral studies, she was an English teacher at a large public Title-1 high school in Los Angeles. After only her second year of teaching here, she was named one of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Teachers of the Year. Her experiences teaching continue to drive her scholarship. She has written pieces for Education Week, Salon, and Our Schools (a project of the Independent Media Institute), as well as published peer-reviewed articles in different scholarly journals. She engages with local schools and organizations in her home state of Arizona and is passionate about finding ways to advance human connection and equity in 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?
The journey to becoming an educator started when I was very young. I was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona and am a product of local public schools. My first schooling experience was not so great. In kindergarten and first grade, I had teachers who followed a much more teacher-centered approach to education; they dispensed knowledge and the kids were supposed to sit back and absorb this and then regurgitate it on worksheets. I was an anxious 7-year-old whose parents had recently gotten divorced and I desperately craved warmth and connection in school. When this was not forthcoming, I somehow conjured up asthma attacks multiple times a week, which enabled me to escape the tedium for the more nurturing nurse’s office. My parents grew alarmed by how often I was leaving class, so they switched my brother and I to an experimental K-8 public school that featured project-based learning and mixed-level classes. Learning there was not only joyful, but the teachers really made a point to connect with each student. My asthma attacks became rare and I remained at this school through 8th grade. This experience ignited my passion for education and later, college courses in education awakened my desire to teach.
I began teaching through the equity-focused graduate teacher education program at UCLA, which prepared me for so much more than instruction. I got my first teaching job at a large Title-1 high school in central Los Angeles, where I fell in love with teaching. Since I taught many of the same students year after year, I had the opportunity to really get to know many of them, and soon realized that most were wiser and more resilient than I will probably ever be. They taught me so much. But forces outside my classroom began to threaten my ability to remain within it, something many teachers experience in some form. For me, it was the Great Recession, when LAUSD faced severe budget cuts that led to Reduction in Force (RIF) layoffs, issued in reverse seniority order — a phenomenon I fear will soon happen again across the country with the pandemic-induced recession. I received my second RIF in my fourth year in the classroom, around the same time that I received acceptances to doctoral programs in education. My core group of students from the school were seniors that year. So when they graduated and moved on, so did I in a way.
But I missed teaching terribly, and I missed my students. What I learned only affirmed that the classroom is where the real work of education happens, which led me to focus my research on teacher-student relationships and teacher education, and that led me to write my first book. My students continue to inspire all the work I do, as do my own children. Because every child, regardless of their background, deserves to have caring and supportive teachers who see them as the unique beings they are and support them to achieve their dreams.
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?
Teaching high school was by far the most interesting and enlightening part of my career and I have so many stories from that time that it is hard to narrow it down. But I will share one with you, which I continue to remember for the gravity of the situation and the lessons it taught me. One day, a quiet 10th grader, who I will call Santiago, hesitantly approached me with a note. As he returned to his seat, I read what he had written: “Every time I think about life, I want to die. I think I am going to kill myself.” I took a deep breath, for I knew that I was ill-equipped to deal with suicidal ideation, and decided to call the school psychologist, whom our school was very lucky to have. Then I asked Santiago to come to my desk, and I let him know that my 12th grade teacher’s assistant was going to walk with him down to the school psychologist so he could talk to someone who could help him. That’s it, that’s all I did. Santiago missed class for a few weeks after that, but after the first week, his dad came to visit me. With tears in his eyes, he thanked me for saving his son’s life. I assured him that no thanks were needed, that I was just doing my job. And I knew I was not the one who saved Santiago, as I had no idea he was in so much pain. Santiago saved himself by sharing this with me.
But why was I the adult he chose to disclose this to? That is something that I have continued to reflect upon over the years. I was by no means a perfect teacher, and I still cringe when I remember some of my missteps. But many of my students seemed to feel safe in my classroom, safe with me. In line with what I had learned in my teacher education program, I really made an effort to establish relationships with my students. Connecting with them as people mattered deeply to me, it still does, and I think they knew that. This experience with Santiago reaffirmed the importance of teacher-student relationships. Sometimes a caring teacher can help students express what they want and need out of life. That’s what Santiago did and I am just grateful that I was able to pass along his message to someone who better knew how to handle it. Every school should have a school psychologist on staff! And every teacher should be prepared to connect with students, across lines of perceived difference, and in meaningful ways. Because small steps to connect with students on a human level can have huge benefits.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I was recently awarded a sizable grant, co-funded by the Helios Education Foundation and Arizona Community Foundation, to study whether it would be feasible to create a teacher residency program in Phoenix. I have always been concerned about education in my home state. We consistently rate near the bottom of national quality metrics, and one of the reasons for that is because education funding is quite low, which means teacher salaries are low, which makes it hard to attract and retain high quality teachers. Even before the pandemic, nearly a quarter of classrooms in the state were occupied by long-term substitutes and teacher turnover was among the highest in the nation. We are experiencing a real teacher shortage here, and COVID-19 threatens to exacerbate this trend. Obviously, more education funding would go a long way to bolster this cause, but we also need to find new ways to recruit, prepare, support, and retain more high quality teachers for our racially diverse schools.
Teacher residencies are this really cool innovation in teacher education. They are (usually) graduate teacher education programs modeled off of medical residencies, in that student teachers are placed with expert mentor teachers in classrooms for an entire year before they become teachers of record. Residents are often given a cost-of-living stipend during their residency and are able to get a Master’s degree at a low cost, which helps attract candidates that might not otherwise consider teaching. Although most teacher residencies are still young, there is already solid research that shows these programs successfully recruit more racially diverse teachers, improve teacher retention, and advance student achievement over time. When I studied residencies for my book, I found that they have a powerful influence over the beginning instructional and relational practice of their graduates. Most large cities across the country now have a residency program, but Phoenix (the 5th largest city in the nation) does not. A program like this could have a lasting positive impact on our community, so I’m excited about the potential.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
I am not sure I would call myself an “authority,” especially as my research illustrates some of the problems with overly authoritative or authoritarian teachers. I see myself as more a facilitator of knowledge on education through teaching and research. I have had the opportunity to study education with some incredible scholars at top institutions, and I have lived it as a teacher, which has yielded important insights into the education system writ large.
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 think that given how affluent we are as a nation, our results are pretty dismal. And I am not just talking about test scores, because I do not consider those a complete measure of educational success; I also mean in terms of life outcomes, especially for students from historically marginalized backgrounds. We are not doing a very good job preparing all students to achieve economic stability, nor are we equipping them with the tools of critical thinking and civic empathy necessary to inspire them to build a more equitable future. Teachers are the most critical piece of a good education system and I think the way we undervalue and underprepare teachers has a lot to do with our educational shortcomings. If you look at the countries with top education rankings like Finland, Singapore and Japan, they all invest a lot more in preservice teacher education and pay teachers competitively. Top college graduates from those countries want to become career teachers. For the most part, we do not see that happening in the U.S.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
System-wide, it is hard to identify 5 truly successful areas, in part because what we have in the U.S. is really a non-system of education. Because education was not named in the constitution, the way it is executed is largely left up to states and thus it faces limited oversight at the federal level. In some ways, this can be good because it makes space for regional differences so schools can respond to the students before them. This flexibility has led to the creation of some really powerful and inspiring programs within certain schools, networks, and universities. But in many other ways, this exacerbates disparities across states and districts and actually undermines what could be a more equitable system if it was run by a thoughtful centralized body.
But there are some places where the education system is running better. Massachusetts is an example. In Massachusetts, teachers are required to have a Master’s degree and there are numerous high quality teacher education programs within a small area to support this. Schools are also better funded than they are in many places, and so teachers are paid better than their counterparts in many other states. Prior to the pandemic, most classrooms were filled with highly qualified teachers, which is likely why if Massachusetts were its own country, it would be rated among the top countries in global education rankings. On a smaller scale, school networks like High Tech High are achieving similar outcomes. So we know that it is possible to build better educational structures in the U.S. But we are not doing this effectively across the system, and the pandemic is threatening to compromise some of the progress made in these spaces, as teachers are leaving classrooms across the nation.
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?
First, our entire teacher pipeline needs a lot of work: from recruitment and preparation, to support and retention. As I mentioned before, research tells us that the individual teacher in the classroom has more of an influence on student progress than any other factor the school can control. Teachers are the lynch-pin of the entire educational endeavor! We need more racially diverse teachers, we need better prepared teachers, and we need teachers who feel supported enough and are paid enough to stay in the classroom.
Second, we have egregious funding disparities across districts. While schools receive a small portion of their funding from the federal government, and some from the state, a large chunk of their funding is based on local property taxes. This means that affluent areas will be able to provide more money per student than less-affluent areas, and in ways that far exceed cost-of-living adjustments. The fact that this is still happening in 2020 is baffling to me. How is that equitable? This process also reflects and exacerbates systemic racism. In Arizona, for example, schools that serve children of color receive more than $7,000 less per student than schools serving white children. This doesn’t happen in most other developed nations.
Third, there are also vast inequities in our education system that exceed issues of funding. Across schools and districts, students of color and Black students in particular are much more likely to be referred to school discipline or even arrested by school resource officers; LGBTQ students are more likely to face harassment at school; English language learners and students with disabilities often fail to receive the supports they need to thrive alongside their classmates. Teachers do not have the preparation and support they need to meet the needs of our diverse students, which is a problem because these students are our future.
Fourth, the overemphasis on standardized testing does more harm than good. Schools and districts focus relentlessly on standardized test scores, driven by forces that the No Child Left Behind Act put into motion nearly 20 years ago. Much educational discourse has been framed around closing “the achievement gap,” but test scores have consistently been a better measurement of a student’s socioeconomic status than their capacity to learn. Research also points to the many ways the standardized testing craze has eroded art and some of the other less testable subjects and reduced many classes to “drill and kill” style test prep at the expense of experiential, project-based instruction. When we reduce students to test scores, we are not able to foster the kinds of competencies students need for meaningful participation in the future.
Lastly, I have become increasingly concerned about the lack of oversight for charter schools in some places, particularly in my home state. There are certainly great charter schools that are doing wonderful things, but these are often the exception. Charter schools in Arizona, which are quite prevalent, perform worse on average than their public school counterparts. They are also often run by for-profit institutions where some leaders have been able to collect exorbitant salaries by siphoning public funding away from children and into their own pockets. Parents send their children to these charters thinking they will get a better education, but are left with an inferior one. This is not only harmful to these families, but it also drains funding away from the public schools that are doing a better job.
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 the results on this are also mixed, with some teachers and schools excelling and others struggling to engage students in STEM. And one of the reasons is that it takes resources to offer really good STEM education that will engage students. Schools need to be able to attract quality math and science teachers, who would receive much higher salaries if they took a job in industry. It also helps to be able to afford cutting-edge technology to facilitate instruction in some of the newest and most engaging applications of STEM. So my first suggestion is to provide schools with more resources for STEM education. It is also important to note that students are usually ahead of us when it comes to the newest technologies, and so my second suggestion would be to start from where students are. Use their enthusiasm over social media to teach coding, or Minecraft to teach engineering. My third suggestion is to introduce students to people who look like them who are engaged in STEM fields. The media features stories on white men in STEM fields, but there are women, gender-nonconforming folks, and people of color doing this work. Bring in stories about these people, or even better, invite mathematicians, biologists, engineers, doctors, and computer scientists to come speak to your class. When students see people like them who do this work, they are more likely to believe they, too, can do it.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Women are consistently underrepresented in STEM fields like computer science, medicine, and engineering. And these are fields that draw a lot of power and pay. They are also the fields that are designing new technologies for the masses or issuing guidance for how we treat patients. If women are not represented in these fields, they will not be adequately reflected in the outcomes. Women also bring different perspectives which can improve products in STEM fields. So we need women to be represented in STEM to help women, but also to help advance STEM.
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?
Again, I would say not great. There are other countries with much higher STEM engagement among women. To improve the engagement of women and girls in STEM here, I think we first have to get past the bias that men are inherently better at math and science than women. This is simply untrue, but the bias is so deeply ingrained that women do not end up pursuing these fields at anywhere near a representative rate. I can use myself as an example. As a child, I heard from multiple adult women in my life that they weren’t good at math and did not like it. I took this to mean that I would likely not be good at math either. When my brother, who is one year younger than me, got into a higher math class, my competitive streak kicked in and I demanded to move up to his class and did as well as he did. I ended up taking AP calculus in high school and did well on the AP exam, but only took the requisite stats class in college. Although the professor of that class asked me to be a teacher’s assistant for him because I did so well, I turned him down and continue to believe to this day that I am not good at math. Somehow, this translated to science, too, and despite my interest in medicine, I never took biology or chemistry in college. Had I received different messages as a child, I might have pursued a STEM field. My husband (who happens to work in genomics) and I are working hard to communicate to our two little girls that math and science are for girls, too, but it’s hard to avoid perpetuating what you were taught. I would also repeat my points from before that girls need to see women in the STEM field who look like them. And teachers can draw upon their interests to make STEM relevant and prove that it is not just a field for men.
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 would definitely lean towards STEAM because I think that all of these areas are critical for the development of children’s brains. We want to prepare students for the high tech jobs that our future will demand, but we also want them to become thoughtful, creative, well-rounded people. Research indicates that literature can improve students’ ability to empathize with people who are both similar to and different from them, and art can help people process emotions and even heal from trauma. We will always need arts, culture and philosophy to advance as a society, and so I do not believe we can ever limit our emphasis in education to STEM alone, but it should absolutely be part of the overall puzzle.
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?
Under most circumstances, I would actually begin by suggesting that our education system should become more centralized at the federal level. This works well in other developed nations, because it allows countries to set standards for things like teacher preparation, institute formulas that make school funding more equitable, and oversee the proper use of these funds. But I cannot honestly say that I wish our current federal leaders had more influence over the everyday operation of schools. So right now I will settle for state-level policy changes.
Across the board, education needs more funding, and it needs to be distributed more equitably. Given how our country structures education, much of this will have to occur at the state level. We could model reform off the way the largest provinces in Canada fund their schools: by pooling resources across the province, and distributing these to schools equally or adjusting for particular needs. We cannot achieve social equity without providing all students access to a high quality education. And a high quality education hinges on its teachers, which means we need to pay them more, especially in historically underserved areas.
We need to revamp the entire teacher pipeline, a broader point that includes several moving parts. We need better recruitment efforts that start with children. “Want to serve your country and help build the future? Become a teacher.” We need to boost our system of teacher learning by requiring rigorous preservice teacher preparation, offering more supportive teacher induction, and encouraging meaningful professional development. Finally, we need to implement measures to keep teachers in the field, by offering career ladder opportunities that support them to move up and other supports if they are struggling. Colleagues and I have written more about this here. Teaching is a human profession and we need to support the humans who make it happen.
On a related point, we need to find ways to bring joy and humanity back into schools, some of which have begun to resemble jails (with police, metal detectors, and barred gates). In addition to removing police from schools, we need to change instruction. Play, projects, cooperative learning, reflective assignments, perspective-taking, fieldtrips, invited speakers, social and emotional learning — all of this should be encouraged across schools. We can’t expect our children to sit back and absorb information like passive receptacles, they need to take an active role in the process, with teachers serving as caring facilitators of their journey. Again, though, this will require that teachers be better prepared in everything from pedagogy to forming relationships with students.
Last but not least, we need to provide teachers and schools with support to address bias, both internally and within the system at large. Particularly racial bias. That will require better training for teachers and more support at the school level to look at their disaggregated data for discipline referrals, expulsions, and student outcomes (like high school graduation, college enrollment, completion of certificate programs, future income, etc.) and reflect on how they could better serve all students. We would also really benefit from recruiting more racially diverse educators who can help us continue to shape and improve our system.
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 comes from the renowned Brazilian educator Paulo Freire from his book Pedagogy of Freedom: “I am not angry with people who think pessimistically. But I am sad because for me they have lost their place in history.” I understand why some people grow cynical, things look pretty grim right now, but cynicism and pessimism can breed apathy or resignation. I am an eternal optimist, I see the issues present within our current system, but I firmly believe that meaningful change is possible and education can be the beginning of a better world. I’m willing to fight for that vision, in ways that I think I can contribute. We all have something meaningful to give, and it matters.
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 be interested in talking with some of the folks who run educational initiatives at large foundations, like Brooke Stafford Brizar at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative or Allan Golston at the Gates Foundation, to learn more about how they are leveraging their extensive resources to support whole child education across the U.S., and particularly in underserved communities.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me on LinkedIn, Twitter @ToriTheisen, or at https://www.facebook.com/TheisenHomer And when I feel inspired, I blog at theisenhomer.com.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!