The alumnae educators profiled here are following different career paths, but they share a common characteristic: Each is determined in her own arena to find solutions to nagging problems in the nation’s schools. For Rachel Willis ’04 it’s insisting on high expectations for her third-grade students. For Carrie Coleman Strasburger ’80 it’s making math manageable for learning disabled youngsters. Others, like Kathleen Phillipps Fulton ’67, whose job title is Director of Reinventing Schools for the 21st Century, are pushing for broad, systemic change. In such capable hands, can true reform be far behind?
Kathleen Phillipps Fulton ’67
Building teams of teachers
Smith major English
Advanced degree Master’s in human development from the University of Maryland
Current job Director of Reinventing Schools for the 21st Century at the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF), a nonprofit research advocacy organization based in Washington, DC. Fulton describes NCTAF as a “small organization working toward the next big thing in education.”
The problem According to a video produced by NCTAF, within the next decade the United States will lose more than half its veteran teachers to retirement and more than half its new teachers to attrition. Replacing the retirees isn’t a question of finding enough good teachers but of retaining them, Fulton says. New teachers feel unsupported and unable to make a difference. Left to sink or swim, most sink—and constant teacher turnover makes students suffer.
The solution In a word: teamwork. Fulton and NCTAF believe in the power of changing the model of teaching from working alone to working in so-called learning teams of teachers. “In every profession teamwork is the path to high performance,” the NCTAF video says. So why do most US teachers still work solo? Most European and Asian teachers, on the other hand, now work in teams—and their students are outperforming ours. Fulton wants that to change, and says NCTAF’s plan has “huge implications” for the way teachers are prepared, schools are organized, and technology is used to support various pieces of education in the United States.
Game changer “Technology is a vehicle for really rethinking and changing the way we do education,” Fulton says. It’s also a means of advancing NCTAF’s vision of collaborative teaching because it makes connections much more facile, she says; teachers can connect anytime, anywhere. Among other innovations in educational technology, Fulton and NCTAF envision online support networks linking novice teachers to experienced educators; Facebook-inspired professional networks for teachers; wikis, or interactive Websites, where teachers could do everything from compare calendars and post projects to have discussions and share resources; and widespread teacher use of handhelds and mobile devices.
Sticky wicket Technology can be used to do a better job of teaching, to engage students in different ways, and to bring new content into the classroom, Fulton says, but if used improperly, it can impede learning rather than support it. “Technology is definitely going to be a part of education,” she says. “Our challenge is to find the best ways to channel it.”
Caltha Crowe ’68
Less stress, more learning
Smith major Sociology
Advanced degrees Master’s in early childhood education from Goddard College; master’s in educational leadership from the Bank Street College of Education
Current job Responsive Classroom certified consulting teacher; author of Solving Thorny Behavior Problems: How Teachers and Students Can Work Together (2009), Sammy and His Behavior Problems: Stories and Strategies from a Teacher’s Year (2010), and a forthcoming book on bullying prevention
Peaceful classrooms The Massachusetts-based Northeast Foundation for Children developed Responsive Classroom, which Crowe describes as an approach that helps schools create “safe and joyful learning environments” for children. It focuses on teaching children to be kind to one another, she says, and teaching the behavior necessary to fostering peaceful classrooms. Crowe, who retired from teaching in 2006 with thirty-nine years of experience under her belt, says Responsive Classroom changed her life as an educator: “It helped me figure out how to be the teacher I wanted to be.”
Pain of bullying After writing two books on misbehavior, Crowe is turning her attention to bullying—a subject that came up a lot in her consulting even before the story of Phoebe Prince, a South Hadley, Massachusetts, high school student who was allegedly bullied to death, made international headlines, she says. Her new book will be an elementary school teachers’ guide to preventing bullying. “Bullying is of particular concern to elementary school teachers because they often miss it,” Crowe says. “It goes on under our radar as educators—on the playground, on the school bus, even in classrooms when the teacher turns his or her back.” Bullying at this age involves a lot of hitting, pinching, and poking, Crowe says, but exclusion (“I’m not going to be your friend”; “We won’t play with you”) is even more painful—and prevalent.
Stress tests Making elementary school a more pleasant place is reason enough to try to nip bullying in the bud, but evidence also points to the fact that children are more successful academically if they feel safe in school, surrounded by other children and adults who care about them. “It’s important for children to learn in an atmosphere where there’s low stress and high rigor,” Crowe says—and she’s not talking just about bullying. Due to the current emphasis on high-stakes tests, not all of which may be developmentally appropriate, kids are under a lot of stress, and stress creates misbehavior. “Children misbehave when they feel like they’re not successful,” Crowe says, “but it’s hard to feel successful when you’re being drilled on skills you’re really not ready for.”
Carrie Coleman Strasburger ’80
Math for everyone
Smith major Education and child study
Advanced degree Master’s in special education, with a specialization in learning disabilities, from Teachers College, Columbia University
Current job Math consultant for the Bridge Academy, a private New Jersey school for students ages 8 to 18 with learning disabilities
Making math manageable As a former math department head and teacher at the Bridge Academy, Strasburger noticed that while there were “good strategies for teaching reading and writing to kids with learning disabilities,” there were no such strategies for teaching math. So she created her own curriculum, calling it Bridging the Gap Mathematics. It advocates taking a multisensory, hands-on approach to the teaching of math, and it got such remarkable results at the Bridge Academy—students learning two or three years’ worth of material in a single year, for example—that the school decided to publish it. Strasburger is now writing the curriculum full-time in the form of a series of three books, the first of which, Symbolize Units, is already available from the school’s Website. Strasburger hopes the complete series will find a wide audience with educators of learning-disabled and mainstream math students alike.
Mathamorphosis Strasburger says her career trajectory will probably surprise those who knew her in college: “I don’t even think I took a math course at Smith.” She did, however, take a class on learning disabilities. Among other things, it taught her that a language-based learning disability like dyslexia “affects one’s ability to do math a lot more than you would think,” since it involves a multitude of memory issues, attention issues, and processing issues. As a teacher, she got hooked on the challenge of making math accessible to learning-disabled students, who were clearly losing ground, and their “aha! moments” made her efforts worthwhile. The experience has changed Strasburger’s relationship to math. These days, she says, “I like math. I’m not math phobic, but I’m not a math geek either.”
The big question “As a society, we are allowing our kids to not be math literate,” Strasburger says. “It’s acceptable to say ‘I don’t do math’ at a cocktail party, but no one would dream of saying ‘I don’t read or write.’ Why is that?”
Rachel Willis ’04
Smith major Government, with a minor in theater
Advanced degrees Certificate from Agnes Scott College’s Postbaccalaureate Early Childhood Preparation Program; master’s from Columbia University’s Teachers College Education Leadership Program
Current job Third-grade teacher at Morningside Elementary School in Atlanta. Willis decided to go into education after a two-year stint with Teach for America—the organization that pairs college grads with underserved schools—convinced her that “this is what I was supposed to be doing.”
Top of the class Just one year after the Atlanta Public Schools named Willis its Elementary School Teacher of the Year, citing her “commitment to education” and “amazing leadership qualities,” she topped that honor by winning a prestigious Milken Educator Award on November 1, 2010. The award, which carries a $25,000 no-strings-attached cash prize and has been called the “Oscars of teaching,” was established by Milken Family Foundation chairman and co-founder Lowell Milken to “celebrate, elevate, and activate exemplary K-12 educators.” It claims to be the country’s preeminent teacher-recognition program, having handed out more than $62 million to some 2,500 educators nationwide since its inception in 1987.
Positive change maker The Milken foundation says it selected Willis because she has “overseen first-rate improvements in student achievement and education reform” at Morningside Elementary School. “A product herself of Atlanta’s public school system, her return to implement positive change in education has come full circle as she inspires the next generation of students to be proactive about the issues and passions they hold dear.”
Teaching philosophy Willis strives to make every day engaging and meaningful to her students by designing lessons that address their interests and learning styles. On any given day, she says, you can walk into her classroom and see students working together in small groups, acting as peer teachers, and playing games that support Georgia’s performance standards. She writes songs to help students learn the social-studies curriculum and uses technology to transport them to different places and times in history. She also knows learning can’t stop when the bell rings, so she keeps open lines of communication with parents to tell them how they can best encourage their children’s critical thinking and comprehension at home. “Though I am only a third-grade teacher,” Willis says, “I know that the work my students do today is one building block they need to prepare them for life as successful adults.”
Marjorie Pashkow Kaplan ’62
Education’s odds-on favorite
Smith major Music
Advanced degrees Master’s in education and doctorate in educational administration, both from Arizona State University
Current job Director of the Beat the Odds Institute. Established in 2007 by the nonprofit Center for the Future of Arizona, the institute provides services and training to principals in eighty-three schools with the goal of raising student achievement.
Keys to success In 2006 the Center for the Future of Arizona published the study “Why Some Schools With Latino Children Beat the Odds … and Others Don’t.” It was prompted by a single question: “What does it take to get great results in schools with mostly low-income, mostly Latino students?” Of the 300-plus Arizona schools with these demographics, researchers found twelve whose students’ reading and math scores were “beating the odds.” A close look at these schools revealed certain commonalities—so-called keys to success, such as ongoing assessment and collaborative solutions—that the Beat the Odds Institute is now working to put into practice at every school in Arizona.
Proven leader A “strong and steady” principal is another hallmark of a Beat the Odds school, so it’s not surprising that the institute itself would choose a proven leader to be its first director. A twenty-four-year superintendent of schools who was once named one of the top 100 educators in the United States, Kaplan also has held the title of Arizona Superintendent of the Year. Among other responsibilities at Beat the Odds, she oversees the institute’s most important educational service: mentoring and training sessions for principals. “Leadership is connected to student achievement,” she says. “The idea is to train principals so they can provide appropriate leadership to their schools.” So far, the technique seems to be working; data show “statistically significant improvement” in math scores and “positive advancement” in reading scores for students in participating schools, Kaplan says.
Reform done right The number of Beat the Odds schools has already more than tripled, and the institute aims to keep expanding, but Kaplan favors a cautious approach—“nothing extreme”—in this and all things related to education reform. Raising test scores may be her goal, she says, “but the idea isn’t to do it in a sterile, uninteresting environment.” Students need to feel motivated and stimulated by exciting, thoughtful lessons, she says—not so bogged down by meeting requirements and taking tests that they neglect to develop higher-thinking skills. Simply put, Kaplan says, “testing 100 percent of the time is not right.”
Interviews by Christina Barber-Just
Spring 2011 SAQ