Ask Arne: Procuring Privacy

When I think of privacy a few images pop into my head:  a “do not disturb” sign, the settings on my social media accounts, or me locking the bathroom door so that my kids can’t come barging in after me.

But the term “privacy” has taken on new meaning in the digital age, and is now accompanied by terms like big data, devices, and the cloud.

As I lead from the classroom, I struggle with one question, “How do I create and innovate while protecting my students’ privacy?”

And I am not the only one asking this question.

Throughout the past few months, I have had the privilege of attending several educational technology events in my capacity as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education and I have heard this question on repeat, along with a few others. What data is collected from students? Who has access to it? How is it used? I recently sat down with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to ask him about student data privacy. Watch the video below:

Personally, I love technology and I love data. I use data every day in my classroom as a method of measuring my effectiveness and my students’ progress. On a typical day, within the first seven minutes of my class, students will enter my room, grab their iPads, sign into our class website, and take a diagnostic survey or poll that builds upon prior knowledge, as well as introduces new concepts for that day’s lesson. These types of formative checks occur roughly five times within one block period and provide real-time data, real-time feedback, and allow me to personalize lessons based on students’ individual needs.  Consequently, the data collected from one class period serves as the foundation for the next class period.

According to the Fordham Institute, 95 percent of districts rely on cloud services for several purposes, such as monitoring student performance, supporting instruction, student guidance, as well as special services such as cafeteria payments and transportation.  While cloud storage is a common practice of school districts, the present concern is that districts are taking appropriate measures for safeguarding this data.

Currently, three keystone federal laws protect student privacy: The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, The Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.  More recently, the Department of Education announced the Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) to help educators interpret laws and gain access to best practices around student data and privacy. Furthermore, groups like Common Sense Media launched the School Privacy Zone Campaign in an attempt to support connected classrooms that protect and safeguard student privacy.

Today, I feel an even greater pressure to utilize data in rigorous ways that ensure my students are college-and-career-ready. The one way that I know how to meet the diverse needs of every student is to use technology. While I believe in the power of technology and its ability to transform learning, I also know that my students’ safety comes first. My hope is that schools, districts, states, and the federal government will continue working to create the right policies to support the needs of educators so that they may create and innovate in their classrooms, and protect their students.

Emily Davis is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Supporting Educators to Innovate Through Technology

OpportunityTechnology offers extraordinary opportunities and capacities to teachers. The breadth and depth of educational materials and information available on the Internet can break boundaries, making any subject accessible anywhere, and providing students with access to experts from across town or across the globe. New technologies also give teachers tools and flexibility to engage students, personalize the learning experience, and share resources or best practices with colleagues.

President Obama’s ConnectED initiative aims to provide high-speed Internet to every school in America, and make affordable computers, tablets, software, and other digital resources widely available to educators. Yet innovative technologies offer their greatest benefits only when teachers and principals have the skills and supports to leverage them. The ConnectEDucators plan will help educators to grow those skills. Watch this video to learn more:

Tiffany Taber is senior communications manager in the Office of Communications and Outreach

Duncan to Talk Family Engagement During #PTchat

It’s no secret that parents have the power to transform educational opportunity in our country. Which is why their voice is so vital.

On April 8, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will be taking to Twitter to gain additional feedback from parents and educators on community and parent engagement best practices during the weekly #PTchat. The chat will coincide with the National Family Engagement Conference in Cincinnati, which aims to bring together educators and community activists to raise awareness of community involvement in schools.

Duncan will moderate the Twitter chat and share information about recently released family and community engagement resources from the Department of Education.

  • What: #PTchat with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
  • When: 9pm EDT, Tuesday, April 8.

Your voice is important, and even if you can’t make the Twitter chat, please don’t hesitate to leave feedback in the comments below and sign up for our Engaging Families email updates.

Seeing Success in Hawaii: Duncan’s 50th State as Secretary

Ka Waihona o ka Na’auao

Students at the Ka Waihona o ka Na’auao Public Charter School perform the hula for U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan during his visit on March 31, 2014, in Nanakuli, Hawaii. Photo By Eugene Tanner.

Andrea, a senior at Hawaii’s Waipahu High School, came to the U.S. just four years ago after emigrating from the Philippines, but now she’s a proud Waipahu Marauder. From her first day in the classroom, she found the “opportunity to explore” and became interested in cancer research and science.

This fall, thanks to her dedication and the teachers she has at Waipahu, she’ll attend Columbia University on a full-ride scholarship.

Andrea was one of many students Secretary Duncan met during a visit to Oahu earlier this week, which also included stops at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam for a discussion with military families and a visit to Ka Waihona o ka Na’auao Public Charter School.  During Duncan’s visit to Waipahu, Andrea presented her AP Biology project – “Synthesizing a STAT3 Dimerization Inhibitor Molecule via Retrosynthetic Analysis” – and explained the partnership with the University of Hawaii’s Cancer Center that helped her to pursue her research. “What I’ve learned here is if you want to do something, you can find a way to do it,” she said.

Waipahu High School, located about 20 minutes outside of Honolulu, provides a number of educational programs, with each incoming student picking a “College and Career Theme” to explore. Students at Waipahu High School learn through pathways, which are smaller learning communities that encourage students to identify their career interests and take relevant courses while in high school. They have the opportunity to take classes in programs like creative media, culinary arts, engineering, finance, law and justice administration, and teacher education. Waipahu also offers tuition-free early college courses.

Michael, also a senior at Waipahu, has seen a growth in his abilities since he started as freshman. Despite starting on the school’s business track “not knowing anything,” Michael has been able to excel. “I was able to make connections with what I was learning … and I saw a change in my grades,” he said. A recent project allowed him to combine his budding business knowledge with his passion for woodwork by designing a business where he could sell the skateboards he creates using natural wood and varnish. The school has enabled him to able to explore art in other areas, too. Michael was able to help paint words like “courage,” “ambition,” “honor” and “integrity” – which he says are “words that encompass who we are” – onto the steps of Waipahu High School.

A focus on relevant, hands-on experiences is a theme among programs at Waipahu. During a tour of the school, students led Secretary Duncan through their research and studies of fish as part of an aquaponics system in the Natural Resources Academy Pathway. Teacher Jeff Garvey, who Secretary Duncan called the “mastermind” behind the aquaponics system, used his private-sector background to build the open-air center and create the chance for students to study aquaponics, which combines fish and plants in a symbiotic, sustainable environment.  The program is rapidly expanding as interest grows, including from nearby eighth graders who want enroll at Waipahu. And despite worries that the system would be hard to maintain, Garvey points to students’ leadership with the center. “Give them ownership, and they take care of it,” he said.

Waipahu serves mostly minority students, and most are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Despite those challenges, from 2011-2013, proficiency scores on state tests have risen, as have college-going rates. In that same time, the number of suspensions was nearly cut in half.

Waipahu’s growing success story is one of many throughout the state of Hawaii. The 2013 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) results indicated that Hawaii was one of the top 5 fastest improving states in the country, with an 8-point increase in math for fourth and eighth grade, a 4-point increase in reading in fourth grade, and a 5-point increase in reading in eighth grade, when compared to 2009 NAEP results.

To accelerate its reform efforts and better support the state’s educators, Hawaii applied for and received a $75 million grant through Race to the Top in 2010. The grant has empowered the state’s leaders to collaborate in new ways and create plans tailored to their needs to prepare students to be ready for college and careers. Through these funds, the state has developed tools, like a classroom data dashboard and teacher-focused reports, to support teachers and school leaders to use timely and actionable data to improve instruction. Hawaii has also created tools to transition to higher standards and training to develop STEM expertise, and the state and community has supported schools that fall within the Zones of School Innovation to provide students with extended learning time, after-school and summer programs, and comprehensive wraparound services.

And the work is just beginning. State Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi credited the “catalytic nature of Race to the Top” in enabling the state to try new ideas and create new systems – “an opportunity we’ve taken with both hands” – and acknowledged this is just the start. Gov. Neil Abercrombie echoed that sentiment. “I ask anybody in the state, before you make a judgment about the public schools, see what’s been accomplished in the last three years. By any outside observation, Hawaii public schools are rising, and we’re going to keep on rising,” Abercrombie said.

Hawaii’s progress is thanks to leadership from state and administrative officials, teachers and principals, who have encouraged their students and provided new learning opportunities, even when there have been challenges and tough transitions. “These are profiles in courage,” Secretary Duncan said. “So much of what is going on here can be a model for the nation.”

Watch a short video about Waipahu High School.

Sara Gast is director of strategic communications at the U.S. Department of Education

Higher Ground in Tucson

During a recent trip to Tucson, Ariz., I took part in a meeting with school officials, school board members, past and present elected officials, organizers of youth programs and, most importantly, parents and students. Many of those in attendance shared powerful stories about the serious challenges facing children in south Tucson and the heroic efforts that are being made to confront the issues to ensure that children succeed.

I was reminded again of how important it is for everyone to work together to address the needs of students during the school day, but also to address the needs of the children out of school. This was the spirit I saw as people talked about programs and strategies. Every story I heard deserves to be retold, but one story in particular caught my attention because it illustrated that one person can start a chain reaction to make a difference.

It started as a love story. Jansen Azarias met Barbara “Barbie” Maestas six years ago. Barbie had a ten-year-old son named Timothy, and Jansen began tutoring Timothy. Soon a number of Timothy’s friends joined the tutoring sessions in Jason’s living room. Today, Jansen and Barbie are married and Timothy is a high school graduate and enrolled in college.

Jansen soon learned that there were many students in the south side of Tucson who shared the experiences of attending a low-performing school, broken families, gang affiliations, crime, drug abuse, incarcerated parents, poverty, and a lack of support. Inspired to make a difference, he started organizing volunteers and working out of the Mission View Assembly church. At the end of the second year there were 60 students involved in daily programs. Realizing the high need, Jansen and Barbie quit their jobs and devoted full time to what they called Higher Ground.

Today, this program reaches 150 students who receive daily homework tutoring and enrichment activities such as football, dance, jujutsu, art, boxing, bike club, and choir. Students also receive training in financial literacy and character development. Higher Ground expands its program every year, and partnered with the Tucson Unified School District to move into the historic Wakefield Middle School. The organization has also partnered with eight other faith-based groups and five community organizations, as well as with several departments at the University of Arizona, Phoenix University, and Pima Community College.

With the help of these partners and the commitment of more than 50 volunteers, students and their parents pay nothing for participating. All programs are coordinated by a small staff of five people and an annual budget of $150,000, and even with this small staff, students and parents can reach Higher Ground 24/7 if they need anything from financial assistance to an intervention.

Higher Ground is an out of school program, but participant’s school performance has shown improvement. Last year, 93 percent of the students improved their grades and 60 percent were on the honor roll for the first time.

While Jansen and Barbie are extraordinary people, what they have done can be duplicated in other places. First, Jansen started by listening to students and taking seriously what the students said they needed. Secondly, they both used the resources and networks that they have in the community and the church to begin the work. Third, they required that the parents make a commitment. Fourth, they developed a working relationship with the school district and with other community organizations. And finally, they never lost track of where they started with a focus on listening to the kids and responding to their needs. It is a simple model that can be duplicated anywhere.

Ken Bedell is a senior advisor in the Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Center at the U.S. Department of Education

Celebrating a Disability Rights Pioneer

Ed Roberts is one of the most important pioneers of the disability rights movement. Roberts was a talented athlete with dreams of playing professional baseball when he was disabled by polio in 1953 at the age of 14. Having a disability taught him many things, not the least of which was the importance of a good education. He could only move a couple of fingers and a couple of toes, yet he attended three years of high school by phone while lying in his iron lung at home.

After a senior year back in the school building, Roberts still had to fight to be allowed to graduate, but eventually he received his diploma with his mom Zona by his side. When he went to college and graduate school, he had to find a place to live on campus that could accommodate the iron lung he slept in every night.

Roberts also started using a power wheelchair while he was in graduate school. If you’ve ever used a curb cut to help you cross a street with a stroller, a rolling suitcase or a wheelchair, you can thank Ed Roberts and his allies with disabilities. His iron lung and his power wheelchair are now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution here in Washington, D.C.

Besides his advocacy for educational rights, Roberts was a founder of the Independent Living (IL) movement and director of Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) in California. Both IL and VR have been part of the Department of Education since it began, and the programs operate in all 50 states and DC. Later in his life, Roberts took time to speak to hundreds of young adults with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities across the US. That’s where I met him, when my son Charlie was only seven years old. Roberts taught what nobody else did: that people with disabilities belong everywhere; that a student with the most profound disabilities has a lot to offer in any classroom; and that my job as a parent was to ensure that my son could make his own choices, and make his own voice heard, even if he couldn’t speak. Ed showed every day that charisma is not limited to able-bodied people, and that just being present is a form of advocacy. No wonder he won a MacArthur fellowship “genius” award: he helped us all understand that learning to thrive with disability was about expectations, education, employment, and empowerment above all else.

In January, the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services invited current and emerging leaders of the civil rights movement of people with disabilities to celebrate Roberts’s life. Guests discussed their own experiences in the civil rights movements of people with disabilities, the impact Ed Roberts had on their lives, and the importance of sharing his story with future generations of students.

Many students and families still don’t know about the civil rights movement of people with disabilities. Empowerment comes with knowledge. Learning about Ed Roberts is a great place to start.

To learn more about Ed Roberts and the civil rights movement of people with disabilities the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities website.

Sue Swenson is deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

Jazz Takes Center Stage in April

2014-JAM-Poster

Cross-posted from the OII blog.

Jazz, that most American of art forms, takes center stage all of April as we celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) in the U.S. and throughout the world. Under the leadership of the Smithsonian Institution, JAM annually focuses on the music as well as its connections to America’s history and democratic values, including cultural diversity, creativity, innovation, discipline, and teamwork.

This year, JAM celebrates the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, a four-part suite that marked the melding of the hard bop sensibilities of the iconic saxophonist and composer’s early career with the free jazz style he later adopted. The annual JAM poster features Coltrane’s likeness, captured by American artist Joseph Holston from his screen print Jazz.

The Department of Education annually distributes the JAM posters to more than 16,000 middle schools in America. In a letter accompanied by the poster, OII’s Acting Assistant Deputy Secretary Nadya Chinoy Dabby encourages the schools’ principals to participate in JAM activities taking place in the 50 states and to take advantage of the Smithsonian’s jazz collection and its many Web-based educational materials that support learning across the K-12 curriculum.

There are literally hundreds of ways to celebrate jazz this month. Whether you’re a teacher, band director, student, or parent, Smithsonian Jazz has ideas for you. Click here to get started.

Doug Herbert is a special assistant in the Office of Innovation and Improvement and editor of the OII home page.

Celebrate National Poetry Month!

April is National Poetry Month, which is a great time to introduce children of all ages to the power of poetry. Whether you’re a teacher or a parent/guardian, below you’ll find several resources to guide you in celebrating during April.

national-poetry-month

Check out Poetry Out Loud, it’s not only a national recitation contest held by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, but the organization’s site includes resources for teaching poetry. You can also plan to watch the national finals live on April 30.

If you’re in the mood for a multimedia approach to poetry, look no further than Poet-to-Poet, an educational project that asks elementary, middle, and high school students to write poems in response to those shared by some of the award-winning poets who serve on the Academy of American Poets Board of Chancellors. The Academy has even put together lesson plans for teachers and educators in order to encourage robust participation.

The NEA’s Bringing Poetry to the Classroom site is a good place to get additional ideas about incorporating poetry in the classroom.

On Thursday, April 24 take part in Poem in Your Pocket day. People across the country select a poem and carry it with them, and share it with others throughout the day.

Four New Civil Rights Data Collection Snapshots

Last week, the Department of Education released the latest data from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). The CRDC is a vital resource that provides the public an opportunity to understand how our nation and individual states, districts, and schools serve all students, including our students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities. The troubling disparities revealed in this comprehensive, searchable database serve as a reminder of the importance of ensuring all students have equal access to educational opportunities.

Holder at Wilson Elementary

Attorney General Eric Holder talks with a student following the announcement of the latest CRDC collection at J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

For the first time in more than a decade, the CRDC contains information on approximately 16,500 school districts, 97,000 schools, and 49 million students. The data shines a spotlight on educational equity in areas such as discipline, access to preschool, teacher equity, and access to college- and career-ready courses.

To coincide with the most recent data release, the Office for Civil Rights has created four new snapshots to help understand the data:

Data Snapshot: Early Childhood Education

Examples:

  • Public preschool access not yet a reality for much of the nation: About 40 percent of school districts do not offer preschool programs.
  • Black children make up 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but 48 percent of preschool children suspended more than once. Boys receive more than three out of four out-of-school preschool suspensions.

Data Snapshot: School Discipline, Restraint, & Seclusion Highlights

Examples:

  • Disproportionately high suspension/expulsion rates for students of color: Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. On average, 5 percent of white students are suspended, compared to 16 percent of black students. American Indian and Native-Alaskan students are also disproportionately suspended and expelled, representing less than 1 percent of the student population but 2 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 3 percent of expulsions.
  • Disproportionate suspensions of girls of color: While boys receive more than two out of three suspensions, black girls are suspended at higher rates (12 percent) than girls of any other race or ethnicity and most boys; American Indian and Native-Alaskan girls (7 percent) are suspended at higher rates than white boys (6 percent) or girls (2 percent).

Data Snapshot: College and Career Readiness

Examples:

  • Limited access to high-level math and science courses: Nationwide, only 50 percent of high schools offer calculus, and only 63 percent offer physics.
  • Significant lack of access to other core courses: Nationwide, between 10-25 percent of high schools do not offer more than one of the core courses in the typical sequence of high school math and science education — such as Algebra I and II, geometry, biology, and chemistry.

Data Snapshot: Teacher and Counselor Equity

Examples:

  • Teacher salary disparities: Nearly one in four districts with two or more high schools reports a teacher salary gap of more than $5,000 between high schools with the highest and the lowest black and Latino student enrollments.
  • Access to school counselors: Nationwide, one in five high schools lacks a school counselor.

Learn more about the 2011-12 CRDC collection at ocrdata.ed.gov.

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Education

Stopping the Summer Slide

Summer is the perfect time for students of all ages to relax, but it’s also a time when summer learning loss can occur. This learning loss is called the “summer slide,” and happens when children do not engage in educational activities during the summer months.

Let's Read Event

Members of the Washington Kastles get kids moving during the Department of Education’s annual Let’s Read, Let’s Move event. The events focus on keeping children’s minds and bodies active during the summer.

While summer vacation is months away, many parents are starting to plan for summer now. As you’re thinking about your plans for the upcoming summer break, we’ve gathered a few ideas and activities that you and your children – no matter their ages – can complete throughout the summer.

For Elementary and Middle School Students:

  • Parents of younger students can create a summer reading list with their children, and then reward them when they finish each book.
  • Additionally, parents can encourage their kids to think outside of the box with arts and crafts. Sites such as kids.gov and NGA Kids have great ideas that will let any child’s imagination run wild and stimulate creativity.
  • Summertime can be a great time to teach healthy eating habits. Parents can get ideas for tasty and nutritious meals at Let’s Move! and kidshealth.org. There is also information available about the USDA Summer Food Program, which was established to ensure that low-income children continue to receive nutritious meals when school is not in session.

For High School Students:

  • Summer can be the perfect time for high school-aged children to prepare for college, and setting aside at least one day a week to keep math and science skills fresh is an excellent way to start off the summer. Local libraries are an excellent place to find books full of practice problems – and they’re quiet and often air-conditioned too!
  • Summer is also a good time to sit down and discuss financial aid and other expenses. Our Office of Federal Student Aid has prepared checklists geared toward students of all ages.
  • Many high school students might also want to take the time to start developing their professional resumes. Finding a part-time job can help students gain valuable experience and line their pockets with a bit of extra cash.  Visit www.wh.gov/youthjobs for more information.
  • Volunteering is also an option. Youth-oriented summer camps, local museums, animal shelters and, of course, libraries are often looking for extra help during warmer months. This experience is not only valuable for personal and professional development, but it often looks good on college applications. Find opportunities at volunteer.gov.

Share your own summer tips and resources with the hashtag #SummerSuccess on Twitter, and look for more information from the U.S. Department of Education in the coming months as we count down to Summer Learning Day on Friday, June 20.

Dorothy Amatucci is a new media analyst in the Office of Communications and Outreach

Five Ways Race to the Top Supports Teachers and Students

In the four years since the Obama Administration announced its first Race to the Top grants, the President’s signature education initiative has helped spark a wave of reform across the country, according to a new report released today by the White House and Department of Education.

RTT States and AwardsSince the Obama administration announced the first Race to the Top grants to Tennessee and Delaware four years ago – many state and local leaders, educators, and communities are deep in the hard work of education improvement, and the nation is seeing progress.

Today, the innovations unleashed by Race to the Top are touching nearly half the nation’s students and 1.5 million teachers in schools across the country – for an investment that represents less than 1 percent of education spending.

Amid that climate of positive change, America’s educators, students and families have made major achievements. The high school graduation rate is now at its highest on record (80 percent). Student test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are the highest since the test was first given 20 years ago. And there have been double- digit gains on state tests at some of the lowest-performing schools – many of which had not seen any improvement for decades.

Today’s report highlights examples of the most innovative and effective reforms that are taking place in states across the country to prepare students for college and careers, support educators, and spur innovative educational strategies. Below are five ways Race to the Top is supporting teachers and students.

1. Race to the Top Has Provided More Students with Access to Challenging Classes

Under Race to the Top, states have spearheaded efforts to create plans tailored to their students’ needs. For example, Massachusetts provided more students with access to AP classes by training more than 1,100 middle and early high school teachers to prepare their students for new, high academic standards. Initial findings from the external evaluation of Massachusetts’ college- and career-readiness initiatives indicate patterns of increased AP course-taking, exam-taking, and exam performance.

RTTAP2. Race to the Top Has Supported Hard-working Educators in New Ways

Under Race to the Top, schools and districts are making sure we have excellent principals leading our schools and skilled teachers who inspire students. In Rhode Island, the state had more than 400 first-year and 40 second-year teachers engage with the state’s new teacher induction program, which includes weekly coaching and professional development.

Delaware launched the Delaware Talent Cooperative, which provides retention awards – between $2,500 and $10,000 over two years – to highly effective educators and leaders willing to work and stay in schools with the highest needs.

3. Race to the Top Has Provided More STEM Opportunities to Students

Maryland developed and translated five STEM curriculum modules for use in language programs statewide, and in Florida, Race to the Top funds have helped hundreds of students from rural communities get new STEM opportunities through the STEM Scholars initiative.

4. Race to the Top is Helping Educators Transition to New Standards

With the help of Race to the Top, Ohio expanded alternative certification pathways for teachers and principals; developed 800 curriculum resources aligned to higher standards; and trained 24,000 teachers to use those resources. And in an ambitious and comprehensive effort, Tennessee provided 30,000 teachers with intensive summer training as part of its transition to the Common Core State Standards—more rigorous academic standards in English language arts and mathematics.

5. Race to the Top is Supporting States in Turning Around Lowest-Performing Schools

Under Race to the Top, states have designed plans to turn around some of their lowest-performing schools using new ideas that engage students and transform school culture. In Georgia, the state created two non-traditional schools to accommodate high school students at risk of dropping out. And in Tennessee, the state awarded grants or provided Tennessee Academic Specialists to address performance gaps at the 167 schools identified as Focus Schools based on significant achievement gaps in school year 2011-2012. Based on 2012-2013 state assessment results, the state made progress closing achievement gaps in these 167 schools.

Read the entire report: Setting the Pace: Expanding Opportunity for America’s Students under Race to the Top.

Sara Gast is director of strategic communications at the U.S. Department of Education

Award-Winning Science Teacher: “How I Came to Study, Teach, and Love Science”

Obama greets teachers at the White House

President Barack Obama meets with Presidential award for excellence in math and science teaching winners in the East Room of the White House, March 3, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Recently I stood in the East Room of the White House as President Obama welcomed and congratulated recipients of the 2012 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST). This immense honor made me feel very proud, and I experience pride by reflecting on the people who have guided me toward an accomplishment.

I began to reflect about how I came to study, teach, and love science. I recalled a friend, braver than me, who encouraged me join her at the remote scientific station where I learned to love fieldwork. And I thought of professors whose contagious enthusiasm got me excited about photosynthesis. But I suddenly realized that the reason I saw myself as capable in science at all was because a teacher once told me, “You might be the first woman to walk on Mars.” I was surprised to discover how much my identity as a scientist was largely shaped by his belief in me.

Many of my PAEMST colleagues were already aware that role models get children hooked on STEM. In fact, the importance of STEM role models was one of the major themes of discussion among PAEMST recipients and the scientists with whom we met during four days of celebrating and learning in Washington, DC.

During a visit to the National Science Foundation, a group of scientists fondly shared stories of teachers who inspired their career paths.  At another discussion, teachers buzzed with agreement when a panel of physicists called for greater visibility of female scientist role models to inspire more girls to pursue science.

My fellow educators don’t just agree; they’ve designed school-based programs to foster relationships between students and STEM role models. One teacher organizes single-sex conversations among scientists and students, so that relationships are build on interest in science, as well as gender identity. This teacher does not leave mentoring to chance because she knows role models can inspire a life-long love of science and the confidence to pursue STEM careers.

Recently, my student Tattiana confessed, “People don’t think I like science because of the way I look.”  We began talking about what it’s like to love science and to be a woman, when her working image of a scientist is an elderly white man. Our conversation highlighted that, as a woman and her teacher, I might be the person most responsible for fostering her identity development as a female scientist this year.

My fellow PAEMST recipients constantly inspire young people like Tattiana to engage with science and math. I’m glad that so many women among this year’s winners are modeling our passion for STEM for the young girls we teach.  However, teachers of color were underrepresented, and as a result recipients did not reflect the diversity of America’s students. This year, I hope educators, parents, and students will visit https://www.paemst.org/nomination/nominate to nominate more amazing science and math teachers of color. By recognizing a diverse group of science and math educators, we will help all of our students discover their own potential to succeed in STEM careers.

Erin Dukeshire teaches sixth grade science at Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury, Mass. She is a 2012 Presidential Awardee for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.