The Importance of Rigorous Coursework for All Students: A Teacher’s Perspective

Patrick Kelly, a 2015 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow, begins his eleventh year teaching Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics.

Patrick Kelly, a 2015 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow, begins his eleventh year teaching Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics.

This week, I will be starting my 11th year teaching Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics, and I have seen during that time the importance of a rigorous high school experience in preparing students to succeed in college. That’s why I was excited to see the U.S. Department of Education’s recent announcement of $28.4 million in federal grants to help students access AP classes. These grants are used to help pay for low-income students taking advanced placement tests administered by the College Board, the International Baccalaureate Organization, and Cambridge International Examinations.

As the College Board noted in its 2014 AP Report to the Nation, students who experience success in an AP course are more likely to graduate college on time and earn higher GPAs. Beyond the numbers, I have seen the positive impact of rigorous coursework in the stories of my students.

One of my greatest joys each year is to receive emails, calls, and visits from former students, and they frequently note how well their AP coursework in high school prepared them for a collegiate learning environment. In addition, an overwhelming majority of my students have performed well enough on the AP exam to receive college credit, which, in turn, has given them increased freedom and a leg up in their collegiate studies.

I also know my students are uniquely fortunate, as my home state of South Carolina pays the fee for each student in an AP course to take the exam. The cost to take an exam is nearly $100, and, while the College Board provides a reduced fee for students with financial need, the cost for these students is still over $50. As a result, this fee becomes a major obstacle to accessing a rigorous curriculum for many students in the 38 states that don’t pay for AP exams.

Currently, over 20 percent of our nation’s school-age children come from households living in poverty, and, for these children, paying the fees to take even one AP exam is simply not financially possible. However, this inability to pay does not mean these children lack the ability to thrive and succeed in rigorous coursework. I have taught numerous students who were in poverty or homeless, and they excelled in their coursework and earned college credit via the AP exam just like their more advantaged peers.

By distributing The Advanced Placement Test Fee grants announced last week, the Department of Education is extending opportunity to thousands of students around our country.

In the 21st century, student access to rigorous coursework is an essential right to prepare students for the workforce, and programs like this one are an important step in the right direction. There is still more work required in order to provide students from underprivileged backgrounds with the types of academic supports and systems necessary to succeed in challenging coursework, but eliminating barriers to accessing rigor is an essential first step. The Department of Education’s efforts to provide that access to more students is exactly the type of initiative that will help us reach our nation’s common goal of producing “college- and career-ready” students.

Patrick Kelly is a teacher in Richland County School District Two in Columbia, SC and has been selected as a 2015 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow.

Former Geometry Teacher Supports States as Their Reforms Take Shape

Editors Note: Teachers@ED profiles some of the hundreds of current and former educators who work at the U.S. Department of Education, and how their experiences in schools inform their work for the agency.

One of Tate Gould’s favorite memories as a teacher was his lesson on geometric proofs. He would set up a “courtroom environment” where students played the role of lawyer, trying to develop a method for solving various geometric proofs.  Each team had the opportunity to present their approach defending their method against “objections” from other teams while engaging in a healthy defense and debate about their method for solving the problem..

Teachers@ED LogoWhat made these lessons interesting for students was the fact that there was no single way to solve the geometric proof. And Gould, who now works on the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top team as the deputy director of Implementation and Support Unit for Technical Assistance, would say the same is true with education reform. As states are coming up with different and innovative plans to better educate their students, there is more than one way to achieve the end result of reforming the classroom experience.

Gould has ample education experience, both on the ground in schools and in the policy arena. He attended the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for his undergraduate degree and was National Board Certified as a secondary education math teacher. He taught 9th through 12th grade for over five years in a high-needs school. He earned a masters degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a doctorate from UNC, both in education policy.

Tate Gould helping a student solve a problem

Tate Gould was a secondary education math teacher before coming to the Department of Education.

While teaching, Gould tried to connect with individual students while being mindful of teaching an entire class. He recalled that one of the challenges of teaching is building trust of the individuals in order to manage the class.

“I always wanted to be a teacher. I just didn’t know it,” he said. “I always kind of gravitated to the type of work. I like managing people, and teaching allows you to do that constantly. I liked treating the classroom like a team and trying to get that team to accomplish similar goals.”

Gould has experienced a similar challenge in his work at ED. While the Race to the Top initiative awards states that are leading the way in ambitious plans for implementing innovative, coherent and comprehensive education reform, Gould has similar challenges with navigating the relationship between the states and the federal government.  The challenge: how to foster a level of trust with each state while demonstrating to them that they are collectively working on the same goals.

“A good teacher manages the individual, but also the group,” Gould said. “That’s what our challenge here is. These plans are really what the states came up with. How can we get them to teach and learn from each other? How do we create a supportive environment for them with experts, other federal grant programs, and external organizations to create a network of resources to help these states achieve ambitious goals?”

Natalie Torentinos is a graduate student at The George Washington University and a recent intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach.

Teachers@ED: José Rico

Editors Note: Teachers@ED profiles some of the hundreds of current and former educators who work at the U.S. Department of Education, and how their experiences in schools inform their work for the agency.

Carlos and Celia Rico had big hopes for their children, which is one reason the couple emigrated from Mexico, and settled in Chicago. José, Carlos and Celia’s oldest, quickly adapted to the new language, culture and climate, and with a combination of support and inspiration from teachers, he became the first person in his family to go to college. Still, Rico never expected that he would one day become the executive director for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

Teachers@ED Logo“When I first started school, I was one of those students who had a hard time,” Rico said. “My school did not have a bilingual education program; it was one of those sink-or-swim programs. The school didn’t provide support for my parents, and there was no support for me to access the curriculum.”

Founding a School to Help Students Like Him

This all changed when Rico reached high school and he came to know teachers who pushed him to excel. His strongest subjects were math and science; high marks in these areas earned him an engineering scholarship to the University of Illinois. Soon thereafter, he became a high school science teacher. Later on, after having worked in youth development programs, Rico took notice of the power in young people taking responsibility for their education; he decided to harness that power by opening his own community high school, which had a health clinic and provided classes for students learning English, in addition to general academics.

“The motivating factor was not wanting students to face the same obstacles I had faced,” Rico said. “My passion has been to try to design education programs that value students, include their parents and expect high standards from everyone.”

José Rico

José Rico

Rico’s charge within ED is to link individuals and organizations from within and outside the education system to meet the local and national challenges faced by Hispanics today and spread the word about education initiatives in early learning, higher education, K-12 and other specific areas that focus on the Hispanic community. He also works to develop relationships with thousands of Hispanic leaders across the country who are implementing these changes.

Most recently, the White House Initiative and the White House Office of Public Engagement brought together more than 500 Hispanic community leaders for a Hispanic Community Action Summit in Los Angeles, the 17th regional summit organized by the office to address important issues such as: funding resources for pre-K-postsecondary education; health care; small business needs; immigration issues; and communication infrastructures among Latino organizations.

Local Leaders Want a Federal Partner

“Leaders on the ground want the federal government to be a partner,” Rico says. “People in the Hispanic community want us to play a role. Some states have cut back on education and it has a big impact on the Hispanic community. People want us to work with them and bring a diverse group of stakeholders to the table.”

Educating Latinos is not only important to their community, Rico emphasizes; it’s critical for the country. In the last two years, Latinos have become the largest minority group in the nation’s schools.

“I’ve seen the power education plays in a kid’s life, regardless of where they come from. Education leads to a better job, and it is a way in which our country can fulfill the promise that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can be successful.” Rico says. “There’s no way of denying that the future of America depends on the education attainment of Hispanics.”

Natalie Torentinos is a graduate student at The George Washington University and an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach.

Teachers@ED: Newton Piper, Customer Service Specialist, Office of Special Education Programs

Editors Note: Teachers@ED profiles some of the hundreds of current and former educators who work at the U.S. Department of Education, and how their experiences in schools inform their work for the agency.

When Newton Piper started out as a teacher in Thailand, he decided he would demonstrate students how plants absorb water by transforming himself into a human root system. So he went out and bought his own supplies—all it took was some creative placement of tubing and several buckets of water.

Teachers@ED Logo“I ran the tubes up and down my legs and arms and I put the two buckets of water next to me at each side and sucked the water up,” he said. “The kids were really amused. They’ve e-mailed me about it [years later]. You do bizarre things as a teacher, and sometimes kids remember it.”

Piper was a math and science teacher for students in first through ninth grade as part of an English immersion program in a town outside of Bangkok. Transitioning from a first grade class to a ninth grade class during the one-minute walk from one classroom to the other required what he calls “the Clark Kent spin” to get into a different teaching mindset. The experience required learning to employ a variety of instructional techniques and taught him a lot about how a child’s English ability can act as a fundamental barrier to his or her learning.

“The kids who had done well early on in English could keep up. For those who had fallen behind, however, limited English proficiency made accessing the content extremely difficult at times,” Piper said. “Sometimes I had to teach multiple lessons at the same time and reorganize the class in a way that would work for all of my students. I had kids in ninth grade who were practically fluent, and other kids who could barely tell me their name in English.”

Meeting those individual needs has given Piper valuable perspective as a customer service specialist in the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) at the U.S. Department of Education. Lessons learned while teaching have led him to believe that student needs associated with “fundamental barriers” such as English proficiency, disability, or family background, need to be accommodated early and aggressively to ensure that all students are empowered with critical foundational skills that will enable future learning. It is critically important to address these issues before what might be an achievement “gap” in first grade becomes an insurmountable “chasm” only a few years later.

Newton Piper reads to a student

Newton Piper with Mog, one of his students in Thailand

When Piper returned to the U.S. in 2009, he began working towards a master’s degree in educational leadership and administration from The George Washington University, which he has since completed. During that time he entered the Department of Education through the Student Career Experience Program. He began working as the assistant to the deputy director of OSEP, then assistant to the director, before moving into his current position responding to constituent inquiries related to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for the Office of Special Education Program’s monitoring division.

In describing some of the challenges associated with delivering services under IDEA, Piper explained that, “schools are often very overwhelmed with limited resources and a lot on their plate. Some kids have greater needs than others and cannot fit in a figurative box, which presents a challenge.” In explaining OSEP’s role, he explained that, “OSEP is focused on supporting States, including through connecting them to technical assistance providers that we fund. There has been a shift from a compliance orientation to administering the IDEA, to a focus on the bottom line, which is improving results for students with disabilities across the country.”

Piper believes that by helping provide States with supportive resources, ED is contributing to a system in which passionate teachers can effectively meet the needs of all of their students. The perspective he gained during his three years teaching in Thailand has allowed him to appreciate just how invaluable such support can be.

Natalie Torentinos is a graduate student at The George Washington University and an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach.

Teachers@ED: History Teacher Brings 20 Years of Teaching to ED

Charles Henderson taught high school and middle school for over twenty years in Indiana and in Michigan. After a long and satisfying career, rather than retiring, Henderson took his passion for students, learning and U.S. history to the Department of Education in Washington.

Teachers@ED LogoHenderson’s work at the Department is, in some ways, far removed from his history teaching days. He is now an Education Program Specialist with a small team in the office of Elementary and Secondary Education, and his work is mainly concerned with awarding grants to schools and nonprofits. Yet, his experiences as a teacher serve as a valuable source of insight to his work at ED.

“As an educator, I can walk into a school district, talk to a principal or teacher and we’re talking the same language,” explained Henderson. One type of grant he typically works with involves providing funding to improve student discipline. Henderson’s years of dealing with rowdy students puts him in excellent standing to address these issues. “I understand what [teachers] mean by ‘disruptive class rooms’… I’ve been there,” said Henderson.

Mr. Henderson and football team

Dr. Henderson with one of his football teams.

Before teaching, Henderson played linebacker and was an assistant coach at Western Michigan University. After college he took a job as a high school history teacher and football coach.

He spent the next 20 odd years teaching students in high school and middle school, fostering young students’ development into unique and talented adults. “Many of my students still call me, and that’s the reward – seeing them now as young men and women with their professional lives and their families. You can’t beat that as a teacher,” said Henderson. Showing off a picture of a former student’s toddler, Henderson recalled the joy of seeing the child’s mother progress from a young girl who wanted to be a doctor, to a high achieving student in high school and on to be a successful adult with children of her own. “To this day she calls once a month,” he said.

Henderson discovered his relationships with his students to be the best part of teaching, and he also holds that strong student-teacher relationships greatly facilitate learning in the classroom. “If you have a good relationship with a student then that student will not only listen to you but be able to be more focused in the class room… kids have a way of knowing if the teacher doesn’t care,” said Henderson, who also holds a masters degree in counseling.

Henderson and his classHenderson also holds a master’s degree in education administration and a Ph.D. in public administration – he knows a lot of what he refers to as “theory.” However, it is the knowledge gained as an educator, forming close relationships with his students that make him “more sensitive to not only the teacher’s role but the student’s standpoint” as an ED employee.

Luke Ferguson

Luke Ferguson, a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, was a recent intern in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach.

Ed. Note: This is one in a series of blog posts that highlights teachers at the Department of Education who offer invaluable expertise and continue their commitment to education, the teaching profession and students.

Teachers@ED: Lisa Vazquez, Information Resource Specialist

A passion for empowering individuals guided Lisa Vazquez’s teaching career throughout a broad range of schools and subjects. Her diverse skill set and varied teaching experiences enabled her to develop novel, “outside-the-box” techniques for empowering students and encouraging them to take on challenges in creative ways. This spirit was evident in one of Vazquez’s more creative lessons, which challenged one of her Chicago classes to combine writing, community service, performance and activism into a single project.

Teachers@ED Logo“For me, it’s important to understand that, no matter what your age is, you have the ability to act, to accomplish something, to effect change,” Vazquez said in an interview for Teachers@ED, an occasional series on the ED Blog that highlights current and former teachers working at the Department of Education.

Vazquez’s students were required to find, in her words, “some topic, some issue that they knew about from personal experience, something they cared strongly about.”

“They needed to figure out who their audience was, what their message was, and they had to write or create original poetry that spoke to that experience.”

These poems were then performed in each student’s community. The students also had to incorporate community service into the project, record their service hours, and present an account of their final project to the class.

Lisa (second from the left) holds a discussion with her 7th grade class.

“I wanted them to understand how poetry, or art, could effect change,” Vazquez said. “It could be a tool in and of itself. “

Originally from Chicago, Vazquez has taught English, writing and drama at all levels of education, from kindergarten to graduate-level university students. A former teacher in the Chicago public school system, Vazquez also has taught English and helped students conceive and write theatrical productions in Uruguay. Vazquez was especially adept at forging relationships between her Uruguayan students and exceptional individuals from the country, including the survivors of the 1972 Andes plane crash that inspired the film Alive.

At ED, Vazquez works in the Information Resource Center (IRC), where she handles customer inquiries, complaints, questions, comments, problems, or, as she says, “anything to do with the Department of Education, from every constituent.” Vazquez works to answer questions from education stakeholders—including parents, teachers, administrators, congressional offices, and general taxpayers—and to connect those stakeholders with accurate and accessible resources.

“We really work to provide information in a way that is easily accessible to whoever the [stakeholder] is,” Vazquez said. As a self-described “communications person,” she also works on teacher outreach and helped organize the Summer Seminar Series for Teachers.

Just as she found ways for her students to communicate their ideas through writing or performance, Vazquez works to ensure ED’s work is transparent and available to the public. Her background as a teacher helps her bridge the knowledge gap between education stakeholders and ED.

“I can relate to educators or parents because I’ve been in a similar situation before,” Vazquez said. “I have a context for understanding what someone’s talking to me about, so I can articulate the Department of Education perspective to them from within that framework.”

While Vazquez says she enjoys her work here at ED, she does miss some aspects of her old job—in particular, helping students empower themselves.

“Everyone needs to have that ‘a-ha moment,’ ” she said, “that moment that brings that sense of accomplishment—the belief that ‘I am doing something,’ which propels someone to move forward in life.”

Teachers@ED: Brad Jupp, Senior Program Advisor on Teacher Initiatives

With fifteen years of classroom experience under his belt, former English teacher Brad Jupp now finds himself in Secretary Duncan’s office as a senior program advisor on teacher initiatives. In that role, Jupp uses his on-the-job knowledge of the profession to help keep Secretary Duncan and the rest of ED better informed of the “classroom and schoolhouse perspective.”

“I think about teaching and learning problems every day,” Jupp says of his work at ED. “I also think about the way teachers understand policy. And then finally, and most importantly, I think about what students need to do to succeed in school every day.”

Jupp’s “dream job” remains the work he did as an English teacher at an alternative middle school for at-risk 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students.  Asked to recall the story of a single student, he told about John Chacon,  who had been expelled from school twice before sixth grade and was sent to Jupp’s school in lieu of a third expulsion.  Over the course of three years, Jupp and his colleagues collaborated with the boy’s family, school officials, and community health organizations to support Chacon and prepare him for high school.  It wasn’t easy.  Chacon was academically behind because of his frequent suspensions, and in his eighth grade year, after two years of escalating mental health attention, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Nevertheless, Chacon completed the eighth grade, and improved in both reading and math on state tests.  In 2004, Jupp had a chance meeting with his former student at a pet store, where the young man was now working the cash register.

Brad Jupp, Senior Program Advisor on Teacher Initiatives

“He told me that he’d graduated from high school and that, had we not stuck with him during middle school, he never would’ve graduated,” Jupp said. “I think about that case all the time when I’m at work. It’s a case of all of the things that we as teachers work to make come together in the single life of a student.”

Jupp entered teaching after reading Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age. ”I wanted students to be able to experience difficult and beautiful literature, even though they might be struggling readers when they were 11 or 12 years old.” He found success by encouraging his students to understand their reading assignments as part of a broader and more rewarding process of problem-solving, not as boring and repetitious practice.  For example, in his first year of teaching, Jupp assigned Ezra Pound’s version of the Old English poem The Seafarer to his sixth-grade students.

“You don’t have to pander to kids by choosing superficially relevant literature,” he said. “You actually can get the kids to bring their own lives and relationships forward as they discuss a tough poem, in the terms that it gives you. The Seafarer is about being lonely and outlawed from your community, and it’s a terrific poem that sixth-graders can understand.”

Now at ED, Jupp advises the Department’s leadership on how teachers approach policy matters. “Every day I’m here, I ask, ‘what would a teacher think when he heard this come out of our mouth?’” Jupp said. “Or, ‘what would a teacher do when he saw the signal we sent?’”

Jupp’s presence of mind and commitment to effective problem solving have made him a crucial player in ED’s efforts to reform education in real time. However, his best asset may be his unwavering commitment the true goals of public education. “Ultimately we’re not just in this because of teaching and learning problems or because we need to shape the world of teachers and principals and other educators that work in the schools,” he said. “It’s really, we’re here to get kids to grow academically and as people, then complete school and succeed in life.”

Ed. Note: This post is the first in a series of blog posts that will highlight teachers at the Department of Education who offer invaluable expertise and continue their commitment to education, the teaching profession and students.