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Dr Maria Armstrong of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents: Five Things We Must Do To Improve the US Education System

An Interview With Penny Bauder

The results of our non-proficient students versus our proficient students speak for themselves. There is not one school campus that I’ve walked on where we’re 100 percent doing what education should be doing. There is always room for growth, whether you’re trying to perfect baking a cookie, or launching a rocket, or educating a child.

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 Dr Maria Armstrong.

Dr. Maria Armstrong is an education advocate and leader who champions equitable actions that provide students with a brighter tomorrow. She has devoted her career to education — as a teacher, school counselor, Assistant Principal, Principal, Director of English Language Learners, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, and Superintendent. She has also served as an educational consultant for the Puerto Rico Department of Education leading the department’s Hurricane Maria Recovery efforts, and she now serves as the Executive Director for the National Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents in Washington D.C.

Prior to working in education, Dr. Armstrong worked in the Biotech industry and is committed to ensuring that students are college, career and life ready. Dr. Armstrong is a proud alumna of Azusa Pacific University, where she earned her master’s in education with an emphasis on Counseling, and was a recipient of the Influence award, which honors an alumnus “whose investment of his or her profession and time has made a lasting influence on the character, development, or behavior of their students.”

Dr. Armstrong also holds a bachelor’s in business and a doctorate in organizational leadership and received the Inspiration Award from the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The award is part of the chamber’s Latina Estrella Awards program which honors exceptional women who are leading the way in their professions, in business, and in the community. Dr. Armstrong deeply believes that leadership and vision matter, but the life of an educated child matters more.

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?

My backstory is one that some may think of as a nontraditional pathway into the field of education. I married as soon as I turned 16, dropped out of high school at the beginning of my senior year and had all three of my children by the time I was 19. Divorced by 21, I worked the graveyard shift so I could go to adult school in the evening, but that only lasted a year, because it was based on seat time and was a very slow process. I worked in construction for two years and in the Biotech field for about 11 years. While attending a technical certification course offered at the local high school, I offered to teach the class in a technique that I happened to be NASA certified in and the instructor contacted me about three months after the course was completed and said the principal would like to speak with me. I was given a job as a high school career technical teacher on an emergency credential where the qualification was to have demonstrated five years of consecutive employment with positive evaluations to demonstrate my skill set. I immediately had to earn my GED and enroll in teaching courses at the University of California San Diego toward the completion of a teaching credential and Bachelor’s degree. As the saying goes, the rest is history! I never stopped attending post-secondary education and have now not only earned my Bachelor’s Degree, I’ve obtained my counseling license, Master’s degree in Education and my Doctorate in Organizational Leadership. But what I am most proud of are my adult children and grandchildren — they are amazing human beings — along with the incredible relationships I’ve developed throughout my blessed career. There are so many wonderful people I have had the pleasure to work alongside. Well let’s just say, I am truly blessed.

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?

There are quite a few, but one in particular is that of my work in Puerto Rico right after Hurricane Maria. It was a bit daunting, and yet one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. First of all, to witness such devastation and lack of resources, or super slow to gain access to resources, let’s just say your creativity is catapulted to a level you never knew existed.

My experience there taught me that the most valuable resources are, human resources. The empathy, tenacity, and resilience I witnessed was humbling. Teachers, counselors and administrators were so worried about others, when often they did not have running water or electricity in their own homes.

The lesson learned was that education touches everything. Education is not a construct to house students while adults go off to work, education is what fuels everything. Education produces employees in the areas of health and wellness, the private sector and government. Robust educational systems have the potential to teach students and adults what it means to be of service to others and how you can impact society as a whole based on your skillset, talent, interests and passion. Being able to teach students how to think and not what to think, opens up a world of possibilities to explore, and discover all they have to offer to the world. It’s time we not only recognize but transform and grow our public education system to what it should be and what it can be for all students.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, we have several exciting projects going on right now.

1) ALAS is working with Hanover Research to survey our members and our corporate sponsors and partners about how we can get better at what we do. We are service-oriented at the end of the day and we want to make sure we’re evolving to address the educational and professional development needs of our members. We also want to strengthen the impact we have as an organization founded on growing educational leadership in a way that’s of service to our most marginalized students and communities. Hanover Research is documenting some of our programs and state affiliate committees and our partners so we are able to garner the information we need to be able to better serve the students in our schools, district and communities at large.

2) We are revamping our Superintendent Leadership Academy (SLA), our flagship academy for rising superintendents. We are drawing on the experience of those who have had longstanding success in the field by including in our SLA both a sitting superintendent, and one who’s recently retired, so they can be resources and guides for Academy participants.

3) We launched our inaugural Principal Leadership Academy (PLA) in collaboration with the National Alliance of Black School Educators (NABSE). NABSE Executive Director Dr. Fadhilika Atiba-Weza and I have been working together to provide an equity-centered curriculum in concert with the National Center for Urban School Transformation (NCUST) that provides leadership development through the lens of serving Black and brown students. The PLA helps principals and aspiring principals learn what works and how to lead in the public educational system.

4) We’ve supported the creation of regional ALAS Affiliates in the four corners region of our country (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah) that are focused on preparing central office leaders to grow in their current positions and to prepare them if they want to become a superintendent. It’s high time the children who sit in our classrooms actually see a reflection of themselves in their leadership. These regional affiliates help to create a minority leadership pipeline to meet the needs of schools and districts across the nation.

5) We just held our first Small School Symposium, attended by school districts from 18 states, senior advisors from the U.S. Department of Education, the executive director for the White House Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, and some amazing presenters. The goal of the Symposium was to focus on issues of importance to small schools that we can have some impact on legislatively.

6) We are full steam ahead on multiple networking opportunities for our members. We are working on our annual summit and awards gala in October, our education conclave in January, and we’re re-convening our state affiliate conference and legislative day in April. In between these activities we have touchpoints for our networks, including our Linking Latina Leaders and Connecting Compadres online networking sessions, our Superintendent Leadership Academy alumni group, and our Leaders of Legacy program. All of these programs provide amazing opportunities for our members to connect, share, and learn with the collective goal of supporting Latino/a/x students and their communities.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?

I come from both sides of the fence. By that, I mean I have 11 years of experience in private industry and a second career in the education field. And now there’s my retirement experience — I had the opportunity to work in Puerto Rico in the Hurricane Maria recovery efforts and now as the executive director of ALAS. One of the greatest and joyful opportunities as an executive director is that I’m still learning from my colleagues in the field where I retired. That’s what ALAS is all about — learning from each other and giving support and being that voice for them on the Hill and making sure their concerns are being addressed.

So my “authority” is more of a perspective, based on my experience as a high school dropout, my career in education, and my experience outside of education in private industry, that has made me well versed in issues that have been long standing in education.

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?

The results of our non-proficient students versus our proficient students speak for themselves. There is not one school campus that I’ve walked on where we’re 100 percent doing what education should be doing. There is always room for growth, whether you’re trying to perfect baking a cookie, or launching a rocket, or educating a child. We must adapt and continuously assess how our students are being prepared in their thinking (not just their skillset). How do we get better at teaching kids how to wrap their head around an issue or problem or a concern, whether it’s trying to eradicate bullying in schools or visiting mars. Teaching students how to think more deeply and critically needs to be more of a focus in our schools. We can do better.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

1) Looking at a whole child with a focus on social and emotional learning and physical wellbeing. Kids don’t leave their baggage at the schoolyard gate nor do adults. So when we can support SEL and the wellbeing of all involved the stronger we will be.

2) Understanding and using technology in ways we haven’t before. Technology is not a one-size-fits-all and it’s not the answer to everything. But I think our eyes have been opened as a public education system about what the right tools are and what they should be used for. Technology is just as important as a pencil and we’ve gotten much better at recognizing that.

3) We are getting better at understanding that communicating with communities and parents is not only needed, it’s essential. We must create systems where parents and community members are welcomed as outside influencers who can bring their input into the classroom. This allows teachers and administrators to have more information. They can draw from those outside influencers to make a stronger, more robust experience for students.

4) We need to recognize that giving students a voice is critical. I haven’t come across any adult who likes to be told what to do, so what do we think children think about being told what to do all of the time. We are learning that we need to bring them to the table. Socratic theory does not delve into the thinking and perspective that kids can bring based on their experiences. We’re starting to recognize that just because our immigrant students don’t know a language doesn’t mean they don’t know things. If we give them opportunities to express themselves, we can find out how much they know.

5) We’re starting to explore this notion of being nimble and flexible and saying we don’t have all the answers and there are others outside of our U.S. walls doing things differently. We should be exploring and connecting. We should be thinking about what we could be doing differently, especially when it comes to data and new technology. We could make it so much more beneficial for the education of our kids and our teachers and administrators. Sometimes we get so comfortable that we forget we’re a grand scheme across our nation and even grander across our borders. We’re starting to scratch the surface on that.

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?

1) Restructure schools to focus on teachers’ strengths. Let teachers specialize in what they love rather than having them teach all subjects, including those they dislike and aren’t good at teaching. This is critical because it supports teacher retention and teacher effectiveness. If teachers are allowed to focus on where their passion lies and what they’re good at, they will want to keep doing it and it will also impact student achievement. Let’s create a system that brings back the joy of teaching and classrooms where students will thrive. Imagine how powerful that would be!

2) Improve the teacher pipeline by thinking more like businesses. Provide an environment that models, inquires and creates a sense of value and innovation with a vision of being part of something far bigger than the individual. This will foster a sense of belonging, going the extra mile and more importantly living to work and not working to live. Restructure credentialing and higher education to get the right people in the right jobs. This is critical to the teacher pipeline. The discouragement we hear when it comes to people wanting to become teachers is based on obstacles we created — everything from how we do credentialing to the debt that aspiring teachers accrue in the pursuit of education. Walking out of a teacher preparation program in debt and hoping you get a debt forgiveness loan is a risk many aren’t willing to take.

3) When it comes to critical race theory, teach inclusive history, don’t rewrite history. Create the space and capacity in schools to define and discuss critical race theory rather than react to and ban it. This is important because there are entire groups of students who aren’t learning about their histories in school. It’s like getting invited to dinner, but then not getting to eat or engage or be acknowledged for being at the table. Critical race theory is not about rewriting history. It’s about including the stories from so many. My family had to pass down the stories and we cannot count on that forever.

4) Find new ways to promote multilingualism in schools. Language should not be seen as an elective. It should be seen as a must-have. If we don’t know how to speak other languages we are limiting our economic growth and our capacity to engage in relations outside our territories.

5) Find ways for virtual learning and in-person learning to co-exist and be personalized. Give students a voice about how they want their lessons delivered. This is critical to reach all students on the level they need, when they need it. Technology allows us to do this and we must take advantage of it.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

I believe we will be so much further ahead when we think of STEM as a true integration of learning rather than a program. This is going to take breaking down the curriculum and the way we teach. We can improve engagement by:

1) Pivoting in the way we think about subjects that are “must-haves” versus “nice-to-haves.” “Nice-to-haves” are programmatic. “Must-haves” are in the schedule. We are treating STEM as a program, when we need to treat it as a core part of the schedule.

2) Invite outside parties to help redesign how STEM is embedded in the curriculum. As a former teacher, I could be myiopic in my own way of teaching because I wanted to teach robotics in a way that worked for me. But if I was teaching it today I’d realize it’s not the best way. Always look at how to re-evaluate and re-design. This requires asking people in the field who are doing it right now.

3) Start early. Start teaching STEM in PreK and don’t stop. Otherwise it’s not embedded and it goes back to being a “nice-to-have” rather than a “must-have.”

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

It’s important because it opens doors. When I worked in the biotech field, depending where you were in the organization, you’d see a lot of women in the assembly or production line, but not working alongside the researchers. I had a bias because of that so much so, that when I went into education I was a technology teacher. If you want to get out of poverty and change that trajectory of a family you have to reach far and teach not just the skillset to find a job, but also the “how” and “why” and what is possible so students — males and females — are prepared with those critical thinking skills, and a desire and curiosity to learn.

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?

We have barely scratched the surface. Here are three ways we can increase engagement.

1) Expose them to the field at a young age and give them the opportunity to try it. They have to be engaged in what STEM means. It’s so encompassing. I was exposed very early on to STEM, going with my dad to his construction job, and in my early 20s I worked in construction to earn a paycheck in a field where there were no women. I can show you the houses and buildings I had a hand in building. If I hadn’t developed that curiosity to create, I might not have gone into that field. Construction is just one example. There are so many more.

2) Teach it differently. Infuse it in a way that takes us out of our norm or comfort level. We have to appeal to girls and women who have always been told that these types of careers are for men.

3) Industry leaders need to step up. We need scholarships that support women in the STEM field and make it accessible so they’re not coming out of their programs full of debt. This can build that pipeline, and the STEM scholarships can be given with the caveat that the recipient go back and be a teacher to help regenerate that pipeline.

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 don’t see this as a debate that we need to have. STEAM is just an interaction of STEM. Why is there a debate? If your community wants to have the arts included, there are plenty of children who are hungry to learn. Why do we waste time on a debate when all we did was add an A. The important thing is to just do the work, don’t try to define it.

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?

I’ll expand here on the five improvements I noted earlier

1) Restructure elementary schools to focus on teachers’ strengths. A personal example for me happened recently during our Small School Symposium. I found out about a school district in Washington state that’s actually doing this. They’re focusing on teacher’s strengths! Teachers teach what they’re passionate about for all grade levels and the district has seen amazing results. We paint a picture where all teachers need to be reading teachers. But not all teachers want to be reading teachers. Why not have the entire grade level team decide which one among them excels on various concepts and skills and have them teach all the grade level so that the first best instruction is had by all students.

2) Improve the teacher pipeline by thinking more like businesses and restructuring credentialing and higher education. Here’s a great example. I just had a meeting with a White House staff member who was talking about how much money is going into education and how great it is. I said we’re grateful for the funding, but we have an American Jobs Act that’s focused on creating a middle class. Our teachers are middle class. When are we going to use that money just for that? We need to leave the education money in the bucket to educate kids and use a different bucket to rectify salaries. Otherwise we run out.

3) When it comes to critical race theory, teach inclusive history, don’t rewrite history. There are so many who learn about their histories from their families, not from their schools. My own family had to pass down the stories. They were determined to do that because of their educational experiences. When they went to school they didn’t learn their history. That’s why the stories had to be passed down from generation to generation. My job is to make sure my kids and grandkids know the stories too. To take this same practice to school, provide opportunities for students to learn and then share their family histories. Create the environment of learning for adults and for our children.

4) Find new ways to promote multilingualism in schools. Language should be seen as a “must have.” This involves putting it into the structure of the school day. When you walk into a school, look at the class schedule,that shows the school’s philosophy. If a class is first thing in the morning or after school, after the “important” classes are done, that’s telling the students it’s not important. We can create schedules that support what we want to support. It’s about recognizing the value and importance of it.

5) Find ways for virtual learning and in-person learning to co-exist and be personalized. Here’s an example. A student might be struggling with fractions in third grade. Maybe he decides he wants to work on that differently for a month, a semester or a year by doing it online. Right now, he can’t do that. But if you change the structure and what hybrid learning can be, it becomes personalized learning.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have two!

The first is from my Auntie. She taught me very young that people will talk about you if you’re different and don’t ever let that stop you. She said “Be happy that they’re talking about you” When I’d come home crying because I was being picked on when I wanted to do things boys did or had a dress that was too short or some other issue, she’d tell me they have no life so they’re talking about you. That helped me develop thicker skin.

The other is a great quote from Author Brené Brown: “A lot of cheap seats in the arena are filled with people who never venture onto the floor.” She went on to say “For me, if you’re not in the arena getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.” She talked about how everyone has an opinion, but she’s in the arena. That’s how I feel. Get in the arena with me. If you think you can do something better, get in the arena and let’s do it.

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 :-)

Maria Sharapova, Marion Jones or Chamique Holdsclaw. These amazing women athletes at the top of their game faced challenges that changed the direction of their lives. Now with the most recent news of Simone Biles, who just exited the Olympics in an effort to maintain her mental wellbeing. I would want to talk in depth with them to learn how we, as educators, can know when to support the wellbeing of our youth and provide in our curriculum the coping strategies and techniques to deal with mental stresses. I would also ask what they would want to share and help others as well as themselves. Many of our youth who have provided tremendous contributions, off and on the sports field are often in the limelight are sometimes not equipped to cope with the pressures of success and of losing it.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

https://twitter.com/mariaarmstrong7

https://twitter.com/alasedu

https://www.linkedin.com/in/drmariaarmstrong/

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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Penny Bauder

Penny Bauder

Environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur, Founder of Green Kid Crafts