We need to improve assessment processes, and start to be more core values driven. The tests are limited in what they can assess, and the word “value” is in the word “evaluate.” We can create better assessment tools that honor creativity and communication skills, all of which are needed by a high school graduate.
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 Pam Allyn.
Pam Allyn is a renowned author, most recently of the second edition of Every Child a Super Reader with Dr. Ernest Morrell. She has founded and created programs that have had a world-changing impact on children, including World Read Aloud Day and LitCamp. Pam is most recently the creator of Dewey, a family learning company supporting parents and caregivers of school age children.
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?
As a child, I loved to read and it felt like the place my imagination and sense of myself was born and grew and flourished. I could see myself in the brave girls I read about, and imagine a world where I could be that person too. I always knew I would be close to words and stories, because that is what inspired me from the start. I was lucky to meet mentors and have teachers in my education career who championed me as someone with ideas and things to say and create about how children learn. From my first-grade teacher Mrs. Kovacs who asked me what I wanted to write about to the great Maxine Greene at Teachers College Columbia University, I learned that to give children agency to tell their stories is to, from the start, help them see themselves as powerful in the world. I began my career as a teacher of the deaf. I was very inspired by the cultural aspects of the Deaf community and learned American Sign Language. From there, I became dedicated to the work of helping children communicate in their languages, to value their own stories and lives, and I have always created programs and resources that reflect, first, that core value. Children are my life work. In every book I write, that is what I start with, every time.
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?
My very first teaching job was in a small school in Washington, DC. I had no teaching experience whatsoever, but my second graders were game for everything. I will never forget that we spent that year reading aloud together, creating magical plays and performing them for the people in the neighborhood, making a poetry garden. We created ideas together and set out to make them happen. No one told me that was wrong. No one stopped us. As a result, that year is embedded in my memory as the most pure teaching experience I ever had. I refer to it often in my work and in my foundations for all my programs. Our creativity was nourished and encouraged. All of us, me, the teacher, and my children. They learned a lot and so did I. I will never forget them.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! I am most excited about Dewey, a community and technology tool I have created with a great team of colleagues, including Dr. Ernest Morrell, my co-author on our latest book Every Child a Super Reader, and other leaders in the education space. Dewey is all about providing resources to parents and caregivers. It’s a true movement for family empowerment! If we can support our parents and caregivers, our children will also flourish.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?
I am a longtime educator who has put ideas into practice that have scaled across the country and around the world, including the program LitCamp and the yearly event World Read Aloud Day. My books on teaching and parenting have reached many people. I spend a lot of time side by side with children and their teachers, and parents, to be a lifelong learner myself. The greatest authorities in my work are under ten years old. I pay close attention to what they say.
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?
Given that most Ivy League schools accept many more private school applicants than public school applicants, I think we still have a very long way to go. But that being said, there are pockets of excellence all across this country. I have seen teachers and administrators doing incredible work and I want to highlight that. We still have an incredible amount of work to do. Our systems are deeply inequitable. Just visit schools in a variety of zip codes and you will see what I mean immediately.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
1. We apply state and federal funding to children in need.
2. We have innovative best practices happening at some of the nation’s school districts.
3. Over these last several years, access to technology has increased.
4. Our understandings of what helps children learn to read are deepening and developing.
5. We take greater care to involve parents and caregivers, and to provide communication in diverse languages.
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. We have to do better in teaching reading and math. The national scores are still abysmal and even before Covid, were not OK.
2. We can and must do better in centering the voices and perspectives of diverse families in our schools.
3. We must provide more resources to schools across the country in regard to books: books in hand still matter.
4. We need to improve assessment processes, and start to be more core values driven. The tests are limited in what they can assess, and the word “value” is in the word “evaluate.” We can create better assessment tools that honor creativity and communication skills, all of which are needed by a high school graduate.
5. Oftentimes districts will throw out one curriculum and start another because the test scores stay low. We have to get more rigorous with how we look at and evaluate the merits of curriculum.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
Our schools can become more innovative in how STEM is taught.
1. Children and teens need to be active, not sitting so much at their desks or in front of computers.
2. STEM is about building and creating too, and using mobile devices is one way to help children move around more and become more active in their learning.
3. Provide resources for building and making: schools could feature beautiful maker spaces for all age students, giving them inspiration to engage with STEM more creatively and more passionately.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
There are a lot of societal inequities for women and girls in the area of STEM subjects. We have to tell a new narrative on this. We can help by providing great stories and books on STEM heroes, women who have changed the world as astronauts, engineers, architects, and mathematicians to inspire our girls in school. We need to tell stories and share stories of possibility. Of course, this is important! Women are not a minority population so it makes no sense that they would be in fewer numbers in any profession, ever! We lose a lot by not including and prioritizing diverse voices in every academic area.
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? (see above and also: starting super young is crucial. From the very start, in early childhood programs, making sure we provide access to exciting STEM experiences for all our children will level this playing field. 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?
1. I would create a post high school fellowship program for young people to inspire them to go into teaching, with a special emphasis on young men of color. There need to be more men of color in the teaching profession. This would be inspiring to all and we have a long way to go on this.
2. I would change the entire way we interact with families in schools, less about what they can do for us and more about what we can do for them. When we work with families, they often say they are asked to come to events, but no one is really asking them what they want from this system.
3. I would create a literacy campaign to engage all children and teens in the Power of Reading for today’s world. We are urgently in need of a new way to talk about the importance of reading in a way that children will want to do it. When we celebrate World Read Aloud Day, I can see how even marshalling the energy of the read aloud for one day changes children’s views of it.
4. I would create a nationwide panel of young people to give advice to lawmakers and senior level education leaders.
5. I would love to create another day as I did with World Read Aloud Day, this one called “School Day” where school is genuinely celebrated. We could give teachers a special commendation and remember our favorite teachers from our own lives. School needs to be celebrated more.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite Life Lesson Quote is from my father: He always said: “Listen as deeply as you can.” He was always listening, to his clients, to his family, to children. He was the most active listener I ever knew. The writer Eudora Welty said: “I listened for stories long before I wrote them.” In my work, listening is key to all of it. I want to know what children are thinking and experiencing. With this knowledge, I can build and create things that are useful to them. I hope I have done that and my greatest blessing is to continue to be able to do this for a long time.
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 🙂
How wonderful a question! Five years ago, out of the blue, Beyonce and Jay Z made a donation to my organization LitWorld. They said they really liked the creativity of our work with children. I am forever grateful for that support. I would love to have breakfast or lunch with them, just to thank them for that and to let them know how much I admire their own creativity in the world.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
Author Pam Allyn: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.