Elisabeth Stock of PowerMyLearning: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System
Ensure Instruction Works for All Students: The most effective learning happens when students feel that what they are learning is relevant and engaging. Teachers can make their instruction more relevant and engaging when they understand each student’s strengths and needs and have a sense of their interests, background, and family.
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 Elisabeth Stock.
Elisabeth Stock is CEO and Co-Founder of PowerMyLearning, which she built from a nascent non-profit in 1999 into a national leader in the K-12 learning space. Elisabeth is a Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow and a life-long Ashoka fellow. She has given a TEDx talk and high-level briefings at the White House and the U.S. Department of Education. Elisabeth has earned four degrees from MIT and served as a member of the MIT Board of Trustees for five years
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?
I started my career as a high school teacher in Ghana, West Africa. On weekends, I would ride my bike to neighboring villages to get to know the culture and practice the local language, Asanti Twi. One weekend, I biked five kilometers on a dirt road to a small village called Morso. The villagers brought me to meet the chief. I greeted him, and then I asked if I could take his photo. He said yes and called his family over — more than 20 people — who all gathered around him. I snapped the photo and then asked the chief if I could take a picture of just him. “Just me?” he asked. “This is a picture of ‘just me.’” He said: “Who am I without my family?” stretching his arms. “This is just me.”
I thought about that for a while and realized that what the chief was trying to teach me was this: each of us exists in the context of relationships. There is no “just me.”
This lesson led me to build PowerMyLearning, a K-12 non-profit that that views students in the context of their relationships with their teachers and families. When this trio have strong learning relationships with each other, that leads to greater levels of success for all students.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Say the thing” is a simple and effective quote that I use regularly in my personal and professional life. It means to say what you are thinking out loud, especially if it is an uncomfortable truth. Commonly referred to as “immediacy skills” in psychotherapy, articulating the here-and-now of the moment helps deepen relationships.
PowerMyLearning is a relationship-first organization, so this is ingrained in our culture — we value feedback, and we are committed to giving it straight with compassion. This is one way we work better, together.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
PowerMyLearning has a track record of accelerating student learning by up to four months and improving key student social-emotional learning outcomes by 15%.
To generate these outcomes, PowerMyLearning builds the capacity of teachers and families to better support student learning and to better team up with one another in that effort. We call this the “Triangle Approach”. When teachers and families team up effectively, teachers have better understanding of their students as whole children, and caregivers have an opportunity to play a more positive role in their child’s education.
We are in the midst of a few exciting projects:
Launching a five year, multi-million-dollar U.S. Department of Education research and innovation grant focused on accelerating learning in the early grades. This is an exciting opportunity to further develop the evidence base for our programming.
Launching our first-ever cohort for district leaders to create the conditions to support the Triangle Approach. This is an exciting opportunity to break down silos in school districts and address other barriers stopping teachers and families from teaming up as allies in support of student learning.
Implementing new programs in districts across the country that build the capacity of teachers and families so they can lock arms in accelerating student learning and address learning gaps from interruptions in schooling. Districts can choose from a data-driven instruction focus, a student agency focus, and an early grades focus. We have seen strong student outcomes from our capacity-building programs in prior years, and I am excited to see the impact of these new programs as we evaluate their effectiveness throughout the next school year.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?
Together with my co-founder, Dan Dolgin, I founded PowerMyLearning in 1999. We started by working with one public school in the South Bronx, and now PowerMyLearning works with schools across the country. I consider myself a continuous learner, and I also know my work is stronger when I collaborate with others and seek their diverse input and perspectives. I am fortunate to have been selected as a Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow and a life-long Ashoka fellow. I like sharing what I have learned, and I have given a TEDx talk and high-level briefings at the White House, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Federal Communications Commission, and as well as serving as an advisor to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the NYC Department of Education. Prior to co-founding PowerMyLearning, I served as a 1996–97 White House Fellow in the Office of the Vice President where I was the principal architect of a government-wide education technology program. In between my undergraduate and graduate years at MIT, I spent two years as a high school teacher while in the Peace Corps.
U.S. Education System
From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
I am encouraged that most families say their school is doing right by their kids, and 88% of caregivers agree, “my child’s teacher(s) have done the best they could, given the circumstances around the pandemic.” Teachers and schools pivoted quickly during the pandemic, showing tremendous resiliency and innovation. Likewise, families stepped up and were stretched in entirely different ways.
With that said, there are some challenges facing the U.S. education system that concern me. Pre-existing inequities for students of color and student experiencing poverty have been exacerbated by the pandemic. According to research from McKinsey, students are, on average, up to five months behind pre-pandemic levels, with students of color and students from low-income communities disproportionately harmed by these setbacks. In addition, in this third year of the pandemic 55% of teachers are saying they will retire or leave the profession earlier than planned, threatening a human capital crisis in education.
I am excited about the window of opportunity before us to involve families in the learning process with compassion and purpose. Doing so has been proven to increase student achievement, student wellbeing, and teacher retention.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going well?
Motivated Families: The pandemic gave families a front row seat to their children’s learning, and 82% of families are looking forward to being more involved with their children’s school than in past years. At PowerMyLearning, we believe families are invaluable assets to their children’s learning, and we find this trend to be extremely positive.
Greater Focus on Student Wellbeing: The pandemic acted as a catalyst for sparking a focus on wellbeing in schools so that students can thrive. I am encouraged to hear frequent recognition of student wellbeing and its impact on learning, as well as seeing the new initiatives underway in schools to improve how teachers provide trauma-informed instruction, including what PowerMyLearning is doing through our professional development for teachers and capacity-building workshops for families on these topics.
Districts and Schools Building Capacity of Both Teachers and Families: As Dr. Karen Mapp, an advisor to PowerMyLearning, describes in her paper Embracing a New Normal: Toward a More Liberatory Approach to Family Engagement, major school districts such as Baltimore City, D.C. Public Schools, Richmond, and New York City have established senior cabinet positions reporting directly to the superintendent focused on family and community engagement efforts. This structure is helping to elevate the importance of family and community engagement. We are also seeing really great work in building capacity of both teachers and families happening at the school level. To learn more check out this interview I did with Dr. Mapp.
Teachers Embracing Effective Instructional Practices to Accelerate Learning: I’m encouraged by the instruction happening in our schools. In PowerMyLearning’s partner schools, it’s particularly gratifying to see teachers we work with share new approaches with one another such as providing targeted instructional supports for students, using trauma-informed practices, and encouraging higher levels of learning by asking their students better questions.
Unprecedented Resources: The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding has provided unprecedented resources to the tune of nearly $200 billion in additional federal funding to support the academic, social-emotional, and safety needs of students. PowerMyLearning has seen a huge uptick in demand for our work, which is making a meaningful difference in meeting the needs of the moment for students, teachers, and families.
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?
- Break Down Silos: One of the challenges districts face is that work is often done in silos. Family and community engagement should not be separate but woven throughout a district’s entire strategy, including curriculum and instruction, school evaluation, and more. Along with benefits to student achievement and students’ sense of belonging, this will help to address challenges around recruiting and retaining great teachers. Research has shown that strong, positive teacher–family relationships play a key role in teacher retention.
- Ensure Instruction Works for All Students: The most effective learning happens when students feel that what they are learning is relevant and engaging. Teachers can make their instruction more relevant and engaging when they understand each student’s strengths and needs and have a sense of their interests, background, and family.
- Help Students be Prepared for the Future: The K-12 system should be set up to increase exposure for students about their future careers and educational options. Students should have ample opportunity to explore their options and unpack the steps needed to get there, both with their teachers and guidance counselors, as well as their families who will be so critical to supporting their future success. I really admire what Big Picture Learning is doing in this space.
- Procurement: If I could wave a magic wand, I’d radically change the procurement process and make it much easier for schools and districts to invest in their students. That so few ESSER funds have been spent to date during such a great time of need points to a need for change.
- Innovate to Overcome Barriers: I am going to cheat for this last one and say that there are not five things that should change to improve education, but 500. At PowerMyLearning, we identify barriers to student success and find ways to overcome them through our programs and products. We are particularly focused on ensuring our work has a positive impact on the most marginalized students and their families. I get excited when I see other organizations doing the same. Part of what keeps education interesting is innovation.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
Elisabeth Stock of PowerMyLearning: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.