I would just say it is time to bring value to the education system. Education must be a priority that is reflected in federal and state budgets. Funding should go to improving students’ abilities and experiences in the classrooms rather than inflating already bloated bureaucracies (which has unfortunately been the case). The educational elite should be completely separated from the financial elite. I believe that access to excellence in education is where true equality lies.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the U.S. educational system, I had the pleasure to interview Leelila Strogov.
Leelila Strogov is a former journalist who has been a CEO in the educational field for over 16 years. She is currently wearing her newest hat — CEO and founder of AtomicMind, an education technology company that prepares students for the college admissions process. The company’s successful track record is attributable to Leelila and her team’s ability to bring out the “wow factor” in each student they help.
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 story behind what brought you to this career path specifically?
I remember helping friends and family with their college admissions essays even as far back as high school. I had a knack for storytelling, determining what’s most compelling about a story and what might capture an audience’s attention. I recall encouraging one student to write about his simultaneous love of rock music and Chinese calligraphy; I convinced another to write about what it’s like being an extreme introvert and how there is a unique place for introverts in the world, despite societal biases that come with being more inward than outward leaning.
While this knack for storytelling initially led me into journalism, the demand for assistance in the process never waned. I was helping cousins, friends, and family friends. After many of them started landing at Ivy League and equivalent schools, the inquiries grew exponentially. I eventually realized I had become an accidental CEO. Slowly but surely, I began hiring other incredible educators and I branched out to help ambitious students groom themselves for the top colleges from far earlier than just senior year of high school. I developed a method that truly works to help develop students’ minds and expand their thinking no matter what their interests were. I then decided that the best way to scale that method was through technology. AtomicMind strives to give every ambitious student the opportunity to pursue their dreams, and every star educator the ability to work with students and families who love learning and value excellence in mentorship and education.
Can you share the most interesting thing that’s happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There is no question that my most interesting stories come from the students with whom I work. One of my most interesting stories probably stems from a girl I had been working with for years. She was one of the most positive, philosophical, and curious people I had ever met, and one day, I found out she suffered from a rare genetic disease that she accepted would ultimately shorten her life. It was a shocking revelation and one that made me realize that one should never underestimate anyone. We all have different sides to us, some of which take so long for others to discover. This little warrior child made me realize that it is so worthwhile to dig deep and try to uncover the essence of people, their complexities and all.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
AtomicMind has recently established the AtomicMind Foundation which aims to provide partial and full scholarships for our services to low-income, underprivileged students. 10% of AtomicMind’s revenue funds the AtomicMind Foundation and its mission. We also work with students to develop their own Atomic Impact projects, which means that every one of our students engages in a community-oriented service project aimed at helping others at scale.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?
I’ve had the great fortune of studying domestically and internationally, in private and public schools. I went to high school in the U.S., Switzerland, England, and Israel. I’ve also been working in education for over 16 years, during which time I’ve been exposed to thousands of educators and parents (I consider parents to be primary educators!) and have closely observed — and documented — what works and what does not. I have also learned so much from my students. If you listen closely, you learn so much about which styles of learning work for which students and that you don’t need to keep reinventing the wheel.
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 U.S. education system?
According to some of the measuring sticks out there, namely the annual Best Countries Report which is conducted by U.S. News and World Report, BAV Group, and UPenn’s Wharton School, the U.S. education system ranks as the highest in the world. This study surveys people from across 78 countries and examines criteria such as the development of public education, the desire of people to attend university, and the general availability of high-quality education. Paradoxically, the U.S. often ranks far below many other developed countries when it comes to math and science scores. As of 2018, the U.S. ranked no. 24 in science and no. 38 in math. While the United States is coveted for its incredible educational institutions and practices, not every student has access to the cream of the crop. It is a lot like healthcare; if you’re wealthy or otherwise privileged, you can ultimately find an unparalleled educational experience. But for our populations who need it most, the situation is dire. They are often getting matched with educators who are burnt out and no longer have the capacity to help despite their initial great intentions. So, I would say that overall, the results are mixed.
Can you identify 5 areas of the U.S. education system that are really thriving?
The overall quality of education in the United States is getting better and better. This particularly rings true in higher education. The U.S. is home to the world’s finest research institutions, which are constantly creating and innovating across fields. That is certainly something that should be a great source of pride in the U.S.
Technology also plays an important role. From elementary schools to colleges, educators have adapted and learned to integrate technology within classrooms in effective and meaningful ways.
Many people are shocked to discover that in most middle schools, high schools and universities in Europe and Asia, school sports teams or clubs simply do not exist. U.S. schools have ample opportunity to foster an environment for students to thrive socially, with regard to extracurricular activities, and of course, academically.
Statistics from 2021 also show the opportunities women in the U.S. have; women make up nearly 60% of the college undergraduate population. In many parts of the world, such a figure would be inconceivable.
Finally, the U.S. education system is much more flexible than that of many other countries in the developed world. In many European countries, students have to decide their area of specialization or field of interest before they enter high school, never mind college! Universities in the U.S. encourage exploration and offer students the ability to take different courses and sometimes even design their own majors. Ultimately, I think flexibility in education is the key to innovation, creativity, and progress.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the U.S. education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
Certainly, expanding access must be prioritized. Stellar research institutions exist, but due to high tuition costs and a hyper-competitive admissions process, most students — even the exceptional ones — cannot afford to attend them. Students in the United States should be able to receive a high-quality education at their community college for an affordable rate or even for free. Some states, including New York, have already begun to try to make such reforms.
Although the U.S. economy has been growing, education spending on a federal level has remained stagnant. Some states have even slashed funding for K-12 education programs. Education needs to be made a national priority and it’s not.
Along with expanding access, it is crucial to identify the achievement gap in U.S. schools. A student’s race or socio-economic background should not be such a reliable predictor of a student’s math or reading scores. The achievement gap has long existed in the United States and certainly will continue to exist in some form. However, it is constantly shifting, and these shifts should be identified, studied, and addressed to ensure better outcomes.
The U.S. education system should also invest more in trade schools. Not every student should have to attend a four-year college to be successful. The U.S. could look to Germany’s effective system of trade schools and apprenticeships for inspiration.
Finally- and this is my own pet peeve- in many countries, teaching is considered one of the noblest and most dignified career choices a person can make. In the U.S., the old saying goes “those who can do; those who can’t, teach.” The U.S. needs to recruit more of its best and brightest talent into the teaching field. Some programs like Teach for America (TFA) have taken the initiative to do just that. However, its scope remains limited because most teachers leave the programs after a year or so in search of more lucrative employment options.
How is the U.S. doing regarding engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
Approximately 18% of U.S. students pursue degrees in STEM. By comparison, 35% of students in Germany graduate from STEM programs. Engaging students in STEM requires that teachers from elementary school throughout high school are actual experts in STEM. It is also essential that teachers connect STEM to students’ everyday lives. They can do this by highlighting industry pioneers or by integrating more technology into classroom activities. Students must be exposed to STEM by enthusiastic and passionate educators who can connect the dots across STEM topics and spark students’ curiosities and levels of knowledge. Otherwise, there will be no impetus to pursue STEM. In addition, students should be made aware of the myriad of opportunities in the STEM fields.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Women and girls continue to be underrepresented in many STEM fields, particularly in the arena of computer science. A 2015 study showed that women earned only 18% of computer science degrees. That gap is unsustainable given the fact that women now make up 60% of the college undergraduate population. Getting more women involved in STEM would lead to a greater balance in some of the fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy and overall, would lead to more growth and innovation.
How is the U.S. doing when it comes to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
In the past decades, women have been making strides in the STEM fields. However, they remain underrepresented. Girls should be exposed to STEM fields from an early age. Teachers should support them and reinforce their plans to succeed in boy-dominated fields. Some schools and programs offer special scholarships and awards to girls in STEM. Such ventures should continue until a greater sense of parity is achieved.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate on whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) or 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?
Students need to be as well-rounded as possible. Therefore, STEAM is certainly a more valuable approach. No one should understate the importance of good writing and verbal skills. If a scientific researcher or engineer develops an invention but cannot express its efficacy in writing or to the public, the invention loses its ability to be understood, accepted, and adopted.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire U.S, 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?
First, I would look for ways to make college more affordable. There is no reason that students must take on loads of debt to receive a high-quality education. The debt crisis is stagnating the creativity of young people and their ability to start businesses or careers of their choice.
I also believe that foreign language education should be enhanced from the K-12 level onward. Learning a foreign language provides students with several skills that will be increasingly necessary for the global labor market.
The U.S. education system is already shifting its focus away from standardized tests and toward more holistic approaches to assessment. This is a good thing and has been a long time coming. However, I also think there is a place for testing that better indicates ability and most of all, commitment, by a student or a family. I think all students should have the opportunity, for example, to receive free access to standardized test materials and training. They should also be allowed to test for free.
I do think there is a need to incorporate more oral exams and presentations in the K-12 education system. Students should learn to express their ideas freely and articulately, making individualized arguments before their peers. These skills become extremely important in the workforce.
Lastly, I would just say it is time to bring value to the education system. Education must be a priority that is reflected in federal and state budgets. Funding should go to improving students’ abilities and experiences in the classrooms rather than inflating already bloated bureaucracies (which has unfortunately been the case). The educational elite should be completely separated from the financial elite. I believe that access to excellence in education is where true equality lies.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Aristotle’s “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” It is so important to recognize that great things happen with consistent effort, and moving the ball forward one inch at a time, one day at a time. It is the snowball effect. In my own life, this has led to so many successes that I do not take for granted, what has already been a very big life as a journalist, an educator and an entrepreneur. More than anything, it’s the imparting of this lesson to others that has led me to convince so many wonderful young people to realize they are capable of extraordinary things. There’s no greater feeling than watching others catapult from the platform you built.
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 the U.S., 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 🙂
American novelist and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. I’m just in awe of her commitment to justice and the speed, force, and magnitude with which she is changing our world for the better.
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Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
Leelila Strogov of AtomicMind: 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.