Alyson Vengoechea of Gameplan: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System

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Prioritize School Funding on A National Level: Beginning with higher education, rising tuition costs are making college degrees more and more unattainable to the average American, despite our country having some of the top university programs in the world. Increased funding for public education would help reduce tuition costs for students, making higher education more accessible. Additionally, prioritizing K-12 education funding would ensure that all schools are fully funded and that students and teachers have access to the resources they need to deliver high-quality education instead of relying on teachers to fund classroom supplies at the expense of their own pocket.

As a part of our interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Alyson Vengoechea.

Alyson Vengoechea is a seasoned educator with extensive experience in curriculum development, online program direction, and teacher training, backed by a Master of Science in Education from Johns Hopkins University and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from George Washington University. She has a notable track record, including developing and directing an online learning program for a prestigious Miami school, leading curriculum rewrite initiatives for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and producing remarkable student learning outcomes as a middle school science teacher. Alyson currently is the Head of Content at Gameplan, where she is developing esports and gaming-related curricula.

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?

Sure! I was job searching in my early twenties and applied for Teach For America, as I was always interested in working with kids and had heard of the organization’s prestigious reputation. I was accepted to the program in 2015 and was placed in Miami-Dade, FL, teaching middle school science. After an initial adjustment period, I fell in love with the profession and decided to pursue my MS in Education from Johns Hopkins University through their online program. Eventually, I left the public schools to try my hand in an independent school environment. After the pandemic, I helped the school develop a virtual learning program for supplemental classes and full-time 6–12 students. In 2021, I left the classroom to become a full-time program director and was heavily involved in curriculum development and daily operations. A few years later, I was contacted by Gameplan for the position of Head of Content, where I have been since developing curricula centered around esports and gaming. I have truly enjoyed creating gaming-related content as it is consistently reported as one of the top interests of today’s students.

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?

One of the most interesting things that happened to me in my career was presenting at the Florida Council of Independent Schools (FCIS) conference on the topic of “Developmentally Appropriate Classroom Management.”

To explain, I should share that my first year in the classroom was, to put it mildly, a mess. I had virtually no classroom management skills and often resorted to scolding and calling administrators for support. One day, I was expressing my difficulties with a colleague, sharing how my students simply couldn’t follow directions. He looked at me and asked, “They can’t follow directions, or they don’t?” This forced me to think of the times my students had, in fact, followed instructions, even though I may have only had a few examples. He then went on to help me realize that my students could indeed follow directions, and it was my own approach that needed to change.

I immediately felt my mindset shift, and I began researching and trying out all sorts of classroom management strategies I otherwise would not have tried. Some worked, such as creating a designated station for students to submit work by class period, while others had to be left behind, such as calling students one by one to line up for lunch, which took too much time.

By the end of the year, I had managed to create a functional classroom environment where students were learning despite its imperfections. My students went on to have the highest growth in the district on their science FCAT scores that year, one of my proudest professional accomplishments.

Over the years, I maintained the mindset that there was always a better way to do things, and I refined my classroom management approach and style until I found what worked best for me and my students. Then, by year six, I was giving talks to other educators on best practices for classroom management. This has been one of my greatest personal and professional achievements, as it encompasses my journey from struggle to success and continually reminds me to seek improvement in all areas of my work. I learned always to maintain a growth mindset and never assume that I know all there is to know.

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

I am currently developing esports and gaming-related curricula for Gameplan. As gaming is one of the most popular interests amongst students today, these resources will increase student interest in school, attendance, and potentially even graduation rates. Additionally, as esports continues to grow as an industry, more students than ever are seeking skills and knowledge to help them enter the arena as professionals. These resources accomplish that.

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

My experience as a classroom teacher in both public and private schools, as well as my administrative experience, has given me a broad understanding of the strengths and challenges of education as a whole. Having taught in schools encompassing both extreme poverty and extreme wealth has exposed me to the vast disparities in opportunities and quality of education that must be addressed. In both situations, I was able to tap into my knowledge and creativity to make the most meaningful learning experiences for my students with the resources available to me at the time. As an administrator, I became skilled in serving and supporting teachers, providing them with the tangible, professional, and emotional support they needed to thrive.

Finally, my time in the Teach For America program and MS in Education program at Johns Hopkins University, both of which were extraordinarily rigorous and challenging, deepened my understanding of the field of education as a whole and pushed me to reimagine what is possible for the field.

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?

I believe the US education system has a lot of room for improvement at the moment. Although many schools in the country are “rated” A-F, this is largely based on standardized test scores, which do not necessarily reflect the true well-being or capabilities of the institution or its students. Moving away from standardized testing and evaluating schools based on literacy rates, range of programming (e.g., arts, sports, and clubs), student well-being, and teacher job satisfaction would likely produce a much more accurate assessment of school performance.

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

I believe the following areas are of strength in US education:

1. Passionate Educators: We all know that teaching is hard work, and there is a reason it is often referred to as a “calling.” Therefore, it is no surprise that the ones who choose this profession are often passionate and deliberate in their approach. The teachers I have had the pleasure to work with throughout my career are truly some of the most hard-working, intelligent, and caring individuals I have known, and students directly benefit from their dedication.

2. Use of Technology: More schools than ever have quality technology in every classroom, and many districts even provide students with individual laptops and free or affordable wifi packages to use at home. This increased accessibility helps students, especially those who may not otherwise have access to such technology, to gain skills and understanding that will benefit them academically and in their future career endeavors. Additionally, the integration of technology in learning increases student engagement across subject areas and allows opportunities for students to view problems from multiple viewpoints.

3. Quality Higher Education: It is no secret that the US has some of the best universities in the world. Students have access to a wide range of programs that span a vast array of skills, interests, and industries. Whether looking to complete a technical program, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s, students can choose the program that suits their interests and career aspirations.

4. Focus on Differentiation: Educators have long understood that students learn in different ways, and require a differentiated approach. As our understanding of differentiation within the field of education has grown, teachers have been able to apply more effective techniques in the classroom, ultimately leading to increased student success.

5. IEP’s — Individualized Learning Plans: IEP’s have become lifelines for many students to receive the support and accommodations needed for them to receive a fair and quality education. Teachers, administrators, parents, and other stakeholders take these documents very seriously and work together to ensure accommodations are enforced and effective.

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?

I believe the following areas are of the highest priority in the US education system:

1. Improve Working Conditions for Teachers: The United States is currently facing a teacher shortage crisis unlike that seen before in our history. Unfortunately, much of this has to do with the deteriorating working conditions in schools over the years. To improve the attractiveness of the field, it is important to provide incentives such as competitive, livable salaries and benefits, student loan forgiveness or reduction for those who work in public schools, and increased classroom funding, to name a few. Additionally, schools must be provided with the budget and staffing to decrease class size and provide adequate support staff such as psychologists, teaching assistants, grant writers, bus drivers, security personnel, and more. The entire system benefits by improving working conditions for educators and other school staff, ultimately leading to better long-term outcomes for the community.

2. Prioritize Relationships with Families: It is well documented that students whose parents are involved in their education tend to yield higher academic and behavioral results, even if just to cheer them on. Parent involvement can be challenging for several reasons; however, there are still many ways to increase engagement that are feasible in any environment. Prioritizing parent and family partnerships can build trust in the school institution while providing a physical place to build community and support students and teachers.

3. Decenter Standardized Testing: Standardized testing has become a nationwide burden to teachers and school districts. These tests often contain bias and do not accurately measure students’ abilities. Additionally, many states tie school funding and teacher bonuses to test performance — an example of a policy that sounds good on paper but has disastrous consequences. To perform on these exams, schools subsequently pull funding and resources from important subjects, such as the arts, physical education, and even science and social studies in some cases, to help students prepare for (primarily) math and ELA exams. This strips student of important educational experiences that would otherwise help facilitate the development of well-rounded cognitive function, creativity, and critical thinking skills. Maintaining standardized testing as the epitome of school achievement also inadvertently penalizes underresourced schools while rewarding schools that may already have adequate funding to succeed on such exams. This further widens the achievement gap between succeeding and struggling schools, which could be avoided with equitable funding and strategic planning not centered around testing.

4. Trust Educators: Unfortunately, education has become a political issue in the United States, and policies across the country are often developed by lawmakers who have never taught themselves and see many classroom issues from an outside perspective. Policymakers (and the general public) must remember that teachers are trained professionals, many of whom have master’s degrees, and are therefore equipped to make decisions that are in the best interest of their students. It would be absurd to impose regulations on medical care without consulting trained medical providers, yet teachers are often subjected to this very treatment. At its core, teaching is a deeply human and localized profession that requires knowledge of individual student and community needs. Therefore, policy must begin at the local level, and education professionals must be part of the decision-making and policy-writing process to ensure the actual needs of students and schools are addressed while demonstrating trust and partnership with those who understand the field best.

5. Transition to Equitable School Funding The current model for school funding across the country promotes extreme inequity. Most public schools in the US are funded through property taxes. However, this ensures that schools in wealthy neighborhoods often receive substantially more funding and resources than their counterparts in neighborhoods facing poverty. This creates a vicious cycle where students from wealthy areas are provided higher quality education, resources, and experiences than students from impoverished areas, resulting in unequal long-term opportunities in college, career, and financial stability. School funding must therefore be restructured to ensure that every school receives what they need (which is different for all institutions), as all students deserve access to a high-quality education, regardless of where they were born or reside.

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

Interest in STEM education continues to rise each year as more schools offer STEM-related programs and extracurricular activities, and more university students are choosing to pursue STEM education as a focus. To continue increasing STEM engagement, students need to be exposed to high-quality, inquiry-based STEM education from an early age. Throughout the K-12 experience, students should engage in labs and activities that promote the usage of and appreciation for the scientific method by asking questions, designing experiments and data collection methods, and participating in data analysis and reflection. Additionally, teachers must prioritize helping students connect STEM experiences in the classroom to real-world experiences and events relevant to their interests and lives. I recommend phenomenon-based learning to accomplish this, or the highly effective, Ambitious Science Teaching model developed by the University of Washington, which provides a comprehensive structure for phenomenon-based science education.

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

Although women have now begun to surpass men in college completion, they are still vastly underrepresented in STEM fields. This is a shame, as women have just as much capacity to solve problems and achieve the extraordinary in STEM as men. Additionally, many STEM disciplines offer long-term career and financial stability, to which both men and women deserve equal access.

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?

Many organizations, non-profits, and community efforts have arisen to increase girls’ interest in STEM. Programs like “Girls Who Code” is an excellent example of such programs, which creates space for girls to explore an interest that may otherwise be seen as a “boy” activity. Schools should put a focus on ensuring such programs are available on campus, and encourage female students to participate.

In addition to such programs, students must be exposed to positive female role models in STEM, from famous engineers to local environmentalists working to solve problems in the community. Students are more likely to pursue opportunities and demonstrate interest when they see people like them achieving success.

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 have spent a lot of time in my career thinking about this question. In my ideal education system, I would implement the following policies:

1. Prioritize School Funding on A National Level: Beginning with higher education, rising tuition costs are making college degrees more and more unattainable to the average American, despite our country having some of the top university programs in the world. Increased funding for public education would help reduce tuition costs for students, making higher education more accessible. Additionally, prioritizing K-12 education funding would ensure that all schools are fully funded and that students and teachers have access to the resources they need to deliver high-quality education instead of relying on teachers to fund classroom supplies at the expense of their own pocket.

2. Eliminate Standardized Testing: Standardized testing, as mentioned, has caused more harm than good to schools in the US. By eliminating this requirement, schools can free up resources to help students improve literacy, expand STEM programs, and develop inquiry-based and creative learning experiences across subject areas instead of “teaching to the test.”

3. Establish the Arts, Athletics, Home Economics, Entrepreneurship, And Financial Planning as Core Subjects: In addition to the typical math, ELA, science, and social studies rotations, ensuring all schools prioritize the mentioned subjects would result in a more well-rounded education for graduates. Although conventional core subjects are important for students to master, the arts, athletics, home economics, entrepreneurship, and financial planning are more likely to pique student interest as these areas are directly relevant to student’s lives and are necessary and valuable skills to have upon graduation and succeed in the “real world.” Additionally, providing students with classes they are interested in will improve attendance, graduation rates, and potentially academic outcomes across subject areas.

4. Prioritize Career Preparation in High Schools: Although many high schools are beginning to reincorporate career prep into their programs, it still needs to be implemented across the board. To benefit both students and society, I would ensure every high school has quality career preparation classes, allowing students to graduate with technical certificates or degrees that will enable them to get hired or start a business upon graduation. I would also offer incentives for companies to hire recent graduates, such as bonuses or government stipends, ensuring that students not only graduate with career skills but have access to job opportunities as soon as they complete school.

5. Change the School Schedule: When thinking about the purpose of K-12 education, I believe we, as educators, are charged to spark students’ creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving abilities. Unfortunately, the school schedule is often so packed that it leaves little room for students to simply explore their interests and passions. Therefore, I propose a change to the school schedule in which students learn in classes four days per week and, on the fifth day, participate in passion projects, community service, internship opportunities, seminars, and online classes in a specialized area of interest, or other enrichment activities organized by the school, local-nonprofits, or other community members. Although this may mean extending the calendar year to ensure all curricula are covered, it will allow students to explore passions and interests in a low-pressure setting, where they can discover, make mistakes, and develop solutions to problems they are interested in.

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

One of my favorite quotes comes from Maya Angelou, who said, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” I had this quote posted in my classroom every year that I taught. To me, it sums up how I always wanted my students to behave towards one another, as well as how I strived to treat my students as their teacher.

At the end of the day, I understood that my students were looking for connection, meaning, joy, and success. So, although yes, I’d have them memorize the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum or demonstrate conservation of mass, I always did so, ensuring that they left the classroom each day with a positive experience, feeling proud of their efforts and reminded that they were an important member of the larger class community.

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 🙂

Meeting our US Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, would be a dream. School outcomes are often largely influenced by policy, and it would be an honor to speak to the Secretary himself to expand on this conversation and discuss how we are working to improve schools on a national level.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow our work here. 🙂

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

Alyson Vengoechea of Gameplan: 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.