By Yitzi Weiner
Education financing needs to be made fair and equitable for all US students. In many states, wealthier school districts receive more combined state and local funding. In other states, whiter school districts receive more money. (For example: The School District of Philadelphia, which has a high number of students of color, receives over $2 thousand less per child per year than Pennsylvania’s predominantly white suburban and rural districts. That creates a funding gap of nearly $400 million every year.) Money affects everything from teachers, technology and textbooks to the availability of heat in the winter and support services for students with emotional and behavioral challenges. There’s a fair funding trial going on in Pennsylvania right now.
Asa part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Clayvon Harris.
Writer and advocate for fair and equitable education, Clayvon C. Harris completed over 90 substitute teaching assignments at 67 different Philadelphia public schools. She earned an MFA in Cinema-Television/Screenwriting from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and holds a BA in English literature from Swarthmore College where students are taught they have the ability to change the world. Her book, Sub — Inside the Notorious School District of Philadelphia, is a powerful, first-hand account of the trials and challenges many teachers and students across the US face on a daily basis.
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?
I was writing in half-hour TV and doing fairly well, but I felt the one-hour format would allow me to explore some of the more complex issues I wanted to tackle. Making that transition proved to be very difficult at the time. Often the people I met with weren’t expecting a woman, and certainly not a black one. My agent was getting feedback like, “She’s great, but this isn’t a black show.” After a string of similar encounters, I began to re-think my career choice. I had always been interested in teaching and thought I might be able to make more of a contribution in the classroom. I applied for emergency teaching credentials in Los Angeles but while I was waiting for my classroom assignment, it occurred to me that I could teach in Philly and be near my family. Unfortunately, when I returned home, I discovered that Pennsylvania doesn’t offer emergency credentials and my choices were to get certified (which takes about two years) or sub. “We’re desperate for substitute teachers,” I was told. So, I decided to jump in and get my feet wet.
Can you tell us how you arrived at the decision to leave television writing to become a substitute teacher in PhiladelphiaCan 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??
It’s probably less of a story and more of a realization. I discovered that classroom disruption was much worse and more destructive than I ever imagined. I had gone to Catholic and private schools. So I had no idea what public schools were like, especially large, underfunded, urban schools. I expected the buildings might be a little rundown, the kids might be a little unruly and they might not have the same level of resources when it came to books, technology, etc. I encountered all of that combined with constant disruption of the learning process. You would not believe how much time I spent every day trying to manage the behavior of a few students, while the rest of the kids waited (not always patiently) for me to get back to the lesson. After a while, I realized disruption of the learning process was not only steadily chipping away at the education of students in Philadelphia, it was happening throughout the state and across the country. That’s why I wrote Sub. I was hoping to help shed light on why so many students aren’t getting the education they need.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Right now, I’m working on completing a companion piece for my book Sub — Inside the Notorious School District of Philadelphia. The main questions I’ve been asked in relation to the book are “What do you want people to do?” and “How can I help?” I think knowing how to help starts with understanding the basic issues, then taking action. Even if it’s a small action like sending an email. My hope is that the Sub Workbook will give a brief overview of the main issues and offer helpful suggestions for how people can participate in creating more equitable education opportunities for all kids. My goal is to have it done by July of this year, if not sooner. It’ll be available as a free download on the www.angelwalk.biz website.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?
If anything qualified me to be an authority, I would say it was completing 90 plus different assignments as a substitute teacher at 67 different public schools. That along with doing an extensive amount of research. But truthfully, I just consider myself to be a concerned citizen.
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?
There have always been elite public schools that are among the best in the country, if not the world. But this is not the norm for most US schools. There’s a standardized test called the PISA, which stands for Program for International Student Assessment. It’s given every three years to students in 80 countries around the world. The 2021 test was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But in 2018, the US ranked 25th, a surprising result for what is supposed to be the #1 country in the world. (FYI, China ranked highest.) According to the 2017 Condition of College and Career Readiness report, only 39% of all U.S. students were prepared for college-level work in three or more subjects. This is why US tuition payers have to spend $1.3 billion dollars a year on remedial college courses for high school graduates who are unprepared for college. [from Remedial Education: The Cost of Catching Up, the Center for American Progress] Again, some of our schools are fantastic, but until all of our schools are fantastic, I would have to say the US education system gets an F, overall.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
Let’s see: 1) There’s a high level of awareness that we have a big problem and many people are actively looking for solutions. 2) In pockets across America, districts, counties and private institutions are implementing different ways of teaching and learning to achieve better results. In Philadelphia, there are schools that have been taken over by private universities or technology foundations, or that have been restructured to focus on project-based learning, etc. Some of these endeavors are really working. 3) The recently enacted American Rescue Plan from the federal government has allocated funds to school districts across the US to help address educational deficiencies caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. These funds are desperately needed by many school districts just to address the basics.
4) There seems to be more emphasis on literacy in the early grades. For example, the School District of Philadelphia has implemented an Early Literacy Initiative which they shared during the 2018 national Grade-Level Learning conference. The initiative includes revamping and resupplying all K-2 classrooms to better support reading instruction. The goal is to ensure all students are reading on grade level by the start of fourth grade, which has been identified as the point at which students shift from learning to read to reading to learn. 5) And finally, according to Berkley Professor & Economist Rucker Johnson, 28 states have been court ordered to make their education funding practices fair and equitable for all schools within their jurisdiction.
All of these initiatives would have an even greater impact if schools could minimize disruption.
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?
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
There definitely seems to be a push throughout the US, but in my personal experience, there were a lot of schools that had only sporadic access to computers. My three suggestions for increasing engagement would be: 1) Introduce math and computer clinics and programming workshops as extracurricular activities. The earlier the better. 2) Demonstrate how STEM subjects are relevant to everyday life and future occupations, such as video-game development, space exploration and social-media marketing. And 3) double down on reading skills. No matter how much a child likes math, science or computers, she still needs to be able to read what’s on the screen.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
It’s important to engage girls and women in STEM because, quite simply, you don’t want to leave 50 percent of the brain power of the human race untapped. A little girl in Alabama could grow up to be the woman who unlocks the cure for cancer, but if she doesn’t know science is an option for her, or if she doesn’t get an education that prepares her adequately for college, maybe that never happens. I taught a third-grade class off and on over the course of a full school year. The boys all claimed to be math geniuses but the two best math students were girls. Not only did they not know how good they were at math until I told them; for a minute, they didn’t believe me. Luckily, their faith in me as their teacher won out over their own self-doubt. And suddenly, math was their thing.
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?
There has been a fundamental shift in the view that science and math are for boys and men. Primarily, I believe, because STEM areas are evolving so rapidly, global competition is so fierce and technology, in particular, permeates everything. Socialization, exposure and freedom of choice are critical to increasing engagement for girls. My mother embraced and, in many instances, shaped my interests. She gave me books, Barbie dolls and a microscope so that I had the opportunity to explore without expectation. For a long time as a kid, I wanted to be a doctor. In college, I contemplated teaching. Eventually, my love of literature won out as I entered the workforce and became a writer, though I did circle back to teaching. If we encourage and train girls from a young age to embrace or, at least, remain open to all possibilities, I think more and more of them will be drawn to STEM subjects.
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?
First, I would implement a national fair-funding formula for all US school districts. These formulas exist; they’re just not necessarily being used. Pennsylvania has one but only applies it to around 12% of the education budget.
Second, I would eliminate the practice of forcing students with unmanaged disruptive disorders into general education classrooms, which does not benefit them or their classmates. In one class where I subbed multiple times, the regular teacher kept “going out on leave,” primarily because she was overwhelmed by the daily struggle to manage one very disruptive student. I felt her pain every single time I had to pull that kid off of another kid, stop the lesson to calm him down, or call for support because he wouldn’t sit down, do his work or even stay in the room.
Third, I would create a task force to rethink and restructure special education. In particular, we need to provide students with disruptive emotional and behavioral disorders and unmanaged learning disabilities with the specific support they need to be successful later in life. I interviewed a school board member of a suburban district for my book. She shared that when they implemented full inclusion for students with disabilities, the initiative was not as successful for the younger students. They felt this was because they hadn’t had the benefit of the high-support special education program that the older students had come through.
The fourth thing would be to appoint a team to roll out a national program for the clean-up of environmental issues. We would target hazards that plague the aging buildings (including schools) and water systems of older cities and towns across the US. Problems like asbestos, mold and lead in paint and water lines. According to a University of Pennsylvania environmental expert, 6.2% of Philadelphia’s children have elevated levels of lead in their blood. That’s more than twice the national rate and that’s with only 30% of kids being tested.
5) And finally, I’d place a reading center in every underperforming school in the US. I first heard about this idea from a Head Start teacher. Students who are behind would be pulled out of regular school classes and report to the reading center where they would remain until they were able to read on grade-level. Then they would return to their regular classes. I truly believe that if these 5 things were implemented, both student achievement and teacher satisfaction would begin to increase.
I’m sure many people are wondering where the money to support these types of changes would come from. In 2017, economists projected that raising the level of achievement of all US students to just the basic level of proficiency on the National Assessment for Education Progress standardized tests would, over time, add $30 trillion to America’s gross domestic product; $70 trillion if achievement in all US states was raised to Minnesota’s level of academic success. That’s a lot more money circulating in the US economy.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Press forward and fear nothing.” When I was subbing and frustrated and, a few times, even a little afraid or working on my book and exhausted, this line from Saint Katharine Drexel kept me going. She used the money she inherited to open 60-plus schools for African-American and Native-American students. She could have been living a pretty cushy life; instead, she worked tirelessly to provide educational opportunities to students who might otherwise have been excluded, like so many students are being excluded from a quality education today.
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 🙂
I’ve always wanted to meet Oprah Winfrey. She has inspired me throughout my life with her candor, brilliance and commitment to the greater good. Plus, she’s a huge advocate for education. Very often legislators don’t make changes until change is demanded by a critical number of voting Americans. Ms. Winfrey has a large communication platform that, if she chose, could be used to help raise awareness for some of the most pressing issues related to education.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
They can learn more about my book at www.angelwalk.biz where, hopefully soon, I’ll be able to offer the free Sub Workbook to anyone interested in supporting such an important cause. You can also connect with me on my Facebook page, Sub Inside the Notorious School District of Philadelphia. (Long name for a Facebook page, but it was available.)
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!