Carnegie Commons Blog

Tim Talks With Lillian Lowery

In these Tim Talks, Carnegie President Tim Knowles engages “friends, allies, and conspirators” in micro-conversations about education, equity, and the future of learning.


The research field is replete with data demonstrating that, if a child of color just has one teacher of color in elementary school, just one, especially black males to black males, graduation rates go up, absenteeism falls, and academic achievement improves because they see what is possible, because they see themselves in leadership positions, guiding, teaching, and learning; setting aspirations, hopes, and expectations.

Lillian M. Lowery began her career in education as an English teacher at the middle and high school levels in Virginia. She currently serves as Vice President of Student and Teacher Assessments at Educational Testing Services, advancing quality and equity in education by providing fair and valid assessments, research and related services. Previously, she served as Vice President for PreK–12 Policy, Research, and Practice at The Education Trust; President and CEO of FutureReady Columbus, a public-private nonprofit focused on college and workforce readiness; State Superintendent of Schools for the Maryland State Board of Education; and Secretary of Education for Delaware.

This month, Lillian will be stepping down as the Chair of the Carnegie Board of Trustees to which she was first elected on 2014. In her talk with Carnegie President Tim Knowles, she reflects on what she has learned during her time on the board and shares her hopes for the future of education.

“We have an opportunity here,” she says about how the pandemic has forced people to think about how children are educated in ways that are different from the model that dominated during the 20th century. “I would love to walk into school environments where teachers really aren’t the ‘sage on the stage.’ … I would like to see 10 years from now schools where teachers are working to help students work on projects in groups, or that (students) are in the learning environment doing internships or apprenticeships, action learning instead of just the theoretical, ‘remember this and then put it back to me on a test.’ That’s what I would like to see—hubs of learning everywhere.”

Lillian and Tim also discuss areas in which her efforts are currently most focused, such as the need for more teachers of color— “I have worked with amazing people from every color, every walk of life who love our kids, but it’s something to see someone who looks like you in front of a classroom and holding a student accountable”—and how the role of student assessment needs to change.

“We need performance tasks so that students can demonstrate where their learning is on track, where it’s off track, and we can see through demonstration,” says Lillian. “We need benchmark tests based on standards of learning along a trajectory so teachers can know how they help individual students. … (We need) a continuum of assessment throughout the year.”

Ultimately, Lillian’s perspective is one of optimism. “There are so many creative ways we can think about learning and innovate learning that includes our business community, that includes our philanthropic community, that includes organizations like Carnegie where you’re going to set up hubs with all kinds of innovative learning opportunities,” she says. “Let’s do that. I mean, guys, we don’t have much of a choice.”


TRANSCRIPT

Tim Knowles (TK): I’m incredibly privileged to introduce Lillian Lowery, who is a national leader in education, a national treasure, a national gem. Lillian, thank you for joining me. Without a doubt, the most important role you have in your educational trajectory is the Chair of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Chair of the Trustees.

Lillian Lowery (LL): Absolutely, absolutely.

(TK): I knew you would agree with me. And the only disappointment is that your term is nearly up and you’ll be stepping down as chair in the fall, but it’s hard to think of anyone else in the education sector who has the breadth and depth of your experience.

You have served as a teacher, as state superintendent in Maryland, researcher, a leader of an advocacy organization, an assessment expert, currently the Vice President at Educational Testing Services. But what gets more interesting is when you dig into Lillian’s background and you learn a little more.

Lillian grew up in the segregated South in North Carolina, and it was fully, the school systems became, I shouldn’t say fully, but became integrated when you were in 10th grade, allowing you to see the role of policy on changing lives, on communities, and on the nation.

So, given your really remarkable perspective, Lillian, just a big general question, what’s your view on the state of the state? What’s your view on the current conditions of our system?

(LL): So before I go to “state of the state,” I will just return some praise. Tim, we are so glad that you have taken up the helm of the Carnegie Foundation. Really excited about a lot of the iterative, innovative work that you’re going to do. So I know I leave the presidency of the Carnegie Foundation with it in very capable, capable hands. So we’re really excited, I am.

(TK): Thank you, Lillian. That’s really kind of you and everybody better just hang on.

(LL):  They will hang on and if they don’t, tell them you’ll pick them up on the next round. Just keep moving, just keep moving.

(TK): So, state of the state, given your perspective.

(LL): So the state of the state, and that’s a part of why I’m so excited about the work that you’re going to be doing, because what we’ve seen with the pandemic, and I’m being redundant here, everyone knows, is the exacerbated ways that we know our children have these huge gaps to not only academic achievement, but to just access and opportunity. And that’s one of the things that you focus in all of your work in the past and what you’re really bringing and compelling Carnegie to engage in more profoundly paths forward.

We have an opportunity here. One of the pros and cons of the pandemic was the remote and hybrid learning, but what that did for us was actually push, nudge a lot of educators into the digitized learning environment where we can personalize and customize learning so much more aggressively because remember our kids are digital natives. All of them, regardless of their socioeconomic status it’s their world.

One of the pros and cons of the pandemic was the remote and hybrid learning, but what that did for us was actually push, nudge a lot of educators into the digitized learning environment where we can personalize and customize learning so much more aggressively because remember our kids are digital natives.

These gaps have been exacerbated by the learning loss that has occurred. We know that with remote learning, our most vulnerable students were obviously mostly those students who didn’t have the access that they needed to stay engaged in learning. They didn’t have the kind of tutorial supports that many of our families did, but I think we’re in a good place.

I think that the Biden administration, Secretary Cardona are focusing on the right things. They’re looking at early childhood, expanding that. That has always been a goal for a lot of us in education, but they are putting money behind that. They are looking to make sure that we get our students back in school so that they have that personalized touch with the teacher. But also that we utilize what we’ve learned over the past year, two years, and use what we have as tools, as digital tools and opportunities to customize learning for students.

If we don’t get it right this time, I worry. I think it’s a moment in time where people like you leading organizations along with the administration and others who are advocates for students and communities pull together these resources, at least like foundations. We’ve identified the problem and at some point we have to stop admiring the problem and do something about it.

And this is a moment in time and I think we have the right leadership in a lot of the right places to get things done. Give our kids access, make sure that they have opportunity to engage and opportunities that will give them rigorous curricula that will customize learning for them and be adaptive to meet them where they are, and recognize that who walks in the classroom like I was for my segregated community is who walks in the classroom, we can’t change that.

Our question is what are we going to do about it to meet them, and I am confident that we have leadership in this nation at this moment in time who’s focused on that.

(TK): Lillian, given your amazing trajectory, I just love how hopeful you are and that this moment can be a pivot for a future of learning which is more engaging, more rigorous, more experiential. So I appreciate both the call to leverage the moment as well as the hope in it because I think it’s not been easy for educators over the last two and a half years. And I know one of the things we hear about every day is just exhaustion, absolute exhaustion, which is a fundamental peril if we’re going to do the things you’re talking about.

So you’ve been talking recently about diversity in the workforce, in the teacher workforce, which is certainly not a new subject, but I discovered that you were quoted in an article about Sharif El-Mekki, the founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, as saying, “When it comes to education, representation isn’t just a nice objective. It’s a difference-maker.” Please just share a bit more about why teacher diversity and educator diversity is an instrumental variable to the success of our schools and our nation.

(LL): Thank you, and I like evidence-based decision-making, and the research field is replete with data demonstrating that if a child of color just has one teacher of color in elementary school, just one, especially black males to black males, graduation rates go up, absenteeism falls, and academic achievement improves because they see what is possible, because they see themselves in leadership positions, guiding, teaching, and learning, setting aspirations, setting hopes, and the expectation.

The research field is replete with data demonstrating that if a child of color just has one teacher of color in elementary school, just one, especially black males to black males, graduation rates go up, absenteeism falls, and academic achievement improves because they see what is possible ...

And I’ve worked with amazing people from every color, every walk of life who love our kids, but it’s something to see someone who looks like you in front of a classroom and holding a student accountable. And Tim, I don’t mind segregated schools. I went through one, I turned out okay. You know, as long as we have high-quality teachers with great expectations for their students.

But I do think school is also another place where communities meet, so the diversity of the student body does matter. I mean, when else would I be with Tim Knowles if I’m not at school, because once I go home to my community, we’re in different worlds again.

So the diversity is certainly at the adult and student level, but I also think it’s important for our kids of all races and ethnicities to learn and study together, too, so that next generation gets to know that we have far more in common than we do different.

(TK): Exactly. So I have to ask this question. You’re a leader of the Educational Testing Service, which is a big player in the assessment universe globally. And at a time when colleges and even K-12 institutions are relying less and less on traditional test scores, even pre-pandemic to the colleges in particular to screen students, what do you think the impact of the pandemic is going to be on standardized testing as we look forward, both in terms of K-12 and in terms of college admissions?

(LL): Okay, so my CEO, Bob McDonald, is going to love you for that question because I get to make an announcement. So, we’ve publicly announced today that ETS is partnering with NWEA, whose CEO is Chris Minnich, he used to be the executive director of CCSSO all 50 states chiefs and territories.

And the reason we’re doing that is because ETS has always played at the state summative level in accordance with the Elementary Secondary Education Act currently known as ESEA with those accountability measures required by federal. We’ve never had a district footprint and that’s where we get where you’re going.

NWEA has spent its lifetime really at that district level in formative assessment giving teachers actionable data that they can use right there in time with their students, letting them along a trajectory, knowing how students are performing and then being able to really shape their teaching and learning based on student needs. We have come together where ETS will still be a summative player, but we know, and we are hearing it loud and clear, loud and clearly from the field that they have to have those data to which you’re referring.

They have to have formed the data and especially with this learning loss the students having been gone so long. We need performance tasks so that students can demonstrate where their learning is on track, where it’s off track, and we can see through demonstration. We need benchmark tests like those offered by NWEA based on standards of learning along a trajectory so teachers can know how they help individual students.

If we don’t get that in the assessment world, we’re going to miss the boat and people will do it on their own. People being those in districts, teachers, because they need good personalized information to help their students.

It can’t just be a one-year look in the rear-view mirror and see how they did. It does have to be a continuum of assessment throughout the year where we’re looking at formative data, we’re looking at benchmarks along standards of learning, and then at the end of the year a shortened form of these long end-of-year assessments we’ve been giving, just a shortened form to check in on skill mastery.

That’s the new way in education around assessment. And it has to be infused and we’re really reaching out, we’re working with a group of people from Pennsylvania that’s led by Judge Smith-Ribner from Pennsylvania looking at what we do about assessment, even at the teacher level, so that we can diversify the pool and make sure that the test isn’t getting in the way of having good quality people coming to the classroom.

So formative assessment and benchmark assessment really is becoming the wave of the future, because people want to make good decisions about teaching and learning. They can’t do that without good formative data.

Formative assessment and benchmark assessment really is becoming the wave of the future, because people want to make good decisions about teaching and learning. They can't do that without good formative data.

(TK): If you’re right, that’s a really encouraging answer because we know these instruments have been used to sort really effectively but not to diagnose, and enable, and empower either young people, parents, or teachers to take steps to address areas of need. And so if that’s true, that’s really great news.

One final question, you know the Carnegie Foundation well, it brought the world ETS, it brought the world some of the instruments we’re talking about, the GRE, it brought the world the Pell Grants. It’s more recently been really focused on bringing the world methods for improving. If you cast forward 10 years, what would you want us to bring the world?

(LL): I think we way, way, way underestimate the capabilities of students, even I, and I’m pretty one who believes in kids and say, “Look, let a thousand flowers bloom, give them rain.” I loved the remote learning opportunity not because I want students to be remote. I want them to be in schools in social environments, but because it loosened the reigns of those who believe that students can’t act independently and that they can’t order their steps to meet goals that we help them set for themselves, not the ones that we set for them, but goals that we collectively set with them.

I would love to walk into school environments where teachers really aren’t the sage on the stage. There are no kids sitting in rows or small groups with the teacher at the front of the room instructing, I think it’s almost like individualized learning on steroids.

That’s what I would like to see 10 years from now. Walking into schools where teachers are working to help students work on projects in groups, or that they’re in the learning environment doing internships or apprenticeships, action learning instead of just the theoretical, “remember this and then put it back to me on a test.”

That’s what I would like to see, just hubs of learning everywhere. And that means, Tim, that the classroom may not be the traditional classroom.

(TK): I love that, you know I love this charge. I saw some survey data from high school students, it was almost uniform that everybody wanted to come back to high school, but nobody wanted to be there the whole time. So they see the value of some of their core classes, of all of the social that adds and extracurricular activities, but they also are saying loudly and clearly, “We actually want to learn in other places in the world, in cultural institutions, across in companies, in not-for-profits, in government.”

And I think if there’s an opportunity, to go back to your initial point about this pivot point we could seize, the American high school could change a lot in the next decade and I would love to be part of the manifestation of very new versions of what learning looks like for adolescents in particular.

(LL): And the learning, the high school has to change. And I’ll tell you, I taught for 14 years before I went into administration. Loved, love, love the classroom, but that’s where when we talk about teachers’ pay and salaries, that’s where companies could hire them to be educators within those environments, pay them higher salaries and help those students in that real-time learning environment.

There are so many creative ways we can think about learning and innovate learning that includes our business community, that includes our philanthropic community, that includes organizations like Carnegie where you’re going to set up hubs with all kinds of innovative learning opportunities. Let’s do that. I mean, guys, we don’t have much of a choice. If 10 years from now, Tim, you’re talking to someone and you still have this conversation as, “What do we do to change this?” We are a nation at risk.

(TK): So that is a great charge to end on. I promised this will be a micro-conversation. So thank you, Lillian, really appreciate you taking the time to share some of your thoughts.

(LL): Love it, love that you’re there in that seat. Thank you.

(TK): Thank you.

(LL): Bye.