Fixing America’s Education Crisis—K12’s Kevin Chavous

April 11, 2019 Updated: April 22, 2019

The United States is in an education crisis. An estimated two-thirds of America’s high school graduates are neither career- nor college-ready. On this episode of “American Thought Leaders,” Epoch Times senior editor Jan Jekielek talks with Kevin Chavous, a leading advocate for school choice and the president of K12, a company that partners with U.S. schools to offer personalized education programs.

They discuss what Chavous believes can be done to reform the troubled U.S. educational system. They also talk about how offering children educational options that are tailored to them and their realities, especially with the use of new technologies, are changing things.

Jan Jekielek: You’ve been a passionate school-choice advocate for years. In fact, some of that work, I think, started right here in D.C. Before we jump into that, can you tell me a little bit about how you see the state of education in America right now?

Kevin Chavous: I will tell you, there are a number of high-performing schools in this country—kids who are doing well, school districts that are changing and improving. But the reality is former education Secretary Arne Duncan said the picture of education in America is a picture of stagnation, at best. We have a lot of kids who aren’t getting what they deserve, a lot of schools that aren’t performing as well as they should.

And it’s not that the kids are failing; I think we’re failing the kids. And to give you one important statistic: Two-thirds of America’s high school graduates are neither career- nor college-ready. So that means most of the kids, the vast majority of America’s school-age children who have a high school degree that has been certified and given them a stamp that they’re ready for the world, aren’t ready for college and neither are ready for a career.

I think that’s shameful. And I think that, particularly, when you look at the fact that most high school graduation rates are increasing in just about every state, it shows we’re graduating a lot of kids who just aren’t ready for the world.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s astounding to hear. How does a situation like that arise?

Mr. Chavous: I think that, at one point in time—and you can go back to the origin of this country—when Thomas Jefferson believed that the only way citizens could survive and that democracy could survive is through an educated population. That planted the seeds to make sure that we valued education.

And for many years, we had a culture of education, but we had challenges. We had asterisks for slaves, for working-class people. The quality of education wasn’t what it should be. And then what has happened more than anything now is we’ve accepted. We used to have a culture of this can-do spirit where, you know: “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, get an education, you can receive your piece of the American dream.”

But now, Jan, what has happened is we have this acceptance of mediocrity. We’ve dumbed down. And, again, we have great schools. I don’t want to cast a wide, broad swath, but the bottom line is, this acceptance of mediocrity in the fact that it’s OK for so many of our kids not to get what they deserve, I just think is unacceptable.

To me, the real American dream—the real culture—should be grounded on the fact that at each and every American school, a child should have equal access to a high-quality education. And I think that, over time, we’ve just allowed our lack of focus and priority and attention given to quality education for all children has gotten worse.

Mr. Jekielek: As I understand it, education is largely governed at the state level. Is this a situation that’s across all the states? Are there some states that are just doing fantastically well, and others that are doing exceptionally poorly? How does that look?

Mr. Chavous: Yeah, I think that we have states that are doing well. Obviously, Massachusetts has always been one of the leaders. I think Florida is doing some really cool stuff. There are a number of states—Indiana, I think, is making some improvements.

But I think what has happened around the country is, the way we value education has changed in an odd kind of way with the advent and increase of technology. Right now, the imagery that a lot of young people have in front of them tells them that they can make it, if you will, or be successful without an education. So you have these images where on YouTube, you know, you can have a kid who jumps in a pool full of jelly and have a million views, and make a few hundred thousand dollars a year in advertising dollars. So, it’s created a conundrum.

And then I think the biggest challenge we’ve had is just this over-allegiance to a one-size-fits-all way of education: Kids come into a classroom, they sit still, it’s a stand-and-deliver format where the teacher just teaches to the kids, kids have to be still, record what they get, regurgitate it back in a couple of weeks, then forget it a month later.

Now with technology, there’s this real need to understand that one-size-fits-all doesn’t work for all kids. Some kids … like, for instance, most American school-age children take algebra in the ninth grade, like their mother and grandmother and great-grandmother did. Today, with the dynamism associated with technology, what’s wrong with a kid taking it in sixth grade, or maybe a kid should wait till 11th grade. Well, the challenge with that is most school districts set up where if you … the personalized learning aspect of things just is hard for them to adopt because we’ve embraced this factory approach to herding kids, and dividing them based on age, grade level, and all the like.

So I think there are a number of reasons, but the bottom line is those states that are seeing some improvement and change have taken a radical approach to embracing more options, more quality options. Maybe charter schools are OK, maybe homeschools, maybe specialty schools, maybe private schools, maybe virtual schools. There’s a lot that you can do if you’re open to innovation and creativity that really will meet the kids we need to meet where they are today.

Mr. Jekielek: It seems like a lot of people have benefited from the charter school system. Let’s start with that, they believe in it—become advocates, so to speak. But there also seems to be quite a bit of resistance, from what I’ve seen. And so can you unpackage that for me?

Mr. Chavous: You know, it’s interesting because one thing we have to keep in mind—I think one of the biggest barriers to educational change or the change in the realities of education in America is the politics of education. And there’s no Republican or Democratic way to teach a kid how to read, write, or count, yet we allow the partisanship to dictate education policy.

And I can tell you that resistance to change in education is equally bipartisan. And so depending on where you go, state-by-state, you have many rural Republicans. They live in school districts where … or in districts where the school district is the largest employer. So they’re going to fight against change. And then, for a lot of progressive Democrats, you know, they have the teachers union supporting them. So they’re really resistant to anything that the union doesn’t agree with, and oftentimes, a lot of union folks are resistant to charter schools and choice.

My view is that this is an area and an issue that we should rise above the politics of the day and create this American passion around what’s best for children. The yardstick that I use to determine what I’m going to support that will help kids is: Will this proposal help a child or a group of children learn? And if the answer is yes, I’m for it.

I do think the number of children we’re losing, because they haven’t gotten the education they deserve, is so striking and so threatening to our democracy and our country’s future that I just don’t think we should be so overwhelmed by the politics. But I think that the biggest challenge we have is the politics of education.

Mr. Jekielek: So what are some initiatives that are looking at changing that, reforming that?

Mr. Chavous: Well, what’s really cool about what’s happening in a lot of places is where you see rural Republicans, urban Democrats coming together around the charter school proposals, school district reform proposals. I am involved in helping to guide and run a virtual education company, virtual education specialty schools, magnet schools, home schools. Many legislators understand that, in their various districts, one of the biggest challenges they have is getting skilled workers. You’re not going to get skilled workers if two-thirds of your graduates can’t go to college and get a skill.

One thing that we’re embarking on that we really feel is totally bipartisan—and that’s just part of the promise of what the future holds—is career readiness. We have in our Wisconsin school, a career readiness program with the operators engineers union—they’re the crane operators. They were only getting 20 to 30 kids in a class of students, and they would come from all over the state and enrollment of the students were going down.

But now, [with] virtual education, we can get 100, 200 in a class. We work with the union, we work with business leaders. Kids take the class early in high school, they get their certifications, and not just on the academic side, but through virtual reality—artificial intelligence—they get their skill development, they get their internship, and they graduate with a job.

That’s just one illustration of what’s possible when you lay aside the politics, you embrace innovation, creativity—all designed to meet the individual needs of children first. And I think there’s more promise in that. We work with a number of school districts. Now, you see school districts starting their own charter schools, or school districts working to start their own virtual programs, their own magnet schools. We have to be open to trying something new because the one-size-fits-all just isn’t going to work.

Mr. Jekielek: Tell me a little bit about the success of charter schools before we dive into this more kind of personalized, individualized piece. Tell me a little bit more about that.

Mr. Chavous: I can tell you about our experience in D.C., which I think is instructive. I was on the D.C. City Council at a time we were going through the crack epidemic of the ’90s. And what really changed my career, was when I visited our local prison and I met a number of the young men.

Many were in there for nonviolent crimes and drug offenses, and I got to know them. I thought, “Wow, some of these guys are pretty bright.” And I asked the warden, “What kind of education programs do you have for these young men?”

And he said, “Councilman, that would be a waste of time because 9 percent of them are high school dropouts, and they can’t read. So it’d be a waste of taxpayers money to try to educate them.”

That changed my view, and I started to visit schools in my ward. And, at the time, D.C. statistically had one of the lowest-performing school districts. And, ironically, that’s when I said I want to take this on. It just really bothered me.

We were considering a charter school bill—charter school legislation. And what hit me was when I talked to folks who were advocating for this new approach in charter schools. They were talking about ways to do a residential school or a hospitality high school where we have folks like Bill Marriott—because Marriott is based in D.C.—and others in the hotel and restaurant industry agreeing to give internships and jobs to kids who would do this Hospitality High and learn about the hospitality industry.

When I heard and saw these innovative school leaders talk about how they would put this together, the one thing I noticed it was a common theme—there was no bureaucracy. They had an idea of vision. They had a board. They had a principal, and then they would execute. In the school district in D.C.—great ideas, but you had to have four or five people check a box, you had a bloated central administration, and it was a barrier to getting some things done.

So one of the main reasons why we’ve had such a successful charter school movement in D.C. is we took away a lot of those barriers and a lot of things that really would impact kids getting what they deserve instantly, without having four or five people sign off on it or without people trying to put it in a factory box, if you will, was just having people just do it.

I think what has also happened, and some people may disagree, but I think the evidence is clear: Once the charter movement got some traction in D.C. and parents started to choose it, then you saw the school district in D.C. having to respond. And they started to send people out knocking on doors saying, “We can educate your kids, too.” Which is, I think, the way it should be.

We should not have a situation where only one education provider has total access to all the kids, because if that education provider doesn’t meet the needs of all the kids, then those kids who are left behind, really are left behind.

Mr. Jekielek: So that’s your solution in a way to reforming the public school system, to just provide competitive impetus or something like that.

Mr. Chavous: Yeah. In education, less is not more. More is more.

If you’ve got a kid who’s bullied and they can’t sit in a brick-and-mortar school, or if you’ve got a kid with medical challenges or special needs or autistic—they can’t sit in a classroom and many of those kids just can’t. Their needs cannot be accommodated. We, at my company, we handle a lot of those kids. Or if you have a kid who really responds better to small classes, and maybe they have an interest in the arts or the entertainment industry, then you can … what we need is a more robust and vibrant set of offerings. Just like when you go to a buffet line. If you go to a buffet line to eat and you only have chicken-fried steak, a lot of people may not like chicken-fried steak. But if you have the fish, the steak, the potato—you have all this stuff, 20 to 30 offerings, you’re likely to get more people to want to sit there and eat at that buffet table, that restaurant. And just as we see a diversity in terms of the needs of children, we see less of a response to that diversity by giving offerings that they will respond to.

Another thing, I think that today’s kids with technology, all these kids have these smartphones and they respond to gamification and badges and coins. We’ve seen that in order to engage students, you just can’t say, here, read “Lord of the Flies” or “A Tale of Two Cities” and do a book report on it. You know, there’s experiential learning, there’s project-based learning, there’s robotics, there’s coding, there’s virtual reality, augmented reality, there’s artificial intelligence. There’s all these things that you can use technology as a way to be the right tool, to create that hook for the kids who are often unengaged.

I just feel that if we looked at education more in terms of what’s possible, as opposed to what we can’t do, then we’ll be more attractive to kids who often feel stuck because they’re put in a box like their parents were.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s fascinating. So you’ve started giving me the answer to this, but how do you envision the future of American education? And how does public education fit into that with this myriad of options that you’re describing?

Mr. Chavous: I think first and foremost—and we’re seeing it around the world—that the buzzword should not be: finding a way to fit kids into a system. The buzzword should be finding a way to offer personalized education opportunities for all kids. And school districts can do that.

I can tell you there’s a fascinating story, the Lindsay School District—it’s a migrant workers community between Bakersfield and Fresno, California. They’ve got about 15,000 people, and the average educational attainment of these residents is sixth grade. Many of them are undocumented.

But [look at] what the Lindsay School District has done, when their superintendent realized they had nine straight valedictorians who had to take remedial class in college—nine straight. They were the worst performing school district in California, and it was a poor community. And they said they were going to embrace a personalized learning concept.

I talked about Lindsay because there’s some charter schools doing some great things, some private schools doing some great things, there’s some traditional schools doing great things. But Lindsay is an example of one of the lowest performing school districts in California, indeed, in America, that changed its approach from a system approach where kids had to be forced to fit within that system to a personalized approach, in which they tailored everything toward the needs of kids.

So they, first of all, set up this approach where kids were entrusted upon making sure that they could follow their courses. Let’s say there were 30 things you needed to know in U.S. history, 25 things you needed to know in algebra. These kids would be instructed on that, they work at their own pace, they can work with the teacher, they work online, they can work in a group-setting project base.

And when I sat with those students and they showed me how they were progressing, how much they enjoy school, you know, the truancy went to zero. They had 40 percent of the kids going to school before they instituted this personalized learning approach; then, it went up to 95 percent. They had no gangs. They had a healthy start on all the campuses.

There was this idea that you had to not only educate kids, but you had to create relationships and provide the social services particularly in a community like that, that would educate the whole child. And then they empowered the kids. They said, “Look, you can do this.” And the teacher was part of their guide, as opposed to them sitting still in a classroom, and listening to a teacher and looking for the bell to ring. And the results have been phenomenal. I mean, real quickly, they’ve had I think triple the college admissions. They also have more and more kids trying to come to school, to this Lindsay School District, as opposed to in the past when they had people trying to leave the district.

But the most striking thing of all of this, Jan, is they did something pretty radical—they did away with grades. They don’t offer any grades. They just know that if you make it through those 30 things you’re supposed to know and you take the tests in history and math and English or what have you—and mastery is the key—then you will be ready for college.

And I asked them, “Well, how does not having grades affect your college admissions applications?” They said, “It doesn’t affect it all because the kids all test well because they know the material.” They wanted to destigmatize that because they realized so many of their kids are behind. When they set up that personalized learning for them, they did it based on that child’s need, not based on a blueprint.

I know that sounds strange to people, but I think the future of education, is moving in the direction of creating an approach to education for all children that fits that child wherever they are in the learning curve.

Mr. Jekielek: It sounds to me like not having grades as a concept could work in two ways: One way is that it doesn’t matter how you perform, you pass. And that sounds like what leads to statistics like you were describing earlier. Right? On the other hand, this seems an approach where you’re not using grades, but there are some kind of serious milestones that people have to hit to make it to the next stage.

Mr. Chavous: That’s what struck me. I was a little taken aback when they said no grades. So how do you measure [that]? It’s my grounding. But the kids said, “Look, we know, I’m at 25, if I don’t get to 30, then I’m not gonna pass this class.”

Mr. Jekielek: I see. So actually, there are grades. It’s a bit of a different model.

Mr. Chavous: It’s a different model. So, “I have to keep doing it then I can move on.” But what’s interesting is the confidence it gives these young people, and the fact that they believe in what’s possible, and that they’re going to make it through.

Mr. Jekielek: So how do we reform the public school system?

Mr. Chavous: I think we have to stress the importance of education. We reform the public school system by creating a culture around education that’s not tied to dollars and cents. It’s not tied to the way it used to be, but … to making sure that all children are valued and all children matter.

The reason why that’s important—there’s this tendency to think of the public school system as an entity that has to be preserved at all costs in its current form. My view is that whatever the public school system looks like now, that’s fine. But for the world of tomorrow, it has to look different. It has to have a greater usage of technology. There has to be more project-based learning. There has to be more opportunities for kids to get dual credit or career-readiness credit outside of the traditional school. There has to be more outside talent working inside schools to help kids, particularly when they decide they want to go into certain careers or be exposed to certain careers.

And I think the biggest thing traditional school districts have to move toward, and it’s a tough conversation, is less of a bureaucracy that impacts the day-to-day of kids. I understand the bureaucracy for facilities or transportation and those kinds of sort of day-to-day needs.

For public schools to thrive and excel, when it comes to academics, you have to get to the place where you value teachers. And that means you also have to get quality teachers.

Now, I’ve said that if you want to really move toward improving the caliber of teaching, not just in traditional public schools but all over, you have to find ways to incentivize teachers, and I think we need to professionalize our teaching corps. When I talk about professional, I say our teaching corps is similar to, you know, I’m a lawyer, a doctor, you know, we have self-policing. And if a lawyer violates a code of ethics, you can get disbarred. If a doctor commits malpractice, you can go before the medical board and lose your license. Same for accountants, same with a lot of professions. I think a lot of teachers really believe in tenure, but I think if we could professionalize our teaching corps—give more money to individual teachers, but in exchange, they need to engage in some self-policing and be willing to go through the steps of decertifying teachers who they know don’t perform—I think it would make a big difference.

By the way, that was something that was recommended 30 years ago in “A Nation at Risk.” And many union folks … Randi Weingarten has told me she supports that, but it’s not a big enough priority, I think. But we need to have that discussion. I think that will go a long way toward at least getting people to know that, one, we need to value all kids, and, two, we need to value teachers. And one of the best ways to value teachers is not just to incentivize them but also make sure that the teachers around them are operating at a level that’s worthy of what the kids need.

Mr. Jekielek: So the Lindsay School District would be a case study of some of these reforms that you’re describing?

Mr. Chavous:  That’s right. What’s interesting about Lindsay when I talked to the superintendent, when he found out that those nine valedictorians had to take remedial courses, and he had a parent come to him and point to his son and said, “This is your graduate. My son is your graduate. He can’t read,” and then he walked out of the office.

It was like a thunderclap to this superintendent, and he told me that the one thing they did, they said, “Well, we’ve got union rules, we’ve got a school board, we’ve got a mayor.” He called a meeting and he brought all the school board members, all his teachers in that small town of 15,000 people. He sent flyers around the community. He had about 3,000 people in a room on a Saturday.

Mr. Jekielek: Unbelievable.

Mr. Chavous: And he told a story about the parent who showed him his son who couldn’t read, and about the valedictorians who had to take remedial courses. And then he put on the wall, on the blackboard, he said, “What should be the profile of the Lindsay High School graduate? What should they know?” And he started talking about these core values. He said, “Look, I’m saying it right now. We need to throw out everything we’ve done and start from scratch.”

So they divided the community. They picked four or five areas and those 2,000 to 3,000 people in the room would come every Saturday in their area. It took them a year and they created the Lindsay school reform plan, which was totally different than what any other school district has done in the country.

Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating.

Mr. Chavous: And it has led to amazing results, because they were not governed by the politics. He said there were tough conversations with the school board and the union, but the community was almost small enough and manageable enough, and people knew that they were having so many challenges. Frankly, the leadership of the superintendent was such that he just said, “We’ve got to change.” And I refer to them a lot in one of my books that this idea of putting kids first is not a slogan: it’s a state of being. And I do think that often, the politics of education is more slogan-driven than action-driven for kids. I think that what they did was pure action.

Mr. Jekielek: I was curious about this. Does this very personalized model that they’ve implemented, does that mean a lot more teachers are there doing that work? The immediate question is how does a budget work with this kind of highly personalized program?

Mr. Chavous: That’s a really great question, and it was a question I asked. First of all, they didn’t have to get more teachers. They had certified teachers in the classroom. They had teachers’ aides and teachers assistants, I think they beefed that up. One of the beautiful things about how they were able to make sure they met kids where they were and where they are, is they had these readiness tests.

So early on, as soon as the class starts, the teacher could sort of diagnose where kids were, and those kids that were high achievers, they could let them go on their own and see if they could do it. For those who are sort of middle of the road, maybe the teacher would engage in direct instruction with them. Those kids who are one, two, three grades behind, they have more intensive hands-on involvement with the teacher and teacher’s aides. And so they would do that and make sure the kids were following where they were. The kids that were behind, they would work with them more aggressively, intensively, and try to get them on track.

The real cool thing they would do is project-based learning, where they would group kids in pairs or with three or four kids at a time, because a couple of those things on their mastery list, they had to do as a group. And it was really fascinating when I saw these kids who were high achievers, paired with kids who had challenges, and them coming together. It was really exciting to see how much they learn from each other. They really created this community of learners where kids weren’t segmented out, based on their aptitude or where they were when they started, but how they could all come together and learn as a unit. It was really powerful.

Mr. Jekielek:  It seems like something that was really important here was the fact that the community was of a size that could handle it, and perhaps even there was accountability, like “Hey, wait, you’re not on board with this? Hey, get on board, neighbor.” That kind of deal. Whereas, in a bigger city, that kind of thing may be harder to find. What are your thoughts on that?

Mr. Chavous: I think that’s been a part of our challenge. … But I also think that there’s an enterprising group of younger superintendents coming up who recognize that the status quo and the way we’ve done things just doesn’t work. And I’ve seen the Lindsay School District superintendent talk to a number of these young superintendents, and I think you just have to start. So part of it is, if you get a principal who takes this on, or you get a little bit of a larger school district—the leadership matters.

There are some of these groups like Chiefs for Change, a group of superintendents around the country that are pushing for change. You’ve got some small school district superintendents on it and some large district superintendents. They’re starting to embrace these ideas. We almost have to start like a domino approach. Now, because Lindsay’s having so much success in California, you’re seeing larger school districts look at what’s going on [there]. The bottom line is, the explosion is going to happen. It’s similar to the Berlin Wall. We just can’t sustain it the way it’s been, thus far.

Mr. Jekielek: “The explosion” being the explosion of success?

Mr. Chavous: Explosive success. You know, our very survival—from a political point of view, but frankly, from a practical humanistic point of view—is so dependent on us making sure that our children get a quality education. That’s the most important thing.

Mr. Jekielek: So what will happen in the next, let’s say, year to get us closer to your ideal world?

Mr. Chavous: In my ideal world, I would hope—and this is going to sound so foreign to people—this is going to be one where people or some people are just going to turn off their televisions.

In my ideal world, if we could get two of the presidential candidates on both sides—once the nominees are set—to actually have a joint press conference and say, “You know what, we disagree on so many things, we’re going to have a robust debate. But the two of us have decided that on education, as it relates to our children, we’re going to work together and take the politics out of education and make sure that every child learns. So the two of us, the Republican and Democratic nominee, we’re going to sit down and come up with two or three things we’d agree on that would drive the way we approach education for the coming years.”

Now, I’m going to tell you, that won’t happen; but if it did, it would set a different tone.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s a very optimistic vision that you’re offering.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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