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What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren't getting smarter and what his school's doing in order to change that.
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Evan Glazer. (Photo: departmentofed/Flickr)

Evan Glazer. (Photo: departmentofed/Flickr)

Evan Glazer is the principal of the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the Virginia school that had the highest average SAT score in the nation last year. Glazer, who earned his Ph.D. in instructional technology from the University of Georgia after receiving a B.S. In mathematics and an M.S. In mathematics education from the University of Illinois, spoke to Pacific Standard about changes in education, overseeing some of the smartest students in the country, and the rise of mobile apps.

What was your educational background like growing up?

I didn't grow up thinking I'd become a high school principal. I don't think anyone does, given how we're portrayed in the media. I grew up in a household that faced some pretty tough times financially. I had two siblings. I shared a room with both of them. I was the youngest one, so I got the low end of the totem pole in pretty much everything. We scraped by financially, living off of welfare. My mom worked really hard. She had two to three jobs at any given time, but my parents didn't have college degrees. Pretty early on, it was instilled into myself and my two siblings that if we wanted to have a better quality of life, which my parents wanted for us, we really had to commit to an education that went above and beyond what they had achieved.

Even though times were tough, my parents made a concerted effort to move to a suburban area outside of Chicago to a neighborhood where they felt the school system was pretty good. They really had education at the forefront.

"So are kids getting smarter? My thinking for that is that they aren't getting smarter. They are taking on more so that they can be more competitive with each other."

Our parents really valued continuing education and the pursuit of that. My mom was instrumental in providing feedback at home. Anywhere we struggled, we could get support. We didn't have the resources to get tutoring, but she would offer time and assistance on our coursework. We still did it on our own, but she tried to help out.

That perpetuated through college. I went on scholarship and student loans. That was the framework in which I grew up. Sure enough, my siblings and I all have advanced degrees. I think it's that value of making a commitment to education so we could end up having a better quality of life.

You majored in mathematics. Why? Did it come easy to you?

I started off in physics and eventually gravitated to a major in math and a minor in physics. It came naturally to me to think analytically. That's been true ever since I was a little kid. It's something that's intuitive for me.

When did you decide to move into teaching?

It hit me at the end of my undergraduate studies. The reasoning for teaching is a strong interest not only in education based on the values that my parents instilled in us, but also a general interest in giving back. My mom was always involved. She helped us realize that you can help other people using any skills you have.

I got interested in being a teacher and then stayed for my master's degree. After, I taught for a little bit in the Chicago area. While I was working, my peers encouraged me to go for my doctorate. When I did—in instructional technology—I didn't have any plans to go into administration. I was training to be a researcher. My idea was to be a college professor and work on a lot of projects. I wanted to design innovative learning systems and technology support systems. As I worked on that, my research started gravitating toward working with teachers and how to help them develop as better teachers using technology tools. It started coming together that I enjoyed working both with students and adults. I wanted to see things from the larger system perspective, which led me to the administration side.

Concurrently, I was also looking at opportunities in research. It became a good fit for me to land in a school that supported both. Thomas Jefferson values the content background that I had, as well as the culture of research. We operate very much like a small college where students are working on small projects, particularly in our focus areas. For me, everything came together even though I never set out to do anything specific.

How have students changed since 2007?

We have really emphasized our culture of research, and that's not just in science and technology. It's not just about science fair projects. It's about creating a culture of inquiry, regardless of the curriculum areas. In the humanities, teachers are engaging students in primary source research projects across disciplines. Students are doing work that is more investigative in nature. In a lot of curricular areas either the school district or the state has a program of studies that defines what knowledge, understanding, and skills students need to develop as a result of the course. You can think of it as a master syllabus. For us, we accept that some of the outcomes of the course will be undefined because they are driven by student questions. Courses are going to have baseline knowledge and understanding that students should develop as a result of taking the course, but there's this freedom to ask questions that have unknown answers. That is a basis for enabling inventive work. You're telling students upfront that, as part of the course, they are going to be determining some driving questions for the research that they are going to do. As a result, the course may go into areas that none of us in the room have knowledge of, but the teacher will serve as a coach and connect the student to experts in the field. That type of learning is uniquely different from what we promote in standardized testing.

The other change that I have noticed is that we have been working toward making our school a lighthouse to support STEM education in our broader region. We have been creating outreach and extension programs that get kids back into local neighborhood schools as peer mentors. We have been making our summer programs available to middle school kids and other high school kids. We want them to realize that our school isn't just about having advanced learning opportunities for our students, but it's about finding opportunities to give back and to make our school feel more accessible.

We have some emerging fields in science and technology. We've seen the emergence of neuroscience, which is a very interdisciplinary science, as well as the growth in mobile apps and Web development interests. The curriculum that we make available to kids has been evolving to support more recent trends and interests in science and tech.

Are your students getting smarter?

I wouldn't say that they are getting smarter. I would say that kids along with parents are finding ways to take more advance coursework. We have an open enrollment culture, which is a very delicate issue and contentious among educators. When you have an open enrollment, you have some situations where kids can bite off more than they can chew. The only thing that is holding them back from taking an advanced course is if they fail the previous course. The disadvantage is that if someone passes the previous course—but let's say they receive a C or a D and aren't necessarily ready to move on to the next level because they haven't developed the foundation of knowledge—they could be setting themselves up for extreme difficulty. Once kids end up in situation where they are way over their head, it starts consuming their life and their well-being.

There's a balance between advising kids to take what we think would be best for them based on the knowledge that we have of their skills and their interests, and with their genuine interest to want to get ahead. When I was going into high school, you were considered an advanced student if you were taking geometry in ninth grade. Now it's becoming more the norm for kids to go to Algebra II in ninth grade. In fact, it's not unusual to find about 10 kids each year who want to start calculus in ninth grade. Some of those students can handle it because of their talents, but there is always a portion who have just gone on the acceleration train because they saw their friends doing it. As a result, everyone is taking on a little bit more and a little bit faster than they have previously.

So are kids getting smarter? My thinking for that is that they aren't getting smarter. They are taking on more so that they can be more competitive with each other. The downside is that they may be running into more difficulties earlier than anticipated. Some kids end up taking calculus over two years rather than one year. We need systems that allow kids to correct themselves at different times if they take on more than they can handle.

One of the things that has evolved over eight years I have been principal is that there has been a greater attention to readiness when kids enter a course and then intervention when students aren't demonstrating that they are ready. We go through some diagnostic testing with students to prove they are ready. We don't just rely on the fact that they passed the previous course. If they aren't well-prepared, there are interventions systems that we put in place like additional tutoring, additional testing, or changing the course that they are in in order to support their level of readiness. This is happening not just in my school but across the board. There's a much more specialized approach to helping students by diversifying the nature of what they are receiving in the classroom.

When I was in high school, we had study halls. Now in high school, we have intervention times where rather than going to a place and starting your homework, you're assigned to a place where you can get help with a particular area in which you're struggling. Instead of showing up to study, you're showing up to get extra support in an area where you need help the most.

Who should I talk to next?

We have a rising ninth grader who has an amazing background. He already took college level calculus, biology, chemistry, physics in middle school. Further, he's self-studied and skipped grade levels. We have had brilliant students, but I've never seen anything like this before.

What Makes You So Smart? is an ongoing Q&A series.