Ben Allen, a lead candidate for the California State Senate and long time advocate for education system advancement, speaks with GrowthCap CEO, RJ Lumba. Ben shares his insights on how education is evolving and the challenges and opportunities of integrating technology into the system.
RJ: Ben, thanks again for taking the time. Can you share with us your background leading up to running for California State Senate?
Ben: Sure, I was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. I went to Santa Monica’s public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, and then on to Harvard for college and Cambridge for graduate school. I worked on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. for a while and then I moved back to California to attend law school at UC Berkeley. There, I was selected to serve as the student member of the University of California’s Board of Regents. It was a fascinating experience, and I was able to get a couple of pieces of legislation passed through the Board of Regents relating to public interest loan forgiveness at professional schools and also upping the environmental sustainability standards in the University, particularly with regards to green building practices.
At Berkeley, I became very interested in education policy issues—both K-12 and higher ed. I actually come from a family of educators. My mother taught public high school in Beverly Hills for some time. My father is an emeritus distinguished professor at UCLA. My brother is in the Public Health Department at UCLA. My sister-in-law teaches at Santa Monica High School. While in law school, I myself taught constitutional law to high school students in West Oakland, and also served on the financial oversight committee for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, flying back to Southern California for meetings.
After law school, in 2008, I decided to come back to Santa Monica and run for a seat on our school board, and was the youngest member ever elected. It was a crazy time for schools then. The Recession had just hit right at the beginning of my term, and we had to start making really tough budget decisions for the District. I served as Board President during my first term, and was re-elected in 2012. I’ve been on the School Board for six years now, while also working as a local attorney, and I headed up the launch of the Los Angeles chapter of the Spark Program, an education nonprofit. The last three years, I’ve also taught a course on Education in Law and Policy at UCLA Law School, which has been a great way to bridge both career experiences.
RJ: How did you come to realize you wanted to run for State Senate?
Ben: Well, I’ve been interested in politics and public service for a long time. While I have the education policy background, I’ve also deepened my interests in a whole set of different political and policy areas working as an attorney here in the L.A. area. I cover a lot of environmental issues, transportation infrastructure, and a whole set of problems relating to job creation and economic development. Seeing some of the challenges surrounding these areas has pushed me to think about what policy changes could make things better for Californians, and what issues I would prioritize if I was elected.
In January, U.S. Representative Henry Waxman decided to retire and Ted Lieu, our current State Senator for California’s Senate District 26, decided to run for Waxman’s seat, opening up Lieu’s seat in the Senate. None of the standing Assembly Members decided to jump in though, so it was a wide-open race. State Senator Fran Pavley and her advisors who, frankly, were mentors to me, said, “Look, if you really want to do this, we’ll get behind you.” Their support really pushed me to jump in, and it’s been this crazy, wonderful, scary, exhilarating roller coaster ride ever since. I came in first in the primary in June out of eight candidates, and I’m now hoping for a win on November 4th.
RJ: Honing in on your experience on the School Board, what particular areas of education do you focus on?
Ben: School boards have to address all kinds of issues—budget, construction, staffing, policies, and so forth. A lot of my work is focused on school finance questions, though, and trying to help the school district brave its way through some of the really tough financial challenges we face as a state and as a school district. As you know, California had a terrible downturn, and the school system at large was very badly affected. It hasn’t been easy as a School Board Member these past few years. I attended those same schools in Santa Monica and want the kids to have the same quality of education I had, but we also have to keep our school district’s budget afloat. So a lot of my work has focused on creative ways to bring in new revenues, to make smart cuts, and to make sure we can preserve and protect a lot of those critical programs that make a big difference for kids.
RJ: Are there other areas that demand your time and attention?
Ben: Well, serving on a school board is just fascinating. Academics is only one piece of the pie. You’re running a complex, multi-hundred-million dollar budget. You’re dealing with labor relations and buildings and maintenance and operation. You’re dealing with eminent domain and land use and your construction capital programs. You’re dealing with parents and neighbors and human resources challenges and financial audits. You also have to deal with the way we run our cafeterias, how we deal with our discipline policy, how we deal with our finances, and what sort of limitations or opportunities exist within the regulatory framework that the state hands down to us. So there’s just a ton of different issues that are constantly coming into play, while being accountable to the people who elected you.
RJ: The areas that are receiving increased attention from the private sector and that we are interested in here at GrowthCap are education technologies and services that are having an impact whether used in the classroom, out of the classroom or even vocation-related services that help folks who have been displaced because of outdated skill sets. Have you had to deal with new forms of technologies and services?
Ben: Sure. We do have an adult education program in the school district where we help people who are going to get their GEDs or certain types of computer or citizenship training, that sort of thing, and help them pick up those soft skills. We also work closely with Santa Monica College, our local community college, on similar work. There are so many career transition programs that cross the government, non-profit, and for-profit educational sectors, so we do a lot of work with them. I’m actually on the college’s advisory board myself. It’s a real challenge, especially as the world changes and technology moves so fast, to make sure that we train people to deal with those changes and be ready to respond quickly to get the technical skills they need to take on the jobs of tomorrow.
Our school district actually just received a $15 million dollar grant through a consortium that is looking at career pathways in everything from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to entertainment, with a particular focus on the technical aspects of the entertainment industry, such as post-production and that kind of thing, and then also helping to get our kids inspired, trained, and thinking about the interplay between technology and career opportunities that are out there. We also tried to do that through SPARK, the apprenticeship program for low-income kids I helped launch in L.A. One of the things that’s really clear overall is that job opportunities in STEM continue to grow at a very fast clip, yet the number of kids coming out of the California school system who are really prepared for those types of careers– or even living wage jobs– is stagnating. We’re just not seeing the growth that we need for the demand that’s going to be out there.
RJ: Focusing then now on K-12 curriculum and this lack of appropriate training in the STEM areas, have you found that there are technologies or a kind of common supplementary tool that students can get access to for help?
Ben: A big part of it is actually centered around the issue of technology infrastructure within the schools themselves. Schools don’t always have the hardwiring, the bandwidth, the fiber, or the Wi-Fi capabilities to provide the level of multimodal technology that they’d like or need to use some of the latest technology. If we have all of the kids in a school using Wi-Fi, and if all of the teachers want to stream YouTube or Khan Academy videos at the same time, that often crashes the whole system, even in a school district that’s as technologically advanced as we are. And of course, there are a lot of school districts that are far behind us.
Sadly, there oftentimes is a correlation between the socioeconomic status of the majority of students and the technological opportunities that exist in their schools and their school district. Some schools receive donations of iPads for all their students, for example, but the schools don’t have high-speed Internet in their classrooms or the kids don’t have Internet at home to take full advantage of the technology. So that’s one major challenge, just the infrastructure itself. Then you also have the fact that technology is changing so quickly, and the policymakers and teachers have trouble keeping up. This year, for example, some California students had problems taking their new end-of-year state assessments because the tests were computerized. We need to make sure that policy continues to advance so that we’re able to both protect students and keep them on the cutting edge. Our school district continues to rely a little too heavily on paper. We have textbooks from 2002 and in some cases much older. If you think about how fast the world has changed since then, it’s really hard to stay relevant.
RJ: What is your overall take on the effectiveness of blended learning?
Ben: One of the cool things about blended learning and the use of technology in the classroom in general is that it allows teachers to treat every kid as an individual and provide differentiated instruction. Teachers can track student development and learning and try to tailor an educational program to them, accounting for their different learning styles and academic levels. And that’s really exciting if you think about the potential here, because every single person is at a different level of knowledge and learns differently.
There are so many different ways that people like to learn and so many different ways of teaching effectively to address those different ways of learning. Some people like to read a book; some people like to work on the computer; some people like to teach other people; some people like to learn from other people; some people like small groups; and some people like large lectures. In the education world, we’re slowly moving past the old classroom model where you had a teacher standing in front of the classroom giving a lesson to a different model that recognizes that some kids learn very differently, and technology can help us address that. Any technology that is helping us to tailor education to particular student learning styles and academic levels is invaluable to our schools.
RJ: Are the decisions on implementing technology being made at the district level, county level, or the state level – how does adoption of technology get approved?
Ben: Yes, yes, and yes. It’s everything from the classroom level to the school level, to the school district level, to the county, to the state. Often there are also consortiums, or different groups of schools and school districts that get together to help each other, like the CORE initiative here in California, which is a coalition of about 10 districts that are working together to try out new 21st century learning strategies and tools. This is also part of what can be very mystifying about the experience for entrepreneurs or business folks who are trying to break into the education arena. Now, of course, one of the great things about this is that you shouldn’t take “no” for an answer. If the school district office says no, you can sometimes go to a teacher, you can go to another school district, or you can go to a different county to try to get your ideas heard and changes implemented. The world is moving so fast that the education policymaking apparatus just can’t keep up with these technology changes and developments in the business world, yet most education folks are very supportive of doing what they can to help our students build their 21st century skills. Our students have to have this exposure to be prepared for jobs today and in the future.
RJ: There are other technologies that people are becoming more familiar with such as big data in education and trying to look back historically on how students have performed over time, and whether or not they’re ready to advance to college once they graduate.
Ben: Well, we look at performance all the time, and we try to be as data-driven as possible – while still understanding that you can’t reduce everything in education down to numbers and test scores. That is one of the great challenges. In business, the selling of widgets and profits are the end goal. In schools, it’s often much more complicated because a kid’s achievement is affected by many factors. We also have to ask ourselves, “What exactly are we trying to get out of our educational system?” Higher test scores are not necessarily what we need or value most to help our students be successful. So if test scores don’t really reflect anything meaningful, then maybe we’re spinning our wheels by focusing so much on them.
That’s not to say data and testing is useless by any means. Actually, that’s one of the good things about the new Common Core standards in English and Math. Ideally, Common Core is a smarter and more accurate indicator of what we need kids to be learning and a way to raise the bar for our kids. So while test scores are not the be-all end-all, with the data they produce, we can get a quick picture of where our kids’ challenges and problems are, and which kids are getting left behind.
RJ: I think we’ve touched on all the areas that I wanted to cover. Are there any topics that are particularly exciting to you that we didn’t cover?
Ben: We just highlighted blended learning, the infusion of technology, and Common Core in terms of its impact and emphasis on more open-ended thinking as opposed to the one-size-fits-all model that was part of the old education regime. All this illustrates the infrastructural challenges and the problems that schools face when they must function in part as bureaucracies and businesses while trying to prepare kids for the changing world. Doing all that with tremendously limited funding is one of greatest challenges facing our education system. Also people don’t recognize just how much poverty exists and how deeply poverty impacts children’s success in school–and in life. Poverty is at the heart of so many of the core challenges in our public education system.
RJ: Ben, thanks so much for taking the time with us. I think our readers will find this very informative.
Ben: My pleasure, RJ. Thanks for having me.
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