What happens when you meet an incredibly ambitious goal? Do you celebrate and declare “mission accomplished”? Or do you move ahead and set your sights on something new?
That was the challenge facing 100Kin10 in 2021. The successful non-profit formed in 2011 in response to President Barack Obama’s call to prepare 100,000 additional Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) teachers in America’s classrooms by 2021 to address a national shortage, and they met their ambitious goal.
How did they do it? 100Kin10 started with a network of 28 organizations, including school districts, charter management organizations, philanthropists, science museums, corporations, universities, and other non-profits (including alternative teacher preparation programs). They eventually grew to include hundreds more working to prepare, recruit, and support new STEM teachers in all 50 states. In early 2021, Executive Director and Founder Talia Milgrom-Elcott said she was surprised to learn her organization was still on target despite the pandemic. In fact, they exceeded it by preparing 108,000 STEM teachers by the end of 2021.
So what’s next?
Milgrom-Elcott said she and her colleagues saw three options. “One is that we close up shop,” she said. “Thank you folks, peace out.” Another would be to share what they learned to help the teaching field. But Milgrom-Elcott and her team became intrigued by a third choice.
While preparing more than 100,000 new STEM teachers was a major achievement, she said, “it didn’t end the shortage, and the shortage is inequitably distributed.” Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students are hit hardest by the lack of STEM teachers, she said, and they are underrepresented in STEM careers. To fix that, she said, her team decided to listen to young people most excluded from STEM opportunities. “That,” she said, “would tell us what we needed to focus on next.”
They called their work the unCommission, because Milgrom-Elcott said, “the world did not need another commission” to study the problem. Their approach was very different from that of the original network partners, who sought to build a coalition. Within three months the unCommission heard from more than 600 individuals between the ages of 13 and 29, 82 percent of whom identified as people of color. They came from 37 states plus the District of Columbia.
The main finding: 94 percent of respondents talked about belonging, or not belonging, in their STEM courses.
Milgrom-Elcott, who ran STEM teacher initiatives at the Carnegie Corporation of New York and also worked at the New York City Department of Education, was surprised by these findings. “I’ve worked since 2004 in education, and with amazing people doing amazing work, and belonging has never been on the short list of any of the priorities,” she said.
Youth voice and choice is an XQ Design Principle. In these excerpts from our conversation, Milgrom-Elcott explained how the unCommission created the right conditions for truly listening to young people, and what they learned from their stories.
The Right Question is Everything
The unCommission wanted to know what was most important to young people about their experiences in STEM. To keep the responses as authentic as possible, without any leading questions, the prompt was simple:
“Describe an experience you had in science, math, engineering, and/or technology, inside or outside the classroom, from pre-k-12th grade. How did you feel in that experience, and what made you feel that way?”
It was a deliberately open-ended question. The prompt encouraged students to share experiences that were joyous, frustrating, exciting, or disappointing. They could write their responses or record them in video or audio. Most chose to write.
In “Mariam’s Story,” a 22 year-old in California describes how she aced her math classes until she started high school, when she struggled with geometry because she didn’t understand its relevance. In “My Experience with Math,” a 26 year-old man in Pennsylvania describes feeling isolated as the only Black student in his math and science classes. Dayanara’s Story describes how a teacher told her she was good at math and how that made her feel confident.
Why Belonging Matters
The unCommission hired two ethnographers and several data experts to code all of the stories, and they were surprised that 94 percent of the submissions talked about belonging. “They said, ‘what we’re seeing more than anything else is that belonging drives persistence in STEM,’” Milgrom-Elcott recalled.
By focusing heavily on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students, she said, her team uncovered what a large role exclusion plays in STEM. Math and science classes intimidate many students, but that can be especially true when students don’t have teachers who look like them. The vast majority of U.S. public school teachers are White.
Milgrom-Elcott said Black and Indigenous American respondents spoke about racism and sexism twice as often as storytellers at large, including Latinx participants. She cautioned that doesn’t mean the Latinx respondents didn’t experience racism, though. Black and Indigenous American respondents also spoke twice as much about the importance of teachers looking like them.
The stories also revealed that when there is a shift toward belonging, or feeling included in class, 64 percent of the time the respondent said that was because a teacher created an environment where students feel known and seen. That, she said, revealed the powerful role of teachers.
One 22 year-old respondent from Oklahoma, who chose to remain anonymous, recalled a male teacher named Dr. N. “I’ll never forget him,” the young person said. “He definitely continued their legacy for me, in having Black teachers, Black male teachers, who are able to teach me math and instill that same kind of confidence and self esteem that I could see myself and say, like, ‘Oh, you can do it,’ or, ‘try it this way,’ or just kind of held my hand a little bit, which I think a lot of Black students probably do not get.”
A 17 year-old from California recalled how reassuring their biology teacher was, and how they made the class more fun with hands on projects like posters and creating an environmental presentation. “These things really connected me to biology because I felt involved,” the students wrote. “I felt like the teacher cared about me and the other students.”
Create Trust for Sharing Experiences
The unCommission worked with “anchor” organizations that had established, trusted relationships with young people and/or teachers in their communities-especially those less likely to feel included in STEM. These anchors included the California Academy of Sciences, Just Equations, and the Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta. In some cases, they were tribal nations.
Participants could give their names or remain anonymous. “It was like a chain of trust,” said Milgrom-Elcott. This created an environment where people could share uncomfortable experiences. She recalled a young Black man whose class voted him most likely to succeed in middle school and who went on to attend a prestigious public high school in New York City. He told her he spent two weeks debating whether to tell his story because it was so painful, she said. He’d dropped out of high school because he didn’t feel connected and “no one really checked in on him.”
Make Respondents Feel Valued
The respondents were explicitly told their stories would matter. And the organizations that worked with them were given a similar message. Every anchor that hosted storytellers received a $500 stipend they could use to buy meals, snacks, or gift cards.
Every storyteller also received a $25 gift card and a personal response. The unCommission recruited more than 100 “listener/champions” to read or listen to five stories each, on average. They included STEM experts, celebrities, and other influencers. Some LGBTQ storytellers were matched with Evan Wolfson, who founded Freedom to Marry. Some Black male storytellers were matched with former NFL player John Urschel, who earned a PhD in mathematics at MIT.
Milgrom-Elcott said the project cost about $1.1 million for data analysis and field work. She said it paid off since respondents wanted to share their stories to help improve STEM education.
Belonging was a nearly universal theme among all respondents. Milgrom-Elcott said White respondents and even those who went on to earn PhDs in science mentioned feeling like an imposter at times in STEM classes. But by “designing from the edge,” as she put it, and seeking out those who were most excluded, everyone will hopefully feel more included in STEM going forward.
“There’s no path to opportunity for all that does not explicitly design for those most excluded, and nothing else will capture them and their experiences and needs except for designing with those needs in mind.”
This is one reason why XQ believes caring, trusting relationships are among the most important design principles of rethinking high school so all students are prepared to succeed in college, careers, and beyond.
The unCommission is now looking to prepare 150,000 more STEM teachers for schools with the greatest shortages. They’re also focusing on teacher retention, because about 60,000 leave each year.
Over the first 10 years, 100Kin10 partnered with more than 300 organizations to reach its first goal. Beginning this month, Milgrom-Elcott said it’s opening up the network to its existing partners and to new organizations ready to make a commitment to the new goal. She said the plan is for them to “graduate classes that look like their populations at large.”
The XQ Institute sees the unCommission’s work as a model. We’ve embarked on a new partnership with the Carnegie Foundation to redesign the high school experience over the next five years and find new ways of capturing what students learn. Listening will play a big role in our work.