Indiana Citizen: Vince Bertram
Why did PLTW move to Indianapolis rather than stay in New York?
Indianapolis had a great interest in moving us here. Governor Daniels and Mayor Ballard offered us both state and local incentives that made it a very attractive opportunity. Also, it was an opportunity for us to engage at a state level. The educational landscape of Indiana is, arguably, one of the best in the nation. This is because we’ve adopted one of the most aggressive school reform packages in the American public education system. Furthermore, there are people that are truly committed to the success of the state and we are excited to be a part of that vision.
There is also a greater opportunity for us to attract great talent here. It would have been much more difficult in upstate New York. There is a quality of life that is desirable as well as a great deal of amenities in Indiana and Indianapolis. Indianapolis is a large city with small town environs, which makes it a great place to raise a family. Indiana has proven itself a great place to do business and a wonderful place to call home.
Tell me about PLTW. Is it a supplementary educational program?
I wouldn’t say it supplements so much as applies the knowledge that is often learned in other courses. We teach an activity- and project-based curriculum in engineering, biomedical science, as well as computer science. We have a k-12 pathway in each of those areas. Rather than thinking about content knowledge or learning in isolation, we create a space for students to apply the knowledge they’ve learned to real-life problems. We make their learning relevant by showing them real-world examples of how what they are learning today really matters. We help them to understand that the skills they are developing are not to take a test, but rather to solve real-world problems.
I believe that’s one of the fundamental challenges. We have created a culture of testing. It is important for kids to have content knowledge, but we also believe in accountability. Students have to have content knowledge, but, at the same time, that content knowledge isn’t significant to students unless they understand how it’s relevant.
Wow, your program sounds really fun!
Everything we do is fun. That’s what we intend. We want students to enjoy learning, we want to engage, inspire and empower students so they can thrive in this evolving world. And, to do that, learning needs to be exciting. All of our activities are built around giving real world experience. In high school, our PLTW students want more math and science because they realize that math and science are tools to solve problems. Every activity we do is designed with that understanding in mind.
As you were growing up, do you wish a program like this had been available?
I, like many people I have encountered, would have loved this type of program in school. It all goes back to relevancy. That’s why students gravitate to things like the arts and sports, they get to learn and practice and then play. They get to engage in the application of their learning. But in math you get to sit through lectures and take a test. It’s not inspiring. The idea of having these interactive experiences is highly desirable.
How did your teachers inspire you?
As I reflect on my growing up years, things were tough. My dad had left us, and it was just my mom raising my sister and me. My mom had to work multiple jobs to make ends meet and we moved frequently to escape eviction. Yet I was lucky because I had teachers and others who believed in me. That gave me great sense of confidence. And even if it wasn’t in algebra, it gave me a sense of confidence in my abilities to do other things.
I remember one of my teachers pulled me aside one day and told me “You may give up on yourself, but I will never give up on you.” In the end, you don’t remember algebra class; you remember what someone said to you during your sophomore year of high school. You remember a specific conversation that inspired you, one you can recall and say that event changed who I am or gave me the confidence to do x. Those are powerful moments. It is those moments, and their power to influence a life, that we remind our teachers they are capable of cultivating. We strive for them to understand that every interaction they have with a child matters. What they do, and how they inspire them is critical.
It was through those interactions that I realized I wanted to be an educator. I wanted to teach, I wanted to coach and it led me to a very positive career path. For me it wasn’t so much the experience that I was contemplating, it was really the idea of affecting other people’s lives. I would wonder, “How can you use education to empower others and improve the quality of life for those you meet?” And each move that I had made in education, each degree earned, extended that reach. The opportunity to reach more students has grown with each experience and that’s been very positive for me.
I’ve often heard the phrase that “Education is the great equalizer” and I have come to disbelieve that. I’d say that education is the great differentiator. You don’t get an education to be like everyone else, you get an education to get ahead and to provide greater value for our children. We have them for a brief time. What do we do with them while they are there? Why are some children inspired and not others? Why do they make the choices they make? And how do we as adults and educators influence them in a way that they make the right decisions? That’s the power of education. How do you inspire a third grader to understand the skills they are developing today will influence their career decisions, and give them opportunities? How do you show them that what they choose not to learn today will have a detrimental affect on their future? We have a responsibility to our children to help them understand why education is important.
How did you first get involved with PLTW?
I was introduced to PLTW when I was a high school principal in the early 2000’s. It became clear to me that this was a transformational experience for students. The students were engaged and excited about learning, they were going onto higher education, and they had high expectations for themselves.
I saw what it did for teachers in terms of enhancing the teaching experience. Then when I was a superintendent it was a goal of mine to put PLTW into all of our high schools and middle schools. So, when I had the opportunity to lead the national organization, I had been a strong advocate for PLTW beforehand. It was an opportunity for me to not just reach thousands of students but millions across the country. It is the type of experience I believe every child should have access to. That conviction is what drives our work every day to make sure that we are eliminating barriers so that we can provide access for all students.
What are the obstacles facing education today?
The number one issue is a culture of low expectations. We do not expect enough of our children. Our children are capable of doing things well beyond where we place the bar. We need to place the bar higher for them, and help them to develop the type of skills they need to be successful in life.
While this discussion can get into a nuanced arena regarding the unique trials faced by each school system, in the end, children are children. If you are in a small rural school, one of the troubles can be attracting high quality teachers. That limits the students. If you are in a small school and you have one teacher teaching a subject, then you are also limited. But, I am not a believer in the idea that we lack resources. We invest a lot of money into K-12 education. I believe we have to reprioritize and find the things that supply the greatest benefits and values to our students.
Then you also get into places where the overall environment is challenging. Did you know that students only spend about 15% of each year in school? The rest of their time is spent outside of school. It’s very rare for the conditions outside of school to be changed positively by the time the children spend within school. Children don’t have that power. And that’s a challenge for schools. Poverty is an issue, but not an excuse. We use the conditions for children as excuses for why they can’t or aren’t doing things. We shouldn’t do that. We need to have high expectations. Yes the conditions are different, but what does that mean?
Perhaps there are different levels of people trying to give a child support by trying different things or lowering the bar or lowering expectations for a child because that child happens to be poor. All we are doing is ensuring that they will stay that way. Our goal and objective should be to allow them to escape poverty. The clutches of poverty can be strong, but they can be overcome.
What would be your vision for PLTW five years down the line?
Our goal is to look at what this organization could be in ten years and figure out how to make it happen in five. What are those accelerators? For us, it comes down to our goals as an organization.
We want to expand access. We want to create engaging, inspiring and empowering student experiences. We want to transform teaching and this year we have trained about 10,000 teachers in PLTW. Understand that in 2012 we trained 2,000 teachers and were in about 4,200 schools across the nation. This year we are in about 8,100 schools and in nearly 3,000 school districts in the U.S.
It centers on our goal of expanding access. We are constantly looking at ways we can improve access. What this means for us is we need to understand the challenges confronting schools. We need to understand what challenges the system is perpetuating and what challenges we can help the school systems over come.
It’s funny, we teach problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration and communication, and if we are going to teach those things we should make sure to do them ourselves. If access is a goal then it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that we are eliminating barriers for our students.
My goal for this program is to make sure that every child in America has access to PLTW. Now, everyone may not choose to use that access, and I am fine with that. But I want to make sure that they have access nonetheless. We’ve started to target school districts and if we can get into every school district in America then every student really does have access to us.
And, out of just under 14,000 school districts in the U.S., we are now in 3,000 of them and we are growing everyday. In 2009-2011 we were growing by about 450 new programs a year and this year we already have grown by 2,400 programs. So, when you look at our growth over the last four years, it’s been exponential. We are looking at how we can accelerate this momentum and get to students even sooner.
What would you say defines a good citizen?
I think the quality of a good citizen is found in the people who strive for significance rather than success. Good citizens are those who are committed to enhancing the quality of life for others. They are constantly thinking about what they can do to inspire and support other people’s success. And I’ve always viewed leadership as when you make the transition from being successful into helping other people be successful. We need communities of leaders. Oftentimes, leaders are perceived to be the ones staying on the sideline directing. But the reality is that many can also lead by example. We need people who can lead and model for us the kind of behaviors that will help increase the quality of life for people, people who will enhance our communities, and people who are willing to get involved and be a part of something that is bigger than themselves.