Numbers Geek: National Teacher of the Year, Mandy Manning, on grading U.S. public education

Mandy Manning, 2018 National Teacher of the Year, teaches immigrant and refugee students in the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School in Spokane, Wash. (Ferguson Films Photo)

Mandy Manning is uniquely qualified to offer her perspective on education, one of the subjects we’ve been exploring on our new podcast, Numbers Geek with Steve Ballmer. She also has day-to-day experience with another of our key topics: immigration.

Manning is the 2018 National Teacher of the Year, as recognized by the Council of Chief State School Officers. She teaches immigrant and refugee students at the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School in Spokane, Wash.

On this episode of Numbers Geek, she shares the numbers she would use to grade U.S. education, and talks about what works and what doesn’t in the classroom, from her perspective as a teacher.

The backstory: I reached out interview Manning while working on our Numbers Geek episode about U.S. public education, the Education Equation. She and I didn’t connect in time for that episode, but she listened to the show after it came out, and I called her up to get her take.

Key numbers to know about U.S. education:

  • Test scores are a big focus for our Resident Numbers Geek, Steve Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO and the founder of our podcast partner USAFacts. National testing shows about 34 to 40 percent of fourth and eighth graders are proficient in reading and math.
  • Graduation rates have risen from about 67 percent to 82 percent over the past 20 years. The increase in the graduation rate compared with test scores caught Steve’s attention.
  • Student-teacher ratio has declined from more than 27 students per teacher in the 1950s to about 16 students per teacher now. Student-teacher ratio takes into account instructional staff and other faculty and is not the same as class size, which is in the low- and mid-20s in U.S. public schools depending on grade level. Steve Ballmer said it was worth taking a close look at the real impact of class size on student performance.

Mandy Manning’s take: To really assess U.S. education as a whole, she said she would look beyond graduation rates and test scores. Instead she would look at how many students are going on to post-secondary education in all of its forms, including community colleges and universities, segmented by different social factors, and staying the course and finishing their studies.

The National Center for Education Statistics did this over a 10 year period from 2002 to 2012, finding that the lower a student’s socioeconomic status, the less likely they were to graduate from college.

On the student-to-teacher ratio: Manning said the 16-to-1 average is deceiving because it doesn’t provide “a clear picture of what a classroom actually looks like.” She told a personal story that exemplifies the impact a teacher can have when able to give a student additional attention, involving one of her own students who immigrated from Iraq with limited English skills. She was able to help give him the foundation to ultimately build a career and a new life here.

Mandy Manning. (Photo: Washington state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.)

On standards and testing: Manning recommended that schools “continue to have basic standards that we have to meet, but that we remove standardization so that we can allow educators the latitude to meet the needs of the individual students within their classroom at that time in order to get them to that standard instead of being prescribed what we should be doing. We should be given the professional authority to make those decisions for ourselves, so that by the end of the year, we can show that the students have grown and have mastered the standard or whatever we want to call the goal by the end of the school year. We should broaden the way that we’re showing knowledge because a standardized exam doesn’t necessarily give a real picture of what the student is doing.”

Overall approach: Education should focus on “depth of knowledge and an application to real life,” she said. “If we help kids synthesize and apply and analyze, we’re going to have community members who are able to problem solve, think critically and really utilize what they’ve learned for real world situations.”

Listen to the full episode of Numbers Geek above, or subscribe in your favorite podcast app. Also catch our previous episode on U.S. public schools, the Education Equation, including a discussion with Steve Ballmer’s high school math teacher.