Socially disadvantaged students have half a chance with AVID – An interview with Dr Sandy Husk.

Socially disadvantaged students have half a chance with AVID – An interview with Dr Sandy Husk.

American educator and AVID CEO Dr Sandy Husk was in Australia recently attending a conference at Victoria University. AVID stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination and it’s US initiative designed to help students learn and navigate education systems.

The Education Review spoke with Dr Husk to find out more about this learning protocol.


ER: Can you provide an overview of AVID’s history and purpose?

SH: AVID is a non-profit organisation, started 36 years ago by our founder Mary Catherine Swanson. It is a professional development system for helping schools and districts change their instructional practices. The primary focus and claim to fame is that children and students get an opportunity to be successful in more difficult courses and that they have the right kind of support systems in place so that they can get into great colleges and universities, and into great careers.

Mary Catherine started it when she was an English teacher at Clairemont High School, in San Diego, California. The school, historically, had middle-to-upper-income, mostly white kids. Through a forced busing initiative across the city, they ended up receiving a lot of students who they had not traditionally had in their school. A lot of them came from much poorer neighbourhoods; a lot of African-Americans and Latinos.

The instructors were not as prepared as they needed to be to figure out how these kids could be taught in a way to help them be successful. Mary Catherine decided that wasn’t okay, so she went on to university campuses and found students who were doing well and she asked them what it was they needed in order to be successful. They described organisational tools, a structured way of taking notes and studying. They needed people who believed in them, encouraged them; people who taught them how to work the system, of how to apply to college [what Australians call university], how to get funding for college. As the students answered her, she took down all their answers and designed a class and a curriculum that she named AVID.

The academic results, and even the confidence in the way her students were speaking to other adults in the building, was convincing some of the other teachers that it was worth looking into. Her test results for these students came back very, very high, to a point where teachers actually accused her of cheating. Once they proved that that wasn’t the case, then the school was asked to implement it across the whole school, and the county became interested, and they asked Mary Catherine to design it for the county. From there it spread to all of California through the county offices, and now we’re in approximately 45 US states and 16 countries. Primarily the other countries are through the Department of Defense schools, where the children of military families go to school.

It sounds as though there’s a belief in America that there are structural barriers to socially disadvantaged kids from achieving good marks at high school and then going on to university. Do you feel those structural disadvantages also exist in Australia?

From what I hear from the educators I’ve been visiting with, the answer would be ‘yes’. Whether they’re structural at the school level or whether it’s the inability of a family to provide that kind of structure, because they’ve not had those positive experiences or opportunities themselves, that’s usually more the issue. Sometimes you need to change the structure in the school and sometimes you need to change the belief system or the culture, and we definitely have professional development for that. There are also things that families just don’t know about how to help their kids navigate the school system, and they don’t always know about the opportunities for financing for higher education.

What does it mean to be an AVID school? What are some practical things those schools are doing differently from non-AVID schools?

The classrooms are much more engaging. They’re much more collaborative. They have common structures: using Cornell notetaking; using the Socratic method of questioning; and using higher level questioning, critical thinking and decision making. Students learn how to frame a debate. We have something that we call a tutorial, where the kids have to come to the tutorial with a point of confusion and they learn how to ask questions about their point of confusion to lead them through to an answer. It’s not tutoring like the tutor is telling them what the answer is. It’s tutoring where they’re modelling to them that it’s okay not to understand it all at first, and if you keep answering questions and working together as a team, you will be much more confident and you will eventually get to the answers you need.

Why are you personally involved? What is it about AVID that triggers your passion for this education platform?

I was an educator for 36 years. The first two years I was a teacher, and then a counselor, principal, then in a couple of different administrative jobs, and the last 18 years I was a superintendent. A superintendent is basically like the CEO of a group of schools. You report to a public elected board and you have any number of students and schools reporting to you. My last superintendency was in Oregon, and there were 40,000 kids in that district, and probably close to 80 schools. In the very beginning of my superintendency I had a principal who had discovered AVID, and she came to me and asked if I would be agreeable to providing some support for her to do it. She was an outstanding principal, so of course I said yes. Immediately I saw the positive impact it had on teachers in terms of not only helping them learn to become stronger instructors, but building their morale and their pride in the profession.

I saw that the students that were getting access to the instructional practises, whether it was the math, science, or an AVID elective teacher, that they were standing taller, they were giving better eye contact. They were much, much more confident and they were not only being encouraged to take what we call Advanced Placement classes or classes preparing them for college, but they were taking them and taking them quite successfully, where they might not have even considered trying to sign up for one previously.

For 18 years, in three different states, in three different school districts, I always provided an opportunity for principals, and they always took advantage of it, which meant that they had dozens of teachers trained in AVID, and I was always happy that I did. The results from the students were better, and the pride in the profession was much stronger.

Is it a bit patronising to think that because a person comes from a poorer background that they need a different approach to education?

I think it’s been well documented that the instructional practices that I’m describing weren’t invented by AVID. These are well researched by other educational researchers in both of our countries, and have been proven many, many times that they’re highly effective. Another one of the strategies is WICOR: how to write, how to inquire, how to collaborate, how to organise, how to read at a much higher level. These are just really great instructional practices but unfortunately they’re not being provided as uniformly as they can be.

The AVID founder and the board and I have multiple, multiple data sources that children who don’t have the same opportunities simply because of the neighbourhood or the family that they’re born into, often don’t know how to access the best out of the education system. What we’ve done is create a system to allows them to get that access and then it benefits all the other students in the building as well.

Broadly speaking, what are your thoughts on the Australian education system?

I’ve had a delightful time. I was at a school today and I got to talk with some kids. Unfortunately, they were testing today, so I didn’t get to see a lot of instruction. The principal is very strong and knowledgeable. There are many more commonalities between the two education systems [US and Australia] than there are differences.