This interview of Allison Hertog is part of Authority Magazine’s series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system.
Allison Hertog comes to the fields of special education and disability law with a highly unique background. She is one of only a handful of lawyers in the country who holds a master’s degree in special education.
Drawn to those fields because of her own struggle with learning disabilities as a child, after graduating from Smith College, Ms. Hertog earned a degree in special education from Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York and a law degree from Loyola Law School of Los Angeles. Allison has spoken around the country about various topics and has a national practice advocating to get test accommodations for high achievers with disabilities. You can find out more about her work at www.MakingSchoolWork.com
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
The best answer is that I got interested in education law because I was short-changed by the education system. I am privileged, no doubt, but I was retained in the second grade and my parents were told by the school that I would never go to college. I was formally diagnosed with learning disabilities in my twenties after I graduated from law school. I worked super hard because I had something to prove.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The most interesting (but disturbing) client story involved a low-income girl who had been sexually assaulted by three peers in her high school bathroom. When the girl reported the incidents to the school, the school police officer pressured her to change her story. Then the administration suspended her for “inappropriate sexual conduct.” There was a huge school cover-up. It sounds like something out of another era, but it actually happened after the #metoo movement started. We sued and the school district ultimately settled the case.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’ve recently moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast, so I’m excited to establish my practice here and continue to advocate for students with disabilities and other disadvantaged students.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
I have a Masters Degree in special education and was a teacher before I became a lawyer. I’ve been practicing in the special education and student civil rights fields for over 15 years and I’ve written and spoken around the country about various educational issues.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
The US education system compared to other countries is mediocre and has been for decades. In reading we are performing in the average range, but in math we perform below average. To me, worse than our overall performance as a nation is the widening achievement gap between rich and poor students.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
That’s a very hard call, especially during the COVID pandemic when most schools are virtual, but here you go (in no particular order).
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
The most important issue facing the US education system is the growing inequality between wealthy and poor students. As one Stanford sociologist put it “Rich Americans and poor Americans are living, learning, and raising children in increasingly separate and unequal worlds.” In my view almost all the priorities should reflect the need to reduce that inequality. The problem is that there’s lots of disagreement about how to do that. Here are some ideas:
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
1) Promote self-directed learning. Help students to think independently by providing the STEM project goal and only gentle coaching along the way.
2) Increase hands-on learning opportunities. Studies show that students who learn by doing understand STEM concepts more thoroughly.
3) Create real-life connections. STEM curriculums should clearly show how concepts transfer to real-life situations.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Girls and women have traditionally been discouraged from pursuing careers in the STEM fields. Our society benefits when all people are given the opportunity to pursue fields in which they are passionate and talented, and the STEM fields are becoming increasingly important in our society.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
A recent study by Microsoft found that despite the high priority that is placed on STEM in schools, efforts to expand female interest and employment in STEM and computer science are not working as well as intended. Their research suggests the following: 1) Providing teachers with more engaging and relatable STEM curriculum, such as 3D and hands-on projects; 2) Increasing the number of STEM mentors and role models — including parents — to help build young girls’ confidence that they can succeed in STEM. 3) Celebrate the stories of women who are in STEM today.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
I’m all for including the arts in interdisciplinary studies of STEM and other subjects. Real-life is interdisciplinary and the classroom should be as well. Art has been used to document the natural world for thousands of years, from cave drawings of animals to “protest artists” who express their political views through their work.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Wow. That’s a big question which is far beyond my knowledge of school reform research and policy. There are many school reform organizations that I have a lot of respect for and one of my favorites is the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Every few weeks they publish articles on big ed policy ideas. One of their most recent articles finds that schools that do special education effectively tend to view every child as an individual, and they tailor solutions to that child.
In my experience as a special education advocate, I’ve found that school systems all over the country do not treat students as individuals, but try to fit every student into a generic box. Stronger partnerships between parents and schools can lead to treating every student as an individual.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I AM THE ONE THING IN LIFE I CAN CONTROL. I AM INIMITABLE, I AM AN ORIGINAL.” — AARON BURR in HAMILTON, THE MUSICAL.
As I said earlier, I had a rocky start school-wise as a child. My parents were told I didn’t have the intelligence to attend college. I’ve learned that you can’t expect others to have confidence in you. You have to believe in your own potential and that your dreams can come true, as this quotation says. If you don’t, no one else will.
This interview originally appeared in Authority Magazine on January 4, 2021.