Kaasha Benjamin is the Director of Education Strategy for the Chicago based student group Access To Opportunity Movement (ATOM). From Centralia, Illinois, she is a junior in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University majoring in Political Science and minoring in the Harvey Kapnick Business Institutions Program. Kaasha is also an alumnus of the Alice Kaplan Humanities Scholars Program. She plans to pursue a career in corporate law following graduation.
During her time at Northwestern, she has been involved in working for the Center for Student Involvement Campus Programming Department and participating in the Freshman Emerging Leaders Program, Women in Leadership, Minority Enrollment Committee, and Minorities in Pursuit of Law.
BKH: What led to incorporate education into the ATOM platform?
KB: Education seemed to be an obvious base for the ATOM platform. Regardless of our diverse backgrounds, we are all connected as young adults pursuing an education. It is also education through which we can find agency to tackle the problems that are within the system. If we want to change the world we live in, education is the place we need to start.
BKH: Does the ATOM education platform include all levels of education – K-12, high school, college?
KB: The platform is not catered to one specific population. It ranges from higher education issues for college students to learning more about Chicago Public Schools and issues at the primary and elementary grade levels. Issues at the college level stem from problems beginning as early as the primary years of a child’s education. Seeing that connection is key for solving problems later in the educational process.
BKH: What does ATOM identify as the largest problems leading to education ineffectiveness in the U.S.?
KB: There are two steps to approaching this question - identifying issues in grades K-12 and at the college level. For grades K-12, the inability to properly measure teacher and student performance is the main issue. If we have tests that correctly measure a child’s success, we don’t have the problem of finding effective curriculums for our schools. Removing ineffective teachers can change an unproductive learning environment into a productive one.
For higher education, the issue of college affordability, or un-affordability actually, results in a child not being able to go to college. This is both damaging and ineffective.
BKH: How do these problems ultimately most affect students?
KB: Ineffective teachers are a major problem. Instructors that merely teach a test to students, that doesn’t measure their success, offers no value to a student’s education. Our school system should prepare students for plans after high school, even those not pursuing a college degree.
By putting pressure on students to pass standardized tests that offer no additional value to their education, schools are failing to instill the knowledge and life skills students need for post-high school plans. And with college continuing to increase in costs, even those students wishing to pursue their educations after high school do not have the option to do so.
BKH: What are the main disconnects with what is needed and what is provided?
KB: This is a question of resource effectiveness. Standardized tests do not adequately measure student performance. Also, we need to distinguish effective teachers from ineffective teachers to foster and maintain learning environments. Finally, providing schools that can educate every type of student and not just the ones we label with potential is crucial.
BKH: How does America become more competitive in education scores and practical success globally?
KB: It starts with changing the way that we view education. ATOM Chairman Bradley Akubuiro was telling me about a conversation he had with a Zimbabwean official. The official said that in Zimbabwe, education is valued as a privilege, not a right. He described a school where the teachers taught by carving on wood and students took notes with sticks in the dirt.
Despite their lack of resources, they had a true desire to learn. U.S. competitiveness will require a culture shift. We have to reconstruct our school system around the values of privilege and optimism for where it can take us in our lives. This will lead us to competitive success on a global level.
BKH: Does ATOM embrace using more technology in classrooms as teaching tools and in method?
KB: Technology has dramatically increased teaching capacity. I can remember as far back as elementary, when my school was equipped with smart boards in every classroom.
Teachers were able to convey their lessons to us in an interactive and creative way, while introducing us to new technologies that were taking a major role in society. With almost every part of society having a connection with technology, it is important to put this influence into our teaching tools, and increase capacity any way we can.
BKH: Education cost is rising at a higher percentage rate per year than even health care cost. Why is the high inflation rate of higher education being essentially ignored as a problem?
KB: The truth is that it is not being ignored - it simply cannot be. Every year colleges and universities have to make the hard decisions of what programs to cut, what benefits to students to remove, and evaluate the ways in which they will allocate their resources in the most efficient way and still be able to operate.
Students have to constantly worry about how they are going to pay for their education, and how to replace financial aid that was here this year and gone the next.
BKH: Give an overview of the ATOM education advocacy and programs.
KB: ATOM has been involved in a variety of programs and areas of education advocacy. We have worked with elected officials such as Bob Shireman, former Undersecretary for the Department of Education, to address issues of college affordability and access.
More recently, we engaged with students from Ohio during their Alternative Student Break trip to expose them to the education system in Chicago and provide them with a background on current issues concerning educational opportunities for youth.
Finally, working with Chicago communities to help them identify the problems and solutions for creating effective and productive schools systems in their districts is an example through which ATOM finds agency to advocate for equal education and access for students across the nation.
BKH: How does ATOM ascertain what stakeholders to target for working with and working against specific to its education platform focus?
KB: We first identify the problem and who the stakeholders are. Next we identify what we want to see happen. The targets to work against are those who need to be moved, or what obstacles stand in the way of our goals. The targets to work with are those who can give us what we want.
BKH: How does ATOM measure the success of its objectives specific to its education platform focus?
KB: For our education platform, we identify a goal and set specific targets that we want to achieve. For example, college should be affordable and accessible for all students. This can be achieved through increased financial aid such as federal Pell grants and scholarships, lower tuition, and low interest rates on student loans.
BKH: How can someone join ATOM’s efforts specifically in its education mission?
KB: Log on to our website to learn more about ATOM and how to get involved!
BKH: Thank you Kaasha. Connect with ATOM on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin. You may also subscribe to the ATOM Blog.
Part 1, What is ATOM?
Part 3, ATOM Youth Violence Prevention
Part 4, ATOM "Dream Act" Work
Part 5, ATOM Answers "Dream Act" Opposition