Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Kock wants all children to succeed in school

Sara Kock


Sara Kock is a management analyst for the South Dakota Department of Education. She joined the Milwaukee office of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families as a child protective service manager after she graduated in May 2011 with a Master of Public Affairs degree.

Kock interned with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction in spring 2011. "I worked on understanding teacher evaluation systems by looking at what other states have done," she says. "The research informed the Wisconsin Educator Effectiveness Team, a group of stakeholders formalizing and implementing such a system for Wisconsin."

Public Service

Sara Kock served as co-coordinator of the graduation celebration for the La Follette School Student Association in 2010-11.

When her second year as a teacher ended, Sara Kock left her South Dakota school district saying, "I have to do something more to help those children succeed."

She came to the La Follette School the next fall to gain the technical skills she needs to inform education policy, building on her seven years of experience in three education environments. The differences among these schools sparked her passion for public service and policy.

She came to Wisconsin as an AmeriCorps volunteer to spend a school year in the McFarland district near Madison. She coordinated middle- and high-school youth programs to prevent drug and alcohol use and increase self-esteem. When her service ended, she worked for four years with Madison School and Community Recreation.

Three of those years were spent at Midvale Elementary, where she managed after-school programs that provided academic support, enrichment programs and child care. "The school served two communities — a middle-class neighborhood on Madison's near-west side and a low-income neighborhood on the south side. My programs had to serve all students, but the needs of these students and families ranged dramatically. I became aware of the many additional challenges families in poverty face, and often I could see the impact of these challenges on their children."

In this context, she realized the power of public policy. "The federal funding for my program affected the state, the district and my programs," Kock says. "Two hundred fifty students in the program would be affected by a decision made far away. Those decisions were both good and bad, and I could see the effect trickle down to the youth."

Kock returned to South Dakota in 2007, four years after she graduated from Augustana College in Sioux Falls. Through Teach for America, she taught fourth and fifth grade for the Todd County School District on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. "I joined Teach for America after I decided that I wanted to have a larger impact on student achievement than what after-school programs allowed," she says.

"Teaching and living on the reservation changed me," Kock says. Under the federal law No Child Left Behind, states set the academic standards their children must achieve. According to NCLB, Kock's school had been already identified as a "school in need of improvement" for multiple years.

"How do you 'improve' a school or a district? That is an interesting question for a person interested in policy — like me," says Kock, who is pursuing a Master of Public Affairs program. Living on the reservation also raised interesting questions on Native American policies. "I was amazed by the beauty of the reservation, and I admire the people and their culture, but I was also aware of the challenges facing reservation communities," she says. "Often federal and state policies that attempt to 'fix' the problems are done without a cultural perspective. These 'fixes' can add more challenges and may actually do harm."

In the classroom, Kock worked hard to help her students close their achievement gap. "Some of my students were reading at a first-grade level in fourth-grade. It was my responsibility to make sure the entire class, including these students, left my classroom ready for the next grade," Kock says. "We tracked our progress, at the individual and the classroom levels."

Kock values her time in the classroom, but she wants to approach education from a larger level, to make policy changes to help children achieve what they want. "I saw the power and responsibility an individual teacher has to each student," she says. "Knowing the context faced by teachers and districts, I want to inform better public policies and programs that will help teachers do their job, aid districts when trying to improve and ultimately to make sure my students, and kids like them, are able to achieve to their highest potential."

After Kock graduates from La Follette, she hopes to work in educational policy, perhaps in program implementation and evaluation, looking at how programs like vouchers or charter schools affect student achievement. "From analysis to statistics, La Follette is giving me the tools to be successful in my future career," she says. "The ability to take classes in other departments drew me to this program; however, I find the classes in La Follette to be more rigorous and more directed toward giving us employable and useful skills."

On campus this year, Kock continues as a project assistant with the Center for Financial Security. Her first project was to write a literature review of human development, economic and sociological theories and to apply them to financial security to improve financial literacy programs and public policy. "I learned that even the best policy cannot control for individual variation," she says, "but, policy that doesn't consider the social and individual contexts the targeted population faces may be irrelevant." She will apply theory to practice in her second project when she assists La Follette School professor Karen Holden with surveys and focus groups on state employees to learn more about why women participate less frequently than men in the Wisconsin Deferred Compensation fund, a program that helps public employees save money for retirement. "I am excited to analyze why this program appeals to one population and why it doesn't for another population," Kock says.

Kock spent her summer with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, learning the inner workings of two educational choice programs and gaining insight into the workings of state-level programs. First, she compiled a Wisconsin legislative report on charter schools, which have greater flexibility in their policies, procedures and ability to use different curricula. She learned about philosophies and leadership structures to improve students' academic achievement. Kock then worked with the Milwaukee's school voucher program that allows parents whose children are in "failing" schools to use public money to pay tuition at private schools. These schools must report to DPI on policies and data. "It was my job to read through these submissions, reviewing for missing or mistaken policies, in an effort to hold these schools accountable for new legislative mandates," Kock says.

"Through the internship, I heard about the challenges these two state programs face and the strengths that each offers in increasing student achievement," she says. "I also greatly enjoyed working with the staff at DPI, making connections and figuring out potential employment opportunities."

Kock believes a number of new policies could benefit her students in South Dakota and Wisconsin and others like them. Her interest is in increasing the number of high-quality teachers serving in low-income communities. Through her coursework and class projects, Kock is exploring the relationship of teacher compensation and benefits and its effects on teacher and student performance as well as the use of non-traditional education settings, including charter and voucher schools. "We know that teachers have a large impact on student performance and that good charter schools can close the achievement gap," she says. "Whether it is teacher compensation or different models to schools, things much change so that every student, regardless of a family's income, has an equal chance at success."

Last modified on Monday, November 17, 2014