Education Futures 16: A Conversation With Resolute Academy President Coby Cathey

by Jul 1, 2020

“I was like, ‘Somebody better do something. This is wrong. We’ve got to do something.’ And then it got quiet. And I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I’m the somebody.'”

In this episode of the Education Futures Podcast, TEL Education CEO Rob Reynolds talks with Coby Cathey, the president of Resolute Academy about the problems with education’s one-size-fits-all model and how Resolute Academy is changing it. In this energized conversation, Coby talks about growing up with parents in education, teaching hard-to-reach kids, and now, helping students manage information, not just memorize it.

Full Transcript

Full Transcript

Rob Reynolds:

Greetings everyone. This is Rob Reynolds. I’m the executive director of TEL Education. And I’m joined here today by very special guests, Coby Cathey, who is the president of Resolute Academy. And I can’t tell you how excited I am to have you on board today, Coby, thank you so much for joining us.

Coby Cathey:

Thanks Rob. I’m happy to be here.

Rob Reynolds:

So for my audience, Coby is a former teacher administrator at multiple schools. Prior to establish and creating Resolute, he has a history that’s fascinating working with at-risk students, of really focusing his teaching and his administration and now his life, on seeing students through, helping them become what each of them have the opportunity to become, and some of them struggle with the system, some of them struggle with other things, and Coby has made it his mission to help those students and to really expand what education can be, not just for the students that are at risk, but for students everywhere.

And it’s driven, I think, a lot by something that he says is that traditional education has always had this kind of one size fits all for obvious reasons. You’re trying to design a massive education system. You do tend to get kind of cookie cutter, but obviously as Coby will tell us, not every kid fits into that pattern, they don’t fit into those molds. And what generally happens is they get kicked out. They fall out, something happens and now Coby’s coming along with Resolute Academy and making sure that there’s a place for these kids to be gathered, to be encouraged and to make their way successfully, not just through school, but in life. That’s a tremendous mission. It’s a tremendous story. I’m really happy to have you here with us, Coby, talking about this, but let’s just kind of start with you personally, before we get into all the education stuff. Let’s talk about your personal journey as a person, but then as an educator and how you got to be here.

Coby Cathey:

Sure, of course. So my folks were educators and so I grew up, my dad at one point was in charge of transportation in a small school district in east Texas and we joke about growing up on a school bus. And I mean, I really did. And I remember as a kid, once I learned to write fairly legibly, as he was designing the bus routes, I would sit shotgun, and he would say, “Okay, write this down. 2.3 miles, turn right at the barn with the big tree.” And literally we did every bus route for the school district. I writing it down and then you’d go back and type it. So literally that’s the way I grew up.

When I was real little, my mom taught adult education out at the African American Community Center. And so it was just my sister and I, and we were out there playing with the kids in the cornfield while mom taught adult education. So it was hysterical. So I’ve always grown up, being around education, doing stuff. Summers I used to, because one of dad’s responsibility was taking care of textbooks. And so at the time, we would haul these textbooks and we’d send it back to the state of Texas. And I would go to every classroom in the district, in the school building, of course everybody was in the same building and load these into tow sacks and send them back. And I would have literally, I didn’t realize at the time, but I was doing the district’s textbook accounting, but it was a great, great thing because dad really trusted me and he taught me how to do well. So I really didn’t have any choice, but to be an educator, just kind of part of the deal.

Rob Reynolds:

Oh, that’s amazing. So you went into teaching, you became an educator and let’s talk a little bit about that journey and then creating Resolute Academy.

Coby Cathey:

Yeah. So I got out teaching earth science over in Atlanta, Texas and…

Rob Reynolds:

Okay, wait a minute. I got to jump in. Where’s Atlanta, Texas?

Coby Cathey:

Yeah. It’s just south of Texarkana. So it’s in the heart of the Ark-La-Tex. And so literally it’s a boggy creek monster territory and we’d drive over to Shreveport for something to do and a mall to go see. And so anyway, I was teaching earth science there and I was doing this constellation thing because earth science had a little bit of everything and I had this student that was legally blind and he was really struggling. And so what I did instead of, I took index cards and punched holes in them. Then you hold it up to the light. You can see the light come through. You can see the stars.

Well, this poor little kid, he couldn’t do any of that. So I just, I don’t know why, I tore up some papers and half sheets. And I drew the constellations and black dots, big black dots, so he could hold it up really close and see. His name was Ricky and Ricky was not a great student. He was just an average student at best. But Ricky got so excited about seeing the stars because he was never going to get to see the stars because his vision was so limited at distance and he made 100 on the star test and I was blown away. And really what Ricky doesn’t know, I mean, Ricky got excited and I know I’m sure today he would still talk about that because at the time he was so pumped. But what Ricky really did for me is really changed my perspective about the difference that you can make when you go the extra mile. And so it really kind of shaped my path in education.

And then after that, I went to Newman Smith High School in Carrollton. And I had gotten my masters in administration ready to be a principal, but I looked so young and I’m not kidding. I looked very young and nobody was going to hire me. I mean, there was just no way. So I got involved doing these other things to really build my education resume. But as I was doing that, I remember having this internal conversation about what really is important. Because I was teaching astronomy at the time and I thought, “Well, none of these kids are going to be astronomers. So how do I make it so that it’s valuable to them and they could get something longterm?” And I remember thinking, “Well, do we try to shove as much as we can in their mind so they can take it away or are we to teach a skill?”

So I remember thinking, “Well do I teach them how to navigate?” I never really got a good answer, but I remember having this conversation as years progressed. Now, this was way before the internet, back when computers were limited to spreadsheets and things like that, or printing long banners that we would stick up on the wall. Well you fast forward. And I found myself working at an alternative public high school that was a dropout recovery program. And this was after I’d been a principal, I’d left education for a time. I came back and in my principal and all that time I was at at-risk schools that they were title one schools. So people that know title one, those are for schools identified with high populations of students that are economically disadvantaged. So they’re on free and reduced lunch. And so when I say a large percent, 80, 90% economically disadvantaged.

So in the education circles, if you can get your economically disadvantaged kids to pass the state test, I mean, that’s really the goal. Because that’s the hardest and you got to get real creative, you’ve got to really identify the source of the problem. And so I became really good at data. So I found myself at this dropout recovery program and I am the science department for about 300 kids that would come through at different times during the year. And I thought, “How am I going to do this?” And I created an online tutorial that was really successful. So again, to get really good at reading the data, isolating this trouble problems and then helping students overcome those, I created this online tutorial. Well, it was very successful. And my best friend at the time had just gotten his masters in educational technology. And I said, “Tom, do you think I could turn this into a school?” And he said, “Well, sure.” And so it took about six months, next thing you know, Resolute Academy is born.

Rob Reynolds:

Wow. So as you think about Resolute Academy and there’s a whole bunch to unpack in what you just said, I want to go back to a couple of things, but just kind of finishing that piece of it. So you started Resolute Academy with this idea that there was a group of students whose needs weren’t really being met by the system as it was, by this idea of, “Everybody needs to show what they know the goal, proceeding along the path that we provide for everybody, and then culminating and taking this big test at the end,” and if you can’t make it on that path, then you’re kind of stuck. And so Resolute Academy then, was a way to take what you had been working on with these students and what you had learned and said, “Okay, there’s data here that shows me that there are some alternative pathways that we can create that will make it possible for these students.”

Coby Cathey:

Right. Right. And here’s really the point that changed my feeling about public education and everything, and standardized testing. One summer, the district had gotten Eisenhower money, which is money designated for math and science. And the science coordinator said, “Oh, I want some teachers to work on some curriculum. We’re going to do this and that.” And I looked at her and I said, “Hey, I’m over here at this alternative school, I’d really like to do something different. I’d really like to spend time pulling apart the test. I want to do some test analysis.” And I did lots of crazy things. I was able to take all the sample tests and dump them into a computer and sort by frequency of words, because my hypothesis was, being a scientist, “Oh, it’s a vocabulary issue.” And after doing all that, I realized it was not a vocabulary issue. So it wasn’t that.

And then I looked at every question, every answer STEM, I looked at the frequency of topics. I mean, I spent 300 hours that summer pulling apart this test. The crazy thing was, because it wasn’t vocabulary, it also showed me that it was intentionally vocabulary. Here’s what I mean by this. What I didn’t realize is, I was able to isolate the sticking parts for my students. So in science, my students were able to pass. The problem was with math because science and math were the two, the ones that were hard, but math was just a killer. And what I realized when I looked at the frequency of the types of questions, that it was really designed to create a bell curve, that the tests were designed to create a bell curve and the students at the bottom of the bill curve, were not going to make it no matter what. Okay?

And the reason I knew this is because sometimes 30 questions right would pass. Sometimes 27 questions right would pass. Sometimes 33 questions right would pass. Why is that? Well, they had to change that number to make the bell curve turn right. So they keep the number of kids failing to the appropriate small level. Well, to me, that’s not the way education should be. To me, it’s like second grade spelling. You got 10 words, you get them right. You make 100. If you miss three, you make a 70, because it’s fixed, it’s a fixed set, a fixed standard. But the “standardized tests” are not fixed standards. They’re based on a bell curve. Well, and now we were making kids’ future based on where they fell on the bell curve, which means you couldn’t graduate. You couldn’t get a high school diploma. And to me that just seemed wrong.

And so I felt like, “Well, there’s got to be another way. I’ve got to do something.” And I had that. I was like, “Somebody better do something. This is wrong. We’ve got to do something.” And then it got quiet. And I was like, “Oh, I guess I’m the somebody.” It was the last thing I wanted to do or hear. I thought, “Oh my goodness, how could I ever start a school?” That, I mean, literally just took my breath away. And I thought, “I don’t know how I’m ever going to do that.” And I began to ask questions and that’s when about eight months later Resolute Academy was born

Rob Reynolds:

So at Resolute then, how are you getting students? And are you solving that problem?

Coby Cathey:

Yeah. Okay. So great question. So if you think about traditional education and there’s nothing wrong with it, it was what it had to be. Where they would shove as much as you could into a kid’s brain, because you never knew where you were going to be and you might need it. I mean, think about Lewis and Clark, we send them out into the ether to who knows what, and if they can’t remember the important things that they learned and not just… But when it comes to science and nature, all this kind of stuff, if they can’t figure it out, they’re they’re going to die. You see?

Thankfully we don’t live with that, that it’s that dire, but we’re still under that same model where we got to shove as much as you can into a kid’s head and then they spit it back out on a test two weeks later, you see? Well, what I believe then is we’re really not testing English, math, science, and social studies. We’re testing memory. Well, everybody knows human memory is one of the worst ways to store information. So what I did, I began to take a different philosophy that instead of teaching people how to memorize information, what if we taught them how to manage information? And you do that by asking good questions, analyzing the answers you get back, and putting the best answers to good use. So that’s the model that we use at Resolute Academy. So it’s a different model. It doesn’t look like the whole direct teach method, we use a different approach, nothing wrong with it, but what the research shows is it’s one of the least effective ways to impart knowledge.

Because what happens, I mean, you could have a room full of kids as I have had as a teacher, well behaved nice kids. And then I give them the test and they bomb. Well, what happened? Well, Junior was thinking about his mom who was having another baby, in labor. And then Susan was concerned about her boyfriend because that’s all Susan could care about. And Jamal, he was thinking about the shoes that he was fixing again because he was set to go buy some shoes, and he was deciding between which shoes. I mean any number. And then Miguel might have been thinking about what he’s going to eat. Because there’s no food at home. So there’re all these issues going on, and some big and some small, but they’re all distracting. And so the kids don’t listen and then learning doesn’t happen.

And then even though they were very well behaved and respectful and polite and very nice, and I loved them all the same, the result didn’t turn into academic success. And so that was really the challenge. So what I do instead is now, you’ve heard that phrase, “teach to the test.” The benefit of what we’ve done to kids is that when kids are in front of a test, they recognize it’s a big deal. So their level of concern increases. And then when they feel that feeling like we’ve all had, and somebody puts us on the spot and we don’t know, then they feel like, “Oh my goodness, I got punched in the gut because I don’t know.” What it does, the mind opens up so that when the appropriate information fits in that hole, then you hang on to it and now learning sticks. So it’s a different way of doing it, but I found it to be very successful.

Rob Reynolds:

I find that inspiring, but also just how there were so many things that you’re doing, I think are obviously, they’re validated by a lot of research, but your whole idea with the information is so interesting to me about cramming things into people’s head. This is not just something, for the people who are listening, that happens in our K-12 world with testing and high school. It’s the way we do education on through college, et cetera. So if you look at the major textbooks that are taught and firstly, the first two years of college that are used, those are going to be 600 page to 1,000 pages or 1,200 pages. And they’re going to be taught many times in the scope of one semester, 15 weeks. Now I don’t care who you are. You’re not going to learn that. It doesn’t matter.

And even if you have an identic memory, you may store it, but you’re not going to learn it. There’s too much information. And so we create this false expectation among students that boy, we’re just going to throw a lot of information at you. And somehow you’re going to absorb it all, when in fact, we have a teaching method that doesn’t provide contextualization. They don’t know what they’re learning or why. It doesn’t provide relevance. We don’t know why it matters to them personally. And if you skip those two pieces, what we would say in technology terms, the lossiness of the information is so high, you might as well not have thrown it out to begin with. I mean, you may get 1% of that. And so I really like the idea, I love what you’re doing. I love what it opens up in terms of the potential for individualization of learning. I think we’ve gotten away from that, that the information is what matters. No, what matters is each child’s ability to do something personally and relevant to them with that information, because that’s what they’re going to carry through life with them. And that’s what they’re going to do. And so that ability to touch them individually with the learning process, from the beginning as part of the process, because what you’re doing, it’s absolutely so critical.

Coby Cathey:

Yeah. Thank you. And to that point about individualization, the individual student knows what works best for them. So when you give them a task and say, “Here’s a task,” and so our model, the model at Resolute Academy actually turns into a research project. Now we don’t tell kids it’s a research project because if we said to a 15 year old, “Hey, we’re going to do a research project.” But when we put it to them in a test format question, and there are some multiple choice answers, okay? They know one of these is going to be right. So now they have to prove their hypothesis, you see? They get a chance to say, “Oh, I believe it’s this one. I’m going to go down this path, A. I’m going to go back down the path of A, and see if I can prove or disprove A.” You see?

And so now they get to choose, “Well, do I want to do that through video? Do I need to do it through audio? Can I do it through pictures? Can I do it through maps? Can I do it through websites? Can I it through a book? Can I phone a friend?” What if this is about the Vietnam war and granddad served in Vietnam? And they call up, “Hey, granddad, what do you know about the Vietnam War?” “Oh, let me tell you what I know about the…” We’ve got an expert there. Well, my goodness. When we need medical professionals and medical help, what do we do? We go see an expert. It’s about using the resources at hand.

And I tell this story, one time I was a very poor teacher and I was driving this old Dodge Dakota and the driver’s side window falls down in the door panel. So what do I do? I call the dealer. “Oh yeah, no problem. Bring it on in.” “Well, how much is that?” “$400.” “$400?” I didn’t have $400. So what did I do? I got on YouTube and I thought, “I wonder if I could find out how to do this.” I found a video, showed my truck exactly. Literally for three hours and $100 for the motor at O’Reilly’s, I was able to put it in, put it back together and it looked like you never could tell I’d had it in pieces and driving down the road again three hours later. That’s power. And if I’ve got a student who knows how to manage Beowulf, then they know how to manage, “How do I find a better job? Or how do I get scholarships? Or it’s three in the morning, my baby’s got a 102 temperature. How do I get that down?” You see all of a sudden, if these are real important questions and if they were able to manage Beowulf, when nobody cares, even though I love Shakespeare and I love Beowulf, if they can manage that, then they can do anything.

Rob Reynolds:

Well, they can think, right? They can think.

Coby Cathey:

That’s right, hello.

Rob Reynolds:

Managing information is about thinking about considering data, looking at it. And that sounds like a higher level when I say managing data or thinking about it, it’s just information. It’s the same as your parent telling you to do something and you think about it and go, “Do I want to do that? Do I not want to do that?” It’s making rational decisions and thinking it through. And it is the skill, especially in an information age, we are past that point of Lewis and Clark I was thinking of, because my background was as a Latin Americanist in the conquests. And you had people from Spain coming over to Latin America and America is in the 16th century and encountering the Amazons, things they had never even imagined, had to use figures from mythology to even describe it because it was so strange to them, but they had to be able to navigate in the middle of jungle. Do those things decide how to purify water, if they could, anything that they could think of, any piece of science or math that ever learned or you’re right. They’re all going to be dead. And a lot of them were and they couldn’t make it.

But today we live in a world where you want to fix your car? There’s a video for that. There is something. My wife, we were in a computer store and she was asking the young man who worked there, who was a computer expert. And she was asking, “Well, if I got a different computer, what would be the best way for me to learn about this?” And I told her on the way, “He’s going to say, ‘just go to YouTube.'” And sure enough, right? The first thing he said, “Well, I just go to YouTube and start watching videos.” That’s exactly right. But because he learned to manage information, he had learned to go to a source to find it, what to do with it, how to prioritize what’s good information and bad information. And no, I that’s just so important.

So we both agree that one size doesn’t fit all, but there are many flavors of education today and many opportunities. We have kids in private schools, homeschool models. We have a whole bunch of different layers of public schools, whether you’re in a rural public school, inner city, metropolitan, suburban charters and virtual charters. We have all of that. And in many ways that’s amazing. And it’s wonderful because it’s giving people more choices, et cetera. If you could change anything about education as you’ve experienced and you see it out there because you’re actually working, I know, with districts and people throughout in traditional public education and sometimes feeding students to you, if you could tell people one thing, get them to do one thing differently in schools or the system, we’ll put you in charge for a few minutes, what would you wave your magic wand and hope you could change?

Coby Cathey:

Right. Oh, that’s a great question. So it really goes back to my time at the alternative school. My first year there, I believed if I could just do a better job teaching science, then it would turn into the students passing. Okay? And I taught my tail off. I mean, I worked my guts out trying to make this happen and it didn’t happen. I mean, I saw my scores go up, but the rate of increase was so slow. I mean, it would have taken a hundred years to actually see a big difference. And so what I had to do, I thought, “I’ve got to do something radically different, completely off the chart, completely different.” And I just opened my mind to the possibility and I really thought, “Well, what is the issue? That thing that’s keeping students from being able to accomplish their goals and dreams?”

And what I came to, was that it was really about teaching the person, okay? Not teaching science. And what I mean by that is addressing the spirit of the kid. Okay? And so what I noticed is, so many of the kids, I had kids that had taken the science test, six, seven, eight, I had one girl that had taken it nine times. Now, she had not been with me nine times because I could have gotten over the hump, but bless her heart. She was really after it. And this is part of the reason I named Resolute Academy, resolute. The word resolute means firm, steadfast, and unwavering. And I believe the students that are at-risk students have to have those same character traits that, pioneers had, to not give up because it’s hard. You’ve got to persist in the face of failure.

And so what, I realized is when kids are dealing with anxiety and depression and poverty and hunger and bullying, and you just name it, teen parenting and truancy, in laws, jail time and tickets and all this kind of stuff. You’ve got to work with individual. And it really comes down to, I ask myself, “Where has education been the greatest and done the most?” And it really is dealing with the spirit of man. Okay? And when you think about the birth of education in the United States or North America, or really anywhere in the western world, it all started with a faith base and wherever you are on the faith spectrum, that’s not the issue.

But if we look at the 10 commandments and, “So you don’t like God, okay, thou shalt have no other gods.” We’ll just take that out for the side. And you’re not, “Gee, we’re Christian. And so there’s the Sabbath.” So let’s just lay that aside, just for the sake of the argument. Who’s going to have an issue with not killing someone? Everybody thinks that’s a pretty good idea. Don’t kill people. And stealing, stealing, yeah. Nobody likes stealing, we can all stand by stealing. Coveting your neighbor’s wife. Okay. Well, that’s probably not a good habit to get into right? Telling the truth. Okay. Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Truth is a good idea. Not lying, that’s a good idea. I mean, we can’t argue with these. I mean, you can, but in the end it doesn’t make any sense. So we build people’s character, doing unto others, as that person would have them do unto you, the golden rule, that begins a point of view that now it’s unshakable, it’s unbreakable and it’s bigger than the person.

So that’s what people need. They need something bigger than them to be able to anchor themselves to, to say, “When everything else is falling away, I at least have this. I know this is true.” And that’s the thing. When I was teaching at the alternative school, my life was in shambles. I went through a divorce. I had no money. I was living in a tiny little apartment. I couldn’t even afford a shower curtain. I’m not kidding. That’s how bad it was. I remember taking my kids to go eat pizza, because I had enough money to take them to go eat pizza. But there was an arcade there and I had no money for the arcade. And here my kids are, they’re scrounging. They’re looking for lost tokens and they found tokens. And by the grace of God, they found stuff and I’m so happy because I had nothing.

And it was one of the best things that ever happened to me because what it did, it gave me a real understanding of what it’s like to struggle literally every day. And all I had was a faith, my faith that it could be better. That there was the promise of a new day tomorrow that I can take one step forward in bettering myself and my life and my situation for my kids. And so I really think that, because science didn’t do that. History didn’t do that. Although sometimes history helps. And math, not so much, no one gets math. And literature, but literature can, because of the stories that really build you as a person. So, I really think if we can peel back the reason for it, the reason for education was not just to educate, but to really help deal with the human condition of brokenness and just general sucking the city.

Rob Reynolds:

As you’re talking, yeah, I love it first of all. And it makes me think, character based education, in the beginning for those who are students of education, as it grew out in the Middle East and in Europe, in the middle ages and then on, and certainly as it got to the US and it developed, there really wasn’t a non character. It was assuming that if you were being educated, you are developing an ethical and moral framework for doing the trust. And I love it because to me, it kind of de-politicizes everything. It says, it’s not about your stance on this or that, because who disagrees in today’s world? The problems we’re facing, the strife, the craziness that’s around us, the chaos, that we wouldn’t all benefit tremendously. That things wouldn’t improve incredibly if we had more character, if every person that we encountered, and if we ourselves didn’t have more character, that it wouldn’t improve everything and that’s something. So it’s not the information for the sake of information. It’s the information for the sake of making us better human beings. And I just love that.

And that’s universal, Coby. That’s the great thing. That’s not something in the US, that’s something you can sell anywhere because people all over the world, I’ve certainly had the opportunity and the privilege to travel around the world and to work with people in both developed and developing countries. And that’s universal. People want to be better and they want their neighbors to treat them better and they want… It’s wherever you go.

Coby Cathey:

Yeah. And the thing is, this is what I would tell the students too. Because I brought it back to them when we were doing the tutoring, when I was tutoring them for the test, I would say, “Look, anything you want in life, whatever you want in life, you have to give, okay? If I want corn, I have to go get some corn seeds. And I have to give those corn seeds to the ground. And I have to let them go out of my hands. I could look at them. They’re never going to grow. But if I give it in faith, hoping that that corn is going to grow up to be big and strong and lots of ears, then it comes back to me multiplied by the hundreds.” I said, “Now, as I’m teaching you these things in science, what I want you to do, how many of you have cousins, sisters, nieces, nephews, that would love for you to spend 20 minutes talking to them. And they would just flip out if you actually paid attention to them?”

I said, “Then teach them what I’m teaching you. Teach them. And if you don’t know, then come see me and I’ll help you teach them again. Because what will happen when you teach? You’ll get to that sticking point. ‘Oh, I don’t understand this. I need more clarification.'” I said, “That’s what’s happened. When you give, if you give science, you’re going to get more science back. If you give corn, you’re going to get more corn back. If you give love, you’re going to get more love back. But it all starts by giving in faith. You have to give in faith first.” So I remember the time when we used to have random acts of kindness and people would do those kinds of things and how much was it multiplied? And we forget about that, and we just need to get back to being kind.

Rob Reynolds:

Yes, no, I totally agree. What we need to do is so simple. I think what you’re doing, while it seems complex because it seems different than what everybody else is doing, is really about getting back to the simplicity of what learning really is and how to make people’s lives better. I just want to say that I appreciate you as a person. I appreciate this journey. You’ve had an incredible impact, I know that you and through you, Resolute Academy are having on these students’ lives because that’s what we need today. We need more people in organizations doing what you’re doing. Thank you so much, Cody.

Coby Cathey:

I really appreciate that, Rob. Thank you.

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah. Thank you for joining us today.

Coby Cathey:

All right. It’s been a pleasure. Have a great day.

Rob Reynolds:

You too.

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