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A Conversation with ED’s Thelma Melendez

By Michele McNeil — November 16, 2009 1 min read

Thelma Melendez, the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, hasn’t made any headlines since taking this key K-12 job in the Obama Administration.

And in a 40-minute interview I had with her late last week, she wouldn’t reveal much insight into how she might influence the department’s policy, or what role she’ll have in the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind.

Instead, she told me why she lets others do the talking--at least for now.

As the former superintendent of California’s Pomona Unified School District, she said, “If I said something I was accountable for it.”

Now, however, she said she feels a bit like a vice principal--who has to represent and answer to a principal (or Secretary Arne Duncan) and a superintendent (President Obama). “I feel a deep sense of responsibility that what I say needs to be in line with what needs to be said.”

What Melendez did talk about in the interview is her background, and what she’s doing to adjust to her new job. She’s in charge of 200 staff, billions of dollars in federal funding, and will eventually assume responsibility for the programmatic parts of Race to the Top. She’s reading, traveling, and attending meetings (and has been so busy that she, who hails from southern California, hadn’t, as of last week, had time to find a winter coat.) She’s called and picked the brains of several of her predecessors, looking for insight.

It was a long road from California to Washington. During the interview, she retraced her steps, from her struggles to learn to read as an English-language learner to the low expectations that confronted her when she wanted to attend college. After getting her education degree, she rose through the ranks from teacher to principal to superintendent. These experiences mean she can relate to a lot of the education world out there.

It will be interesting to see just how important she becomes in the administration’s strategy to reauthorize ESEA. She is not part of the close-knit Capitol Hill club, nor did she work with Duncan in Chicago, as many in the department did. Certainly, she is articulate and passionate about helping all students, and about those in her past who made a difference. If she can inject that passion as she talks about policy, and get the rank-and-file educators to relate to her, then she’ll be a real asset during reauthorization.