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May 30, 2001 3 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige is making a mistake in eliminating the teacher- and principal-in-residence positions at the U.S. Department of Education (“Groups Plead To Keep Resident Teacher, Principal at ED,” May 16, 2001). While there are many ways to seek the input of teachers and principals, having someone at the department providing a “reality check” on a daily basis is by far the most effective. I have firsthand experience with two very different approaches to seeking input from practitioners.

To the Editor:

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige is making a mistake in eliminating the teacher- and principal-in-residence positions at the U.S. Department of Education (“Groups Plead To Keep Resident Teacher, Principal at ED,” May 16, 2001). While there are many ways to seek the input of teachers and principals, having someone at the department providing a “reality check” on a daily basis is by far the most effective. I have firsthand experience with two very different approaches to seeking input from practitioners.

When Lamar Alexander was appointed secretary of education in the first Bush administration, he invited the previous 10 National Teachers of the Year to meet with him on the day he took office. I was there. Secretary Alexander made a big point of talking about why it was important to seek the input of teachers. Pictures were taken, and a press release went out. But, to my knowledge, he did not follow through with that commitment.

I was also at the department on the day that Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley took office in 1993. In contrast to his predecessor’s approach, Secretary Riley said it was important to involve teachers and principals every day in the work of the Education Department. I was honored to serve as his senior adviser on teaching—a position created to ensure that the perspective of teachers was represented in policy discussions. On numerous occasions, colleagues told me that my physical presence in the department, and that of the teacher-in- residence, reminded them that they needed to seek the opinions of teachers in their work.

Contrary to the statements of Secretary Paige’s spokeswoman, Lindsey Kozberg, Secretary Riley’s approach was not narrow. In fact, the teachers- and principals-in-residence developed multiple ways for department staff members to solicit input from practitioners.

For example, under Secretary Riley, the Clinton administration solicited views from a broad range of practitioners through an annual National Teacher Forum, a Principals’ Summit, electronic online networks of teachers and principals, focus groups, and the creation of an exemplary-teacher database that could be queried when the administration needed advice from teachers with specific backgrounds. In each of these cases, the administration sought the honest opinions and experiences of teachers and principals, not support for its specific policies.

In addition to being the persons responsible for getting practitioner input into the policymaking process, a teacher- and principal-in- residence are critical for another reason. During my eight-year tenure in Washington, it was my experience that many policy decisions must be made quickly. There is no time to bring together a focus group of teachers or principals—or even to wait for a response from an electronic mailing list. Without someone in the secretary’s office providing a practitioner’s perspective, many decisions will be made by people with little or no classroom experience.

That is unfortunate. Good ideas don’t often lead to good policy decisions unless we ask, “How will this play out in schools and classrooms?” Often, there is little time to answer that question. Policymakers need to be able to turn to someone they know who has been in the classroom and with whom they can communicate. Someone who they trust and can respect, yet with whom they may disagree, and whose No. 1 job is to represent the perspective of teachers and principals.

It is not an easy job. But if President Bush wants to make sure that we leave no child behind, he must seek the knowledge, experience, and insight of practitioners. He can begin by asking Secretary Paige to retain the teacher- and principal-in-residence positions—and to cultivate relationships with these individuals, whose primary responsibility must be to represent the views of teachers and principals honestly, openly, and daily.

Terry Dozier

National Teacher in Residence and

Associate Professor

Virginia Commonwealth University

School of Education

Richmond, Va.

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters

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