School & District Management

Fellowships Enable Teachers to Acquire Washington Insights

By Sean Cavanagh — September 14, 2009 8 min read
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When Steve Robinson arrived on Capitol Hill for a fellowship a few years ago, he was a high school science teacher who had spent his recent career in the classroom, helping students make sense of biology labs and lessons.

On his first day of congressional duty, he found himself sitting across from his new boss, then-Sen. Barack Obama. The Illinois Democrat had called him in for an impromptu, extended chat during which he asked the educator for his thoughts on the challenges of teaching and how talented educators could be lured to disadvantaged schools.

“I was working in a very special place,” Mr. Robinson recalled. “There was a lot of vitality and enthusiasm in that office.”

That discussion came about as a result of Mr. Robinson’s participation in the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship Program, which places math and science teachers in congressional offices and federal agencies for one-year terms. The program allows teachers to serve as de facto policy advisers to Washington decisionmakers, and to take what they’ve learned from those experiences back to their schools and communities.

“It’s designed to bring the voice of the classroom teacher into policy development,” said Vance Ablott, the executive director of the Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology Education, the Arlington, Va., organization that administers the fellowship program. “They can share insights into what it’s like to be a teacher—what the challenges are, what the rewards are.”

Classroom Policy

About 180 teachers have taken part in the program, which is financed at $2 million a year, since it was launched in 1990 and refashioned in its current form by Congress four years later. About 90 percent of Einstein fellows return to teaching or other assignments in school districts or at the state level, the Triangle Coalition says. Some go back to the same classrooms they left. Others move into district leadership roles, as administrators or curriculum specialists.

The Einstein Experience

Former high school chemistry teacher Ed Potosnak talks about his experience as an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow. Potosnak now works for Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif.

Some fellows, after immersing themselves in the Washington policy world, choose to stay. That was the case with Mr. Robinson, who was a teacher from Eugene, Ore., when he began a fellowship four years ago. After completing his stint with Mr. Obama, the former teacher was hired for a full-time position on the senator’s staff and worked there through last year.

Not long after the senator won the 2008 presidential election, Mr. Robinson was hired as a special adviser on math, science, and other issues to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Mr. Robinson, 58, says he misses different aspects of teaching, particularly working with students every day, and he may return to the classroom eventually. But he wants to make the most of his current role first.

“I have a great opportunity now,” he said. The Einstein fellowship gave him a broader view of his profession, he said, and how the federal government can improve schools.

“I don’t think many teachers have the chance to think about teaching as policy,” Mr. Robinson said. “They think about what they’re doing that day and the next day.”

Trusted Advice

Fellows are selected on a competitive basis from classrooms across the country. Four hundred teachers applied to participate during the 2009-10 year, 180 completed the process, and 19 were selected, according to the Triangle Coalition. (Five other fellows were held over for a second year, though holdovers are relatively rare.) Teachers go through an extensive interview process and, after giving their preferences for lawmakers’ offices or federal agencies, are matched based on their interests and the needs of those offices.

Several agencies, including the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Institutes of Health accept fellows, with each agency receiving a budget to cover the teachers’ costs. Fellows are given stipends of $6,000 a month, plus a $1,000 cost-of-living allowance monthly.

Fellows sent to work for members of Congress are often asked to research education issues and play a role in crafting legislation. Like other Capitol Hill aides, their work often requires them to make sense of a steady tide of new issues, quickly.

Not all those topics are connected to schools. High school chemistry teacher Ed Potosnak recalls that shortly before he was to begin his Einstein fellowship in 2007 for Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., he received a list of policy issues on which he would be expected to become an in-house expert. Some seemed like natural fits: education, education appropriations, climate change, and the interior. Others were decidedly unfamiliar, like one titled “JA confinement sites.”

“I thought, ‘What’s that?’ ” said Mr. Potosnak, who admits to “sweating bullets” at the time.

He soon realized that the reference was to Japanese-American confinement sites, an issue he knew was of great importance to his boss: Mr. Honda had spent time in a World War II-era internment facility as a child.

Mr. Potosnak, who had taught in Bridgewater, N.J., worked on legislation aimed at creating a federal commission to study school equity. He also worked on a bill to improve coordination among federal agencies that underwrite science, technology, engineering, and math education, or STEM issues.(“‘STEM’ On The Hill,” Apr. 1, 2009.) Mr. Obama sponsored a Senate version of that bill; Mr. Potosnak and Mr. Robinson coordinated efforts. (“Obama Introduces Bill on STEM Issues,” June 4, 2008.) The House of Representatives approved legislation with a similar focus in June.

Mr. Potosnak said he’s found that “people listen to you” on education issues if you’ve been a classroom teacher, though that background also brings “really high expectations” on the Hill.

Mr. Honda, himself a former science teacher and principal, said he and Mr. Potosnak view school policy through a similar lens.

“When we talk, there isn’t a lot of translation that has to be made,” the congressman said. One of Mr. Potosnak’s strengths, he added, is “to be critical of policy—not just accepting, but a critical consumer.”

Legislative duties aside, CapitolHill work is a departure from teaching’s focused tasks and regimented schedule, in which everything from meals to bathroom breaks occurs between school bells.

“Your responsibilities are not clearly articulated,” Mr. Potosnak said. Reading bills, academic research, and other background documents, then synthesizing that material, “is a big component of your job,” he added. “I felt like I was learning a different kind of science.”

Like Mr. Robinson, Mr. Potosnak ended up staying on Capitol Hill as a full-time member of Rep. Honda’s staff, although he also says he could go back to teaching someday.

Another fellow, Samantha Dassler Barlow, has returned to her teaching job after working in the office of Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas.

“I felt the call to go back to the classroom,” she said.

A Sacrifice for Districts

As a fellow, Ms. Barlow helped coordinate the work of the House’s Diversity and Innovation Caucus, which focuses on attracting more women and members of minority groups into STEM studies and careers. Ms. Barlow says the fellowship broadened her understanding of classroom strategies for working with struggling learners and encouraged her to become more active in trading ideas about what works with fellow teachers.

Before the fellowship, “I knew that I had students who came from disadvantaged backgrounds and had different needs,” Ms. Barlow said, but the Einstein program prodded her to focus on “how to help them.”

When fellows are considered for positions on the Hill, the program’s administrators do not ask about party affiliation, and for most teachers it’s not a major consideration, said Mr. Ablott, of the Triangle Coalition. He added that he’s seen self-described lifelong members of one party choose fellowships with the other political team.

A greater concern for the program recently has been the weak economy, which has made some districts reluctant to let teachers

take yearlong sabbaticals from their jobs. As a result, fellows who return to their districts sometimes end up in different schools with new assignments, Mr. Ablott said.

Todd Clark, a former science teacher from North Carolina who began a fellowship at the Energy Department in 2001, remembers other Einstein participants who left their districts as calculus teachers but had to take on Algebra 1 when they returned.

Despite those sacrifices, teachers benefit from receiving an insider’s tutorial in public policy, Mr. Clark said, and the government benefits, too. During his fellowship, Mr. Clark helped craft a program that gives K-12 science teachers training at federal energy laboratories. (“Scientists Nurture Teachers’ Growth in Math and Science,” Nov. 16, 2007.)

“It helps when you’re designing a program like that to know what the needs of teachers actually are,” he said.

After the fellowship, Mr. Clark’s career took a different path. He married another Einstein fellow, and they eventually settled in Tallahassee, Fla., where his wife took a job at Florida State University training math teachers. Mr. Clark is the state education department’s bureau chief for K-12 curriculum and instruction.

The fellowship gave him “an opportunity to take what I did in the classroom and get involved at the national level,” Mr. Clark said. Policymakers, for their part, he said, are able to add genuine classroom “chalk dust” to “the policies affecting math and science education.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Fellowships Enable Teachers to Acquire Washington Insights

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