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Friends to Teachers at the U.S. Department of Education?

By Jonathan Eckert & Jason Raymond — November 09, 2010 6 min read
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Ask just about any teacher in the United States what they know about their federal Department of Education, and you will hear (at least) one four-letter word: NCLB. The general sentiment among teachers in the No Child Left Behind Act era is that the U.S. Department of Education is, at best, disconnected from teaching and learning, and, at worst, filled with malevolent bureaucrats.

As real teachers who worked at the department for the past two years, during the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, we have experienced the bureaucracy from the inside. The Teaching Ambassador Fellowship brought eight classroom teachers from across the country to work at the Education Department in Washington through a program developed by a teacher. Thirty teachers remained in their classrooms as fellows, but the eight of us who were at the department every day got an intimate view of the work that occurs.

We arrived with many assumptions, some of which were reinforced. In a 4,300-person bureaucracy, some people are not going to have their fingers on the pulse of the needs of individual students. This did not surprise us. What surprised us, however, was the remarkable number of smart, passionate, hard-working people who were genuinely concerned about the needs of teachers and students.

The tone of the conversation between teachers and policymakers needs to change. The tone would change if policymakers took the time to understand the perspectives of teachers. The same is true of teachers and policymakers. To facilitate this dialogue, we offer the stories of a few good people at the Education Department. Our goal is to describe the way these people serve students every day from the perspective we gained over two years as teachers inside the federal agency.

While there are many former teachers at the Education Department, before 2008 and the beginning of the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship, it had been a number of years since practicing teachers worked alongside career employees in the agency. The fellowship idea started with Jocelyn Pickford, a high school English teacher who came to the department in 2007 through a White House fellowship. Working as a special assistant to then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Jocelyn had the mission of opening lines of communication and understanding between policymakers, bureaucrats, and teachers. And so, the ambassadorships were launched.

Gillian Cohen-Boyer, a career federal employee, worked with Jocelyn on the ambassadorships and has continued as the project lead. The partnership between Jocelyn and Gillian was essential because it provided a link between the administration, the career staff, and the teaching field. Gillian uses her credibility as a career employee at the department to find ways for teachers to join policy conversations and share expertise. She shares her knowledge with teachers who step into a unique culture and need to get up to speed quickly to make their yearlong tenure valuable. More importantly, she builds relationships with career and political staff members alike and then serves as a connection for teachers with other good people at the department.

What surprised us, however, was the remarkable number of smart, passionate, hard-working people who were genuinely concerned about the needs of teachers and students.

Some of these good people are found in unlikely places. One would not necessarily expect to find a savvy teacher advocate serving as the Education Department’s webmaster. However, Kirk Winters tackles the herculean task of developing and maintaining the department’s website with a small team, while still maintaining his passion for improving education for students. His team developed the free.ed.gov site, which offers 1,600 free federal teaching and learning resources. Even with a job that keeps him busy 70 hours a week, he is always ready to talk to and mentor teachers. His dream is to develop summer programs in which teachers collaborate with colleagues to craft solutions to school issues while being compensated for their work. In his words: “Who better to solve the problems in education than teachers?” He has never let go of the high school classroom he left years ago.

The transition in presidential administrations brought in a host of new political appointees. As an adviser to Secretary Arne Duncan, Brad Jupp brings a unique perspective. Having been a teacher, a union negotiator, and a Denver school district administrator, Brad has had a wealth of diverse experiences. He can speak intelligently on subjects ranging from sports to music to philosophy. Perpetually fueled by coffee, he has a manic energy for policy work. Working alongside Brad is Jo Anderson. As the former head of the Illinois Education Association, he was brought in as senior adviser to Secretary Duncan. His background is ideal for connecting with teachers and teachers’ unions. He seeks out the teachers at the department for their help and, more importantly, their expertise. He truly values the experience of educators and their ability to solve the problems the profession must solve in order to best serve students.

Greg Darnieder has spent decades fighting to improve college access for poor urban students. In Chicago, he led reforms to bolster school counseling services and student completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which significantly raised the college-going rates of Chicago youths. A former teacher and youth advocate, Greg is focused on how system and structure capacity-building affects work in the real world, and he turns to teachers frequently to test his thinking as a senior adviser to the education secretary on college access.

We found teacher advocates at all levels of the Education Department. Greg Schmidt taught middle school in East Brooklyn. At the department, he works in the policy office, where he has been instrumental in compiling the research for department proposals. Some of the most senior political appointees share Greg’s experience and passion. The office of elementary and secondary education has an assistant secretary, Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana, who has been a teacher, principal, and superintendent. Secretary Duncan, who insists on being called Arne, consistently seeks teachers’ opinions and ideas on policies. When the first teaching-ambassador fellows were leaving, and the second group was entering, the secretary opened his conference room after hours to hear from more than 30 teaching ambassadors on a wide range of issues, from testing to rural education. He calls teachers heroes. He’s held after-hours calls with the Teachers of the Year and various teacher groups to reach out, gather feedback, and answer questions about his proposals.

What will the future of teacher voice at the department look like? In addition to a new group of 15 teaching-ambassador fellows for 2010, two fellows from 2008 and 2009 have remained in Washington. Steven Hicks, an early-childhood teacher, has continued his work on early-childhood-education policy under Secretary Duncan. Michelle Bissonette, a high school English teacher, will continue her work with Jo Anderson as she keeps reaching out to teachers on issues such as the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The department has recognized the expertise of these two teachers and identified them as indispensable resources.

While we chose not to stay, we learned invaluable lessons that we are taking back to the field. We leave confident that there are some good people, both career and political, Republican and Democrat, in Washington who have the best interests of students and teachers at the center of what they are doing.

A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Friends to Teachers at the U.S. Department of Education

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