Special Report
School & District Management

Seeking Greater Influence, Teachers Gain Policy Foothold in Education Department

By Ross Brenneman — February 19, 2015 4 min read
Maddie Fennell speaks during a Teach to Lead summit in Boston. Fennell, a second-year Teaching Ambassador Fellow, helped oversee the Boston summit.

Teachers often talk about having “a place at the table"—a means to influence education policy in a way that reflects the needs of the teaching profession.

At the federal level, the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship program is intended to approximate that vision. It’s a one-year program that allows teachers to spend time working within the U.S. Department of Education. The selected educators are also expected to foster communication about teaching within the department, including with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The ambassadors occupy a unique position, acting on behalf of a profession that frequently rages against education policy while also being a key part of the organization in which those policies are often developed.

Those accepted into the program often start off wondering how to reconcile the inherent contradictions of their roles.

“When we came in, I said, ‘Do I have to like what you do? Do I have to agree with what ED does?’” said Tami Fitzgerald, a teacher of 33 years currently serving in her second year as an ambassador. “They said, ‘No.’ And Arne told us: ‘You don’t represent ED, you represent teachers, so if you go out and teachers are mad and upset about something, I want you to come in here and be mad and upset.’”

Maddie Fennell, working in a part-time ambassador position this year, jokes that she applied for the fellowship “to see if people at the department do have horns and tails. ... The farther [policy] gets from you, the easier it is to demonize.”

‘Real Teachers’

But the ambassadors insist they are not the department’s marionettes, either.

“We’re real teachers,” said Emily Davis, a full-time ambassador who will enter her 12th year of teaching next fall. “We are very cognizant, too, that we aren’t the only teachers in the country.”

Emily Davis leads an exercise during the Teach to Lead summit in Boston. Davis is one of a handful of Teaching Ambassador Fellows to be serving in two consecutive years.

Fitzgerald applied to the TAF program after seeing widespread dissatisfaction among her colleagues with the direction of education policy.

“I’m watching all these new teachers come in and teaching has become so hard and so discouraging for some of them, and I just thought, ‘Who is ruining the profession? What is going on here?’” she said. “And so I decided it was really time for me to step out and ... look at education a little bit differently.”

The Education Department established the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship in 2008, the result of a proposal that White House Fellow and teacher Jocelyn Pickford made to then-U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. The program continued when the department transitioned to Secretary Duncan under President Obama’s administration.

More than 80 teachers have participated in the fellowship today, though in 2013 the department made a slight reduction to the number of TAF members in order to make room for a similar fellowship for principals.

This year’s TAF group consists entirely of “alumni,” or second-year fellows, per Duncan’s request, in order to cut down the learning curve. (Next year’s ambassadors will be mostly new, with only one spot occupied by an alum.) In a major coup for the TAF program, in 2014, the department added an alumnus ambassador, Boston teacher James Liou, to the agency’s central, agenda-setting policy committee.

“Teachers really need to see that they are being represented at the highest level, and here’s one way you can demonstrate teacher leadership at the highest level,” said Gillian Cohen-Boyer, director of the TAF program.

Gaining Influence

Since 2008, the ambassadors have worked to gain a greater role in the department. They’ve been involved in several high-profile programs, helming 2012’s RESPECT initiative that calls for better treatment of the teaching profession. Critics of that effort have had difficulty with the cognitive dissonance emerging from the department—calling for more respect for teachers, while backing policies that many say hurt the profession.

Fitzgerald says that much of the criticism TAF members hear from other teachers about the department centers on testing and accountability policies. Ruthanne Buck, senior advisor to Duncan, says that the ambassadors—"the best and the brightest"—have been active and vocal on behalf of their colleagues’ concerns. “Their value is unmatched,” she said.

Determining the exact links between input from TAF members and the actual policy changes made by the Education Department relies mostly on anecdote, though there are traces of the ambassadors’ influence, for example, in the department softening its stance on teacher-evaluation systems.

Teacher Leadership Makes Inroads, But Strives for Permanency

Execution of the Teach to Lead initiative ultimately fell to the National Board and the Teaching Ambassador Fellows. It’s another program that aims to create a structure within the education system that supports teacher leadership. Read more.

TAF has had a more obvious role in special projects. When Secretary Duncan announced the formation of Teach to Lead in March 2014, part of a partnership with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, he told TAF to lead the charge for the department.

At the Teach to Lead summit held in Denver this January, the ambassadors seemed to pop up wherever needed, as though channeling Glinda the Good Witch. They were taking pictures, running social media, conferring with participants and officials, keeping the program running on time, and fielding the occasional request from a reporter.

“Several participants came up to me after the summit in Denver and said this is the most important thing the department has done for [them] in six years,” Buck said. “I don’t know whether or not that’s true—it’s probably not—but if they feel that way, that’s wonderful, and that makes me feel good. It makes me feel it was the right thing for teachers to be leading Teach to Lead.”

Cohen-Boyer wants to see the TAF program build on that success.

“I would love to see us as a sustained, expected part of what we do here at ED regardless of party,” Cohen-Boyer. “That it’s just a part of how we do our work, making sure that we’re really reaching out to teachers, hearing what they have to say, that they always have a place to share those things.”

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