School & District Management

Teachers Working in DeVos Ed. Dept. Tread a Fine Line

Will their voices be heard?
By Madeline Will — August 29, 2017 7 min read
Melody Arabo, a teacher at Keith Elementary School in West Bloomfield Hills, Mich., will be commuting back and forth this year between her job as a teacher ambassador fellow at the U.S. Department of Education and her home in Michigan—part of her commitment to representing her fellow teachers.
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When Betsy DeVos was confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education, friends and acquaintances asked Anna Baldwin if she would resign as a teacher fellow in the department. Most of DeVos’ stances go against Baldwin’s principles and beliefs—but resigning was never something she considered.

“Why would I give up the opportunity to possibly influence her thinking?” said Baldwin, a high school teacher in Arlee, Mont. “There’s always the possibility that something I said or something another fellow said is going to change her mind.”

Baldwin was a classroom teacher ambassador fellow in 2016-17, one of 10 teacher and principal fellows who transitioned from Obama’s Education Department to Trump’s.

The fellowship is a one-year program, although some educators stay on for a second year. Fellows are asked to represent the teacher perspective to department policymakers, including the education secretary. They have been tapped to take leadership roles in several department initiatives, including Teach to Lead, which promotes teacher leadership.

The position can be inherently contradictory: Teachers often disagree with federal education policy, and fellows represent the profession while also being a part of the organization that develops those policies. Fellows who served under Secretary Arne Duncan, for example, said there were many times when they disagreed with him.

But public school teachers particularly distrust DeVos, a fierce advocate for school choice, making the role of the fellows especially fraught. Educators want to know: Will the DeVos Education Department take their voices seriously?

Experiences So Far

DeVos has only been in office for six months, making it a challenge to draw clear comparisons between her department and that of the previous administration, in which educators say teacher voice was smoothly incorporated into operations.

Fellows who have worked with DeVos say the secretary listens intently in her conversations with them: She takes notes, asks questions, and seems genuinely curious about the teacher perspective. But they have not yet seen concrete results from those conversations.

“The million-dollar question is, what is the result of hearing that feedback?” said Patrick Kelly, a high school teacher from Columbia, S.C., who ended a two-year stint in the department this July. “And I think that’s a book still to be written, because it is a relatively young administration.”

In September, a new class of fellows is coming in: one principal, one school counselor, and four teachers. (This year is the first that all school-based educators, including counselors, have been able to apply.) These educators applied after the change in administration.

Five fellows are part-time and work remotely, with one teacher working full-time at the department. There are plans to hire a second full-time fellow as well, department spokeswoman Liz Hill said.

The fellowship—which was founded in 2008 by Margaret Spellings, who was the second education secretary under President George W. Bush—is funded through discretionary dollars, so each secretary has to decide whether to keep the program. Soon after DeVos was confirmed, the 2016-17 fellows met with her to pitch the program, stressing the importance of including the teacher perspective in the department.

“Secretary DeVos was incredibly receptive to the fellowship from the word go,” Kelly said. “I think she’s demonstrated from the beginning that she saw value to the program.”

DeVos’ willingness to listen has led to cautious optimism among the fellows who worked with her.

But while “it’s great to say nice things about teachers ... we want to hear what the policy is that will support teachers in school and how you’re going to support teacher voice,” said Sean McComb, a high school teacher in Baltimore County, Md., schools who served as a fellow in 2016-17, leaving in July. "[That] has yet to be spoken to or made.”

Getting Face Time

Secretaries Duncan and John B. King Jr., both hosted a monthly “tea with teachers” session, where educators were invited to share their concerns and discuss innovative practices happening at their schools with the secretary. Right now, there is no similar program in place in the DeVos department.

In July, the previous crop of fellows did organize a roundtable with former teachers and DeVos to discuss teacher retention challenges. They presented the issue to DeVos through the lens of school choice, in an effort to find common ground.

“We tried to draw that connection—that even if you want to advocate for choice, you have to address the issue of developing and recruiting and supporting and retaining great teachers because any kind of school environment requires exceptional teachers in order to help students maximize their potential,” he said.

At the roundtable, “the secretary was very receptive, asked great questions, and has discussed these things several times since then, so I feel like it was beneficial,” said Melody Arabo, an elementary teacher from West Bloomfield, Mich., who is starting her second year as a fellow. She will be working full-time this year, and hopes to organize additional roundtables for DeVos to hear from teachers directly.

‘Buffer Between Two Worlds’

One of the key responsibilities of the fellowship is looking over, with a teacher’s eye, the speeches the secretary will deliver and other messaging from the department.

Fellows who worked under King and Duncan said their edits were frequently incorporated into the final versions of the texts.

The DeVos communications team has tapped fellows for this task, McComb said. But so far, he added, the practice hasn’t been used as consistently as the prior administration.

“There have been some times when suggestions have been made about language that would become problematic were not heeded, and again, maybe that is [the administration still] learning how to use teacher voice more effectively, or maybe what they want to say doesn’t align with the feedback the fellows give to them,” McComb said.

For example, Baldwin looked over the advance copy of a speech DeVos would deliver to the 2017 state teachers of the year. She suggested DeVos include personal anecdotes of teachers who inspired her, which the secretary did—but Baldwin also suggested that speech writers cut the line, “I see my job as getting Washington out of the way, so that you can do yours.”

“I was like, ‘no, first of all, that’s too political for this event,’” Baldwin said. “Second of all, we need some of the protections of Washington in our public schools to ensure equity and other rights that I think are important. I said she needs to take that out, and of course, she left it in.”

When DeVos did deliver that line to the teachers, the room that had cheered at her references to inspiring educators fell quiet.

Still, fellows in both administrations said they have been encouraged to give honest feedback, even if it’s critical.

“Everybody has been open to our thoughts, even if it’s different from what they expected, because that’s what we’re there for,” Arabo said. “I kind of like to think that we’re a buffer between those two worlds.”

“If you’re not willing to say the things that might be unpopular with the current administration,” Kelly added, “then you have to sit back and assess whether the fellowship has value in the first place.”

Several of the past fellows said they did not agree with the scope of DeVos’ plans to increase school choice. And the proposed elimination of Title II funding for teacher professional development and class-size reduction was a hard blow to many of the fellows, who had advocated to use the money more effectively.

A Hard Role to Balance

Maddie Fennell, the executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association served as a fellow from 2013-15 and as a Teacher Leader in Residence from 2015-16. She said teachers who work at the department must balance their role as a fellow with advocating for students and the teaching profession.

“I think that’s a difficult role for [teacher ambassador fellows] to have to play,” she said. “I know that there’s some discussion internal to the entire [fellowship] class right now about ... how do we handle things with the DeVos administration?

“There’s a lot of discussion around, how do you appropriately use the voice so you advocate for kids and for teachers, but you don’t close off avenues for advocacy?”

Fellows have to learn how to speak hard truths in a way that’s productive, Kelly said.

“That’s the hardest line: How do you speak truth in an environment where you may not agree with everything, but do so in a way that maintains lines of communication so that hopefully, ultimately, policies will shift?” he said.

But, Kelly said, fellows have to remember that they represent educators nationwide, and they shouldn’t “destroy the platform” of the fellowship. Instead, fellows said they tried to meet DeVos and her team on common ground and keep the teacher perspective at the forefront.

“To me, the opportunity to be an influence from the inside for teachers, for students, for what I believe is best for all children and for equity, was an important opportunity to take,” McComb said. “I think this administration, from what we saw, the door’s open. It’s just been yet to be determined for me how much listening is going to influence what they do.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as Teacher Fellows Tread Fine Line at Ed. Dept.

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