Hands-On Learning

By David J. Hoff — May 20, 1998 12 min read
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An unusual class at the U.S. Department of Education is helping educators bridge the gap between policy and practice.


It’s 5 p.m. at the U.S. Department of Education. Just a few headquarters employees are lingering in the agency’s long, drab corridors. But on the top floor of the six-story building, in a small conference room, school is in session."Hi, Calvin,” Mary Beth Blegen says, reaching out to shake the hand of a tall, thin, African-American teenager sauntering into her makeshift classroom. As she makes contact, Blegen trains her blue eyes directly on the student’s brown ones. Calvin Howard quietly returns the greeting and finds a seat at the conference table.

It’s a ritual for Blegen to welcome students individually. Today she considers the greeting especially important because Calvin and his classmates are returning from spring break.

The 54-year-old, whose blond hair and youthful enthusiasm belie her 30 years as a teacher in her rural Minnesota hometown, shakes hands with all five students who enter. She is as earnest and sincere as any resident of the fictional Lake Wobegon, Minn.

Soon the class is sitting around a table with Blegen, the 1996 National Teacher of the Year who is halfway through a two-year stint on Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley’s staff, and Paul Schwarz, the department’s principal-in-residence, who is in the middle of his two-year leave of absence from Central Park East Secondary School in New York City.

“OK, everybody,” Blegen says. “Look at me.”

And, so class begins at the Department of Education.

This exercise--something that is commonplace in the nation’s 82,000 schools--is actually an event at the federal agency. That’s because while the department that sets much of the tone for national education policy is now almost 20 years old, rarely has anybody on its payroll been an active classroom teacher in his or her spare time.

“It takes about 20 minutes to forget how hard it is to work in a school,” Schwarz says in an interview shortly before a recent Thursday-afternoon class begins. “If you sit in a room and think about education all day, you begin to think: ‘If we line it all up, we would get it right.’ This [class] reminds me once again how hard this stuff is.”

“For us, it is a chance to keep our feet grounded where they should be,” Blegen says. “What it does is reinforce my role at the Department of Education, and that is to be a teacher.”

Day in and day out in this headquarters building, Riley and his employees plot how the federal government can best help the nation’s teachers, administrators, and students. Federal officials set guidelines, for example, that determine how states and the District of Columbia will distribute money to charter schools such as the charter-school-to-be that Blegen and Schwarz’s students attend. They orchestrate support for the president’s proposal to lower class sizes so more students will receive a personal greeting like the one Calvin got today. They design testing programs to gauge how well students read. They discuss the best ways to mesh education and technology.

Riley and some of his lieutenants visit schools often. But they don’t do what Blegen and Schwarz do today--regularly teach a class with the same students for a semester.

The course is a seminar on the American educational system, and one of several electives offered by the nearby Maya Angelou School here in the nation’s capital. It meets on Monday and Thursday afternoons in a crowded conference room down the hall from Secretary Riley’s sixth-floor office suite.

The students have at least two things in common: They all are African-American, and they all have had run-ins with the law. They attend one of the growing number of publicly funded schools designed to operate with a minimum of regulation. It’s located in a block of many abandoned row houses just north of the city’s Chinatown.

By contrast, both of the department instructors are white and have earned some of the highest honors in their field. They work in a federal office building across the street from some of the capital’s most popular museums.

Paul Schwarz arrived at the department from Central Park East, a nationally recognized model of school reform with 450 students from the working-class neighborhoods of Harlem. He is on leave from his job as principal of the Jackie Robinson Complex, one cluster in the school for children in grades 7 through 12.

Schwarz has hair with more salt than pepper in it, which he wears parted to the side. His mustache wraps around his lips. His accent gives away his New York roots. Like Blegen, he is 54 and has worked in public schools for 30 years.

Mary Beth Blegen speaks rapidly, her words peppered with hints of the broad, flat vowels common in the upper Midwest. Schwarz jokes that she comes from “a tiny little town like ‘Little House on the Prairie.’” Actually, she is from Worthington, Minn., a town of 10,000 with a plant that slaughters 1,000 hogs an hour. She taught in Worthington’s secondary schools, most recently at its high school, before being named Teacher of the Year, then spent a year on the lecture circuit. She joined Riley’s staff shortly after finishing her tour.

Today, Blegen and Schwarz will teach about single-sex schools and classrooms. The students will read aloud from a newspaper article, discuss it, and then--if time permits--write in their journals about it. They will conclude by reading a Langston Hughes poem.

As soon as Blegen introduces the topic, Dallas Cooper says single-sex education will never work. The teacher asks why. Dallas says it just won’t.

“I need a why,” Blegen says, leaning across the table to look at him.

“I can’t interact with males the way I can with females,” he says.

“It would be chaos because girls gossip too much,” Keisha Easton adds.

While the discussion may not win any debate prizes, it is a start. The exercise’s purpose, Schwarz tells the class about halfway through the one-hour class period, is for students to form opinions from experience, read about others’ experiences, and then decide if anything they’ve read changed their minds.

The objective is simple. But reaching it isn’t, both Schwarz and Blegen acknowledge. That’s exactly why they teach the course.

As two of the few teaching practitioners on Riley’s staff, Blegen and Schwarz understand what happens in classrooms. Most of the secretary’s staff is schooled in policymaking and politics--a world in which the educators say they aren’t always comfortable.

They laugh that their colleagues speak a different language. The policymakers talk casually of “markups"--congressional committee meetings called to prepare a bill to be sent to the House or Senate for consideration--as if everybody knows what they are. They throw around obscure acronyms as if they were in the dictionary.

Blegen tells of an e-mail that used the term POTUS. She called someone into her office and asked for the definition. It stands for “president of the United States,” she was told.

“When I start using POTUS, it will be time for me to go back to Minnesota,” Blegen laughs.

Such technical knowledge and vocabulary are vital to succeed in Washington. But they have little relevance when it’s time to pick a topic that will engage and challenge students for an hour late on a Thursday afternoon.

Ted Sizer provided the critical link between the Department of Education and the Maya Angelou School, a charter school in the District of Columbia.

“Too often, a central-government agency--whether it’s federal or state--is very removed from the realities of children’s lives,” says Theodore R. Sizer, the chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national school reform network. “The policies often miss the mark. The people who write the policies don’t understand the human dimension.”

Sizer provided the critical link between the Department of Education and the Maya Angelou School. James Forman Jr., one of the school’s founders, is a Brown graduate whose undergraduate adviser pointed him to Sizer for advice on starting the school.

“I said to him: ‘Run, don’t walk, to the secretary’s office and find Paul Schwarz,’” Sizer says.

Schwarz helped Forman and David Domenici, the school’s other founder, submit their successful application, which will allow them to officially begin operating as a charter school next fall. And then he suggested that he and Blegen teach a course.

These days, just about every issue under discussion in the department comes into focus when the sixth-floor conference room is transformed into a classroom.

To give a couple of examples: The would-be charter school the students attend is one of a projected 1,400 such schools that the department expects will receive a piece of $80 million in grants to states and the District of Columbia. The students themselves are kids who have run into trouble in school and on the streets--the students whom educators will find the hardest to teach under the world-class academic standards Riley says must be set for all students.

Blegen and Schwarz are expected to advise their colleagues at the Education Department on how federal policies will work once they reach the school and the classroom. Without their experience with students from the Maya Angelou School, they say, they don’t feel they would have as much to offer.

“I wanted to be reminded in a concrete way what school is,” Schwarz says in explaining why he urged Blegen to join him in teaching the class.

As the Thursday class progresses, Schwarz is getting more than enough reminders of what it’s like to be in a classroom. By the middle of the hour, Dallas is in the middle of a heated argument with Tyesha Goode over single-sex education. Blegen wants to distract them and everyone else, trying to get their attention so she can get her lesson plan back on track.

“Dallas, look at me. Tyesha, look at me,” she says. “Everybody, look at me,” she says, perhaps for the 12th time in the first half of the class.

Philip Russell stops her.

“You say: ‘Look at me, look at me, look at me,’” says the teenager, who has short, neatly braided hair. ''It’s like, if we’re not looking at you, we’re not listening.”

Blegen isn’t surprised by Philip’s complaint. Later, she laughs when she’s reminded of the incident.

“He had told me before: ‘I can hear you without looking at you,’” she remembers. “I didn’t take offense at it. He was telling me what he thought.”

Regardless, Blegen finishes the class period without using her favorite phrase again. (Three weeks later, she opened class by promising Philip she wouldn’t say “Look at me” over the course of the next hour. She didn’t.)

In most classrooms, Blegen and Schwarz wouldn’t have the luxury of such a confrontation--and camaraderie--with Philip. He probably would be sitting in a room with 30 other students, getting little chance to speak on topics presented in class, let alone complain about his teachers’ idiosyncrasies.

As two adults leading a class usually composed of seven teenagers, Blegen and Schwarz know their experience is unusual.

In three decades of teaching, Blegen grew used to five class periods a day, with 30 students each. At the end of the day, she feared looking over her rosters and not remembering if a particular student was in school that day.

“The greatest single thing kids need is to be heard,” Blegen says. “In a classroom, what you want more than anything is an environment that’s safe and comfortable and a place where they are free to take risks. If they aren’t free to take risks, they aren’t going to learn.”

At Central Park East, the schedule is organized so students meet in small groups with an adult for an hour a day. As a principal, Schwarz led such a group in discussions on topics ranging from books to college applications. He and his students even made an overnight trip to visit a college.

“Every kid in every school in America ought to be known well by an adult,” Schwarz says. “The structure we’ve created where people in the schools are strangers to one another creates dangerous situations where people are worried about their safety.” That sets an atmosphere, he laments, “where people aren’t very good learners.”

While Washington cannot dictate school scheduling practices, it can inspire dialogue about them, suggest ways for schools to change, and offer them incentives to do so. The Clinton administration is doing so now, the educators say, by promoting plans to reduce class sizes, build new classrooms, and hire new teachers. Those plans--although stalled in Congress, where members of the Republican majority question the efficacy of such spending and the appropriateness of federal involvement--are relevant to what is happening in American classrooms, Blegen argues.

Blegen admits that as a classroom teacher she had little interest in what the federal Education Department did. But now she is convinced it can help change for the better what is happening in the nation’s schools.

“The role I see for the department is as a place where discussions can begin,” she says. “It still comes down to the student and the teacher, eye to eye.”

Class is over. One of Secretary Riley’s young aides who assists the teachers escorts the students through the empty hallways to the building’s exit. Blegen takes a deep breath and slouches forward. The class has gone OK, but something didn’t click.

Still, the teachers believe they heard something significant from every student.

They’re intrigued that Philip says he won’t go to college. They know he’s smart enough and ambitious enough to succeed there, and he has told them in the past that he wants a higher education. They wonder why he has changed his tune.

They heard once again from Dallas that his life changed when he dropped out of school as a 13-year-old. They don’t know why he feels he’ll never achieve his original goals because he left school for a short time. Before the end of the semester, they hope he will tell them.

Tyesha acknowledged that she has high hopes for her 3-year-old daughter. Keisha had the chance to say emphatically that single-sex schools won’t work.

Even Calvin--a notoriously quiet student--opened up a little. When Blegen handed out the poem to be read at the end of class, he told her he knew it.

But Blegen and Schwarz aren’t exactly pleased.

“I want to challenge their opinions,” Blegen says. “In order to do that, we have to have either more controversy or more meat. The good discussion is fine, but I’m not sure they’re learning anything.”

The aide returns. The students have boarded the city bus that will take them back to their school. The teachers are tired and leave for home. A janitor is sweeping the hallway.

Class will resume on Monday.

A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 1998 edition of Education Week as Hands-On Learning


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