In Final Months, Ed. Dept. Seeks Teachers’ Advice

By David J. Hoff & Bess Keller — March 03, 2008 7 min read
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By next fall—only months before she leaves office—U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings plans to have five teachers on her staff and set up a group of 20 ad hoc advisers still working in classrooms.

“It’ll be very useful in both directions for teachers to understand what the issues are at the macro level,” she said in a recent interview. “But it’s also hugely beneficial for us to make sure we know: Is this policy implementable, doable, realistic, and righteous by the classroom teacher?”

Teacher advocates applaud the effort, but they also wonder: Why did it take so long?

“Unfortunately, they waited until the last year of the administration to bring the voice of teachers back in,” said Segun C. Eubanks, the director of teacher quality for the 3.2 million-member National Education Association. “They haven’t had any systemic way to put the voice of classroom teachers in any decisionmaking role within the Department of Education or within the [Bush] administration.”

What’s more, others suggest that the teachers’ voices may be muted once a new president takes office in January, pointing specifically to the Bush administration’s decision in 2001 to cease a teacher-in-residence program that had been established by the Clinton administration.

“I’m not sure how they’re going to make sure it’s permanent,” said Terry Knecht Dozier, a former National Teacher of the Year who helped establish the teacher-in-residence program when she worked at the Department of Education during President Clinton’s term.

“I would want to figure out in some way how you would sustain those people,” said Ms. Dozier, the director of the center for teacher leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond.

Two-Way Street

Under the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship program, announced last month, the teachers would work at the department for one year starting in July. In addition, the department will tap up to 20 teachers to be part-time advisers while continuing to teach in their classrooms. They will be selected by Secretary Spellings’ staff, and will be paid as federal employees for one year. Ms. Spellings estimates the program will cost around $750,000 a year.

Ms. Spellings said she recognized the value of such advice after working closely with teachers who were placed at the department in the White House Fellows program. It selects young professionals to work alongside White House staff members and Cabinet secretaries.

“We have had a number of them, and they have been superstars at the department,” she said.

The Teaching Ambassador Fellowship was designed by Jocelyn Pickford, a former high school teacher who worked at the Education Department as a White House Fellow in 2006-07. Now an employee, she serves as a special assistant in Secretary Spellings’ office.

Ms. Pickford said she hopes the new Ambassador Fellowships can provide leadership opportunities, which she found lacking when she taught at West Springfield High School in the 166,000-student Fairfax County public schools in Washington’s Virginia suburbs.

“There’s a lack of understanding in the field, especially in the field of teaching, about what federal policy is all about, what the goals are, what it really looks like, the challenges of creating policy that will go into each state,” Ms. Pickford said. “There’s a lot to be gained in opening this two-way dialogue and letting teachers contribute, but also to learn and letting them bring back what they’ve learned to the field.”

Supporters of teachers say that Ms. Spellings’ decision to solicit advice from the field is laudatory and needed, especially since the administration’s policies are generally unpopular among teachers.

“The opportunity for people in the federal government to hear directly from teachers is a good thing,” agreed Michele McLaughlin, the vice president for state and federal policy at Teach For America, which sends recent college graduates into schools serving mainly poor families.

“Working on closing the achievement gap, policymakers need to hear the unique perspective of folks who are doing that work,” she said.

Timing Questioned

The timing of the venture nonetheless raises questions about what motivates it, several teacher experts and advocates observed.

“If you really thought that was a good idea, why not do it three years ago?” asked Sandi Jacobs, the vice president for public policy at the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality, which has supported nonstandard routes into teaching and criticized the state-licensure status quo. Ms. Jacobs was a senior program specialist in the current Bush Education Department.

“They may not have had the time, the inclination, or the political will to do this before,” said Patricia F. Sullivan, the deputy director for education issues at the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers.

Susan N. Graham, who teaches family and consumer science at Gayle Middle School in Stafford County, Va., is mulling over applying for one of the five Washington-based ambassador jobs. She is drawn to the opportunity, yet has questions about whether she could make a mark at the Education Department. Ms. Graham is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network organized by the Hillsborough, N.C.-based Center on Teaching Quality, which helps teachers weigh in on public-policy issues.

“They say, ‘We want your input,’ but you have to wonder,” she mused. “They are the people who thought the problem was us because we weren’t highly qualified.”

Seeking Permanence

In the interview, Ms. Spellings acknowledged that it may be difficult to sustain the fellowship program after a new president and secretary of education take office early next year, but she expects that the next administration will value teachers’ perspective.

“There is unanimity around the idea that teachers are instrumental to educational improvement and that we ought to rely on them, ask them, hear from them as we do our work,” she said. “I hope that’s not going to be controversial. This is a nonpartisan sort of idea.”

While that may be the case, the Bush administration decided against keeping the teacher-in-residence at the Education Department at the beginning of its first term. In July 2000, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley hired Sharon L. Nelson of Madison, Wis., to be the department’s teacher-in-residence. One year later, then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige halted the program.

Even if she had stayed at the department, Ms. Nelson said her advice didn’t seem to be as valued by President Bush’s team as it had been under President Clinton’s.

“There wasn’t the same opportunity in terms of higher-level interaction” or participation, the former high school chemistry teacher said.

The Bush administration ended the teacher-in-residence program because it wanted to hear the perspectives of a large number of teachers in its teacher- to-teacher program, said Samara Yudof, Ms. Spellings’ press secretary.

“Based on feedback from these teachers, we want to use the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship to provide even more opportunities for our nation’s teachers,” Ms. Yudof said.

The teacher-to-teacher workshops are primarily aimed at helping teachers raise student achievement. They take place mostly in the summer, with an annual budget that has been as high as $3 million but will be about $2 million this year, according to director Carolyn Snowbarger. She said more than 50 gatherings around the country have drawn about 15,000 participants so far.

Since 2004, the department has also tapped “Stars of American Teaching,” one for each state, honoring them in local ceremonies attended by a top Education Department official.

But there’s little question that teachers had a higher profile in the Education Department of President Clinton. Ms. Dozier worked as a full-time adviser to Secretary Riley, starting shortly after he took office in 1993. In President Clinton’s second term, she helped initiate the “teacher-in-residence” program.

Ms. Dozier also helped organize a “national teacher forum” that convened teams of teachers from each of the states twice a year to promote teachers’ involvement in policymaking.

The Bush administration’s decisions to end that forum and the teacher-in-residence program are only two reasons that the Bush administration is unpopular with teachers, said Ms. Sullivan of the AFT. “The department is making a token step in the right direction, … but they’ve got a very rough row to hoe in gaining teacher support,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as In Final Months, Ed. Dept. Seeks Teachers’ Advice


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