Teaching Profession

Arne Duncan Offers Praise for Teacher-Leadership Initiative, But Future Is Murky

By Ross Brenneman — March 13, 2015 3 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan doubled down on his department’s Teach to Lead program today, though without specifying how exactly the initiative would continue.

Duncan spoke about the initiative at the Teaching & Learning Conference, hosted by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. NBPTS partnered with the U.S. Department of Education to launch the Teach to Lead program last year. Its purpose is to spur teachers to drive innovation within school districts and states, including through networking and workshop lessons at regional summits.

One year after the secretary told educators at the Teaching & Learning 2014 conference to hold him accountable for Teach to Lead, Duncan laid out how the idea grew, and how it stands today.

“Our hope is to accelerate the pace of change and build upon the sense of momentum,” Duncan said before an audience of roughly 3,000 educators. “Our teachers and our students simply cannot wait. For those of you are already driving this critical work, thank you so much. For those of you who are just coming into their own leadership roles, please join us in this effort.”

Teach to Lead is just one of many teacher-leadership initiatives, which I profiled as part of a recent special report for Education Week Teacher. But it also has the authority of the department behind it—kind of a big deal.

What Duncan didn’t announce at the conference is a definitive future for Teach to Lead.

“Where does Teach to Lead go from here, in its second year? That answer, again, is up to all of you,” he said.

Duncan said in an interview with Education Week Teacher following his speech that “there’s no huge pot of funding” for Teach to Lead to draw from. Title II of the No Child Left Behind Act offers money for professional development, but that funding is jealously guarded.

“If we can use that money in smarter and more effective ways, ... we can empower great teachers to lead this, we can be in much better shape.”

Duncan noted that the private sector has stepped up in helping finance the Teach to Lead initiative, which currently has upwards of 70 sponsors. Some officials tied to Teach to Lead have hinted at the development of at least two additional summits for sometime within the next year.

There’s similar uncertainty over the Teaching Ambassador Fellows, the group of practicing teachers within the Education Department who serve as a bridge between the profession and the bureaucracy that governs it; TAF members did a lot of the legwork on the Teach to Lead summits. TAF started at the end of President George W. Bush’s administration, but its continuance remains largely tied to the secretary.

“Obviously that’d be up to the next person, but that’d be the height of folly to walk away from something like [TAF],” Duncan said, noting the program’s recent expansion to include a small number of principals.

The secretary encouraged states to develop similar fellowship models. Tennessee and Connecticut, for example, have been pursuing their own versions of TAF. “States should replicate it, districts should replicate it, buildings could do it, you can replicate it at different sizes at every level. To do it just at the federal level would be a big missed opportunity,” Duncan said.

Despite the glowing praise for the teaching profession offered by Duncan and other speakers at Teaching & Learning, teachers aren’t necessarily the ones who need to hear them. Are policymakers hearing this rhetoric? And are they believing it? Teachers can have a great hunger for leadership, but willpower doesn’t equate to authority.

“We have a ways to go,” Duncan said. “What I keep trying to tell policymakers at every level, is that if we want to get smarter, we have to listen. Many politicians would rather hear themselves speak than hear someone else speak. But I think what we’re seeing, why this is so exciting, is when you create time, space to listen, to empower, the ideas that are generated are so much more powerful than anything you can ever do yourself.”

Image: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addresses the Teaching & Learning 2015 conference. Credit: Ross Brenneman

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.