Higher Education News
Much like America’s teachers, the U.S. Department of Education sometimes gets a bad rap.
You know the drill. So many times, the stories of frustrated teachers or bad apples get bigger play on social media and in the news than the stories of the millions of American teachers who, like my friends and colleagues, change lives every day. Meanwhile, federal policymakers get blamed for not being omnipotent, as many think they should be, or for not talking to real teachers. However, since the start of this school year, my Teaching Ambassador Fellow colleagues and I have spoken with literally thousands of teachers around the country and brought back to ED what we’ve heard.
Many of our fellow teachers are frustrated by things beyond their control; too few are paid adequately or treated respectfully as they do the job they love. And so, not surprisingly, sometimes we hear complaints. I usually respond by saying, “I agree. And ED agrees too.”
Listen to some speeches from the leaders of the Department over the past year and you’ll hear our voices from the classroom and know ED is ultimately on our side. I know, because I’ve been repeatedly asked for my feedback and I’ve seen it acted upon. The speeches have titles such as “Investing in Teachers Instead of Prisons” and “Supporting America’s Educators to Expand Opportunity.” They have called on schools and districts to cut the amount of time kids spend on unnecessary or unhelpful standardized tests and expand students’ access to courses in the arts and sciences, where they might find their passions and learn skills for their future careers. Before stepping down, former Secretary Arne Duncan called for a 50-percent salary increase for every teacher working in the country’s highest-need schools.
Newly-appointed Secretary John King never fails to call on his experience as both a student and a teacher when thinking through policy. He says, “I am who I am because a teacher and a school believed in me and believed it was worth the time and effort to widen my horizons.” He tells stories of students from his classes who call to mind our own — kids like Ricardo, a high school junior who was “brilliant, fascinating, but barely skating by in the class” until engaged by a unit on the Harlem Renaissance. It was students like those he had taught that inspired efforts to push for states and districts to value “creative teaching” over test prep. Perhaps most powerfully, King has taken responsibility for ways in which the Department of Education, among others, has contributed to the creation of a climate where teachers and principals have “felt attacked and unfairly blamed for the challenges our nation faces as we strive to improve outcomes for all students.” He has vowed to change that and is working to do so.
Many teachers don’t have time to listen to speeches or read policy; they’re too busy making sure their students are learning. And for that matter, speeches only get us so far. As we finish out this year’s Teacher Appreciation Week, it is most important that we listen to, honor, and support teachers in doing the work that changes students’ lives. However, I also encourage you to take some time to listen to what policymakers at the U.S. Department of Education have to say. You might just be surprised.
“Teachers have made a huge difference in my life. Among my key priorities this year is lifting up our nation’s teachers and the education profession. The Teaching Ambassador Fellowship and Teach to Lead are great steps in this direction. I am eager to work with the Fellows to do even more to support educators as they work to expand educational equity and excellence each day.” – Secretary (and high school social studies teacher) John King on the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship website.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching Ambassador Fellows (TAF) are expected to learn about federal education policy, reach out to teachers and schools and reflect with Department of Education staff what they hear. As a Washington-based TAF, on leave from my school for the year, I have had the unique honor of bringing the voices of teachers I meet across the country directly into discussions at the Department of Education. One way we have done this recently is through monthly meetings we call Tea with Teachers.
During Tea with Teachers, educators from across the United States are invited to come share their unique experiences with Secretary King and other staff members on key topics like teacher retention, challenges faced by Native American youth, meeting the needs of students who are refugees, creating safe learning spaces free from discrimination, and the unique problems faced by students who are undocumented.
“Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes….”
Every month at these events, I have the rare pleasure of hearing teachers speaking their truth, sharing their passion, and representing their students—even with shaky voices. Honestly, maybe it is because of those shaky voices that it is such a pleasure. As a teacher, I’ve been in their shoes. I know what it is like to have something so important and vital to your students to say that you have to speak the truth, even if it’s scary. The issues they share are real in teachers’ and kids’ lives and it can be easy for people to forget that, from even just a few steps outside the classroom, let alone sitting at a conference table in Washington, D.C.
Many former educators, including Secretary King, work at the Department of Education. One of the things educators know from experience is that schools are ever-evolving and changing. That drives those at the Department to keep talking to teachers, to hear firsthand accounts of their classroom and to use their expertise to illuminate positive outcomes and unintended consequences of educational policy. In these conversations with teachers, we have heard creative ideas for teacher retention, passionate pleas to help students, and seen firsthand the dedication of teachers who take on much more than teaching the curriculum.
The fact is, though, that speaking the truth can have ripple effects. I have seen teachers leave armed with new confidence and information to advocate for students’ educational rights at the local, state and federal level; many write blogs and send tweets telling others the importance of sharing their teacher voice in educational policy; and we have received a multitude of emails from participants grateful for the opportunity to share and, inspired by the conversation, to keep talking. As one educator wrote, inspiring us all, “Once we give students a little light, the darkness goes away and the light gets a little brighter for everyone.”
So this Teacher Appreciation Week, I want to appreciate these teachers who have come to the Department and represented their students, schools and communities so well. You have given us that little bit of light and our work is brighter because of you. Thank you for informing our work, but more importantly, thank you for speaking the truth — even when your voice shakes.
JoLisa Hoover is a 4th grade teacher at River Ridge Elementary School in Leander Independent School District near Austin, Texas and a 2015 Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education. Follow her at @JoLisaKH.
Since President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law, I have seen Department of Education staff have to work quickly through minute details to figure out how to help make this new law work best for 50 million students in 100,000 schools around the country. It has been gratifying however, to also see these staff members pause to take the time it requires to go directly to hear from those who will implement the law. In doing so, our leaders turned to the Department’s resident educators – Teaching and Principal Ambassador and Leadership for Educational Equity Fellows – to organize listening sessions and school visits for them with nearly 1,000 teachers, principals, superintendents and administrators, parents, and community representatives from all manner of rural, suburban and urban settings in 16 states thus far and more sessions still to come.
In each location, community members have shared their unique experience with the law ESSA replaced, No Child Left Behind; opportunities they hope ESSA will afford; and the many questions they still have about what will be coming their way in future months and years. The discussions, unsurprisingly, have focused on accountability, assessments and data, over-testing, funding, and ensuring all students have access to great teachers.
Educators have shared well-known concerns like assessments taking the air out of the room. “What we’re being asked to measure is going to drive our work,” one California participant said, pointing to schools that have had a laser-focus on ELA and math results, to the detriment of a well-rounded curriculum we want for all students. A New Jersey principal expressed the frustration that all educators are held to the same expectations, which makes distinguishing and building on the unique expertise of seasoned teachers more difficult. And educators talked about not getting quality data from well-developed assessments in a timely enough manner to actually inform instruction and improve outcomes. As a Massachusetts principal shared, “It is a system of here’s-your-test-scores-now-go-forth-and-do-better,” rather than accessing the data in time for district/school data teams to analyze and make sense of the data implications and implement changes before testing begins again.
On the flip-side, educators shared their hopefulness for the new law creating opportunity for more differentiation and a broader educational focus for students. In Colorado, educators were eager to identify accountability goals that might focus on providing a well-rounded education for students, both long-term and smaller interim ones, in addition to academic proficiency goals. One senior official heard teachers from Memorial Elementary School in rural Newton, N.H., explain how they designed the standardized tests their own students take as part of New Hampshire’s innovative assessment work and how empowered they felt sitting across the table from colleagues at their grade level from around the state as they craft questions that align with rigorous standards. And at an innovative school-within-a-school in its first year of operation in Providence, R.I., he also heard from students serving on that school’s governing board about their inspiring educators designing authentic learning experiences and the many ways they measure success including reflections, surveys, and portfolios which the students say offer a broader picture than test scores.
In so many places, educators shared how critical it is to engage teachers on issues of assessment and accountability. As one district teacher of the year in Connecticut said, “there’s a systemic problem: teachers aren’t set up to be involved in policy. They are too busy in the trenches, overwhelmed by initiatives and their lens is instructional, not political.” Too often, educators from across the country said, it’s the same handful of teachers who happen to live close to the State capital or who can attend a meeting in the middle of the day who are heard. But even on this topic, educators offered solutions for State-required consultations with stakeholders, including creative uses of technology; evaluating state efforts on the outcomes of their consultations, not just checking the box; engaging community organizations, rather than government agencies, to collect feedback so that it is less threatening; or training corps of educators to hold discussions with educators, not unlike these listening sessions.
Indeed, while my colleagues at the Department continue to work through the nitty gritty details of the Every Student Succeeds Act and questions continue to abound in the field, there is one thing that is clear from our Fellows’ listening sessions: the voices, experiences, and ideas of the people doing the work under the law have never been more critical.