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Q&A: Ed. Dept.'s Ted Mitchell Talks ESEA, Turnover, and Education Philanthropy

Bellevue, Wash.

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's learning forum here Thursday, Ted Mitchell, the U.S. Department of Education's undersecretary, spoke to a ballroom full of education leaders and grantees. Mitchell stood in for John B. King, Jr., who is set to take over as acting education secretary and had been scheduled to talk, but was tied up with transition duties. The session was closed to the press at the department's request, according to Gates spokespeople.

(I was unaware of this until I stepped out of the room and was barred from re-entering. However, others who are prominent in the edu-journalism field, including Alexander Russo, a prolific education blogger, and Caroline Hendrie, executive director of the Education Writers Association, were allowed to stay.)

The Gates folks did kindly end up offering me a one-on-one interview with Mitchell afterward. 

Mitchell began the interview with a literal bang—he playfully hopped up to sit on the table and, to the surprise of both of us, cracked its glass top. But that didn't stop him from getting serious about impending changes at the department, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act's chances at reauthorization, and the role of education foundations.

Here's a Q&A, edited for length and clarity.

What does the transition from Arne Duncan to John King as [acting] U.S. Education Secretary mean for the department?

We all signed up for the common mission of making sure that education continues to be the engine of social mobility for America and that we provide opportunities, particularly for those who have not had opportunities in the past. John will pick up where Arne is leaving off. We're all very excited and very committed. If one were to manufacture the transition it couldn't be better than this. 

What will King do differently than Duncan?

That's a question for John.

What are your thoughts on teacher preparation and accountability? What changes do you hope to make in that realm?

We think that the results of teacher-preparation [programs] need to be more visible to the public and policymakers. We're continuing to pursue regulations that would give states a toolkit for understanding the efficacy of teacher-prep programs in their states.

What will happen with ESEA?

I don't know. We continue to be encouraged by the discussions, heartened by the bipartisanship around the Senate bill. But it's been clear from the beginning that while we want ESEA to pass, it has to be a good bill. We think of ESEA as fundamentally a civil rights bill. A good bill is one that continues to protect the most vulnerable students and provides clear and transparent information about all students to parents and communities. And it makes states responsible for taking action when schools don't work for kids. 

What does a bad bill look like?

We're pushing hard to make sure we're measuring results for all kids, and states are being required to take action on low-performing schools.

There's been a lot of talk here about teacher evaluations and linking them to test scores. Those efforts inevitably receive pushback from some educators and advocates. What are your thoughts on this?

We've been clear from the beginning that we're strong advocates of a system of teacher evaluation that includes multiple measures of performance, student surveys where it's appropriate, observations by peers and principals and student test scores.

What do you think the relationship between foundations like Gates and the Education Department should be?

I think the foundations play a particularly important role here as conveners, so we rely on foundations to bring multiple different voices together on topics. 

I think foundations are society's risk capital. The Gates Foundation has been a leader helping to promote new initiatives and projects and to evaluate those, essentially creating a seedbed for things that could eventually become public policy.

Foundations can also play an important role in taking things from project or pilot to broad dissemination. I see us as partners in that. Sometimes to bring innovations to scale we need to change policy.

Where are your goals most aligned with the Gates Foundation?

I'll give you an example from the intersect of higher education and K-12. We're both keenly interested in making developmental and remedial education less necessary. Both as thought partners and as supporters of different innovations and sharing information about that.

What else did you tell the Gates attendees that we haven't discussed?

I'll just reinforce where I started, which is that this administration continues to be committed to an educational system that has equitable and high outcomes, and we look forward to working with foundation partners, communities, and educators, over the next 471 days to bring that about.


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