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Teacher Ambassadors Highlight the Complexity of Education Policy

By guest blogger Liana Heitin

Yesterday I had the chance to speak with several of the U.S. Department of Education Teacher Ambassador Fellows at the teacher town hall meeting hosted by the department.

TAFs spend a year working with federal officials on policy issues--some stay in the classroom and work as consultants and others take a year leave of absence to work at the department full time. The half dozen TAFs I spoke with were in their 10th month of the fellowship.

Above all, they agreed the year had given them a deeper appreciation for the complexity of policy issues. Several mentioned that there was much more back and forth--rather than head nodding--at USDOE meetings than they had imagined. They said they have felt at liberty to express their ideas, directly to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at times, and have not had to compromise their stances while working with the department.

Laurie Calvert, a fellow from Buncombe County Schools in North Carolina, said, "I wish people could see how much the department really does listen to teachers."

The TAFs also noted a gulf between policy and practice. According to Edit Khachatryan, on loan from Clark Magnet High School in La Crescenta, Calif., "What policy looks like doesn't get implemented on the ground as it's intended to be."

Patrick Ledesma, who continues to teach at Holmes Middle School in Vienna, Va., while serving as a TAF (and who writes the Teacher blog Leading from the Classroom), said he's realized that many of the problems in education come down to local control issues. Crafting great, researched-based policies does no good if they are not implemented at the local level. "People want a solution to come from afar...and magically appear in classrooms," he said.

Nick Greer, who will return to teaching at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in Baltimore, Md., added he used to think policy was more top-down--that whatever the feds said, the states would do. But it's much more complicated than that, he explained.

When asked about frustration among teachers and the many negative responses to Duncan's recent open letter on Education Week, the TAFs said the frustration is understandable but often misdirected.

"Teachers are being assaulted," said Calvert, "but not by the people here. It's not the people here who are taking their collective bargaining rights."

Duncan was unable to make it to the town hall, but I'm hoping to get a response from him at some point soon about the flood of negative comments on his piece.

At the town hall meeting itself, the 2011 state teachers of the year discussed teacher-related hot topics--including teacher preparation, support, school leadership, and parent involvement--at roundtables, and then presented questions and recommendations to a panel of USDOE officials. Not much new came out of this conversation, as I saw it. Angie Miller, New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, gave a passionate appeal for making parent engagement a priority, saying parent education has a higher correlation to student achievement than any other factor. (She also said she was "annoyed" with Duncan for not recognizing how difficult it is for parents to be activists when they don't feel welcome in schools.) Carmel Martin, USDOE's assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, said she knows much of the department's funding for parent engagement programs is used ineffectively and would like local feedback on programs that work.

Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post has her take on the town hall highlights as well.

This post originally appeared on the Teaching Now blog.

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