The U.S. Department of Education values input from teachers.

The U.S. Department of Education values input from teachers.One important way we receive teachers’ input is through the Teaching Ambassador Fellows (TAF) program. It brings five teachers from their classrooms to the Department for a full year, where they help shape policy and advise senior officials. Another 10 fellows continue to teach in their classrooms and participate in events – in Washington and in their communities — related to the Department’s priorities and policies.

One of the first events our new fellows participated in this summer was a forum with Washington-area educators, including classroom teachers, teacher educators and future teachers. Jo Anderson and Brad Jupp, who are advisers to Secretary Arne Duncan, moderated the conversation, which covered issues such as teacher evaluation, professional development, equitable distribution of teachers at high-need schools, and teacher leadership.

Perspectives varied, but the audience and panel agreed on the need for stronger collaboration among teachers, school administrators, and community members to help close student achievement gaps. These perspective and this input from teachers helps inform the Department’s policies and proposals, particularly around the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

 The U.S. Department of Education values input from teachers.The U.S. Department of Education values input from teachers.

Anderson opened the dialogue discussing teacher evaluation systems. Fellow Nick Greer was the first to respond with a comment on his evaluators and their feedback. “Once you’re labeled in a school … as being … friends with the principal … they don’t come to watch you anymore,” Greer said. “They might be in for 15 [or] 20 minutes to check up maybe once a year.”

The U.S. Department of Education values input from teachers.Throughout the discussion, interest in the use of multiple measures for evaluation frequently surfaced. When Michelle Bissonnette, a 2009-2010 Fellow, asked for a “real grounded sense of what those multiple measures are,” the audience offered a variety of answers, many of which were specific to local preferences. “I really think it’s important that we start thinking about … the profession and having quality teacher feedback.” Despite the difficulty in addressing what factors should be measured, everyone agreed that standardized testing should not be the sole measure.

Brian Bertges, a sixth-grade math and science teacher in Prince George’s County, Md., said he prefers evaluations to be “360 [degrees],” having multiple people evaluate the teacher: parents, students, and principals. “Parents feel like they’re left out,” observed Bertges. “They’re not listened to and they need to be included in the evaluation process.”

The U.S. Department of Education values input from teachers.Collaboration among teachers was another forum theme. “The greatest thing that happened to me in the last two years was working closely on a collaborative team, so … [teachers] were actually executing the same lessons; we were doing the same things,” said Jon Rolle, a third-grade teacher in Southeast D.C.   

Tyrone Byrd, principal of George Mason High School in Falls Church, Va., and his district superintendent, Lois Berlin, focused on teacher preparation and the profession. “I think as we move forward … we are working more to include teachers … to develop … a culture of professional development,” said Byrd.  

The U.S. Department of Education values input from teachers.We need to “help teachers be advocates for themselves,” said James Jackson, a chairperson at Howard University’s teacher preparation program in Washington, D.C. Fellow Leah Raphael agreed. “I love the idea of giving teachers responsibility for our own personal growth and reflection[A1] ,” she said, “and I think that’s eventually what we want to empower our students to do.”

The U.S. Department of Education values input from teachers.In response to the challenge of keeping great teachers at high-need schools, some teachers stressed the need for administrative support and flexibility.  Fellow Edit Khachatryan, who left an inner-city school after her second year, said “leadership … could make it a very happy work environment to be in—and I don’t care how poor the community is or what the major issues are.”

The U.S. Department of Education values input from teachers.“We have no shortage of enthusiastic people to go into teaching,” said Fellow Katie Taylor.  “But we lose so many of them because the reality of teaching in any environment is far more overwhelming than what you’re prepared for in a teacher prep program.”

Anderson wrapped up the forum by reiterating the need for effective teacher evaluation.  “If we don’t have effective evaluation systems,” he said, “it’s hard to identify those teachers who are struggling … and [give them] the support and help they need….  In the absence of quality evaluation, it’s very difficult [to remove ineffective teachers], and so we’ve got to work on this systematically.”

The U.S. Department of Education values input from teachers.Jupp encouraged participants to take what they discussed and to continue the conversations with their colleagues. As participants networked and wrapped up conversations after the session ended, it was clear that the fellows, educators, community groups and ED employees better understood the challenges and possibilities for improving teacher effectiveness.

Stephanie Wong
Office of Communications and Outreach Intern