New Teaching Ambassador Fellow Shares First Week at ED

Greg Mullenholz and Grace Goodwin at reception for the Teaching Ambassador Fellows

Greg Mullenholz, pictured here with TAF intern Grace Goodwin, meets the ED staff at a reception for the Teaching Ambassador Fellows Aug. 1.

First impressions can be deceiving.

Headed into my tenure as a 2011 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow, my understanding of the U.S. Department of Education was vague at best.

What I did know was that we have problems in education, and I believed that the current administration isn’t helping to solve those problems.

That was last Monday.

After more than a week at ED, I can tell you that my initial assumptions have shifted.

In the brief week that I have been here, I have gained some insight into the way ED works and the policies that President Obama and his administration are pushing to achieve reform.

The Fellowship was created to gather a small group of teachers in Washington and others around the country to advise the administration about how policies relate to the classroom. Initially, I worried that we would be trotted around the country to promote the Department’s policies, regardless of whether we agreed with them or not. I came to discover, however, that we have been asked to join ED because the people who make the policies want teachers in the building to foster a creative and meaningful dialogue. And though I come equipped with experience gained from Twinbrook Elementary School, Secretary Duncan wants me here to represent all teachers.

That’s a massive task and an awesome responsibility. Fortunately, I am not alone. I can count on working with other Fellows, past and present, who are spread around the country and represent a wide swath of American teachers. I know that we will engage in healthy and lively debate as we participate.

I still have much to learn. But I know that I am not here to get in line with the current policies unless I believe they are best for American education. I am not here to be a politician; I am here to be a teacher.

Greg Mullenholz
Greg Mullenholz is a teacher and instructional coach at Twinbrook Elementary School in Rockville, Md. and a 2011-2012 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow.

5 Comments

  1. Greg: have you discussed your beliefs that “the current administration isn’t helping to solve those problems” with any of the officials in the US Dept. of Education? And if so, what was their response? Can you describe their mindset?

    • Leonie,
      Greg’s head is probably spinning. I’m impressed he found time to write such a reflective blog.

      For the record, I’m a 2010 Classroom Fellow, speaking here as a newly minted private citizen, and not as an employee of ED. I think your thoughtful questions deserve some answers and I’d like to take a crack at them.

      First of all, we are teachers, and prior to working for the department, we spent most of our time teaching, and not doing policy work. So the Fellowship year for most of us involves a learning curve which is nearly vertical. It is difficult to have the conversations you ask about when you are busy assimilating a veritable flood of new learning.

      Second, one’s effectiveness as a TAF in having those conversations is a product of time and experience. You probably don’t want Greg to have those conversations until he has mastered the art and science of policy making at ED in some small way. It is in the best interests of students for teachers to be actually effective when they have an opportunity to be part of the federal policy process.

      Third, one of the things we discover as TAFs is that many of the assumptions we make about policy coming to the process are based at least in part on half truths and untruths promulgated by people with a variety of agendas. There are many things with which one might legitimately disagree with the Department, but when people engage with the Department based on misinformation it creates a lot of noise that contributes nothing to better policy.

      Let me give you couple of examples. Just the other day I was at a union meeting where an NEA staffer said “Arne Duncan has said that 50% of a teacher’s evaluation should be based on student test scores.” Unless I missed something, it would be more fair to say that state legislation mandating 50% was an unintended consequence of RTT. I was at a meeting last fall with our state department of education where an official actually said, “Vermont was forced to adopt the Common Core Standards because we accepted ARRA money.” Blatantly untrue – state officials trying to deflect criticism onto ED for a state board of education decision.

      But the one that frosted me was at NEA Representative Assembly in Chicago (I was an elected state delegate) where I heard multiple speakers claim that the Department was doing nothing to help rural teachers who teach multiple subjects out of necessity with HQT. In fact the Secretary has made substantive proposals on this issue but with ESEA re-authorization hung up in the legislative process it is challenging to act.

      I hope you see that reacting to this sort of misinformation is not a useful enterprise. As a TAF, I had a responsibility to learn what is true and what is untrue, and second, make sure accurate information is conveyed to the profession and the public at large so that people can usefully engage in the policy debate on the basis of fact and not just stuff somebody made up.

      You ask about the state of mind of policy makers. I see highly intelligent people doing extremely difficult work. Policy at the Federal level is a blunt instrument and getting it right seems to me to be one of the most difficult leadership tasks imaginable. These folks genuinely want to encourage great student learning. I have found that service to this goal is foremost on everyone’s mind. They have good dispositions as well as good intentions. They are genuinely interested in listening to stakeholders in order to improve policy. But if criticisms lack factual basis, or are simply people channeling what some famous person said on TV, then they really don’t help. Keep in mind, they’ve already heard the famous person too.

      Policy makers filter this stuff out, not because they are bad people, or because they are undemocratic, but simply because they can’t get anything done if they engage with it. I should also point out that when things backfire, the folks in ED feel it acutely.

      Please keep in mind that the question I am answering here is about the mindset and dispositions of policy makers at ED, and not expressing an opinion about the substance of policy. Speaking as a private citizen and a friend of the Department, I hope you find my comments useful.

    • Leonie, my initial beliefs about the role that ED played in the realm of education were misguided. I believed, like many others, that because ED was part of the federal system, meaning it was at the top of the ladder in terms of policy and funding, it must bear more of the responsibility. However, since arriving here, I have come to understand ED’s role in education more clearly. The 10th amendment leaves education mainly in the hands of state governments, with ED serving as a research partner, a funding source, and a protector of civil rights. Teachers in the classroom are often the last to hear about or have a say in the development of the policies that impact their students. This is still a concern of mine, and yet it is quite evident that Secretary Duncan has seen the value of involving teachers through the Fellowship. Over the last four years, more than 50 teachers have been partnered with ED to help develop and design policies and programs that are in the best interest of students. Trust me when I say, the best interests of students are what are at the forefront in ED’s policy development. I highly suggest the document, “Overview of the U.S. Department of Education.” It gives a great snapshot of the structure and involvement of ED.

  2. Why can’t more students, parents, community leaders, teachers, and school leaders be part of the educational reform process? How come the few “ambassadors” have to speak for the entire nation of concerned stakeholders? Is the U.S.A. truly democratic?

    • Great question, John. The Teaching Ambassador Fellows are brought here because we are stakeholders, practicing teachers who are tightly connected to how policies play out in the classroom. We know that we couldn’t begin to speak for all teachers, so during our tenure, we go into the schools and talk with as many teachers as possible, bringing their views back to the Department. That’s why we hold roundtable discussions and seminars with teachers where we actively seek teachers’ input and advice. We also arrange dialogues with teachers at ED, bringing them in to talk with policymakers and technical assistance teams. And we offer forums such as this blog, where teachers offer their views. Your comments on this blog (and our reading of it) are another way that teacher input comes back to the Department. Ultimately, of course, the answers to most teachers’ concerns won’t be met here or at any federal agency. So I encourage teachers such as yourself to get involved where most of the educational decisions are made: at the district and state level.

Comments are closed.