Promoting Common-Ground Reforms of Social Service Partnerships

Cross-posted from the White House blog.

Today, the Obama Administration is taking an important step toward common-ground reforms that strengthen the partnerships the federal government forms with faith-based and community organizations for the purpose of serving people in need. Nine federal agencies are issuing notices of proposed rulemaking (NPRMs) today that would clarify rules that apply to these partnerships and extend added protections for social service beneficiaries.

The impetus for these reforms came from a diverse Advisory Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (Advisory Council). In 2009, President Obama asked this Council to make recommendations for strengthening the social service partnerships the government forms with nongovernmental providers, including strengthening the constitutional and legal footing of these partnerships. The Advisory Council issued its recommendations in a report entitled A New Era of Partnerships: Report of Recommendations to the President. While Council members differed on some important issues in this area, they were able come to an agreement on a number of significant recommendations. I had the honor of chairing this Advisory Council before I took my job at the White House.

In response to the Advisory Council’s recommendations, President Obama signed Executive Order 13559. Today, agencies are issuing proposed rules to accomplish some of the aims of that Executive Order.

The proposed rules clarify the principle that organizations offering explicitly religious activities may not subsidize those activities with direct federal financial assistance and must separate such activities in time or location from programs supported with direct federal financial assistance. For example, if a faith-based provider offers a Bible study as well as a federally supported job training program, the Bible study must be privately funded and separated in time or location from the job training program.

The NPRMs also propose new protections for beneficiaries or prospective beneficiaries of social service programs that are supported by direct federal financial assistance. In the proposed rules, the agencies set forth a notice to beneficiaries and prospective beneficiaries that informs them of these protections. These notices would make it clear, for example, that beneficiaries may not be discriminated against on the basis of religion or religious belief or be required to participate in any religious activities and advises beneficiaries that they may request an alternative provider if they object to the religious character of their current provider.

At the same time, the NPRMs assure religious providers of their equal ability to compete for government funds and of continuing protections for their religious identity like the ability of providers to use religious terms in their organizational names and to include religious references in mission statements and in other organizational documents. The NPRMs also state that the standards in the proposed regulations apply to sub-awards as well as prime awards, and set forth definitions of “direct” and “indirect” federal financial assistance. These areas have been sources of confusion for some providers.

The agencies are encouraging interested parties to submit comments on the proposed rules during the next 60 days. Once those comments have been received and analyzed, the final rules can be issued. Separate from the rulemaking process, agencies are continuing to work toward other modifications to their guidance, practices and communications strategies consistent with the Executive Order.

At the time the first Advisory Council made its recommendations to the President, its members stated in their report to the President:

As far as we know, this is the first time a governmental entity has convened individuals with serious differences on some church-state issues and asked them to seek common ground in this area. It should not be the last time a government body does so. Policies that enjoy broad support are more durable. And finding common ground on church-state issues frees up more time and energy to focus on the needs of people who are struggling. If adopted, these recommendations would improve social services delivery and strengthen religious liberty. They also would reduce litigation, enhance public understanding of these partnerships, and otherwise advance the common good.

We join the agencies in welcoming this news and look forward to continuing the important rulemaking process.

For each agency’s NPRM, click on the relevant link below:

Melissa Rogers is the Director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

ED Celebrates Student Art with ‘Yo soy … Je Suis … I am … My Neighborhood’ Exhibit

The entrance halls and ground floor public spaces of the U.S. Department of Education are filled year-round with color, creativity, and powerful ideas, thanks to the talents of young artists from the United States and around the world. In November, ED conducted a host of special activities celebrating the 15th anniversary of International Education Week, including an opening reception and ribbon cutting for the 2014 VSA international children’s art exhibit Yo soy…Je Suis…I am…My Neighborhood, presented by the Office of Very Special Arts (VSA) & Accessibility and the Department’s Student Art Exhibit Program. Each year VSA, a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, receives over 700 international and national entries from students with disabilities, ages 3–22, and competition winners display their artwork at ED.

Caption: P.S. 177 Technology Band member Jeremiah Estick appreciates the exhibited work of visual artists from Singapore and the United States. (Photo credit: Paul Wood/U.S. Department of Education)

P.S. 177 Technology Band member Jeremiah Estick appreciates the exhibited work of visual artists from Singapore and the United States. (Photo credit: Paul Wood/U.S. Department of Education)

The event featured a robust lineup of speakers, including education leaders as well as a student, teacher, and parent. Highlights also included a performance by the NPR-acclaimed P.S. 177 Technology Band, made up of nine students from a school in Queens, N.Y., for students with disabilities. The exhibit featured art pieces by students from Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Saint Lucia, Taiwan, and the United States, depicting the importance of their neighborhoods. 

ED and the U.S. Department of State established International Education Week in 2000 to promote and celebrate the role that education plays worldwide. Maureen McLaughlin, director of ED’s International Affairs Office, spoke about the importance of arts education in supporting international cultural awareness: “Visualizing our neighborhoods allows each of us the opportunity to show the people and places that we love.” Emphasizing the exhibit’s importance, she stressed that “[l]anguage can be a barrier, but pictures bridge that gap.”

In a recorded message, Secretary Arne Duncan highlighted the value of international study programs in fostering cultural understanding, social development, and economic health. He said, “The ways in which citizens interact with each other … have fundamentally changed,” and emphasized the importance of education as we “redefine what it means to be ‘neighbors’ in an increasingly interdependent world.”

To be a neighbor also means to ensure access to success, regardless of background or ability. Michael Yudin, acting assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, championed the values of inclusion, equity, and opportunity: “It starts with expectations, with high expectations. If we have high expectations for kids with disabilities, we have high expectations for all of our kids.” He emphasized ED’s focus further, saying “[I]t’s making sure that we’re focusing on results and better outcomes for our kids.”

Adam Goldberg, music teacher and founder of the P.S. 177 Technology Band, exemplifies what it means to set high expectations and foster opportunity for students with learning disabilities to dream big and succeed. Through Goldberg’s inspired teaching, students not only develop musical skill but also social awareness and confidence. Student performer Denzel Jackson commented, “I’ve learned to play rhythms within a steady groove. … It’s all about watching, listening, and feeling the music.” Hyacinth Heron Haughton, mother of band vocalist Jason Haughton, stated, “With the help of Mr. Goldberg [my son] has excelled tremendously.”

In addition to using traditional instruments, students used iPads to produce complex musical arrangements. The band performed three musical selections. When You Come Back, written by South African artist Vusi Mahlasela, had the audience clapping to its soulfulness. Though the lyrics for Being Me were written by Goldberg, the melody was inspired by student vocalist Jason Haughton. An instrumental version of the opera classic Nessun dorma (None Shall Sleep), an aria from Puccini’s Turandot, was the most difficult to perform because the beat fluctuated, requiring students to follow the conductor intently. Of his students’ success Goldberg declared, “I am so proud of them. … Every time we do this song … it gets better and better and better.”

Adam Goldberg conducts a musical arrangement performed on iPads by members of the P.S. 177 Technology Band. (Photo credit: Paul Wood/U.S. Department of Education)

Adam Goldberg conducts a musical arrangement performed on iPads by members of the P.S. 177 Technology Band. (Photo credit: Paul Wood/U.S. Department of Education)

After each performance the audience applauded the band with loud cheers and standing ovations. Tobi Lakes, the band’s keyboardist, surprised the crowd with his spontaneous post-performance speech when he excitedly yelled, “We are incredible! Yes! We did it! We made it! We have been working very hard since the beginning of the year, and we got it! Thank you!”

P.S. 177 Technology Band member Tobi Lakes celebrates the band’s performance success. (Photo credit: Paul Wood/U.S. Department of Education)

P.S. 177 Technology Band member Tobi Lakes celebrates the band’s performance success. (Photo credit: Paul Wood/U.S. Department of Education)

This event culminated with the traditional celebratory ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the student art exhibit to the public. Though this year’s International Education Week activities and celebrations have come to a close, the exhibit will be on view through Dec. 31 as a vibrant testament to the power of high expectations, diverse student voices, and art’s capacity to unite individuals and nations.

Proud members of the P.S. 177 Technology Band participate enthusiastically in the ribbon cutting ceremony. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Proud members of the P.S. 177 Technology Band participate enthusiastically in the ribbon cutting ceremony. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

View more photos from the event.

Isadora Binder and Asheley McBride are staff in the Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII), and Olivia Murray is an OII intern from the University of California San Diego.

The Department’s Student Art Exhibit Program provides students and teachers an opportunity to display creative work from the classroom in a highly public place that honors their work as an effective path to learning and knowledge for all. To visit the exhibits or for information about exhibiting, contact Jackye Zimmermann at

Additional Public Comment Sought for Preschool Development Grants Competition

Updated March 24, 2014. Thank you to those who submitted comments on our March 10, 2014 Homeroom Blog regarding the $250 million for the new Preschool Development Grants competition, appropriated in the FY14 Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014 (Public Law 113-76).This input will be considered as we develop competition requirements, priorities, and selection criteria consistent with the language in the FY 2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014 (Public Law 113-76). In a few weeks, we will post an Executive Summary and provide an opportunity for additional Public input.

Public Meeting

When:   Thursday, March 20, 2014 from 3:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Where: U.S. Department of Education
Potomac Center
10th Floor Auditorium
550 12th Street SW
Washington, D.C.

You may also view the live streamed session at Thursday, March 20, 2014 from 3:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. at

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning Libby Doggett (ED) and Deputy Assistant Secretary for and Inter-Departmental Liaison for Early Childhood Development Linda K. Smith (HHS) will attend to listen to your ideas on the new competition. Please consider the questions listed below for the Homeroom Blog in preparing your remarks.

If you are interested in speaking during the meeting, you must register by sending an e-mail to: on Thursday, March 13, 2014 from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. ET.

E-mails received outside of this time period will only be accepted as space allows. Requests for speaking will be honored on a first come, first serve basis. A confirmation will be sent two days prior to the meeting. For attendees not speaking, reservations are not required. Persons who are unable to attend the meeting in person or who do not register early enough to speak during the meeting are encouraged to submit written input on this blog.

For security purposes, all speakers and attendees are reminded to bring a photo ID and a business card.  Please allow ample time to go through security.


Your email must include the term “Preschool Development Grants Public Meeting” in the subject line of your e‐mail and indicate the following in the body of your cover email:

  1. Name(s) and title(s) of attendees from your organization (only one speaker per organization)
  2. Cell phone and e-mail for each attendee

The format for the Public Meeting will be as follows: 

  • Speakers will be given 3 minutes to address the group.  Time will be strictly enforced.
  • Speakers are encouraged to limit their comments to the Preschool Development Grants competition and may choose to address one or more of the questions listed below in the Homeroom Blog section.
  • In addition, all individuals and organizations are strongly encouraged to submit input in writing (electronic form preferred) by Friday, March 21, 2014, at 5:00 pm ETD.
  • Depending on the number of persons who wish to speak, we may not be able to accommodate everyone.

This is an important opportunity to provide input to the Departments. We hope you can join us. 

Please submit opinions, ideas, suggestions and comments pertaining to the new competition below. We are particularly interested in your input on these questions:

  • How should the competition address the direction in the Conference Report to the FY14 Consolidated Appropriations Act for awards to be made to two types of grantees:  low-capacity States with small or no State-funded preschool programs and high-capacity States that have a larger State-funded preschool program?
  • How should subgrantees that are early learning providers demonstrate strong partnerships with local education agencies and how should local education agencies demonstrate strong partnerships with early learning providers?
  • How should States distribute funds within the State in order to scale-up of proven preschool models in local communities?
  • What factors should we consider, if any, in distinguishing State applicants based on their past commitment to early learning and/or participation in federal or state grant programs, e.g., success or lack of success in previous related grant competitions, current federal support for early learning, or past State investment in early learning)?
  • How can we use these grants to support a more streamlined system of high-quality programs and services for children across the birth through age five continuum?
  • What can we do to encourage the sustainability of services after the grant ends (e.g. encouraging or requiring nonfederal matching funds, maintenance of effort provisions, or supplement not supplant policies)?
  • What kind of absolute, competitive or invitational priorities should we consider in designing the competition?

This document will be posted for public input until 5:00 PM ET on March 21, 2014, at which time the input section will be closed and we will begin considering comments received as we develop requirements, priorities, selection criteria, and definitions. Once the initial input from the field is collected and reviewed, we will draft an executive summary and post for comments that will, in turn, inform the final NIA.  In order to run a rigorous competition and obligate funds to grantees before December 31, 2014, ED plans to waive rulemaking on this new program, pursuant to its authority in the General Education Provisions Act.

This is a moderated site.

That means all comments will be reviewed before posting. We intend to post all responsive submissions on a timely basis. We reserve the right not to post comments that are unrelated to this request, are inconsistent with ED’s Web site policies, are advertisements or endorsements, or are otherwise inappropriate. To protect your own privacy and the privacy of others, please do not include personally identifiable information such as Social Security numbers, addresses, phone numbers or email addresses in the body of your comment. For more information, please be sure to read the “comments policy” tab at the top of the Web page.

The fine print

Please understand that posts must be related to the new competition and program, and should be as specific as possible and, as appropriate, supported by data and relevant research. Posts must be limited to 1,000 words. All opinions, ideas, suggestions and comments are considered informal input. ED and HHS will not respond to individual posts, and these posts may or may not be reflected in the policies and requirements of the program. If you include a link to additional information in your post, we urge you to ensure that the linked-to information is accessible to all individuals, including individuals with disabilities. Additionally, please do not include links to advertisements or endorsements; we will delete all such links before your comment is posted.

Again, thank you for your interest in this historic opportunity to support high-quality preschool. We look forward to hearing from you.

Department of Education’s linking policy

Department of Education’s disclaimer of endorsement


Call with Education Grantmakers

On May 4, the Department of Education hosted a quarterly conference call for education funders with Secretary Arne Duncan.

Secretary Duncan talked about waivers to No Child Left Behind, the Department’s Blueprint for Perkins Reauthorization, and interest rates on student loans. He also discussed the key role that foundations and corporations can play in the Department’s grant competitions for i3 and Promise Neighborhoods, and answered questions from several audience members.

Read the transcript, or listen to the call Audio icon.

Call with Education Grantmakers About i3 HRAs

On November 14, the Department of Education hosted a conference call for education funders with Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement Jim Shelton.

Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton provided an overview of the i3 program and discussed the announcement of the 23 applicants named as 2011 Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund Highest Rated Applicants. These applicants, addressing a range of core educational needs including improving STEM education and increasing rural achievement, must now secure a private-sector match of a portion of their requested federal funds before becoming i3 grantees.

Read the transcript, or listen to the call Audio icon.

National Research Center for Career and Technical Education

The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), intends to conduct a new competition in the form of a 3-year contract for a national research center (Center) to carry out scientifically based research and evaluation [  * see definition  ], and to conduct dissemination and training activities consistent with section 114(d)(4) of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006. We are seeking input from States on research topics and issues, and on types of dissemination activities and technical assistance to States that address education, employment, and the training needs of student in career and technical education programs.

In addition, we are particularly interested in any input you may have regarding future research and technical assistance concerning the following topics:

  • Career pathways and programs of study
  • Distance education and online learning for students in CTE programs
  • CTE and at-risk youth
  • Dual enrollment

Brief overview of Center

The Center, currently known as the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, was originally authorized by the Education Amendments of 1976 and reauthorized by four Carl D. Perkins Acts (1984, 1990, 1998, and 2006). The current Center will complete its five year grant period July 31, 2012. It is the Department’s intent to complete the completion and award the contract for a new Center by August 1, 2012. To learn about the work of the current Center and for available reports of research from the current and previous centers, please go to their website:

Process for submitting input

The deadline for submission of input is October 21, 2011, so that we can analyze the input and recommendations as we finalize our plans for the competition. We are encouraging all interested parties to submit comments in the comment section below. As an alternative to submitting comments through this blog, commenter may submit ideas directly to the Department by sending an email to: National Research Center for CTE

Please note that ideas posted via e-mail will be posted on the blog. Please click here to review comment policy.

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Scientifically based research means research standards that:

  1. Apply rigorous, systematic, and objective methodology to obtain reliable and valid knowledge relevant to education activities and programs; and
  2. Present findings and make claims that are appropriate to, ands supported by, the methods that have been employed.

The term includes, appropriate to the research being conducted:

  1. Employing systematic, empirical methods that draw on observation or experiment;
  2. Involving data analyses that are adequate to support the general findings;
  3. Relying on measurements or observational methods that provide reliable data;
  4. Making claims of causal relationships only in random assignment experiments or other designs (to the extent such designs substantially eliminate plausible competing explanations for the obtained results);
  5. Ensuring that studies and methods are presented in sufficient detail and clarity to allow for replication or, at a minimum, to offer the opportunity to build systematically on the findings of the research;
  6. Obtaining acceptance by a peer-reviewed journal or approval by a panel of independent experts through a comparably rigorous, objective, and scientific review; and
  7. Using research designs and methods appropriate to the research question posed (20 U.S.C. 2302(25) and 9501(18)

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Call with Education Grantmakers

On July 21, the Department of Education hosted a quarterly conference call for education funders with Secretary Arne Duncan.

Secretary Duncan talked about the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge and this year’s Investing in Innovation and Promise Neighborhoods competitions. The Secretary outlined how these programs had changed since last year, and the importance of the roles that grantmakers should continue to play in helping states, schools and communities apply for and implement their programs.

Read the transcript, or listen to the call Audio icon.

Invitation to June 10 Race to the Top Assessment Public Meeting on Automated Scoring

On Friday, June 10 in Chicago, the U.S. Department of Education (Department) will host the second in a series of public meetings related to the Race to the Top Assessment (RTTA) grants. This meeting will bring together representatives from the two RTTA consortia and a panel of experts to discuss automated scoring of assessments.

The RTTA program, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, awarded grants to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), which together comprise 45 states and the District of Columbia. The consortia are developing comprehensive assessment systems in English language arts and mathematics in grades 3 through 8 and high school aligned to the Common Core State Standards to measure whether students have the knowledge and skills necessary to graduate from high school ready for success in college and careers. For more information on the assessment systems design, please see the approved RTTA applications at

Both consortia’s planned assessment designs use a mix of scoring by educators and automated scoring systems. The purpose of the meeting is for PARCC, SBAC and the Department to better understand the reliable and valid use of automated scoring of various formats and types of items. The information shared at this meeting will help inform the use of automated scoring in the new assessment systems that will be administered for the first time in school year 2014-15.

The meeting is open to the public and an opportunity will be provided for members of the public to provide input. Space is limited, however, so registration is required and we encourage each organization interested in attending to limit itself to no more than two representatives. The meeting will be held on Friday, June 10, 2011, at the Hilton Suites Chicago/Oak Brook from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. CDT. To register, go to If you experience problems accessing the registration site, contact

In addition, the Department will hold a third public meeting on the RTTA program in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, August 10, 2011. That meeting will focus on the inclusion of students with disabilities and English language learners in the assessment systems. More information about this meeting, including how to register, will be made available when details are finalized.

Future meetings on the RTTA program will include such topics as achievement standards setting and performance level descriptors, and selection of a uniform growth model consistent with test purpose, structure, and intended uses. Funding to support these meetings is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Education Stakeholders Forum, May 11, 2011

An Education Stakeholders Forum will be held Wednesday, May 11th, 2011, at 1:00 p.m., at the Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The forum will be hosted by Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Thelma Melendez. The purpose will be to solicit stakeholders’ input regarding the delivery of technical assistance via the Comprehensive Center network.

More information:

Charter Schools Week

President Obama issued a proclamation designating May 1-7, 2011, as National Charter School Week.

Read the text below or at the White House website.

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release                                                                          April 29, 2011



In communities across our country, successful public charter schools help put children on the path to academic excellence by harnessing the power of new ideas, ground-breaking strategies, and the collective involvement of students, parents, teachers, and administrators. During National Charter Schools Week, we recognize these institutions of learning and renew our commitment to preparing our children with the knowledge and skills they will need to compete in the 21st century.

The unique flexibility afforded to charter schools places them at the forefront of innovation and in a unique position to spark a dialogue with other public schools on how to organize teaching and learning and enhance curricula. As part of our strategy for strengthening public education, my Administration has supported charter schools and rewarded successful innovation, encouraging States to improve their laws and policies so students can thrive.

Equally important to a world-class education system are actions taken by charter school authorizers and the charter community itself to strengthen effectiveness and deliver results that improve educational outcomes. My Administration will continue to encourage meaningful accountability, including closure of low-performing charter schools and replication of advances and reforms made at high-performing charter schools.

In order to win the global competition for new jobs and industries, we must win the global competition to educate our children. At their best, charter schools provide us with an opportunity to meet this challenge and produce the next generation of great American leaders.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim May 1 through May 7, 2011, as National Charter School Week. I commend our Nation’s charter schools, teachers, and administrators, and I call on States and communities to support charter schools and the students they serve.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twenty-ninth day of April, in the year of our Lord two thousand eleven, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-fifth.

# # #

New Jersey Teacher of the Year Reflects on the Challenge and Promise of Teaching

(Left to right) Back: Seniors Maura Nestor, Miwa Haraguchi, Ashley Holleran, Leah Haines, Eilis McGovern, teacher Maryann Woods-Murphy, Sarah Stettin, Tom Grueter, Scott Waxenbaum, Fred Tracy; front: Dan Abraham, Tom Wolff, Connor Pilkington

(Left to right) Back: Seniors Maura Nestor, Miwa Haraguchi, Ashley Holleran, Leah Haines, Eilis McGovern, teacher Maryann Woods-Murphy, Sarah Stettin, Tom Grueter, Scott Waxenbaum, Fred Tracy; front: Dan Abraham, Tom Wolff, Connor Pilkington

The poster behind each speaker’s chair reads, “If you want to make a difference in the life of a child, TEACH.”

The atmosphere buzzes at 200 Washington Avenue in Newark, as we wait for Secretary Arne Duncan, Mayor Cory Booker, and Congressman Donald Payne to arrive to our teacher town hall.

In the meantime, teachers in the front rows introduce themselves.

“I train pre-service teachers.”

“I’m a Spanish teacher.”

“I’m a principal of a charter school.”

We stop abruptly, however, and spin around to face front as the U.S. Secretary of Education takes his seat with fellow leaders. We are all thinking about how educational decisions affect the students and teachers we know.

When Secretary Duncan speaks, he offers a challenge to Newark: in five years, Newark should become an educational model for the nation. Lots of smiles and nods around the room.

“I welcome the debate, the dialog,” says Duncan, as he looks directly into the crowd.

Teaching must be elevated to a level of national respect to attract and retain the hardest working, most committed teachers, he says. With creativity, energy and hard work, we’ll stop “perpetuating poverty” and we’ll work with the necessary “sense of urgency.”

He reports that post-Katrina New Orleans is now improving faster or as fast as any school district in the country. “Can Newark come together to get better faster?” Secretary Duncan looks around the room. His style is personal and open, but it is clear that he means business.

Arne tells a story about President Obama’s meeting with the President of South Korea. When President Obama asked him to describe the biggest challenge he faces in education in his country, the leader of South Korea exclaimed, “My parents are too demanding!”

That gets a chuckle around the room, but it also makes us think. We reflect on what being that demanding means. We know that when parents and teachers work together in an atmosphere of the highest expectations, it’s better for kids. We just needed to be reminded.

The April 20 Teacher Town Hall meeting was a call to action. The Department of Education can inspire a sense of urgency, provide funds to create innovative programs, set the tone. But, it’s up to us—the educators, parents and students around the country—to get up every day to do this work.

“It’s not about got ya,” said the Secretary, “it’s about continued development.”

Being a teacher has never held greater challenge and promise.

Maryann Woods-Murphy

Maryann Woods-Murphy is the 2010 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year. She teaches Spanish at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, NJ.

Reclaiming Reform

There’s a rift growing in our profession. Some teachers feel dumped on, others are tired of rhetoric from leaders who lack experience in teaching, and even more are preparing to leave behind their passions for the classroom. Another, contrasting, group of teachers have begun using the tools of the information age and leadership development programs to play a role informing education policy. The viewpoints of teachers towards our profession may continue to divide if the trend of alarmist and incendiary messages from news and pop-culture media persist. In what ways can the profession surface and rise towards the elevated status it deserves, given the incessant, and sometimes negative, coverage of our country’s fierce education debate? We all know that endemic in our profession right now is extreme adversity; why are some people able to turn this adversity into strength, while for others it is debilitating?

I have begun to reflect on this dichotomy after many conversations with teachers around the U.S. and our recent interviews with prospective Teaching Ambassador Fellow candidates. My typical conversation with future Fellows began on a somewhat common ground of knowledge about education policy, allowing for healthy dialogue on proposed reform agendas. In opposition, some conversations with teachers around the country were founded on annoyance, extreme frustration, and perceived helplessness towards reform agendas. Both groups were passionate about the same topics, yet informed through different experiences. I’m convinced that all teachers are capable of participating in political discourse, but not totally sure our daily experiences prepare us to be strategic and enthusiastic about those conversations.

One of the colleagues I met on the road came to me in tears caused by her frustration. In her second year teaching in a Western U.S. urban school system, she is facing the threat of losing her job due to impending budget cuts. During our first conversation I carefully listened to and legitimized her trepidation. I then shared resources, tactics, and my own story of layoff threats during my first-year. Without my experience of working in the U.S. Department of Education, our discussion may have been less productive and more focused on the daily rumors we hear about nationwide layoffs. Last week I followed up with her over the phone to learn how she is feeling since we last met. This time she sounded strong-willed. She is prepared for the worst but is now focusing on the two things that are most important: her students’ science projects and building a network of contacts that will support her search for a new position.

While this example alone ensures me that my year away from the classroom has been worth the sacrifice, I can’t help but think that the percentage of peers I have personally connected with over the last 9 months is infinitesimally small. Beyond that, I understand I don’t have all the answers and still need to lean on those around me for support. How can informed teachers overcome the negative buzz that media coverage generates for hundreds of thousands daily? How can we share what we’ve learned, ensuring there is a collective will and ability of all teachers to develop policies promoting student achievement and teacher support? I challenge any educator in a position of leadership to build relationships with discouraged colleagues based on positive and honest communication. These relationships will begin to bridge the rift by enhancing teachers’ collective capacity to drive an agenda for future reforms, inching the profession towards an era of empowered decision-making.

Nicholas Greer, 2010-2011 Teaching Ambassador Fellow