What Teachers Read in March

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Here are the top 10 stories teachers read this month, based on clicks from one of our most popular newsletters, The Teachers Edition.

Not signed up for the Teachers Edition? Here’s how to stay connected!

Dorothy Amatucci is a digital engagement strategist at the U.S. Department of Education.

Increasing Transparency and Accountability for Students

Higher education remains the most important investment any person can make in their future. In the several months I’ve been at the U.S. Department of Education, I have had a number of conversations with students and families that have inspired me to double down on our commitment to making college more affordable and accessible. A big part of our work toward that goal has been to increase both the quantity and quality of information that students, families, borrowers and the public have about higher education.

Today we are taking another step to increase transparency and accountability. We are releasing a list of colleges and universities that are on what we call Heightened Cash Monitoring. There were about 560 institutions on this list as of March 1. The list has been released to members of the press that requested it, and will be published on the Department website in the coming days and updated on a regular basis.

Heightened Cash Monitoring is a step that our Federal Student Aid office can take with institutions to provide additional oversight for a number of financial or federal compliance issues, some of which may be serious and others that may be less troublesome. Institutions may be on this list for a variety of specific reasons – for example, late financial statements, outstanding liabilities, accreditation issues, concerns about a school’s financial responsibility or possibly severe findings uncovered during a program review. For each institution that is on Heightened Cash Monitoring, we are also providing information as to why.

Heightened Cash Monitoring is not necessarily a red flag to students and taxpayers, but it can serve as a caution light. It means we are watching these institutions more closely to ensure that institutions are using federal student aid in a way that is accountable to both students and taxpayers.

Transparency and accountability are priorities for our entire Administration, and this Department and the Federal Student Aid office are no exceptions. We are taking a thoughtful approach to considering what data and information makes sense to provide publicly. Today’s decision follows our own discussions along with those we have had with multiple stakeholders, including news organizations.

From the start of the Obama Administration, we at the Department of Education have been committed to increasing transparency across the spectrum. We have worked to provide more – and better quality – data, including:

We also continually release a wealth of information aimed at helping students and families make smart decisions about where to go to college, including a comprehensive set of data about each institution on College Navigator – which contains enrollment, cost, graduation rates, students’ default rates, and campus security information. In addition, the Department already discloses a number of other pieces of information that can point at an institution’s financial health and other accountability metrics, including Default Rates, Clery Act Reports, 90/10 Reports, Foreign Gift and Contract Reports, Financial Responsibility Composite Scores and Final Program Review Determinations. And, of course, we have undertaken a historic effort to increase transparency and accountability for career colleges through our Gainful Employment regulations.

We have made enormous progress in providing information that helps students, families and borrowers. But we know we still have further to go, and we’re committed to pushing for greater transparency. Every single day we take seriously our commitment to doing more for students, and every action falls within that goal.

Ted Mitchell is the Under Secretary of Education.

Teaching and Leading at the 5th International Summit on the Teaching Profession

Each March I look forward to joining colleagues from around the world at the International Summit on the Teaching Profession to learn from high-performing and rapidly improving education systems about ways to elevate and enhance the teaching profession in order to improve student learning. I never imagined when we started the International Summit in New York City in 2011 that it would become a vibrant and lasting international community of practice. But the thirst among countries to learn from each other is strong and on March 29 and 30, Canada is hosting the 5th Summit, Implementing Highly Effective Teacher Policy and Practice, in Banff, Alberta.

We’ve learned so much from past Summit discussions and can see a real connection to education policy and practice in the U.S. over the years, as well as significant progress on commitments made by the U.S. delegation at the end of each Summit. I am particularly excited about this year’s Summit because teacher leadership — one of our three Summit commitments last year — will be highlighted this year.

Last week Secretary Duncan reported back on the first year of Teach to Lead, an initiative in partnership with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards that is designed to advance the national conversation around the future of the profession and promote meaningful opportunities for teacher leadership that improve outcomes for students. Teach to Lead is teacher-designed and teacher-led and has the support of more than 70 organizations, including the AFT and NEA which, along with Secretary Duncan, are part of the U.S. delegation to the International Summit. As Secretary Duncan said in front of a crowd of thousands, “I was hopeful [about teacher leadership] last year. I am convinced we are onto something really important and special now. Change has to come from teachers who own it and lead it.”

The progress and excitement in Teach to Lead over the past year has been phenomenal. Thousands of teachers have engaged in Teach to Lead through the online ‘Commit to Lead’ community, and more than 500 teachers, administrators, and representatives from supporting organizations have been at our regional summits and local leadership labs. Teach to Lead has truly been about elevating the teaching profession and supporting teachers by giving them opportunities to collaborate, plan and shape their own roles for their own contexts from the school to the state.

A real question for Teach to Lead is — what next? How does teacher leadership expand and grow? This year’s Summit agenda poses three questions that can help the U.S. to reflect on possible future paths.

  • How do high-performing countries promote deeper and more collaborative forms of leadership at all levels within education systems?
  • What strategies allow education systems to exercise consistent and widespread teacher leadership?
  • What should be the role of teachers and their unions and associations in creating conditions for teacher leadership?

Six amazing U.S. teachers who have been actively involved in Teach to Lead – from Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky and Massachusetts — are part of the U.S. delegation to this year’s Summit.   This is an opportunity for them to share their work, to hear what other countries are doing to support and encourage teacher leadership, and to reflect on next steps to elevate and advance teacher leadership back home.

I am eager to learn from our Canadian hosts and other international colleagues and excited to do so with creative, committed teacher leaders from around the United States.

Maureen McLaughlin is senior advisor to the Secretary and director of International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Education.

The Pathway to Success at King/Drew Magnet High School

King/Drew Magnet High School isn’t just preparing its students for graduation; it’s preparing them for life.

The school may be located in one of the most disadvantaged parts of Los Angeles, California, but its students are reaching for the highest levels in education – and they are succeeding. Students at King/Drew not only gradate in high numbers, fully 90% of those who graduate go on to attend college, including many of the country’s top schools, and they receive millions of dollars in merit-based scholarships and university grants.

“All students should be prepared for college and for careers because they should have all options open to them,” says English Teacher Latosha Guy. Teachers at King/Drew are preparing their students for the future by meeting their full range of needs, from career internships and fairs to after-school health and educational tutoring.

Teachers and students across the country are working together to focus on college and career readiness by setting and reaching higher standards inside and outside of the classroom. Teachers are helping their students succeed by nurturing and building their confidence along the way. As student Symmon-e Scott puts it, “High expectations make me nervous, but I know I can do it if I really put my mind to it.”

In this new video, see how teachers are helping students overcome challenges in the community to succeed at school and in life. Improving Education: A View from King/Drew Magnet High School shows how students truly believe that “there is no other pathway that will bring you success like education.”

We will continue highlighting extraordinary educators doing remarkable things in classrooms nationwide in our video series. To learn more, visit our Partners in Progress page.

4 Reasons to Apply for the 2015 President’s Education Awards Program

Principals! It’s time, once again, to nominate students for the President’s Education Awards Program!

We’ve got four great reasons as to why you should nominate students in your school.

1) Motivation!

Create the defining moment in a student’s life. As a principal, you aspire to make a difference in the accomplishments and success of your students. Through this program, you have the opportunity to be the catalyst that sets them on an upward path. Since 1983, these prestigious awards provide individual recognition from the President and the U.S. Secretary of Education for both student achievement and hard work.

The program has two recognition categories: The President’s Award for Educational Excellence and The President’s Award for Educational Achievement. The criteria for both are rigorous. Students who receive either of these awards know they’ve achieved something extraordinary.

2) Reward Academic Success!

The President’s Award for Educational Excellence recognizes academic success in the classroom. To be eligible, students must meet requirements including grade point average, school-set criteria and choice of states or teacher recommendations. 

3) Honor Educational Growth!

This award recognizes students that show outstanding educational growth, improvement, commitment or intellectual development in their academic subjects but do not meet the criteria for the Educational Excellence Award. Its purpose is to encourage and reward students who give their best effort, often in the face of special obstacles. Criteria for this award is developed at each school.

4) Celebrate Great Students!

Each year, thousands of elementary, middle, and high school principals participate by recognizing deserving students. The school principal determines the number of qualifying students based on program criteria and verifies the order for awards. There is no limit on the number of awards, as long as students meet the criteria for each award. Award orders can only be placed by a school administrator.

The award includes a certificate and congratulatory letter signed by the President, the Secretary of Education, and the school principal. School principals have final authority to determine which students receive an award.

Last year, nearly 3 million students from over 30,000 schools were recognized by the PEAP. 1.7 million students were honored for educational excellence and 1.1 million were cited for outstanding educational achievement.

Recipients of the 2014 PEAP stand proudly at Germantown Elementary School in Germantown, Maryland. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Recipients of the 2014 PEAP stand proudly at Germantown Elementary School in Germantown, Maryland. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Get more information about the program and how to apply.

Frances W. Hopkins is director of President’s Education Awards Program in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.

Secretary Duncan: “Step Up and Fund Education”

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On Friday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Edwin M. Stanton Elementary in Philadelphia to highlight the need to support teachers and students by investing in our nation’s schools.

During the visit, Duncan joined U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah (D-PA), Superintendent of Philadelphia schools Dr. William Hite, and acting Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera for a community roundtable discussion. Neighborhood residents, parents and teachers talked about how the community came together to keep the small school from closing a few years prior.

Secretary Duncan highlighted the need for equitable education spending in states, and called on Pennsylvania to “step up and fund education.” Recent data shows that students from low-income families in 23 states are being shortchanged when it comes to state and local education funding. In these states, districts serving the highest percentage of students from low-income families are spending fewer state and local dollars per pupil than districts that have fewer students in poverty.

Secretary Duncan visited a Stanton classroom, where students were holding a mock trial for Goldilocks. (Photo credit: Joshua Hoover/U.S. Department of Education)

Secretary Duncan visited a Stanton classroom, where students were holding a mock trial for Goldilocks. (Photo credit: Joshua Hoover/U.S. Department of Education)

Twenty states also have school districts that spend fewer state and local dollars on districts with a high percentage of minority students, than they do on districts with fewer minority students.

The good news is that nothing is preventing these states from funding education more equitably, and they could quickly join the dozens of states that are ensuring that low-income students are getting the resources and support they need to succeed.

All of us have a role to play when it comes to ensuring that students from low-income families aren’t shortchanged. At the federal level, we’re ready to work with Congress to close the federal loophole that allows districts to allocate funds inequitably.

Recently, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan laid out his vision for a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act, including the idea that opportunity for every child needs to be part of our national conscience.

Read more about our recent data and watch highlights of the visit below:

A Different Approach to NCAA Bracketology

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It’s the best time of the year for college basketball fans. But this morning, while most of us have been buzzing about Thursday’s Butler and Iowa State upsets, a surprise from UCLA and a near-win by Harvard, we also need a conversation to make sure these players aren’t losing out on a complete college experience. While we are cheering on our favorite teams, we should remember what it’s really all about for these student-athletes: getting a great education while chasing their dreams.

A few years ago, the NCAA raised academic benchmarks for teams to meet postseason play. While more should be done to make sure that all student-athletes – especially African-Americans – are learning both on and off the court, this was a good start toward restoring a healthier balance between academics and athletics in Division I college sports. But it was just a start.

As we were filling out our brackets, we decided to take a different approach. We thought it would be interesting to look at how teams would fare if the outcome of each match was determined by how well an institution is equipping its student-athletes to be successful in the classroom – and ultimately, to be successful after the final game.

Earlier this week, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida (UCF) released its annual study, “Keeping Score When It Counts: Academic Progress/Graduation Success Rate Study of 2015 NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournament Teams.” It is a comprehensive analysis of the academic performance of student-athletes on teams playing in the tournament. We built our brackets based on how teams fared in the report – first, based on the team’s Academic Progress Rate (APR) as reported by the NCAA, and in cases of a tie, by first the Graduation Success Rate of their basketball team and then the overall Graduation Success Rates of their student-athletes.

For many fans, these results may be a bit of a stretch. But it shows which teams may be doing a better job about making sure their athletes are students, first.

That’s a Cinderella story we can all get behind.

Download the NCAA women’s bracket based on academic performance

Download the NCAA men’s bracket based on academic performance

Sara Gast is Director of Strategic Communications at the U.S. Department of Education.

Know It 2 Own It: Helping People with Disabilities Access Middle Class Careers

March is National Disability Awareness Month, a month dedicated to promoting awareness of the strengths and achievements of Americans with disabilities. Today, many people with disabilities are living and working in the community and pursuing higher education. Yet, even now folks with significant disabilities often face additional barriers when trying to find jobs.

Robert Williams understands exactly what it takes to pursue and advance in one’s career as an individual with a significant disability. He’s currently Senior Advisor to the Deputy Commissioner for Retirement and Disability Policy at the Social Security Administration. He’s been working for over 20 years to raise awareness about the significantly disabled community in the workplace. He also worked tirelessly to ensure the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Learn more about his incredible journey by watching the video below:

Williams’ story, combined with those of others, is one of the many reasons the Department of Education has joined with leaders from 10 other agencies to develop the Curb Cuts to the Middle Class Initiative.

Announced at a Champions of Change last October, this Initiative brings ingenuity and common sense solutions to ensure that workers with disabilities, like all Americans, have opportunities to obtain and succeed at work. This month, officials from both the Initiative and the White House hosted a Summit on Disability and Employment, bringing together federal agencies, disability groups, philanthropic organizations, and employers. Participants heard from Department of Education Senior Advisor to the Secretary Michael Yudin; RSA Commissioner Janet LaBreck; Labor Secretary Tom Perez; and Senior Advisor to the President, Valerie Jarrett, about federal programs supporting employment of people with disabilities. Attendees also worked together to generate creative solutions and develop partnership projects to increase employment of people with disabilities.

This year, as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ADA, partners will work together to build and strengthen cooperation and collaboration between education, public benefits, health care, and employment. Already the value of these partnerships has been realized in the posting of the Initiative’s Resource Guide for Employers, the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) expanded Ticket-to-Work Call Center, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) revised ABC’s of Schedule A for Applicants with Disabilities, and a partnership between the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and SSA to recruit SSDI beneficiaries into federal careers.

Over the coming year, these agencies will continue to work together in a Year of Action to Expand Equal Employment Opportunities and Economic Mobility for Individuals with Disabilities.

Together, we will:

  • Develop a user-friendly portal to connect job seekers with disabilities to employers
  • Expand and share OPM’s screened list of job seekers with disabilities with federal contractors
  • The EEOC will issue proposed rules updating its regulations for federal employment under Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act
  • The Department of Labor will train federal contracting officers on Section 503 requirements
  • Through the Pathways to Careers: Community Colleges for Youth and Young Adults with Disabilities Demonstration Project, the Department of Labor is helping community colleges to equip students with disabilities with skills and credentials for high-skill careers
  • The Department of Education will ensure that VR counselors have the knowledge and skills to meet the demands of employers and to promote employment of individuals with disabilities

Chai Feldblum is Commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 

Robert Williams is Senior Advisor to the Deputy Commissioner for Retirement and Disability Policy at the Social Security Administration.

Eve Hill is Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. 

All are co-chairs of the Curb Cuts to the Middle Class Initiative.

D.C. Public School Students Celebrate Their Creativity and Knowledge in the Arts at ED

Students from Stoddert Elementary School, in collaboration with Fillmore Arts Center, perform their piece, “Swinging at Fillmore,” on the ED stage.  (Photo Credit: Joshua Hoover/U.S. Department of Education)

Students from Stoddert Elementary School, in collaboration with Fillmore Arts Center, perform their piece, “Swinging at Fillmore,” on the ED stage. (Photo Credit: Joshua Hoover/U.S. Department of Education)

Student artists from 14 District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) gathered at the U.S. Department of Education (ED) headquarters on March 4, 2015, to exhibit their creative work in the visual arts, film, dance and music. More than 200 educators, family members, arts leaders, DCPS community partners and ED employees also joined in the festivities to honor these students.

ED’s Principal Ambassador Fellow and 2012 Magnet Schools of America National Principal of the Year, Jill Levine, kicked off the presentation and recounted the moving story of one of her students whose education experience was transformed by the arts, “When kids feel important … when they feel part of something bigger, when they feel inspired about going to school, we don’t need [candy, home visits, court hearings, and other such measures] to make them go to school because they are drawn to the school through the arts.”

Students from School Without Walls Senior High School perform their piece, “Scripts and Scores,” which examines the relationship between music and silent film.  (Photo Credit: Joshua Hoover/U.S. Department of Education)

Students from School Without Walls Senior High School perform their piece, “Scripts and Scores,” which examines the relationship between music and silent film. (Photo Credit: Joshua Hoover/U.S. Department of Education)

Demonstrating such inspiration through the arts were three vibrant student groups. The Capital String Ensemble, from John Eaton Elementary School in partnership with Washington Performing Arts, performed a call-and-response piece and the Baroque piece, Pachelbel’s Canon. Four students from School Without Walls Senior High School presented their powerful composition of guitars and silent film, Scripts and Scores, to explore the difference between reality and perception. Stoddert Elementary School partnered with Fillmore Arts Center to help students create Swinging at Fillmore, a performance using dance, music and history to explore the work of legendary swing dancer Norma Miller.

Students in the Capital String Ensemble perform during the DCPS art exhibit opening. (Photo Credit: Joshua Hoover/U.S. Department of Education)

Students in the Capital String Ensemble perform during the DCPS art exhibit opening. (Photo Credit: Joshua Hoover/U.S. Department of Education)

Kaya Henderson, chancellor of DCPS, deservedly proud of her school system’s students and teachers, stressed the significance of arts education, “A world-class education includes the arts. … [T]o compete against children all over the world, then our young people have to have a well-rounded education, and that includes the arts.”

The director of the arts at DCPS, Nathan Diamond, emphasized the value not only of arts education but also of the collaborative nature of the exhibit, “This is a particularly special show in that it really highlights what happens when the public school system and the arts community come together to work for students.”

One student examines the work of her student artist peers following the performances and ribbon-cutting ceremony. (Photo Credit: Joshua Hoover/U.S. Department of Education)

One student examines the work of her student artist peers following the performances and ribbon-cutting ceremony. (Photo Credit: Joshua Hoover/U.S. Department of Education)

In fact, 13 community arts organizations that partnered with DCPS are featured in the exhibit. Dancer and choreographer Mickey Davidson from the Fillmore Arts Center’s collaboration with Stoddert Elementary reiterated Diamond’s perspective, “One of the biggest challenges was the continuity … but by [working with the students] once a week [and] being consistent … what we did, we did it solid.”

The students shared her sentiment, using “amazing,” “excellent” and “gold” to describe their performance. And the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ Executive Director Lionell Thomas stated the high goals of such collaborations with DCPS, “To have arts education at the forefront of what we do,” in order to contribute to the cognitive, socialization and creative skills of every student.

Following the performances, a ribbon cutting formally opened the exhibit. Some students from King Elementary discussed their portraits of famous people. These works, they explained, encapsulate the intersection between art and inspiration as a means of self-expression — one of the greatest forms of learning.

Perhaps the highest accolade of the day came from Andy Finch of the Association of Art Museum Directors, “Wow – I am proud to be a citizen of the District!”

Students excitedly take part in the ribbon-cutting ceremony, which represents the official opening of the DCPS Intersections student art exhibit. (Photo Credit: Joshua Hoover/U.S. Department of Education)

Students excitedly take part in the ribbon-cutting ceremony, which represents the official opening of the DCPS Intersections student art exhibit. (Photo Credit: Joshua Hoover/U.S. Department of Education)

Jessica Dillow is an intern in the Editorial Policy, Print and Art Services Office at the U.S. Department of Education and a senior at the Ohio State University.

All photos in this blog are by Joshua Hoover. More photos from the event may be viewed on the Department of Education’s Flickr.

Blog articles on Homeroom provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. The articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

The Department’s Student Art Exhibit Program provides students and teachers an opportunity to display creative work from the classroom in a highly public space 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.

Look and Listen: 10 Reasons Why We Can’t Afford to Cut Education Funding

Cross-posted from The White House Blog.

As you might have seen, House Republicans released their Fiscal Year 2016 budget this week — and to put it very simply, its priorities are pretty different from those in the President’s budget. The House GOP would cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires, all while slashing investments in the middle class that we know would grow the economy — particularly in job training, manufacturing, and education.

Their budget would cut funding for pre-k through 12 education (also known as “Title I Funding”) by $3.1 billion. That money could fund 4,500 schools, 17,000 teachers and aides, and 1.9 million students.

Earlier this week, the President met with superintendents and other school officials from all across the country. Each of them brought at least one object — from photos to books to charts — that represented what this vital funding means to their school districts.

Every American should know exactly what disinvestment in Pre-K through 12 education would mean for school districts around the country. Listen to each of these school leaders describe the vital programs in their districts that Title I helps fund.


1. “Acceleration Academies” that provide a month’s worth of learning in one week’s time.

Michael O’Neill, Chairperson of the Boston School Committee (Boston, MA)

2. A “Parent Academy” that has helped more than 3,000 parents prepare their kids to apply for college.

Barbara Jenkins, Superintendent, Orange County Public Schools (Orange County, FL)

3. “Parent University” college bus tours that make college a reality for more underserved kids.

Eric Gordon, Superintendent, Cleveland Metropolitan School District (Cleveland, OH)

4. A “Focus on Freshman” mentorship program that has increased graduation rates by more than 10 percent.

Valeria Silva, Superintendent, ISD 625 – St. Paul Public Schools (St. Paul, MN)

5. Extended school days that result in double-digit gains in math and reading scores.

Kaya Henderson, D.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction (Washington, D.C.)

6. Professional mentorship programs that connect students with professionals in cutting-edge fields.

Juan Cabrera, Superintendent, El Paso Independent School District (El Paso, TX)

7. Smaller classes that provide more direct attention to students in need of support.

Richard Carranza, Superintendent, San Francisco Unified School District (San Francisco, CA)

8. College and career-preparation programs that make sure students are ready to succeed.

Darienne Driver, Superintendent, Milwaukee Public Schools (Milwaukee, WI)

9. Development classes that have reduced truancy issues among young black students.

Jumoke Hinton, Board Member, Oakland Unified School District (Oakland, CA)

10. An after-school robotics team that competes regionally.

Airick West, Board Member, Kansas City Public Schools (Kansas City, MO)

At a time when it’s more important than ever to make sure young people have the skills they need to compete in a modern economy, the House Republican budget would bring per-pupil education funding to its lowest levels since 2000.

If you don’t want to see that happen, then make sure as many people as possible know what’s at stake.


Roberto J. Rodríguez is Deputy Assistant to the President for Education.

15 Principals, One United Voice

Melissa Fink poses with Secretary Duncan during her visit to ED. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Melissa Fink poses with Secretary Duncan during her visit to ED. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

A version of this post originally appeared on the Jones Elementary School blog.

What happens when you pull together 15 principals from Arkansas, Indiana, New York, Montana, California, Louisiana, Illinois, New Jersey, Tennessee, Kansas and Idaho together for a meeting? One united voice begins to emerge working to improve the quality of education for children in America.

I was recently invited to Washington, D.C., to participate in a round table discussion at the U.S. Department of Education. We were privileged to meet with Secretary Arne Duncan, Assistant Secretary of Education Deb Delisle and other senior staff members.

Prior to attending the meeting, I was very reluctant to voice my opinion in public. I had a preconceived notion no one cared what a principal from Arkansas thought. I never imagined myself talking to leaders of a federal agency.

When I received the invitation to visit ED, I felt many emotions. I felt humbled and honored to be selected to be part of a prestigious group. I felt scared because I was traveling far away to a place where I didn’t know anyone. I felt intimidated because I had never been placed in the political spotlight. I felt inadequate to speak to such important people.

My fears and insecurities began to melt away the first evening in D.C. We had an informal dinner to meet our colleagues. I started to feel more comfortable as we talked about our schools, our communities and our personal lives. It became apparent that although we came from different backgrounds, served in different communities, led diverse staffs, taught children from all ethnic backgrounds and social statuses, we had many similar ideas regarding best educational practices.

The next morning, we arrived at ED ready to meet with leadership.

As we met with different officials, it was apparent that they all wanted to learn from us. The day was spent with reciprocal learning happening around us — us learning from them — them learning from us.

The time we spent with Secretary Duncan felt very natural and relaxed, as well. He entered into the room with his sleeves rolled up and was eager to learn from us. It was a great meeting!

If I had to sum up my experience with one word, I would say it was empowering. My experience in Washington, D.C. has opened my world. I am now serving on several state level committees to improve education for Arkansas students. I have also begun to contact my state legislators and representatives to encourage policy makers to make decisions in the best interest of students. I’ve also been given the opportunity to address the Arkansas State Board of Education to discuss best teaching and leadership practices.

Before my trip, I was nervous about taking action. Now, after stepping out of my comfort zone, I feel empowered to be the voice for children everywhere. I take comfort in knowing the other 14 administrators I became friends with are also fighting this courageous battle with me although we are miles apart. It was a great experience and one I would highly recommend to anyone.

Melissa Fink is Principal of Jones Elementary School in Springdale, Arkansas.

Learn more about Jones Elementary and how the teachers work with Fink to encourage their students to succeed.

Innovative Teaching and Learning Strategies at Austin Community College

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Earlier this week Dr. Jill Biden and I had the privilege of visiting Austin Community College (ACC), in addition to meeting with innovators at the SXSWedu education conference. Once again I was inspired by the tremendous collective effort to increase student success—from the students themselves to college leaders to technology entrepreneurs.

During our visit, Austin Community College student Jenny Bragdon allowed us to observe her work at the Learning ACCelerator lab. The school believes the lab to be the nation’s largest computer lab, and it combines computers—more than 600 — with faculty and tutors who help students when they need assistance.

When Jenny arrived at ACC, she was told she was prepared for college-level English courses, but needed to take some courses to get her ready for college-level math, since it had been over 20 years since her last math course.   She enrolled in one of the classes that meet in the Learning ACCelerator, a developmental math class that allows students to reach college-level math in a self-paced environment.

In addition to the faculty and tutor assistance in the lab, Jenny’s professor, Prof. Vance, schedules optional small lessons in one of the adjoining conference rooms on subject areas where many students indicated they needed assistance. In one example, Prof. Vance offered a lesson on fractions, which was a topic Jenny had already moved beyond. But by attending the lesson, Jenny learned some helpful tips that reinforced her understanding. ACC has worked to build a model that integrates the best of technology-based and face-to-face teaching and learning on a large scale.

Jenny said that the impact of the developmental math class has been tremendous. She is on pace to finish three semesters worth of content in just one semester. And while she has always had the goal to teach, she is now considering teaching math, based on her rich experience in the math lab. Jenny, who has a young daughter, wants to encourage all young people—especially girls—to love math as much as she has come to.

The Austin Community College ACCelerator lab is just one example of innovative thinking by community college leaders, a strategic use of technology tools, and the hard work and dedication of students. My visits to the two community colleges and with technology entrepreneurs at SXSWedu underscored the importance of bringing all of these resources together to ensure student success.

At the Department of Education, we’re working to identify, support, and build the evidence base for these kinds of innovations. Our First in the World grant program will award $60 million in the upcoming competition for innovations to increase student success, and is currently inviting comments on its proposed priorities (due March 25). And our current round of Experimental Sites in Federal Student Aid includes a focus on competency-based education, to better support students in self-paced programs.

Our great thanks to the students, faculty, and leadership of ACC and those across the country working to increase student access and success.

Ted Mitchell is the U.S. Under Secretary of Education.