New Tool Kit Provides Resources to Teach Children Learning English

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced the completion of the English Learner Tool Kit, designed to support educators in ensuring equal access to a high-quality education for English Learners (EL). This tool kit complements the English Learner Guidance that was released in January 2015 by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice to remind states and school districts of their civil rights obligations to EL students and Limited English Proficient parents.

The tool kit was unveiled at Bruce Monroe Elementary School at Park View in Washington, D.C. On hand at the event were Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department; District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson; and John King, the Education Department’s senior advisor delegated duties of deputy secretary of education.

As teachers who work at the Department of Education as Teaching Ambassador Fellows, we are excited about the access this tool kit gives educators to clear-cut guidance and research on best practices in the field.

The EL Tool Kit is divided into chapters on topics such as identifying all English Learners, addressing English Learners with disabilities, and evaluating the effectiveness of a school district’s program. Each chapter can be downloaded separately and information is grouped into easy-to-find topics. For each chapter, there are key points and examples, as well as adaptations of and links to resources created and maintained by public and private organizations. By bringing together all these resources into one easy-to-use location, teachers, principals, and districts have an accessible tool kit full of free resources.

ED's John King talking with educators about the Tool Kit.

ED’s John King talking with educators about the Tool Kit.

Across the country, public school teachers serve more than 5 million ELs. As teachers ourselves, we can attest that being given a tool that provides support for closing the achievement gap between ELs and native English speakers is invaluable. Looking at this new resource, we are reminded of the many EL students who have sat in our classrooms, bringing with them a rich diversity of languages, cultures, and experiences. As educators, we are hopeful that this new resource will make it less complicated to find answers about how to best meet the needs of our students and provide them with every opportunity to reach their fullest potential.

Aman Dhanda and JoLisa Hoover are Teaching Ambassador Fellows with the U.S. Department of Education.

College Programs for Students with Disabilities Are “Changing Culture”


For too many kids in classrooms like mine in New Haven, Conn., disabilities can be sources of shame, indicators of what students can’t do, instead of what they can. As part of the Department’s Ready for Success bus tour, I got to see two universities where students with disabilities are not just enrolled in college, they’re thriving, finding success academically and socially in a way that many never could have imagined.

Staff at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Central Missouri go beyond procedural compliance to provide, what Melody Musgrove, director of the Office of Special Education Programs, called an “on-ramp to the rest of our kids’ lives.” Federal data suggests that students with disabilities are less likely to attend four-year colleges than their peers; these examples prove that doesn’t have to be the case.

Meridith Bradford said college counselors at her New Jersey high school “said I was crazy” when she shared her plan to attend a four-year college. With the support of the University of Illinois’ Beckwith Residential Support Services program, Bradford, who has cerebral palsy, is now a senior and one of the student managers for the university’s wheelchair basketball teams.


“When I was in high school, I had an aide follow me everywhere whether I liked it or not,” Bradford said. “When I get my college degree, I know it’ll be me getting it under my own power.”

The 26 students with severe physical disabilities in the Beckwith program live in an accessible dorm and hire a team of personal assistants who help them with daily living tasks like eating and dressing. “If I would’ve gone anywhere else, I would’ve had to have lived at home,” said Dan Escalona, a sports columnist for The Daily Illini who has muscular dystrophy. “The independence aspect is a big reason why I came.”

Today, students with disabilities at the University of Illinois graduate at about the same rate as others in their same programs, according to Tanya Gallagher, dean of the College of Applied Health Sciences.

Meanwhile, at the University of Central Missouri, students with intellectual, cognitive, and developmental disabilities are learning to lead independent lives.

Julie Warm knew she wanted her daughter, Mary, who has Down syndrome, to attend college ever since Mary was in first grade. She also knew that no appropriate program existed.

She reached out to 19 area universities before she connected with Dr. Joyce Downing, a professor in UCM’s College of Education, who was enthusiastic about designing a program.

Today, Mary, 23, is an alumnus of the university’s THRIVE program and is studying to be a preschool assistant teacher, so she can “teach kids to accept people and not grow up to be bullies,” she said.

Students in the THRIVE program live together and take a range of classes, both in the university and customized to their needs. They also take on two internships in fields of interest and experience counseling to develop their life and social skills.

“In the past, schools would’ve put them in a vocational role,” said Michael Brunkhorst, one of the instructors with the THRIVE program. “I say, raise those expectations because all of our students have proven that they can do much more than was thought they could do.”

Programs like these involve “changing a culture,” said Michael Yudin, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services at the U.S. Department of Education.“It’s more than just providing services to students with disabilities,” he said. “It’s about the value and talent that these individuals can contribute to our society.”

After these visits, one of my first tasks upon returning to school was to welcome a new fifth grader with an individualized education plan. My experiences at these universities left me hopeful that by the time he graduates, more universities will have programs like these that go above and beyond to harness students’ talents for the good of us all.

Matt Presser is an Instructional Literacy Coach at King/Robinson School in New Haven, Conn., and a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

A Look Back: How One School Community Responded to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

With the recent anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this past August, I found myself reflecting on my experiences following the fall 2005 disaster. My home state of Texas served as one of the primary evacuation locations for Katrina and then, not even a month later, was hit by Hurricane Rita. While the circumstances of each were dramatically different, they highlighted the ways schools serve as safe havens for students and the community during times of crisis.

As a teacher in Leander, TX just outside Austin, the devastating stories of the 1,833 lives lost during the storm haunted me. But I knew it was the survivors that needed our immediate attention. Texas, which received the vast majority of the evacuees, went to great lengths to help those impacted by the event get back on their feet.

My state, for example, made it easier for displaced students to enroll, and helped them meet their basic needs. Teachers and students went to great lengths to create a sense of normalcy for these young people, many of whom were traumatized, and get them up to speed with our state standards.

My Aunt, a school nurse outside of Houston, witnessed firsthand the physical and emotional toll the storm had on its victims. She treated many students with badly infected feet caused by walking through dirty flood waters. As she provided first aid, the children told her of their loss and fear of leaving behind their homes (or what was left of their homes).

Just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina, we were shocked to hear that another major hurricane was coming and this time it was headed towards the Texas coast. Rita made land fall on the Texas/Louisiana border on September 24th, 2005 with winds of up to 120 mph and over six inches of rainfall across the region.

My family near Houston evacuated to Austin like many others and spent 22 hours on the road for what should have been a four-hour drive on an exceptionally hot day and night. It was predicted that the hurricane had shifted and might make it as far inland as Austin – directly over the evacuation routes – exacerbating the anxiety of everyone involved.

Buses in traffic

Once again, our schools stepped up. My district, for example, designated seven schools as evacuation centers. The district’s administrators, teachers and other employees even volunteered to run the centers because the number of Red Cross volunteers had been depleted by Katrina. These were initially meant to provide safe haven for up to 1,500 evacuees, but within 24 hours, that number swelled to 3,500 and a few days later, the total was 4,200.

Leander’s schools also became a refuge for hundreds of pets and livestock. This was a lesson learned from Katrina where many people refused to evacuate because shelters wouldn’t accept their animals. During that unforgettable weekend we provided meals, clean beds, working showers, and TVs to monitor the storm. We also provided medical care for both people and animals and even helped welcome a new baby and puppy into the world.

Looking back, I’m so proud to have been a part of an education community that immediately stepped up to create a safe and nurturing environment for students and neighbors from near and far. As the country goes back to school this fall, it reminds me of just how many educators across the country help students cope with trauma on a daily basis. It’s an honor to be part of the profession that does this and a legacy of Katrina and Rita worth remembering a decade later.

 JoLisa Hoover is a 4th grade teacher at River Ridge Elementary School in Leander, Texas and a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.


Seeing Teacher Leadership in Action – #ReadyforSuccess in Cedar Rapids

Teach to Lead at Roosevelt

As an educator, there is great value in visiting classrooms and observing the profession of teaching in action. As a 6th grade teacher in California, I did this many times in my school. In my role as a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow, I have the added opportunity to visit schools across the country, learning from a diverse set of colleagues.

This week, I visited classrooms in the state of Iowa as part of the Department’s annual back-to-school bus tour. Iowa recently implemented the Iowa Teacher Leadership Compensation System (TLC) which is designed to reward effective teachers with leadership opportunities and higher pay across the entire State. The Council Bluffs Community School District, where Superintendent Dr. Martha Bruckner set a vision for the year of “Defying Gravity”, and the Cedar Rapids Community School District were two of the first districts to receive state teacher leadership grants and are in their second year of implementation.

I observed four major elements of effective teacher leadership in both districts:

  • flexibility in developing systems and positions of leadership that work for individual district needs
  • student centered transparent collaboration among all stakeholders
  • support and guidance from school and district administration to successfully implement these systems, and
  • time and space for teachers to effectively collaborate with one another.

The classroom instruction, grade level collaboration, and professional development sessions that I observed in both districts made it clear that placing value on teacher leadership results in student success. One of the most significant drivers to this success was peer-coaching from a student centered perspective.  The coaching conversations we witnessed were focused on the needs of the students, not the deficits of the educator.  This perspective promotes a growth perspective for both teachers and students.

Duncan holds a sign with students at Roosevelt High in Cedar RapidsAt Roosevelt Middle School in Cedar Rapids, Secretary Arne Duncan observed a coaching session between Laura Zimmerman, an English Language Learner teacher, and Anne Ironside, an Instructional Design Strategist. During the session, the teacher and coach participated in a respectful post-observation lesson discussion of specific teaching strategies and evidence for the progress towards goals set for students. The coach shared feedback, asked clarifying questions, provided resources for future lessons, and kept the conversation focused around students. As a teacher, it was compelling to watch Secretary Duncan witness the power of teacher leadership and hear Principal Autumn Pino discuss the benefits of such teacher leadership opportunities, stating, “This has been the most rewarding work we’ve ever done.”

Following the session, the Secretary then held a panel discussion with state and local education leaders in about the development of the TLC system, the role of Teach to Lead in advancing their work, and the successes they have seen as a result of the tangible support teachers and administrators receive to be the instructional leaders in their buildings. Local leaders stressed that the driving force behind the district’s success is undoubtedly the support for teacher leadership, and they made it clear that sustaining teacher leadership initiatives is a continued priority for supporting student success.

After just two days among these Iowa school districts’ teacher leaders, it’s clear that schools are indeed “Defying Gravity” and it is systemic support for effective teacher leadership that is taking them to new heights.

Watch Secretary Duncan wrap up day two of the Ready for Success bus tour:

Aman Dhanda is a 6th grade teacher at Woodland Prairie Elementary School and is currently a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

PDK/Gallup Poll Reveals Americans Know Students and Teachers Deserve the Very Best

As an educator with more than a decade of classroom experience, I’m encouraged by several of the data points in the PDK/Gallup Poll on the Public’s Attitude Toward the Public Schools. It is especially heartening to learn that the majority of Americans want to better support the critical role teachers play in the lives of our young people and the prosperity of our nation. Teachers are among the most hardworking, dedicated, and creative professionals in any field, and this survey reveals that the public believes in taking steps—including increasing pay—to support and recognize them in a manner that reflects the vital nature of their work.

We know that teachers have the greatest impact on learning. We know that families across the United States send their very best to school every day. And, we know that every family’s very best—regardless of factors including socioeconomic status, geographic location or cultural background—has a fundamental human right to an education of the highest quality. Tragically, we also know that countless students have been denied this right throughout American history. To overcome our unjust past and establish an education system that truly achieves equity and enables every student to realize his or her potential, we need the very best teachers in all of our classrooms. That means treating teachers like the professionals they are by giving them the supports necessary to grow their practice and meet the needs of all students.

That also means attracting the highest-achieving students into the teaching profession, an idea that about half of those polled support. To best serve students—in addition to developing strong content and pedagogical knowledge—prospective educators should represent the diversity of our nation, be trained in cultural proficiency and, most importantly, possess an unwavering belief that all students can achieve.

The PDK/Gallup poll results are especially timely as we wait for the proposed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). It is imperative for Congress to pass legislation to improve educational supports and structures nationwide. It’s what teachers need and America’s very best deserve.

Meredith Morelle is a 2015 Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

The Importance of Rigorous Coursework for All Students: A Teacher’s Perspective

Patrick Kelly, a 2015 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow, begins his eleventh year teaching Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics.

Patrick Kelly, a 2015 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow, begins his eleventh year teaching Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics.

This week, I will be starting my 11th year teaching Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics, and I have seen during that time the importance of a rigorous high school experience in preparing students to succeed in college. That’s why I was excited to see the U.S. Department of Education’s recent announcement of $28.4 million in federal grants to help students access AP classes. These grants are used to help pay for low-income students taking advanced placement tests administered by the College Board, the International Baccalaureate Organization, and Cambridge International Examinations.

As the College Board noted in its 2014 AP Report to the Nation, students who experience success in an AP course are more likely to graduate college on time and earn higher GPAs. Beyond the numbers, I have seen the positive impact of rigorous coursework in the stories of my students.

One of my greatest joys each year is to receive emails, calls, and visits from former students, and they frequently note how well their AP coursework in high school prepared them for a collegiate learning environment. In addition, an overwhelming majority of my students have performed well enough on the AP exam to receive college credit, which, in turn, has given them increased freedom and a leg up in their collegiate studies.

I also know my students are uniquely fortunate, as my home state of South Carolina pays the fee for each student in an AP course to take the exam. The cost to take an exam is nearly $100, and, while the College Board provides a reduced fee for students with financial need, the cost for these students is still over $50. As a result, this fee becomes a major obstacle to accessing a rigorous curriculum for many students in the 38 states that don’t pay for AP exams.

Currently, over 20 percent of our nation’s school-age children come from households living in poverty, and, for these children, paying the fees to take even one AP exam is simply not financially possible. However, this inability to pay does not mean these children lack the ability to thrive and succeed in rigorous coursework. I have taught numerous students who were in poverty or homeless, and they excelled in their coursework and earned college credit via the AP exam just like their more advantaged peers.

By distributing The Advanced Placement Test Fee grants announced last week, the Department of Education is extending opportunity to thousands of students around our country.

In the 21st century, student access to rigorous coursework is an essential right to prepare students for the workforce, and programs like this one are an important step in the right direction. There is still more work required in order to provide students from underprivileged backgrounds with the types of academic supports and systems necessary to succeed in challenging coursework, but eliminating barriers to accessing rigor is an essential first step. The Department of Education’s efforts to provide that access to more students is exactly the type of initiative that will help us reach our nation’s common goal of producing “college- and career-ready” students.

Patrick Kelly is a teacher in Richland County School District Two in Columbia, SC and has been selected as a 2015 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow.

Games for Learning Summit: Expanding the Conversation Between Educators and Game Designers

Cross-posted from Medium.

Whether it is using quick warm-ups like Game of Phones or highly immersive experiences with Mario Kart and Minecraft, digital games can be powerful motivators for learning. It is with this in mind that we are eager to expand the conversation between teachers and game developers.

The U.S. Department of Education and Games for Change, with support from the Entertainment Software Association, will host the Games for Learning Summit April 21 at the 2015 Games for Change (G4C) Festival. With more than 250 participants, including nationally recognized educators, the designers of some of today’s most popular video games, and members of the U.S. Department of Education, we are hopeful that this event will encourage collaboration focused on the learning needs and interests of young people in the U.S.


Collaborating and designing with the learning interests of young people in mind requires a shift in thinking from all stakeholders. Based on the conversations we’ve had with teachers and students, there is a hunger for better games that support better learning today. With the recent release of The Ed Tech Developer’s Guide, the pathways for developing for impact are clearer than ever.

At the beginning of the school year, the two of us (along with a handful of amazing teachers) spent a weekend enmeshed with teams of game designers at the White House Education Game Jam. Focused on games that could provide powerful learning resources for schools, we have continued to be optimistic about the results that such collaboration can yield.

A recent game-design project in Chad’s classroom highlights some of what game-based learning has to offer us as teachers and students. Inspired by games ranging from Geometry Dash to Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure, students working in teams of four completed their own Scratch games like Wasteland Adventures, World Championship Soccer, and Sanic Pong. Each ‘studio’ of four students brainstormed genres, tropes, and mechanics for games they wanted to create and play. Then they got to work. Programmers started to code. Artists worked with platforms like Piskel and Google Draw. Sound Engineers scoured and Sound Bible for sound effects and composed theme music with Online Sequencer. Student project managers kept everyone working and talking with one another through shared docs and folders.

The project helped students develop media literacy, soft skills like collaboration, and technical skills like managing an online repository of A/V assets, to say nothing of the logic, math, reading, and writing skills they demonstrated in navigating tutorials, communicating online, and building their games. Students even discussed gender norms in character design and traditional gaming narratives. Game-based learning isn’t about consuming a product to pick up a fact or two; it’s about learning to analyze or produce pieces of interactive media that require critical thinking, persistence, and problem-solving to master, critique, play, and make.

Now, with several White House Education Game Jam alumni and friends coming to the Games for Learning Summit, we are excited about focusing on articulating the thinking, dialogue, and spaces for collaboration between developers and educators.

We’re looking forward to continuing conversation far beyond the Games and Learning Summit. We need to work together to answer questions like: How can we help one another make and use games to fulfill educational needs in the classroom? How can we put the best interactive content in the hands of students for the most meaningful educational experiences — those focused on discovery and decision-making? Let’s figure out game-changing ways to harness the power of play for the work of learning in schools.

Join the conversation on Tuesday by watching the live stream and Tweeting your contributions with #G4L15.

Antero Garcia (@anterobot) is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education and teaches pre-service teachers as an Assistant Professor at Colorado State University.

Chad Sansing (@chadsansing) teaches technology and project-based learning at the BETA Academy in Staunton, Virginia.

If There’s No Seat at the Table, Make Your Own Table

A year ago when Secretary Arne Duncan introduced an effort to promote teacher leadership called “Teach to Lead” to thousands of educators, none of us had any real idea of what it was going to become. The speech that introduced it was long on aspirations but short on plans and details. To be quite honest, there was a hefty bit of skepticism among many I spoke with that the US Department of Education wasn’t going to do anything more than rhetoric around teacher leadership. I wrote Arne to ask if I could remain as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow for a second year in a hybrid role working part-time for the Department to help structure Teach to Lead, while also teaching in Omaha. I offered to be one of the people who would lie awake nights, making sure this all came together! It was impossible to know then that Teach to Lead would come to involve thousands of educators from throughout the country, producing hundreds of meaningful ideas to improve education for young people while strengthening the teaching profession.

Was I crazy to sign on to such a vaguely defined project? Obviously. But I was also passionate in my belief that only teachers could bring about real system reform that put students first. I had experienced teacher leadership as the backbone to student success. Over the previous 5 years my school, Miller Park Elementary, had been transformed. Student achievement, and students’ belief in themselves, had soared. What made us successful – teachers leading transformation in collaboration with our principal, students and parents – had to happen everywhere. My mantra, “When teachers lead, kids succeed!” comes from experience.

The Teach to Lead team, comprised primarily of teachers from the Department of Education and National Board, knew that we had to have something that was “scalable” (capable of reaching teachers across the country). We developed a website that has over 2,000 members on the virtual community “Commit to Lead” where teachers can share their ideas and receive feedback from colleagues. The website is also a place to access the resources of our 70 support organizations and read the inspiring stories of teachers who are leading change.

Three national Teach to Lead Summits were held in Louisville, Denver and Boston during the winter. The Summits were run by teachers – we set the agenda and ran the show. We asked teachers to help us score the ideas to select participants. We placed teachers as prominent speakers and trainers. Teach to Lead was going to walk the talk.

Over 350 teachers from 38 states came alone or in teams, equipped with their ideas for change. The energy in the room at each Summit was palpable! Teachers were claiming their authority as change agents and the networking was compounding their drive towards success.

We provided training on logic models and our growing list of support organizations provided the critical friends who asked the hard questions and pushed participants to think deeper. We held workshops to learn more about working with administrators, resource development, talking with policy makers, mentoring and more. Our participants arrived with nascent ideas and left with over 100 fully formed action plans to implement at home – and new skills to get it done!

At the end of the Denver Summit, a teacher from Eagle County schools in Colorado told me, “I’ve been to many weekends for teacher leaders and sometimes I feel like I’m a part of somebody else’s agenda. This is the first time I feel like I was supported in moving forward with my own agenda which is the agenda of helping my students.” We were on the right track, but we continued to listen to feedback, reflect and adapt to make Teach to Lead stronger.

Secretary Duncan speaks at the 2015 Teaching and Learning Conference (Photo by Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education

Secretary Duncan speaks at the 2015 Teaching and Learning Conference (Photo by Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education

Today, our last year of work on Teach to Lead culminated on stage at the National Board’s Teaching & Learning conference with a panel of 4 exceptional teacher leaders and Secretary Duncan. In front of a crowd of thousands, Arne talked about Teach to Lead, stating, “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.”

Chris Todd speaks at the 2015 Teaching and Learning Conference (Photo by Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education)

Chris Todd speaks at the 2015 Teaching and Learning Conference (Photo by Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education)

Another panelist, Chris Todd, a history teacher and a teacher leader in residence at the Connecticut State Department of Education said “Every teacher has the potential to be a teacher leader. The expertise that comes from experience makes for a better policy recommendation.”

The next step for Teach to Lead is to get even more “boots on the ground”; we are choosing 2-3 ideas out of each Summit to develop through Leadership Labs. The Labs are opportunities for local teams to receive hands-on targeted technical assistance from the Teach to Lead team and supporter organizations, convene stakeholders to discuss the status of plans and future actions, and develop approaches to integrate teacher leadership into systems and structures within local contexts. Our first Lab was in Marshall, Michigan and in just one day, our teacher leaders received tremendous community support including:

  • Expanding their project to neighboring middle schools through a joint effort
  • Partnering with 2 universities to assist with data collection and analyzing as well as providing pre-service teachers to help with after-school programs and other interventions
  • Highlighting their project as an exemplar by the Michigan State Department of Education
  • The assistance of two social workers from local organizations
  • Greater access to mental health care for their students

Working on Teach to Lead this past year has been a joy. It has given us the opportunity to offer a megaphone to the voices – and incredible ideas – of teachers around the country. We’ve begun to change the culture of what it means to be a teacher by proving that teacher leadership can transform both student learning and the education system.

From the beginning of this effort, I was a fierce advocate for doing this right. To me, that meant empowering teachers to design and implement this initiative. I’m so proud to say we’ve done that in Teach to Lead with Arne’s fervent support. As he said during this morning’s panel, “If there’s a seat at the table, grab it. If there’s no seat at the table, make your own table.”

What an honor it has been to work with the Teach to Lead team and my colleagues across the country! Margaret Mead said it best, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Thanks for letting us make our own table, Arne.

Teaching is Leading: Takeaways from the Teach to Lead Summits

The room was electric. Just a year ago, back in my own classroom, this scene would have been unimaginable to me.

I watched as hundreds of teachers, overflowing with formidable drive, shared innovative ideas and engaged in deep discussion on teaching and leading in Denver, Co. The same dynamic played out weeks before in another packed venue in Louisville, Ky.

What drove these teachers to Denver and Louisville?

Despite diverse backgrounds, each was prompted by a desire for authentic, meaningful opportunities for leadership in their schools and beyond – without leaving their classroom and students.

And Teach to Lead is the vehicle through which so many teachers are fighting to make their leadership dreams a reality.

Born of a partnership between the Department of Education and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Teach to Lead is spotlighting and scaling up promising projects across the country to expand teacher leadership opportunities and to improve student achievement.

To accomplish these goals, Teach to Lead is hosting three regional summits – in Louisville, Denver and, soon, Boston. Later this year, local leadership labs will help select projects culled through the summits and the online community at Commit to Lead to develop further.

The moments I experienced in Louisville and in Denver have filled me with certainty: this effort will lead to real change for teachers and kids, and these amazing teachers (alongside principals and advocates who support them) will be the ones to lead it.

I felt this certainty as I watched 2015 Principal of the Year Jayne Ellspermann help teachers at the summit understand how to develop an alliance with their principals as part of their efforts to lead.

I felt this certainty when State Teachers of the Year shared tried and tested advice about how to make their voices heard with administrators and policymakers alike.

And, more than anything, I felt this certainty when I heard the voices of energetic, empowered teachers like Sean from Oklahoma, who said, “It’s so powerful to be in a room with all of you … and to know that we share the same struggles. That gives me the motivation to continue moving forward.”

The expectation of Teach to Lead is not that every idea will be successful. We know that, in some places, the appetite or room for real teacher leadership is lacking.

But, Teach to Lead is not about any single idea. It’s not even about the summits.

It’s about helping teachers build a sense of empowerment and the skills to lead adults as confidently as they lead youth. And it’s about equipping teachers to replicate great leadership in their communities so that teacher leadership is not just an idea in the halls of the Department, in the heads of aspiring teacher leaders, or in forward-looking states and districts like Iowa, Hawaii, Kentucky, Denver, and Long Beach.

Teacher by teacher, we’re building a movement – one that says our nation’s hard-working educators should undeniably have a voice in the decisions that shape their work and lives; that they should lead their schools, districts, and states; and that their expertise shouldn’t be honored simply with words, but with actions.

And all of this leads me back to my own path as a teacher leader.

I loved teaching. My students constantly amazed me with their intellect, spirit, and joyful approach to learning. But I felt stymied by the limitations of my role. Though my classes and school were high achieving, my ability to make a difference was obstructed by the walls of my classroom and the attitudes of others toward me – that I was “just a teacher.”

So, I left. And, though serving the President and Secretary Duncan is an immense honor, I paid a heartbreaking price.

This is the real power of Teach to Lead. I know there are many teachers out there like me – who yearn to use their leadership skills and to be heard by decision-makers. Our nation is losing an unquantifiable resource as teachers make the tough choice to leave the classroom year after year.

It’s time that we recognize that the toughest problems facing education today cannot be solved without teachers, their input, or their leadership. We must build systems at the federal, state, and local levels to equip teachers with the resources and support to develop as educators and as leaders.

In these efforts, Teach to Lead is undoubtedly moving the needle. And as the movement heads to Boston and beyond, I feel incredibly lucky to play a part.

Kelly Fitzpatrick is a confidential assistant in the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Education.

2015-2016 Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellowship Program Applications Now Available!

“The Ambassador Fellows are a critical investment in ensuring that the decisions affecting students are informed and implemented by our nation’s best teachers and leaders. The answers to our most challenging educational problems lie in the voices of the courageous principals and passionate teachers our Fellows bring us every day.”
– Secretary Arne Duncan

Teaching Ambassador Fellows gathered at the Teaching and Learning conference for the announcement of the Teach to Lead initiative earlier this year. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Teaching Ambassador Fellows gathered at the Teaching and Learning conference for the announcement of the Teach to Lead initiative earlier this year. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Applications for the U.S. Department of Education’s 2015-2016 cohort of Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows opened on December 18, 2014 and are scheduled to close on January 20, 2015 at 11:59 pm EST. For more information about the application process, visit our Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows program pages or go directly to the applications for the Teaching and Principal Fellowships on

Since 2008, the Department has employed 87 outstanding teachers on a full- or part-time basis through the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship program. Last year, ED piloted a Principal Ambassador Fellowship that brought three highly-talented principals to work for the Department on a full- and part-time basis.

Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows are outstanding educators, with a record of leadership in the school community, strong communication skills, and insights on education policy based in their school and classroom expertise. They come with networks of support from their professional communities and have participated in a variety of activities that have prepared them to write and speak frequently about instruction, school culture and climate, educational leadership and policy.

Both of the highly selective programs reflect the belief that teachers and principals should have meaningful opportunities to learn about and shape the policies that impact students and school communities nationwide. As teachers and principals are often the most trusted sources of information about education policy for parents, community members, colleagues, and students themselves, it is imperative to create more ways to link the Department’s programs, policies, and resources directly to the field.

The 2013-2015 Principal Ambassador Fellows and Secretary Duncan. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

The 2013-2015 Principal Ambassador Fellows and Secretary Duncan. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

The Ambassador Fellows have directly contributed to hundreds of activities at the Department and captured the voices of thousands of teachers and principals from every state. They were particularly instrumental in the RESPECT project and in inspiring and executing the Department’s current Teach to Lead initiative. They were also critical partners in offering flexibility around tying teacher evaluations to new assessments and addressing a culture of over-testing.

There are two different options for candidates. The Washington Fellowship is a full-time appointment, based at the Department’s Headquarters in Washington. The Classroom Fellowship, on the other hand, enables teachers and principals to participate on a part-time basis, while still allowing them to fulfill their regular school responsibilities.

All Teaching Ambassador Fellows spend one year learning about key federal programs and policies, sharing their expertise with federal staff members, and providing background on federal initiatives to other educators. This helps teachers better understand and implement these efforts at the federal, state and local levels. For the Fellows, the program provides greater knowledge of federal educational policy, strengthens their leadership skills, and gives them the firsthand opportunity to address some of the  challenging issues facing education today.

“Being a Teaching Ambassador Fellow has been the best professional learning of my career,” says Tami Fitzgerald. “I have learned about educational policy, but more than that, I have discovered that my voice can be heard, and our collective voices can make a difference.”  Principal Ambassador Fellow, Rachel Skerritt adds, “The Principal Ambassador Fellowship is intended to be a beneficial resource to the Department, allowing ED to hear valuable input from school leaders. However, the experience has been just as beneficial to my own learning and leadership. I constantly bring back best practices to my own school, having had the privilege of meeting passionate principals nationwide.”

Great teachers and principals—please consider applying and sharing this information with your colleagues! Sign up for updates on the Teaching and Principal application processes, call 1-800-USA-Learn, or email us at or with questions.

Gillian Cohen-Boyer is Director of the Principal and Teaching Ambassador Fellowships Programs at the U.S. Department of Education.

Testing: Can We Find the Rational Middle?

Recently I visited Glen Iris Elementary School in Birmingham, Alabama to meet with a group of teachers and their principal. I was in Birmingham as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow and it was highly recommend by local educators that I visit Glen Iris while in Birmingham to see the incredible work going on at the school. During my visit I learned about the school’s focus on project-based learning, how it energizes teachers and promotes cross-curriculum connections and implementation of college and career ready standards in a way that has significant meaning for students and the surrounding community. I learned how this type of learning relies on several factors including the internal capacity among teachers to lead and bring others along in this work and a supportive principal who will work to make sure the resources needed are provided (even grow a beard and sleep on the school roof to fundraise if necessary!). I also learned about their school garden, which was a sight to behold and a powerful a lesson for how to keep learning focused on developing the whole child.

The assessment culture was also very different at Glen Iris Elementary. It was clear that every teacher in the room agreed that we can and should measure learning, but, also, that current “tests” were measuring learning. When I asked Principal Wilson to share his views on testing he looked at me very calmly said, “There is more than one way to measure the standards. We have to be ever-growing.”

Since returning from Birmingham, much has happened in the “testing” world.

Recently, the Foundation for Excellence in Education came out with an analysis of district testing calendars from the 2013-14 school year. The foundation looked at 44 districts and found huge variation; some required as few as eight tests on top of required state assessments – and one required 198 additional exams. In addition, the Council of Chief State School Officers and Secretary Duncan have shined a spotlight on testing and are asking states and districts to have difficult conversations about the quantity and quality of tests administered to students. Also in recent weeks, several school districts in Florida have moved to cut down on testing. Miami-Dade County cut 24 interim assessments, adding 260 minutes of instruction back into the schedule, while Palm Beach County cut 11 diagnostic tests and made all district-level performance assessments optional. Moreover, Hillsborough County school district leaders are calling on the state to reduce the amount of testing in schools while several school officials have already eliminated final exams at middle and high school levels, as well as reduced the number of assessments for elementary grades in math, science and language arts.

I recently sat down with Secretary Duncan to hear his perspective on the current state of testing and accountability. While the testing pendulum has swung from one side to the other, my hope is that we will land somewhere in the rational middle. And as I continue in my education journey, I will forever keep those timely words of Dr. Wilson at the forefront of my mind and will challenge all of us to be “ever-growing.”

Emily Davis is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

An Invitation to Commit to Lead

When I was honored to be named Nebraska teacher of the year in 2007, almost in the same breath folks said, “Congratulations – when are you leaving the classroom?” Unfortunately, we have built into the American teaching culture this perverse disincentive that only seems to listen to and honor educators who move farthest away from those who need us most – our students.


Teach to Lead seeks to flip that by allowing teachers to lead from the classroom. We know that the many of the best ideas come from teachers – in fact, the solutions to today’s educational challenges will not be solved without the involvement of classroom teachers in the development as well as the implementation of innovative educational ideas.

Teach to Lead was developed by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to advance student success by expanding opportunities for teacher leadership – in other words, to make sure that teachers were involved in the development and implementation of education transformation.

One of the components of Teach to Lead is our virtual community, Commit to Lead. Commit to Lead is for those who have a seed of an idea, those who are developing their ideas, and those who are deep in implementation. It’s for classroom teachers, administrators, system leaders, advocacy groups – all those who are working to include teacher leadership in their decision making. The platform is a place to discuss and learn from others who may have already been down your path – or who want to learn from your success!

Commit to Lead is easy to use. After you join the community, you can post your own idea (just 300 words or less) and interact with others who comment. Or you can join and then peruse the ideas posted by others, offering your suggestions and giving a “thumbs up” by voting for those ideas that you find most compelling.

Christina from Willamsport, Pennsylvania, has submitted the most talked about idea so far:

“Principals, central office admin, consultants, and state ed departments would be required to teach just one prep or class for a 3-6 month period at least once every two years. The teacher in which they are ‘subbing’ for would then be released during that time to participate in some of the leadership responsibilities of the person assuming their role as teacher. Or they could use their release time to coach a colleague (or new teacher).

An easy idea to implement? Not really. Worthy of discussion? Absolutely! To be done right, this wouldn’t just be a simple schedule change, but a real culture shift that exemplifies the importance of being as close to the classroom as possible. I’ve often heard teachers say that some policies would never happen if administrators had to live by their own rules. I also know many teachers that don’t understand the heavy burdens and isolation faced by many in traditional leadership positions. A change of this magnitude would be great if it was done thoughtfully and with the best interests of students at the forefront.

Commit to Lead isn’t just about posting your own ideas. It’s also about sharing your “teacher wisdom” with colleagues across the country. Meeting the needs of her English Language Learners is what prompted Donna from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to reach out to colleagues through Commit to Lead:

I would like to start a discussion of ways to foster accurate academic participation for ELLs (or other student populations). Currently, I use scaffolds such as posted and practiced academic sentence frames to assist students when reporting out ideas after “Think-Write-Pair-Share.” I would like to collaborate with others to broaden my strategies and increase student use of academic language and structures.

Maybe you are just the person Donna is looking for to help fill her teacher toolbox! The best ideas are stolen or borrowed from other teachers – maybe even you!

Deidra from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, saw a problem in her teaching community and stepped up with a solution:

All teachers benefit from collaborative interaction, so I am starting a collaborative learning group among the CTE [Career & Technical Education] teachers I work with at my high school. Because our planning times do not coincide, I am using Google classroom to share professional readings with my colleagues, opening up discussion threads, and encouraging them to post articles and reading suggestions as well.

I’ve been reading The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein and she advises, “…the next step in American education reform may be to focus … more on classroom-up interventions that replicate the practices of the best [teachers].” Christina, Donna, and Deidra – and so many other teachers like them – are doing just that: leading from their classrooms!

Commit to Lead is just a beginning and we know this work isn’t easy, but it won’t be done correctly unless professional educators are key players.

We invite you to be part of the dialogue by joining us at Do you have more questions? Please email me at and let me know how I can help!

Maddie Fennell is Literacy Coach at Miller Park Elementary in Omaha, Nebraska and a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow working on Teach to Lead.