Supporting Teachers Through Family Engagement

Ed. Note: Mandy Grisham is an urban music educator from Memphis Tennessee, and a mother of two boys, ages five and two. She was a recent delegate to Parenting Magazine’s second annual meeting of the Mom Congress. Here she shares her impressions from a recent town hall on education reform and offers her own suggestions for how parents can support their child’s education.

Last week I had the opportunity to join, via satellite, some of the country’s leading education reform advocates in an education reform National Town Hall Meeting, held in Washington, D.C. The town hall participants included Deputy Secretary of Education Tony Miller, House Committee on Education and Workforce Ranking Member George Miller (D-Calif.), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Sen. Michael Bennett (D-Colo.), and Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada.

After hearing about many different reform efforts, it’s obvious that government at all levels can have a significant impact over what happens in a child’s life during school hours. But what goes on in the child’s life after school is often out of the hands of our elected officials.

Most of us can agree that the people who influence a child during these post-school hours are an important factor that cannot be left out of the reform movement equation.  So what can we do as parents to support teachers, and improve the quality of education our children receive?

1. Engage with your child, first and foremost. Family engagement begins at home. Whatever your family looks like, take time to play and talk with your child. Ask questions like “what was your favorite part of the day?” Or, “Tell me something interesting that happened today?” If this is the most you can do, then stop right here and do it well!

2. Engage with your child’s friends and their families. “It takes a village to raise a child.” So find out what other parents are learning from their children.

3. Engage with your child’s teachers. Most teachers are eager to partner with you to help make the most of those hours your child is at school. The more they hear from you, the more they know you really care.

4. Engage with your child’s school. Look for ways to serve the PTA or Leadership Council. Ask what skills you have that may serve them.

5. Engage with the system. Get to know your school board members and learn about the budget. Districts will be spending the most money on the matters most important to them. If you don’t agree with the choices, get involved.

6. Engage the government. It only takes a few squeaky wheels to get a politician’s attention and make a difference. Make yourself available to be a “parent on the field.” When they need feedback from their constituents, be available to offer your opinion.

– Mandy Grisham

If you missed the reform town hall, you can still watch it by clicking here.

More than a Memory: Teacher Appreciation Week

Secretary Duncan stops at Randolph Elementary on Teacher Appreciation Day

No doubt about it, last week was a great time to be a teacher at the Department of Education. During Teacher Appreciation Week, the atmosphere brimmed with teacher focus and teacher gratitude.

All week our staff wrote pieces reflecting on the value of teachers. Arne Duncan opened the week with a video message thanking English teacher Darlene McCampbell and encouraging the nation to thank teachers. Later Duncan wrote an open letter to America’s teachers that triggered hundreds of impassioned comments from teachers and generated a robust debate around issues of testing, teacher evaluation and ways to strengthen the profession.

Assistant Secretary Thelma Melendez wrote an homage to her kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Silverman, and followed with a video message. Elizabeth Williamson, who works in Region III, posted a message thanking two teachers whose kindness changed her life, while Deputy Secretary Martha Kanter praised Miss Leverich, and Assistant Secretary Alexa Posny commended Mr. Otto. The president of the Future Educators Association, Leilani Bell, weighed in on our blog with a note of appreciation for Ms. de Costa. The Department also launched Twitter and Facebook campaigns to #thankateacher and sponsored a blog encouraging students to create videos thanking teachers. The #thankateacher tweets and retweets garnered a number of celebrity messages including those from Al Roker, Randi Weingarten, Kurt Warner, and Nancy Pelosi.

The week was also spent celebrating teaching and talking with teachers about issues they face in the classroom. Arne Duncan began Teacher Appreciation Day with a surprise visit to the Arlington County Teacher of the Year at Randolph Elementary School, and he thanked all of the teachers at the school for making a difference in children’s lives. He also congratulated the State Teachers of the Year at a ceremony in their honor at Rose Garden of the White House with President Obama.

On Thursday, the Teaching Ambassador Fellows hosted the Teachers of the Year at the Department for roundtable discussions about important issues in education and a Town Hall with senior staff. New Jersey Teacher of the Year, Danielle Kovach, captured her experience at the roundtable and Town Hall in a post on our Strengthening Teachers Page. While at the Department, several of the Teachers of the Year also took a few minutes to record short videos thanking teachers who had changed the trajectory of their lives.

Besides our respect and admiration for these teachers, the Department of Education offered teachers something that they can use every day of the school year: relief from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Following the Town Hall, the teachers viewed a preview of a new video entitled “A Teacher’s Guide to Fixing No Child Left Behind,” which explains the President’s plan to solve many problems created by the flawed law, including an over-reliance on testing, narrowing of the curriculum, and evaluating teachers based on one limited measurement.

Over cake afterward, teachers commented that when we truly fix NCLB, every day will be a great day to be a teacher.

See photos

Laurie Calvert
Laurie Calvert is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Buncombe County, NC. Read an EdWeek blog article published about the Fellows this week.

Listening to Champions of Change

Receiving input directly from educators is a high priority for the Department of Education and the Obama administration, which is why the White House recently invited a group of teachers to the White House to participate in a roundtable discussion as part of their “Champions of Change series: Winning the Future Across America.”  The White House’s weekly series spotlights individuals who have done extraordinary things in their communities, and teachers came from across the country to discuss with senior administration officials the need for transformational change within the educational system to turn the teaching profession into an “iconic profession.”

Champions of Change roundtable discussion at the White House

“As educators we can and should have a voice in moving student learning forward not only in our own classrooms and schools, but in the broader landscape of policy as well,” said roundtable attendee Kris Woleck, a K-5 Mathematics Coordinator at the New Canaan Public Schools in New Canaan, Conn., and a former ED Teaching Ambassador Fellow.  Woleck noted that the most powerful part of the discussion “was the opportunity to hear about the work of so many other tremendous educators from across the country.

To hear each of them share not only their experiences but also their insights into the solutions and next steps that might support education in this country was inspiring. It brought me great pride to know that as a teacher, I have colleagues who have such a voice and the potential to make impact on policy at the national level, in their states, and in their local districts.

Tracey Van Dusen, another Champion of Change, an AP Government and American Studies teacher at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow explained that senior administration officials were eager to hear ideas from teachers:

We discussed the desire for more effective communication and partnerships with parents, differentiated professional development opportunities, and improved evaluation and accountability systems.

After attending the conference, Lisa Coates, a teacher at Liberty Middle School in Hanover, Va., and an ED Teaching Ambassador Fellow, noted that the most powerful movement in education reform can start within the communities we work. “Everyone has to play a part in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world,” she said.

Teachers across the nation are working tirelessly to provide, safe, high-quality learning environments in classrooms to help secure America’s competiveness in the 21st century and are the true “champions of change.”

For more information on the Champions of Change series, including a video of Kris, Tracey, and Lisa, visit

Video Released: A Teacher’s Guide to Fixing No Child Left Behind

Fixing NCLB logo

Test obsession, narrow curricula, blaming teachers—these are a few of the problems created by the No Child Left Behind law that are unpacked in this animated video available online now.

The video details some of the problems created by NCLB and describes President Barack Obama’s proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and solve them. Written by a teacher at the U.S. Department of Education, the video offers a vision that strengthens teaching, narrows achievement gaps, raises standards, and prepares all students for colleges and careers in a global economy. It includes video clips of Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

View the video or leave a comment below.

Laurie Calvert
Laurie Calvert is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Buncombe County Schools in North Carolina and the author of the video. She is also the author of Built for Teachers: How the Blueprint for Reform Empowers Educators.

An Education Second to None

Photo of Secretary Duncan at Miramar
The 2nd Marine Division of the U.S. Marine Corps has a history of performing their best during tough fights.  The motto of the 2nd Division is “Second to None,” and just as the 2nd Division strives to be the best when called into action, President Obama has called the entire country to action in making our schools and students the best in the world once again.

Education and national security are closely related.  Only 25 percent of American youth qualify to enter the Armed Forces. Three out of four applicants are turned away because they lack a high school diploma, are obese, or have a criminal record. This sobering statistic means America’s ability to defend itself is put in jeopardy.

Yesterday at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar near San Diego, California, Secretary Duncan joined Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), Commanding General of Marine Corps Installations West, Major General Anthony L. Jackson, as well as several other military and civilian leaders in an event to bring attention to the link between education and national security. Secretary Duncan spoke of the need for a greater investment in education to ensure that more young people graduate from high school, obey the law, and get in shape. This is an issue that will determine our national and economic security for decades to come.

The Secretary also noted that fixing No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is the right step in improving education and will put more students on the path to graduating high school.  Congressman Duncan Hunter explained that “We want to fix NCLB this year. If it doesn’t get done this year, it doesn’t get done.”

Duncan Gains Feedback During California Visit

“You aren’t the future leaders, you’re leading today,” Secretary Duncan told a group of students last night at a community forum in Los Angeles that also included parents, teachers and community leaders.  The Secretary’s discussion at Fremont High School was just one of three stops he made in the LA area yesterday to discuss and get feedback on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Earlier in the day, Secretary Duncan spoke at a gathering of over 1,000 leaders from the business, civic, education, government and parent communities at the one-day Education Summit held by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles.  Following his visit to the Education Summit, the Secretary stopped at Tincher Preparatory, a K-8 public school in Long Beach California, for a roundtable discussion with teachers, administrators, parents and students.  The Long Beach Press-Telegram summed up the roundtable discussion:

The secretary listened intently as administrators and teachers talked about the programs that make Tincher a success. The East Long Beach K-8 school, where more than 50 percent of the students are designated as disadvantaged, has been lauded for its gains in test scores and was named a “School to Watch” by the California Middle Grades Alliance in 2009.

Duncan said the LBUSD sets an example for other school districts in the country.

“I’ve studied your school district for a long time, and I think you have so much to be proud of,” he told a crowd gathered in the school library.

Today, the Secretary is stopping in San Diego for another roundtable discussion, as well as a visit to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar to discuss education as a national security issue.

It’s Time to Fix No Child Left Behind

President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talk with students and teachers at the Kenmore Middle School

President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talk with students and teachers at the Kenmore Middle School auditorium in Arlington, Va. March 14, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

“I want every child in this country to head back to school in the fall knowing that their education is America’s priority. Let’s seize this education moment.  Let’s fix No Child Left Behind,” said President Obama earlier today at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Virginia.  President Obama was joined by Secretary Duncan, teachers, representatives from major education associations, and Kenmore students.

In introducing President Obama, Secretary Duncan explained that, “While No Child Left Behind helped expand the standards and accountability movement, there is much that needs to be fixed.”

Many teachers complain bitterly about NCLB’s emphasis on testing. Principals hate being labeled as failures. Superintendents say it wasn’t adequately funded. And many parents just view it as a toxic brand that isn’t helping children learn.  We need to fix NCLB now. And it can’t wait.

During the speech, President Obama spoke directly to America’s teachers:

Now, I want to speak to teachers in particular here.  I’m not talking about more tests.  I’m not talking about teaching to the test.  We don’t need to know whether a student can fill out a bubble.  We do need to know whether they’re making progress.  We do need to know whether they’re not only mastering reading, math, and science, but also developing the kinds of skills, like critical thinking and creativity and collaboration that I just saw on display with the students that I met here.  Those are skills they’re going to need for the rest of their lives, not just to be good workers, but to be good citizens.

Now, that doesn’t mean testing is going to go away; there will be testing.  But the point is, is that we need to refine how we’re assessing progress so that we can have accountability without rigidity — accountability that still encourages creativity inside the classroom, and empowers teachers and students and administrators.

Read the White House blog post, and you can also read President Obama’s speech and Secretary Duncan’s speech.  The White House also released a fact sheet that lays out the President’s priorities for fixing NCLB.

Duncan and Senators Call for Education Reform

Arne Duncan speaks to the media about the need for reform

Earlier this morning Secretary Arne Duncan joined a group of moderate Democratic Senators at Walker Jones Education Campus in Washington, DC to tour the K-8 school and call for education reform.

The group of Senators included Kay R. Hagan (D-N.C.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Thomas Carper (D-Del.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.).  The Senators and four of their colleagues—Senators Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.), and Mark Warner (D-Va.) have agreed on a set of principles for moving forward this year on a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

“We know the results of doing nothing, and they are catastrophic,” said Senator Bennet. “The time for bold action is now.”

Secretary Duncan explained that a major goal of reauthorization is to “raise the bar” for college and career ready standards, but also to empower great teachers, great principals and great local communities:

“They know their children much better than we [in Washington] do,” said Duncan. “We can’t begin to micromanage 95,000 schools from Washington, and we don’t want to.  Frankly, we want to reduce the federal footprint.”

He also noted that Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and House Committee on Education and the Workforce (E&W) Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.), as well as HELP Ranking Member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and E&W Ranking Member George Miller (D-Calif.), are working hard on an ESEA reauthorization bill and that he would continue to work with Congress in a bipartisan way to fix the law this year.

In discussing the principles that the Senators presented, Senator Lieberman noted that “these principles are not Democratic or Republican.  They are not Liberal or Conservative.  They’re just consistent with our natural American values.”

More information on ESEA reauthorization can be found at the Department of Education’s “A Blueprint for Reform” page.

Supporting Reform While Maintaining a Commitment to At-Risk Students

Cross-posted from the The Hill’s Congress blog.

President Obama firmly believes that all children deserve a world-class education. When he says all children, he means all – regardless of their race, ethnicity, disability, native language, income level or zip code.

The President’s proposal to fix NCLB focuses on schools and students at-risk, and on meaningful reforms that will help these students succeed. The plan will maintain the federal government’s formula programs serving disadvantaged students, English learners, migrant children, and students with disabilities. Many people are speculating that the President wants to make these programs competitive. They are wrong. The President is committed to keeping the historic federal role of providing funding for students who need it most. He does not want the programs dedicated to at-risk students to become competitive. And he does not want to reduce the funds distributed by formula.

The President does believe there’s a role for competitive funding in education reform – and that these programs will benefit at-risk students. For too long in education, we have failed to recognize and reward success at the state, local or school level.  The Race to the Top program changed that. It spurred innovation, rewarded stakeholders working together to implement reform, and gave states incentives to raise their academic standards, invest in the teaching profession, use data to improve schools, and focus on fixing their lowest-performing schools. Through Race to the Top, 46 states developed comprehensive plans to advance these reforms. Eleven states and the District of Columbia are leading the way on them. Race to the Top created incentives for 41 states to voluntarily adopt college and career ready standards. This will raise expectations for all students and end a practice of setting a low bar that was particularly harmful to poor and minority students.

With just 1 percent of the annual education spending, Race to the Top states are blazing a path for reforms for decades to come. They are creating innovative solutions and effective practices that will benefit all students.

This powerful combination of formula funding supporting at-risk students and competitive funding for reform will position America to win the global race in education. It will ensure that all students, including our most at-risk, receive the world-class education they deserve.

Arne Duncan is the Secretary of Education.

Secretary Duncan on Fixing NCLB and Elevating the Teaching Profession

“We’re absolutely committed to…[fixing No Child Left Behind] and doing it in a bipartisan way as we move forward this year,” Secretary Duncan said in this video response to questions.  “It’s too punitive, it’s too prescriptive, it’s led to a dummying down of standards, and it’s led to a narrowing of the curriculum.  We have to fix all of those things.”

“We’re also going to do everything we can to elevate the teaching profession,” he said.  “The President talked about in other countries like South Korea, teachers are seen as nation builders.  That’s exactly what they are here.  We need to recognize them as such.”

Duncan also talked about recruiting “the next generation of great talent” into the teaching profession and the website.

Click here for an accessible version of the video.

See all the topics or all videos in the playlist.

Small Town School Beats the Odds with Effective Leadership

A quiet town of hard-working families, Tinicum is committed to educational excellence in the face of a declining tax base to fund its schools.

Motorists driving down Route 95 South past Philadelphia might never know that tucked away off exit 9 B, right before the Philadelphia International Airport, lies a community so dedicated to its schools that it has overcome immense odds in order to make dramatic changes in the way it educates its students.

Tinicum Township is a community hit hard by the economic downturn, where 44 percent of the students receive free or reduced meals. Still, the township has proven that by setting high expectations for all, great things can happen. As proof, this year the 4,400 residents of this blue-collar town are celebrating Tinicum Elementary School’s Blue Ribbon School award for 2010.

Five years ago, only 52 percent of the township’s eighth graders reached proficiency in math and reading. This past year, 83 percent reached proficiency in math and 85 percent in reading.

What made the difference?  Most residents attribute this success teachers who were inspired by a great leader. The school’s principal, David Criscuolo, is credited with creating significant changes on two major fronts, academic and behavioral. In both areas, he has directed the school to use data to gauge the progress of each student.

Assistant Superintendent Lawrence Hobdell explains Criscuolo’s strategy:  “Besides valuing teacher input, Mr. Criscuolo values student assessments to see what the data prove.”

In addition to district-wide assessments, Tinicum School monitors students over short periods of time and provides teachers and parents immediate feedback so that adjustments can be made. Frequently, Criscuolo brings together teachers by grade level to discuss instructional strategies, and he always includes the Response to Intervention specialists and special education teachers in these benchmark meetings.

The school leadership realizes that academic achievement cannot happen without socially and emotionally sound students, so, in addition to academic data, behavioral goals are posted throughout the building, and all families are made aware of these expectations. The information collected reflects individual student behavior, but also areas of the school and times where trouble is most likely to occur. Staff members are encouraged to report and reward positive behavior, and all members of the community work together to provide the best learning environment for the children.

Elizabeth Williamson, Communications Team Lead for the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, based in the Philadelphia Regional Office

Elizabeth Williamson is a former public school English teacher and an adjunct instructor of rhetoric at Temple University.