Ask Dr. Borders: About How Teaching Fellows Connect Policy with Practice

Teacher voice is a crucial part of any education reform. Yet, teachers often feel that they don’t have a voice or that they are not heard. In this issue of “Ask Dr. Borders,” Regional Teaching Ambassador Kareen Borders answers educators’ questions about how the Department’s Teaching Ambassador Fellows contribute to ED policy. 

Teacher Question (TQ):  How does the Department of Education know what is going on in classrooms across the country?

Kareen Borders

Kareen Borders is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow

Dr. Borders (Dr. B):  I have been surprised at ED’s connection to classrooms. Arne and other officials often hold discussions with teachers at their schools, host meetings with teachers, and visit classrooms as much as possible. In addition, there are ongoing initiatives, including ED Goes Back to School, Regional Office Outreach, and more. 

The best example is the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship. The Fellowship provides a two-way link between classroom teachers and ED, informing policy and explaining ED’s agenda to teachers. For example, Teaching Ambassadors recently led over 250 roundtables seeking input from educators for the RESPECT Project, an initiative to transform the teaching profession. Arne Duncan underscored the importance of the Teaching Ambassadors when he acknowledged that the past cohort of 16 Teaching Fellows “continually brought the teachers’ recommendations back into the Department, giving voice to teachers everywhere and putting real names and faces up against our policies.”

TQ:     What exactly is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow (TAF)?

Dr. B:  TAFs are active classroom teachers engaged in learning about policy who work to bridge policy and practice. The Fellows share with ED from their experiences, and folks at the department help them to communicate about the Department’s policies and programs that affect teachers. The Teaching Ambassador Fellowship employs current teachers as either Classroom Fellows or Full-Time Fellows.

Classroom Teaching Fellows continue to teach full-time and work for the Department on a part-time basis. They directly engage with teachers and educational stakeholders around a variety of topics. Examples include technology, migrant education, STEM education, and the RESPECT Project. 

Full-time Fellows are either based in ED’s Headquarters in Washington or as a Regional Teaching Ambassador based in one of ED’s regional offices, this year in Seattle. Full-time fellows are on loan from their district for one-year and have taken a leave of absence. 

TQ:     What exactly does a Teaching Ambassador Fellow do?

Dr. B:  TAFs engage with teachers and other educational stakeholders in several ways. One fruitful method has been holding deep-dive roundtable discussions about a particular issue that teachers care about. A roundtable may be held at a school, a district, a conference, or any other place conducive to productive dialogue. For example, Teaching Fellows recently led several  discussions centered on middle level education. In them, teachers helped policymakers to understand more deeply the unique learning needs of middle level students and why it is important for policies to consider the education of the whole child. With all roundtables, the TAF writes a report and talks with people at the Department about insights they have gained, including the suggestions and comments from teachers. After the discussion with middle level educators, a task force at the Department began to meet to reconsider ways to help support struggling middle schools.

TQ:     How can I become a Fellow?

Dr. B:   Great question! You need to apply. The application will be released in early winter and will be announced in the Teaching Matters newsletter, on the Teacher page of the Department’s website, as well as on the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship program site. If you are interested in applying for 2013-2014 Fellowship, email with the subject line “notify me” and you will be notified when the 2013-2014 application is released. Applicants must complete a rigorous written application process that includes a narrative, resume, and letters of reference. Every application is reviewed by current and previous Teaching Ambassador Fellows and by Department staff members who have taught or who work closely on teacher-related issues. A smaller pool of applicants is then invited to interview, first by phone, and then in an in-person interview if selected as a finalist.

TQ:     Are Fellows paid?

Dr. B:   Yes! The Department knows that a teacher’s expertise and time are valuable, so teachers are compensated for their work. Although the financial compensation is definitely a positive part of the program, most Ambassadors will tell you that the real value comes from the learning that occurs and the connections that are made during the Fellowship year. Few teachers have an opportunity to be involved in federal policy, and the Fellowship provides that unique opportunity. While the learning curve is often steep, the professional growth that occurs is amazing. In addition, the intangible benefit of being able to work with teachers across the country is treasured by all.

Editor’s note:  When 2011-2012 Teaching Ambassador Fellow Greg Mullenholz returned to Montgomery County, Md. Schools, Kareen Borders is taking over the “Ask a Teacher” column.

Ask Mr. Mullenholz about Supporting Students with Disabilities

Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow Greg Mullenholz answers teachers’ burning questions about education policy. In this issue, he takes up Federal Special Education Policy.

Teacher Question (TQ):  What is meant by the term “disability” as it applies to education?

Mr. Mullenholz (Mr. M):  Currently in United States federal law, there are over 40 definitions of what it means to have a disability. The most widely used definition comes from the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law sets out the criteria for disability as a record of, or being regarded as having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities. In education, to meet the definition of disability and qualify for relevant services, a student’s educational performance must be adversely affected due to the disability. “Adversely affected,” however, does not mean that a child has to be failing in order to meet the requirements for special education services and supports.

TQ: What do teachers need to know about teaching students with disabilities?

Mr. M: Teachers need to know that states have the responsibility to provide a free and appropriate education to students with disabilities. This isn’t just a requirement, but a core tenet of American education – that education should prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living. This is the basis for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA. 

Most students who are eligible to receive special education under IDEA do not have significant cognitive impairments. The vast majority of students with disabilities have speech/language disabilities, specific learning disabilities, physical disabilities, or other impairments that do not in any way diminish their ability to master grade level content and meaningfully participate in the classroom community. We also know that students who do have cognitive disabilities can learn challenging academic content when they are properly taught and supported. Studies have shown that the instructional strategies needed to support students with disabilities enable other students to learn more effectively, too. Additionally, social, emotional, and civic responsibility of all students is enhanced in an inclusive educational environment.     

TQ: What is IDEA?  Where did it come from?

Mr M: IDEA is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and  was enacted in 1975 (it was called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act) due to the fact that only about 1 in 5 students with disabilities were receiving any type of education at all, and the vast majority were receiving ineffective or no instruction at all. There were even states where the laws on the books prohibited students with certain types of disabilities from attending school. IDEA, which was last reauthorized in 2004, requires that all children receive an education. At the outset, IDEA was about access. Now, it is about getting results for students. Under the law, federal and state monitoring activities focus on improving educational results and functional outcomes for students with disabilities.

There are three parts to the IDEA legislation:  Part A outlines the general provisions of the law; Part B covers the education of students from age 3 to age 21; Part C emphasizes children from birth until age 3. 

TQ:  How has IDEA changed the way schools operate and teachers teach?

Mr M:To insure  that students with disabilities receive a free, appropriate education, IDEA requires the creation of an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) for any student with a disability. The IEP should detail services, supports, interventions, and goals for each student. To avoid the issue of segregation or “warehousing” of students with disabilities, school systems must ensure that all students are placed in the Least Restrictive Environments, or LRE and that they “be involved in and progress in the general curriculum.” This means that students with disabilities should receive their education alongside nondisabled peers, unless the severity of the disability is such “that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.” IDEA has important provisions that protect the rights of children and families.

TQ: At the federal level, who oversees the education of students with disabilities? What is their role?

Mr. M: Within the US Department of Education, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) oversees the implementation of IDEA and other federal laws related to individuals with disabilities.  OSERS’s mission is “to provide leadership to achieve full integration and participation in society of people with disabilities by ensuring equal opportunity and access to and excellence in education, employment, and community living.” OSERS does everything from assuring compliance with IDEA to administering grant programs to supporting research efforts. OSERS is actually comprised of three program components including the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), and the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA). NIDRR provides leadership around research and other efforts aimed at assuring improved life outcomes for individuals with disabilities, from birth through adulthood. RSA oversees grant programs that help adults with disabilities live independently with gainful employment through the provision of support services. And, finally, OSEP provides supports for children from birth to the age of 21 indirectly by providing states with financial support and technical assistance. 

TQ: What resources are available from the Department of Education to help me teach students with disabilities?

Mr. M: OSEP supports an extremely helpful resource for teachers called Bookshare. For teachers of students with disabilities, this is a must-have resource.

Bookshare is an “online accessible digital library for print disabled readers.” OSEP awarded Bookshare, a nonprofit based in Palo Alto, Calif., with a $32 million grant over five years to support their work in assisting students with disabilities in accessing high-quality texts. Bookshare’s volunteers have uploaded thousands of book titles that are accessible and can be used through many widely available screen reading programs. As a teacher who worked in a fully inclusive classroom, my students with disabilities had access to Bookshare and assistive technology that gave them the access to texts in our reading class and the ability to do research. Before, my students with disabilities were disappointed when the class was abuzz with discussions about Captain Underpants or The Series of Unfortunate Events. Now, thanks to Bookshare and OSEP’s funding and support, all of my kids are excited to read a wide variety of texts that might have been previously unavailable to them. “Through an exemption in the U.S. copyright law Bookshare serves a community of individuals with qualified print disabilities, such as visual impairments, physical disabilities or severe learning disabilities that affect reading”.  And the best part….Bookshare is free!

OSEP also funds the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). PBIS, as many educators who work in PBIS schools know, is not a curriculum, but a decision making framework that guides the ”selection, integration, and implementation of the best evidenced-based academic and behavioral practices for improving important academic and behavior outcomes for all students.” So, as a teacher, OSEP indirectly funded the work that was done at my school, Twinbrook Elementary, to transform the schoolwide behavioral system that sought to reduce the number of office referrals and the rate of suspensions. Our school was awarded the 2011 Silver Award by PBIS Maryland for successful implementation of our schoolwide programming and the ability to demonstrate that it had a positive impact.

Another fantastic resource for all is the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (Formerly known as NICHCY).  The Dissemination Center is an information and referral center serving the United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Territories.  They provide families, students, educators, and others with information on disability-related topics regarding children and youth, birth through 21.  They also provide information to help you locate organizations and agencies within your state that address disability-related issues.  You may contact them at (800) 695-0285 or visit them on the web at

The Office of Special Education Programs also funds the National Center for Educational Outcomes (NCEO), which takes a leading national role in designing assessments and accountability systems that monitor educational results for all students, including students with disabilities and English Language Learners. OSEP also funds the Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Education (CADRE) which works to increase the Nation’s capacity for dispute resolution involving special education,  the Technical Assistance and Dissemination Network which coordinates special and general education technical assistance initiatives across regions and topics, and many other wonderful programs that impact the lives of our students and their families.

For more information and resources relating to the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, visit

Ask Mrs. Borders about Teacher Appreciation

Teaching Ambassador Fellows answer teachers’ burning questions about education policy. In this issue, middle school science teacher Kareen Borders takes up Teacher Appreciation Week and discusses how to use the contacts made with parents during this time to build relationships between families and teachers.

Teacher Question (TQ):  Why do we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week?

Mrs. Borders (Mrs. B):  In 2009, Arne Duncan gave a speech to the NEA in which he recounted some of the qualities of America’s teachers. “All of us remember an educator or coach who changed our life. It stays with us forever. It sustains us, guides us, and inspires us. They’re the ones who commit those everyday acts of kindness and love and never ask for anything in return. They counsel troubled teens, take phone calls at night, and reach into their pockets for lunch money for children who are too ashamed to ask…These are the qualities of a great educator and we have millions of them all across America. ”

During teacher appreciation week, students, families, and our whole nation honor the committed and talented teachers who nurture and build our nation’s youth.

TQ:  How does celebrating great teachers support their work in the classroom?

Mrs. B:  During Teacher Appreciation Week, families and administrators make a special effort to show their appreciation for teachers. Although a great teacher has many talents, the teacher operates within a greater, interdependent system that includes students, families, the school itself, and the district. When families and schools support one another to provide a rigorous and engaging experience for the whole child, teachers’ efforts are multiplied.

TQ:  What can teachers do during Teacher Appreciation week to build relationships that make the most of their contact with families?

Teacher Appreciation Week is a perfect time to invite families to get involved at the school and in their children’s classrooms. When a parent sends a note or stops by to thank a teacher, teachers can take the opportunity to foster a deeper and collaborative relationship. This partnership can also build upon the parent’s strengths. Perhaps the parent partner has a skill set that would be ideal for a particular unit or for a particular group of students.

TQ:  Why is it important for teachers to reach out to parents beyond Open House and fundraisers?

Mrs. B: A great teacher recognizes the individuality of each student and makes an effort to understand each’s unique strengths and challenges. Parents can contribute much by sharing insights they have about their children. They can also help to reinforce good learning habits and practice skills at home. It is important for communication between home and school to be regular and two-way, so that parents and teachers can reinforce a student’s growth and alert one another when problems arise in either arena.

Teachers we have talked to also recommend a shift from the school talking TO families to one where they work WITH parents and guardians, so that conversations about meeting the needs of the whole child can be richer and deeper.  The most helpful attitude for a teacher to have with a parent is: “I know my subject and how to teach, but you are the expert on your child. Let’s put our heads together to think about the best ways to reach him/her.” When a teacher knows another perspective about a student, instructional planning can capitalize on this knowledge.

TQ:  What can principals do to support teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week (and all year)?

Mrs. B: Just as I would encourage a parent to engage in ongoing, two-way communication with a teacher, principals should also engage in two-way conversations with the teachers at their school. Teachers tell us that the best principals really know them and take time to step beyond the twice- a-year-evaluation, often engaging in real-time conversations with them.  They are true instructional leaders who support teachers and build their leadership capacity.

Principals could spend more time in classrooms and offer helpful and positive feedback.  Teachers tell us that they love a short, hand-written note from a principal who has observed something positive in a classroom and that every teacher has an envelope, file, or drawer full of these notes that they save to boost their confidence when times are tough. Principals might also offer to co-teach a lesson or to brainstorm with a teacher about a challenge he or she is facing with a class. Finally, because teachers are inundated with non-teaching tasks that take away from their work in the classroom, they value a principal’s efforts to lighten their load for the week by arranging for the week’s copying to be done, setting up a lab, making the bus arrangements for a field trip, or finding someone to take on hall or lunch duty.

Ask Ms. DeBose About Teaching the Middle Grades

Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow Geneviève DeBose answers teachers’ burning questions about middle grades education.

TEACHER QUESTION (TQ):  Why are educators using the term middle grades or middle level instead of middle school?  What’s the difference?

MS. DEBOSE:  When I was a kid, I went to John Burroughs Junior High School in Los Angeles. Today that school is called John Burroughs Middle School. When I attended, it included grades 7, 8, and 9. Today John Burroughs serves students in grades 6 through 8. Why all the changes? Because students in the middle grades today attend many different types of schools, the term “middle school” doesn’t always fit. Some are in schools that serve grades 6-8, others are in K-8 schools, while additional students may be in a school setting that serves only grades 7 and 8 or K through 12.  While their school structures may be different our young adolescents experience similar changes and challenges.

Middle level youth are recognized as students age 10 to 15, often in grades 5 through 9. Regardless of the type of school setting they are in, as educators we have to ensure that we work to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of students in the middle grades. Whether the school my 13-year old cousin attends is called a middle school is not nearly as important as what takes place inside the building. As the Association for Middle Level Education says, “We’re about kids ages 10 to 15, not the name on the school.”

TQ:  What makes someone a good fit for teaching in the middle grades?

MS. D:  Middle school teachers need to have a diversity of skill sets to be effective with this age group. First, teachers must truly enjoy working with young adolescents. If you like the quirkiness that comes with being 10-15, then this is the right fit. Middle school students say that they want a teacher who is both demanding and caring. They want to be challenged and held to high expectations, but they also want to know that their teacher loves them and is there for them. Teachers need to be flexible and easily adaptable because every day with middle level kids is like a “Forrest Gump” moment:  you never know what you’re gonna get. Lastly, we need to be creative and engaging. These years are critical in influencing the ultimate success of our students. So many students check out in grades 5-9 that we must work diligently to create opportunities for learning that include student voice and get our kids excited about coming to school.

TQ:  I’ve heard a lot about middle level students and brain development. What’s actually happening up there?

MS. D:  Researchers tell us the adolescent brain develops faster than any time other than birth to two years old.  Early adolescents are moving from concrete to abstract thinking and are developing their ability to think critically, solve complex problems, plan, and control impulses. (So for all of the 6th grade teachers who wonder why one student keeps yelling out the answer after constant reminders to raise their hand: don’t worry; it’ll get better.) Many of early adolescents’ skills are dependent on the frontal lobe of the human brain, which neuroscientist Jay Giedd says is the “part of the brain that most separates man from beast.” During adolescence the frontal lobe is not fully developed, often resulting in poor organizational skills and decision making. According to Giedd, “[It’s] not that the teens are stupid or incapable of [things]. It’s sort of unfair to expect them to have adult levels of organizational skills or decision making before their brain is finished being built. …”

The good news is that the adolescent brain is developing so that the cells and connections it does make will survive. Increasing the opportunities students have to engage in music, athletics, debate, robotics, the arts, and other diverse, hands-on learning experiences will result in lasting patterns that will be “hard-wired” into the brain. 

To learn more about adolescent brain development, check out this interview with Jay Giedd.

TQ:  So, what do all of these changes mean for a middle level student?

MS. D:  Our middle level youth often demonstrate a heightened sense of self-consciousness and feel like everyone is as concerned with their behaviors and thoughts as they are. They also tend to believe that no one else has experienced similar emotions. This is shown through overly dramatic reactions like outbursts of, “No one understands what I’m going through!” Early adolescents may also make poor decisions and take unnecessary risks because they don’t think anything bad can happen to them.

For some this sounds overwhelming, but there are benefits to working with this age group. Because these students are developing abstract thinking, they have heightened interest in causes and justice, interests that teachers use to draw them into learning. Involving them in student-led school or community campaigns is an excellent way to channel this energy. Their interests will also develop and change a great deal during this time, which means they will be open to trying new things in an attempt to find what they are good at. Students who want to try new things and explore? A teacher’s dream!

TQ:  What do all of these changes mean for a middle level teacher?

MS. D:  Given that students encounter these changes at different times and develop at their own pace, our jobs as middle level teachers can be difficult. Peter Lorain, a retired middle school principal, from Beaverton, Ore., wrote an article that offers advice in this area. Lorain states, “The middle school classroom should be an active, stimulating place where people talk and share, movement is common and planned for, and the teacher uses a wide array of approaches to introduce, model, and reinforce learning.”

TQ: Sounds good Mr. Lorain, but how exactly, do teachers do this?

When planning lessons, middle school teachers must keep the goal clearly in mind and make sure that students can reach the goal in multiple ways. Teachers must check in with students along the way to keep them working toward the learning objective. As thinking and learning become more abstract, students need predictable and safe environments so that they can risk, explore, and grow. Teachers must structure and facilitate these experiences. Students need to learn how to problem solve, think critically, and develop processes for learning. Teachers need to structure and facilitate these, too. Teachers should:

  • Teach students how to study. There are many resources for teachers to structure these experiences.
  • Establish, teach, and practice consistent expectations and routines. Don’t expect to tell students once and have them remember and follow the “rules.”
  • Use process charts to detail steps on a long-term project and revisit these steps periodically.
  • Use graphic organizers to assist in visualizing problem solving.
  • Distribute assignment sheets that clearly articulate benchmarks and timelines.
  • Color code materials (e.g., assignments in blue, new information in red, long-term project information in violet) to help students put the material into a context and take away the thinking and categorizing work to orient the brain as to what should be done next.

These steps and others are tools teachers can use to facilitate learning through the new experiences and adventures in thinking that are part of the young adolescent’s life.

TQ:  What are effective practices used to help middle level students develop strong relationships and an awareness of the world around them?

MS. D:  There are a variety of ways middle level schools can meet these goals. I’ll share two ideas from my 10 years in the classroom as a middle level teacher.

1)     Advisory: There are many different ways to create and conduct an advisory, but the opportunity for students to meet in a safe, small group with the same students and adult on a regular basis is key. The space should provide students with an adult advocate at the school while promoting opportunities for positive social development, relationship-building and academic support. I have been in schools that didn’t have an existing advisory structure, so I worked to create these opportunities within my classes or at my grade level. 

2)     Service Learning: Because young adolescents want to be engaged in hands-on experiences, to try new things, and to create a more fair and just world, service learning is an excellent opportunity for them to do all three. My students and I participated in school-based service learning programs, becoming reading buddies to younger students or starting our school’s first recycling program. We also connected with community organizations like a local food pantry to pack bags of food for hungry families twice a month. These activities gave students the opportunity to see themselves as agents of positive change in the world and helped them recognize how their actions impact others. 

TQ:  What new and relevant research exists about middle level education?

MS. D:  There is a body of research that focuses on the middle grades. I have listed some of the articles below.

  • Robert Balfanz and the Association of Middle Level Education’s report Putting the Middle Grades Student on the Graduation Path
  • The Southern Regional Education Board’s Middle Grades Commission’s report A New Mission for the Middle Grades: Preparing Students for a Changing World
  • The Bush Presidential Institute’s Middle School Matters Initiative
  • EdSource’s study Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better

TQ:  What different middle level organizations can I get involved in?

MS. D:  The first that comes to mind is the Association for Middle Level Education (formerly the National Middle School Association). They are a national education association dedicated exclusively to the middle grades. They publish a number of publications that are helpful to middle level educators, and they hold excellent national and state-level conferences each year. There is also the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform which is an alliance of educators, researchers and national organizations committed to promoting the academic performance and healthy development of young adolescents. They seek to make every middle grades school academically excellent, responsive to the developmental needs and interests of young adolescents, and socially equitable. One way this is accomplished is through their Schools to Watch program.


Ask Mr. Mullenholz about School Improvement Grants

Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow Greg Mullenholz answers teachers’ burning questions about education policy. In this issue, he takes up School Improvement Grants.

Teacher Question (TQ): What are School Improvement Grants, also known as SIG?

Mr. Mullenholz (Mr. M): The goal of these grants is to turn around persistently low-performing schools and substantially raise the achievement of the students who attend them. School Improvement Grants are formula grants that fall under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965 that are awarded to states. States then take these monies and use them to create smaller subgrants that they can award to the districts that apply for them and show the greatest need for turnaround funds.

TQ: How are schools identified for SIG funding?

Mr. M: Well, schools are identified in a number of ways, but they must meet certain criteria to qualify for the funding, which is doled out competitively to the districts who apply. The lowest-performing 5% of schools according to student achievement and/or graduation rate are identified and then sorted into one of three categories. Tier I schools are the state’s lowest performing 5% of Title I elementary, middle, or high schools in improvement, corrective action, or restructuring. What is really important in the way that the high schools are identified is that they have a graduation rate of less than 60% Tier II schools are just like the Tier I schools, except that they may not be currently in any sort of corrective action. Tier III schools are those that are not Title I schools, but who have not made AYP in the last two years and are in the state’s lowest 20% of schools in terms of their performance on state reading and math assessments combined. Tier I and II schools are eligible to receive up to $2 million dollars per year for turnaround efforts; in exchange for these funds, they are required to implement one of SIG’s four intervention models, which we outline below. Tier III schools receive less funding, but are no less important in the scheme of turnaround.

TQ: How much funding is available for SIG, and why is the program the answer to the problem of persistently low-performing schools?

Mr. M: Turning around an underperforming school is hard work. You can’t just identify the school and then expect change to happen. It takes hard work, and some financial help. Recognizing the importance of turning around these schools, ED has awarded nearly $4 billion over the past three years to address the President’s commitment to help States and LEAs turn around their lowest-performing schools. This money gives states the financial support they will need to undertake this huge push to make education for students in these schools of a much higher caliber.

ED recognizes that it takes more time, stronger interventions, and a bigger commitment of funds to help the lowest-performing schools turn around. It is about the willingness of the teachers, school and district leaders, and parents to put in the time and effort to right the ship. With SIG funds, ED is targeting federal investments to schools and districts where the need is greatest. States and school districts have an opportunity to put unprecedented resources toward comprehensive and rigorous reforms that would increase graduation rates, reduce dropout rates and improve teacher quality for all students, particularly for children who most need good teaching in order to catch up.

TQ: Why is there such an emphasis/sense of urgency around turning around schools?

Mr. M: It’s simple mathematics. There are roughly 5,000 schools in the nation that have failed their students for years—sometimes decades . The Obama administration sees this as a civil rights travesty. How can we expect to grow our economy, strengthen our national infrastructure, and regain our position as the world-leader in college completion if we allow this to continue?

Among these low-performing schools are 1,700 “dropout factories”—high schools where fewer than 60% of the entering freshmen make it to their senior year. In fact, these dropout factories actually account for more than half of all of the students in the nation who drop out, as well as 73% and 66% of the African-American and Latino students who drop out, respectively. If they’re not in school, they can’t learn. With a growing achievement and opportunity gap, sentencing our minority students to these chronically underperforming secondary institutions condemns many of them to a life of poverty.

TQ: What does the SIG program emphasize?

Mr. M: The goal at the U.S. Department of Education is to increase the likelihood that all students, regardless of their zip code, race, or socioeconomic level, graduate from high school ready to succeed in the workforce and in college. It’s a focus on educational equity for our most impacted students, an attempt to stem the tide of academic inequity and educational malpractice. Given this, the emphasis of SIG funding is improved classroom teaching and learning. We know that the number one in-school factor that determines the success of a child is the person standing in front of the room. If our students are to escape poverty, they should be afforded the best possible education that will help them to break the cycle, with the highest-quality of teacher in front of them day in and day out.

TQ: What can/will I see in my school if it is identified as a turnaround school?

Mr. M: SIG strives for strong leadership at the school level, effective teachers in every classroom, a redesign of schedules to meet the educational and professional development needs of our students and teachers, a rigorous instructional program, the continuous use of data to inform instructional and improvement decisions, the safety and health of our students, and family and community engagement. That’s a lot for one sentence, but we need to recognize that it takes a lot to turn around a school. Just pumping in money won’t better the educational circumstances of our kids. SIG aims to help schools produce better outcomes for our students in schools where students typically haven’t been given the opportunities they deserve. Secretary Duncan himself said that, “Education is the civil rights issue of our generation… Great teaching is about so much more than education; it is a daily fight for social justice.” With that in mind, SIG does so much more than turn around schools. It turns around lives that may have been lost due to a poor education.

TQ: When I hear “school turnaround,” it sounds to me like all of the teachers are being fired. Is this the case?

Mr. M: No. When a school receives SIG funds, it can implement one of four different models for school improvement—and all of them have the ultimate goal of giving students access to high-quality teaching and learning. Districts are encouraged to work with the schools and the community to select a model that responds to the local needs of that school and its students.

In fact, the vast majority of SIG schools (about 3 out of 4) are using the “transformation” model, which does not require teachers to leave the school. Schools that use the transformation model:

  • develop a teacher and leader evaluation system that includes student growth,
  • adopt a data-based, achievement oriented, rigorous instructional program,
  • extend the school day to increase time for students and teachers,
  • work intensively with community partners and agencies,
  • and must replace the principal.

The adoption of this teacher and leader evaluation system makes sure that we are focusing efforts on outcomes for kids and that teachers in this setting are getting the support they need to be successful. It’s not about firing people; it’s about making sure we have the best teachers in front of these students.

If a school uses the “turnaround” model, the principal is replaced along with at least 50% of the staff. Turnaround schools also must implement a revised instructional plan that emphasizes intervention for students in need, purposefully recruit, retain, and develop staff that can meet the needs of the students at that school, increase learning and work time for both teachers and students, and provide wrap-around community services to meet the social-emotional and other needs of the students there.

Some schools use a “restart” model, wherein the school is closed and reopened under the guidance of a charter management organization (CMO) or an educational management organization (EMO). Within this model, any student who previously attended the low-performing school must be admitted to the newly reopened school.

The fourth and final model is one where the school is closed entirely, and all students are able to attend another high-performing school in the district. This model is known as the “closure” model.

TQ: What are some promising results that we are seeing in schools identified by their states as being in need of a turnaround?

Mr. M: When a school is identified as being in need of a turnaround, we often find that the school and the district engage in a critical analysis of the school’s data, its academic culture, and the resources that might be available to it from the community at large. Essentially, they see the school as a doctor would evaluate a patient and then make a diagnosis that would be best for that particular situation. SIG funding is only one part of the turnaround, and we know that you can’t simply buy a school turnaround. It has to be a collective effort with all stakeholders focused on the ultimate goal of providing a high-quality education for all of the students. Here are just a few examples of promising practices and results:

  • Weinland Park Elementary in Columbus, Ohio, in its first year under SIG and with the support of outside partners, gained 13 percentage points in reading and 19 in math by employing a data-based model of instruction that looked closely at specific student needs and tailored instruction to meet those needs.

  • Luke C. Moore High School in Washington, D.C. , which serves students between the ages of 17-21 who have dropped out or had difficulties in traditional school settings, has transformed its school culture to one of high academic expectations and student self-efficacy Under its new principal, the school made Adequate Yearly Progress by improving reading proficiency by 10 points and math proficiency by 20 points. This is due in part to a decrease of student referrals and offsite suspensions by 50%!

So, while SIG funding isn’t the silver bullet for turning around America’s lowest-performing schools, it certainly is a part of the strategy. If we can’t turn around our lowest-performing institutions, we shouldn’t be surprised if the cycle of poverty continues.

Tales of a Fourth Grade Teacher: “Is that a Zebra in my Classroom?”

Missy is that kind of student teachers get every so often that makes you wonder if you are in a classroom or watching a soap opera.  Drama and theatrics are a normal part of Missy’s day, and you find yourself wondering, “If only all of that energy could be channeled…”  

Read Classroom Teaching Fellow Sharla Steever’s account of a memorable student experience that she calls a “Missy Moment.” (Note:  names have been changed to protect the young!)

. . . . .

Missy came in after lunch recess one day and I noticed the familiar pout–laid out on the Futon in the reading corner and covered with all of the pillows so that only her feet poked out. 

I thought, “Here we go…”  Sometimes Missy will regroup when she doesn’t get attention, so I tried that.

“Fourth graders, please get your math books and find page 163.” 

No movement from the Futon. 

A few moments later, another attempt: “I need ALL of you to open your math books to page 163.” 

Still no movement, but a couple students whispered to the pillows, “Missy, she’s looking at you.” 

Still no movement, so I made a final attempt, “I have asked for everyone to be ready for math, and if there is a reason any of you are unable to do this, I need you to come share that with me, otherwise, let’s get to it.”  

The pillow shifted subtly.  Missy dragged her body to me and let me know she was unhappy about a recess incident.  I told her to take her coat to her locker, get a drink and take a couple of nice deep breaths, and see if that would help her to feel better. 

Two minutes later, Missy returned to the class, still pouting, but in a full zebra costume.  We’re talking ears, hooves, full head to toe, black and white zebra. 

Most of the students stared in amazement. There wasn’t  a giggle in the bunch.

When I heard the whisper, “There’s a zebra in our room” from one part of the class, I swallowed down the giant “guffaw” that wanted to burst out of me and thought, “What does one say about a zebra in the room?”  

As straight-faced as I could, I said, “Fourth graders, would you please take a book out to read for a moment?  And Missy, would you please meet me in the hallway?”

Missy shuffled out and as I thought about what to say, the words that came out of my mouth are some I have never said before in my teaching career, “Missy, you’re not going to wear a zebra costume in our classroom today.” 


“Is there anything appropriate about what you are doing right now?” I asked.


“OK then, would you like to tell me what’s really going on here?” 

“Well, Joni wouldn’t play with me at recess and it really hurt my feelings and I was trying to feel better.”  We talked a little longer, and finally Missy put away her zebra costume and returned to class ready for math.   

You just never know what might happen in a 4th grade classroom, but those Zebra Costume Days make coming to teach each day the adventure that it really is.  

Sharla Steever

Sharla Steever is a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow in Hill City, S.D.

Ask Mr. Mullenholz about PD and Professional Learning

Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow Greg Mullenholz answers teachers’ burning questions about education policy. In this issue, he takes up teacher professional learning

 All work to improve the quality of profes­sional development must begin with one simple assumption: Teaching is an incred­ibly complex profession that draws on a wide set of intellectual and emotional skills. Even the best teachers need to continue to learn and improve their practice, and many are willing to do so. The bottom line is that all teachers — all educators — grow from professional learning experiences that sharpen their practice.

–Duncan, A. (2011) Forge a Commitment to Authentic Professional Learning. JSD, 32(4), 70-72

Teacher Question (TQ): Wait. In the title of this blog, you call it “professional learning.” Is that the same thing as “professional development” or “staff development?”

Mr. Mullenholz (Mr. M):  To emphasize the fact that teachers are lifelong learners continually working to refine their craft, many educators have begun replacing the term professional development with professional “learning.” This new terminology represents a paradigm shift in the way that teachers improve their practice to meet the needs of a variety of learners and in the way that they work toward the rigorous goal of increasing the number of college- and career-ready students nationally. Professional learning acknowledges that educators are doing more than sprucing up worn out methods of professional development, but are transforming their approach to creating job-embedded, collaborative learning communities who work together to solve the challenges in their schools. This is why what was formerly known as the National Staff Development Council took on a new name and became Learning Forward.

TQ:  I hear a lot about teacher evaluation in my state. Where does professional development fit into all of this?

Mr. M:  Unfortunately, much of what we have heard regarding reform is centered on the word “evaluation,” when, in fact, the real focus should be on “effectiveness.”  A central goal of education policy is to have the most effective teachers standing in front of America’s students, and professional learning is the tool we use to ensure this.

Before No Child Left Behind, high-quality professional learning barely existed, and if it did, it wasn’t necessarily aimed at school improvement or student achievement. True, the federal government has been providing funding for professional learning for a while, but there haven’t been identifiable results. Then, unfortunately, under No Child Left Behind, professional learning became merely a box that a district could check off to prove compliance with state or federal funding regulations. They just had to show that they spent the money. Now, rather than checking the box, states and districts are being called upon to assure that the professional learning that they have in place is tied to student achievement and teacher learning and that it is high-quality!  The current administration believes strongly that teacher evaluations should be tied to professional learning, seeing this as one part of the continuous developmental cycle. Strong professional learning, driven by student achievement and teacher evaluation results should inherently improve teaching practice and student outcomes.

TQ:  Why is there such an emphasis from Secretary Duncan on professional learning?

Mr. M:  As we raise standards for students and teachers, it is important that schools give educators the support systems and tools they need to continually refine their practice. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has stated that we need to reform ineffective systems of professional learning and build learning cultures that are focused on the “two essential goals of the standards: strengthening educator effectiveness and improving results for all students.” When teachers perform more effectively, students learn at a higher level, and when students learn at a higher-level, they are better prepared for college and the workforce.

TQ:  Besides quality, what does the Secretary see as the biggest challenge facing professional learning?

Mr. M:  Ineffectively allocating limited funds to class-size reduction. The federal government invests $2.5 billion dollars through Title II, Part A, funds that are aimed at improving teaching and teacher leadership. Title II, part A is a formula grant to states that is aimed at increasing the number of highly qualified teachers and principals and increasing the effectiveness of those teachers and principals. There isn’t a whole lot of research to support that reduced class-size has any great impact on student achievement, and yet close to 40% of all Title II funds are used to reduce classes by a few students. As the Secretary notes, “Up through third grade, research shows a small class size of 13 to 17 students can boost achievement.” When we talk about class-size reduction, the misnomer is that we’re talking about reducing a class from 40 or 50 students to 20 or 25. We’re not. We’re talking about reducing from 25 to 23, and there are a lot of federal dollars being spent on this at all levels of schooling, based mostly upon enrollment formulas, and with little results.

The Secretary has suggested shifting from across-the-board class-sized based reductions to varying class sizes by the subject matter or the need of the students being served. As he said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, “The skill of the teacher, or that part-time staff, could be leveraged to lower class size during critical reading blocks.” This would be a smarter use of Title II funds and allow for more money to be spent on professional learning.  As a teacher, I would rather have an extra child or two in my classroom if it meant that I could have additional time with coverage to plan and learn with my colleagues.

TQ:  What does high-quality professional development look like? What standards exist for high-quality professional learning?

Mr. M:  Teachers across the country have in the past been subjected to bad professional development, in a variety of forms, which has done little to improve their craft or impact student achievement in any meaningful way. Terms like “sit and get,” “drive-by PD,” or “canned professional development” have gained a hold in the lexicon of teacher talk. Some teachers attend mandatory, yearly behavior management seminars even if their evaluations and classroom observations do not indicate they have a problem with behavior management. It is pretty self-evident that this is not an efficient or effective use of funds or a teacher’s time.

Learning Forward has developed standards that have been adopted by many states and districts. They are research-based standards that educators are using to ensure high-quality professional learning. Secretary Duncan has applauded the efforts of Learning Forward as they strive to ensure that teachers across the country are participating in high-quality professional learning, and many states and districts have responded by using these standards to increase the capacity of their teachers and the achievement of their students.

According to these standards, high-quality professional development is job-embedded, occurs regularly, and is aligned with academic standards, school curricula, and school improvement goals. It must involve teachers working collaboratively to hone their craft and meet the needs of students, often with an instructional coach or mentor who facilitates the process. These teachers would be actively engaged in their learning, not sitting passively by viewing a presentation, and their learning would be focused on what and how students are learning and how instructional practice can be improved to meet the individual needs of a variety of learners and is cyclical in nature. Professional development is part of a continual development process that has an ultimate goal of increasing student achievement.

TQ:  What are some of the most promising practices regarding professional learning that can be seen in the field?

Mr. M:  One promising district-wide example of systemic high-quality professional learning can be found in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland. MCPS believes that the primary purpose of teacher evaluation is to improve teacher effectiveness. Over the last eleven years, the county has invested millions of dollars in staffing all schools with a designated Staff Development Teacher, a proven teacher-leader who has a sole responsibility of creating high-quality professional learning for their staff. The school-based Staff Development Teacher (SDT) fosters development and growth of professional learning communities and facilitates job-embedded professional learning. The SDT supports the goal of building staff capacity to meet system-wide and local school initiatives to increase student learning. These teachers are non-evaluative. They use the School Improvement Plan’s (SIP) yearly goals as the target for all professional learning activities. They work collaboratively with individual teachers and teams of teachers to analyze student work, set grade-level goals, and develop staff capacity to analyze school-level and individual student data. As part of this process, MCPS teachers then identify and refine practices to increase student achievement, analyze results, and begin the cycle anew. Along the way, there are peer-visits, double-scoring of student work, and whole-school learning sessions aimed at achieving the goals set forth in the SIP. Staff Development Teachers collect data that informs the effectiveness of their planning and the effectiveness of implementation, and work to strengthen the work they do within their buildings as a result. The Staff Development Teacher acts as a facilitator, a researcher, a coach, and a mentor, but they are first and foremost a teacher. They are but one part of a larger system of continuous improvement that includes mentor teachers, consulting teachers, professional learning communities, and professional development course offerings for teachers, administrators, and support professionals.

Join the Teaching Ambassador Fellows for a Virtual Information Session about the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship Program

“We have a set of amazing teachers each year who spend a year with the Department and help drive our policy discussion…I have come to rely on the Teaching Ambassador Fellows for their invaluable feedback and their ability to facilitate dialogue with teachers across the country.” – Secretary Arne Duncan

Join the U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching Ambassador Fellows on Tuesday, February 7th at 7pm EST for a one-hour webinar discussion about the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship program and application process. In this webinar, you will hear an overview of the program, gain insight into the work of current and past Fellows, and have the opportunity to ask questions about the Fellowship and the application process. Your internet accessible computer and telephone are all you will need to participate in a virtual info session.

To register, please send an email to, with the subject line: “Webinar.” Please provide questions that you would like to make sure we address in this email. We will reply with the web address and log-in and call-in information for the session.

Ask Mr. Mullenholz About the Common Core

Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow Greg Mullenholz answers teachers’ burning questions about education policy. In this issue, he takes up the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). 

Teacher Question: What is the Common Core of State Standards? Is it a US Department of Education Program?

Mr. Mullenholz (Mr. M): The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) initiative is a state-led effort that is sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices that strives to create rigorous, clear and consistent academic standards. It is not a federal government program and is in no way a part of the No Child Left Behind Act or any other federal education law.

The standards were developed in collaboration with a large number of stakeholders, including teachers. They are designed to prepare America’s students for college and the workforce and are driven by a thorough research base and international benchmarking. The standards, like those called for in the Obama Administration’s plan, call for attention to both rich content and rigorous processes. Many people believe that the development of the CCSS was a direct result of the Obama Administration’s rolling out of its Blueprint for Reform, when, in fact, the CCSS were being developed to the Blueprint’s release. While the U.S. Department does call for rigorous college- and career-ready standards in its Blueprint for Reform, and subsequently in its ESEA Flexibility package, adoption of the CCSS by a state is not a requirement in the Blueprint or for regulatory relief.

Teacher: What about states that don’t adopt the CCSS?  How can they prove that they have college and career ready expectations?

Mr. M:  As of publication of this edition of the newsletter, 45 states, District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have formally adopted the CCSS, with Minnesota having preliminarily adopted the English-Language Arts standards. Under the Blueprint, states that have not adopted the Common Core State Standards would be asked to develop, or, in conjunction with their four-year public university system, upgrade their current standards in English language arts and mathematics  to ensure that by the time that students graduate from high school, they are prepared for college and career.

Teacher: Is my state eligible for grants and/or regulatory relief if it hasn’t adopted the CCSS?

Mr. M: Yes. ESEA Flexibility is not dependent upon specific adoption of the Common Core State Standards. Similarly, Race to the Top does not require that states specifically adopt the common core. Rather, securing this type of regulatory flexibility is dependent upon a state showing that they are creating or upgrading standards to ensure that all students regardless of race, ethnicity, English proficiency or disability status are being prepared for colleges and careers – not with watered-down and prescriptive curricula that were developed under the auspices of NCLB.

Teacher: Who has the primary responsibility for implementing the Common Core and when will this implementation happen?

Mr. M: The federal government has no role in the development of the CCSS and will also have no role in its implementation. The federal government can play a role in providing technical assistance and financial support and incentives to states in order that states create a more rigorous accountability system that matches the expectations of these standards. The federal government has positioned itself as a partner in reform and has, and will continue to, aid states and local districts, who are primarily responsible for curriculum implementation, in support of their creation of rigorous teacher and principal professional development, as well as serve in a research capacity. Timelines for implementation vary by state and if you are a teacher in one of the adopting states, you should search your department of education’s website for the latest updates.

Teacher: How will students be assessed according to the Common Core and other College- and Career-ready standards?

Mr. M: CCSSO and NGA are not developing assessments that tie to the Common Core, and neither is the federal government. The U.S. Department of Education is positioning itself as a partner in reform. ED realizes the importance of ongoing and meaningful feedback to teachers. To that end, as part of the Race to the Top funds, they have awarded grants totaling $330 million dollars to two consortia who will be developing the next generation of high-quality assessments that are aligned to college- and career-ready standards, and will begin by testing students’ knowledge of mathematics and English language arts from third grade through high school. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) have been voluntarily joined by a majority of U.S. states, with some states, like Alabama, officially joining one consortia, and serving as an advisor to the other. The differences between the two are that PARCC will replace one end-of-year assessment with a series of assessments throughout the year that provide valuable, instructionally relevant information to teachers and students. SBAC will use computer technology to individually tailor assessments based on their previous answer. While SBAC will still rely on one end-of-year assessment for the sake of accountability, it will use interim assessments to provide meaningful, directive feedback to teachers, students, and parents.

Teacher: What is the teacher’s role in the implementation of the CCSS? How will teachers better prepare to implement college- and career-ready standards?

Mr. M: Teachers will do what they do best. They will continue to employ their high quality teaching practices. The CCSS establish what students need to learn, but not how they are to be taught. That portion of implementation is left to the practitioner, the teacher. Ultimately, the goal of the CCSS or any college- and career-ready standards is to prepare our students for success in college and career. To do this, teachers will have to participate in professional development about the implementation of the higher-quality standards. This responsibility will not fall solely on current teachers, however, as teacher preparation programs will have to realign their instructional models to ensure that their graduates are of the highest-quality and that they are prepared to teach the content and processes inherent in high-quality, college- and career-ready academic standards. The Obama Administration has made this a priority as they have rolled out their teacher preparation reforms, entitled Our Future, Our Teachers.

Ask Mr. Mullenholz…About Race to the Top!

Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow Greg Mullenholz answers teachers’ burning questions about education policy. In this issue, he takes on Race to the Top (RTT).  

Teacher Question (TQ): What is Race to the Top (RTT)?

Mr. Mullenholz:  RTT is an historic opportunity to support ideas and policies that will lead the way for school reform for the coming decades. RTT awards grants through a competitive process designed to encourage and reward states that are creating the conditions for education innovation and reform. The program provides funding in addition to federal formula for programs such as Title I and IDEA.

Through the RTT competition, states developed progressive plans aimed at achieving student outcomes, like making substantial gains in student achievement, closing achievement gaps, improving high school graduation rates, and ensuring that students are ready for college and careers. States demonstrated a commitment to four areas of reform:  adopting college- and career-ready standards that will help students compete in the workplace and global economy; building data systems to measure student growth and success and inform teachers and school leaders about where to concentrate instruction; recruiting, rewarding, developing, and retaining effective teachers and principals (especially where they are most needed); and turning around persistently lowest-achieving schools.  

TQ:  Which states are participating in Race to the Top?

Mr. M:  The first round of RTT set a high bar, and only two states were awarded grants:  Tennessee and Delaware. During the second round, states improved their plans, and nine states and the District of Columbia received grants. These include:  Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Rhode Island. Currently, six states are competing in the third round, and they include:  Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

TQ:  Is RTT part of the Common Core?

Mr. M:  No. States do not have to adopt the CCSSO’s Common Core State Standards to receive RTT funds.  They do have to show that they have standards for student learning that are preparing students for success in college and careers and that other states are adopting those standards. 

The Common Core State Standards were a state-led effort and were not created or funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The Department has funded two consortia who are working to create next-generation assessment systems that are aligned with the standards.  

TQ:  Why should states have to compete for education funding? 

Mr. M:  While states do have compete to receive RTT funds, it represents a small portion of the overall federal education budget and less than 2 percent of the overall amount spent on K-12 schools over the course of a year. The vast majority of federal funds allocated to states and districts come through formula programs that are provided to every state on the basis of need, not competition. The purpose of the competition is to provide further incentives to states to make needed reforms to improve student learning.

TQ:  What is at stake for students and teachers in the third round of RTT?

Mr. M:  In RTT’s third round of K-12 funding, only states that were finalists in the previous rounds are eligible for grants. Those states stand to share in $200 million dollars, and the winners will be released next week. Depending upon the size of the state’s population, each state stands to be awarded between $12 million and $49 million dollars. However, there is more at stake than money. Race to the Top seeks to spur reform in the states by providing states the funding and ability to create a culture conducive to the continuous improvement of student learning. As Secretary Duncan noted, “Race to the Top round three will enable these states to further their reform efforts already underway and help them get better faster.”

TQ:  How will RTT affect my instruction?

Mr. M:  If you are in a state receiving Race to the Top funds, you should see a comprehensive effort to reform the schools in your state. The activities will include using data to evaluate learning and to develop and support teachers and school leaders. The standards in your state should help you to focus your instruction and to broaden the curriculum and instruction so that you don’t find yourself relegated to teaching to ineffective bubble tests.  Teachers in the lowest performing schools should find increased attention, support, and funding to close gaps and raise student achievement.  Consequently, more of your students should graduate from high school and go on to be successful in higher education or a career. 

If you are not in a state receiving Race to the Top funds, you are likely to experience many of the benefits listed above. The competition itself has stimulated reform in a number of states and districts, regardless of whether or not they have received an RTT grant.