Much like America’s teachers, the U.S. Department of Education sometimes gets a bad rap.
You know the drill. So many times, the stories of frustrated teachers or bad apples get bigger play on social media and in the news than the stories of the millions of American teachers who, like my friends and colleagues, change lives every day. Meanwhile, federal policymakers get blamed for not being omnipotent, as many think they should be, or for not talking to real teachers. However, since the start of this school year, my Teaching Ambassador Fellow colleagues and I have spoken with literally thousands of teachers around the country and brought back to ED what we’ve heard.
Many of our fellow teachers are frustrated by things beyond their control; too few are paid adequately or treated respectfully as they do the job they love. And so, not surprisingly, sometimes we hear complaints. I usually respond by saying, “I agree. And ED agrees too.”
Listen to some speeches from the leaders of the Department over the past year and you’ll hear our voices from the classroom and know ED is ultimately on our side. I know, because I’ve been repeatedly asked for my feedback and I’ve seen it acted upon. The speeches have titles such as “Investing in Teachers Instead of Prisons” and “Supporting America’s Educators to Expand Opportunity.” They have called on schools and districts to cut the amount of time kids spend on unnecessary or unhelpful standardized tests and expand students’ access to courses in the arts and sciences, where they might find their passions and learn skills for their future careers. Before stepping down, former Secretary Arne Duncan called for a 50-percent salary increase for every teacher working in the country’s highest-need schools.
Newly-appointed Secretary John King never fails to call on his experience as both a student and a teacher when thinking through policy. He says, “I am who I am because a teacher and a school believed in me and believed it was worth the time and effort to widen my horizons.” He tells stories of students from his classes who call to mind our own — kids like Ricardo, a high school junior who was “brilliant, fascinating, but barely skating by in the class” until engaged by a unit on the Harlem Renaissance. It was students like those he had taught that inspired efforts to push for states and districts to value “creative teaching” over test prep. Perhaps most powerfully, King has taken responsibility for ways in which the Department of Education, among others, has contributed to the creation of a climate where teachers and principals have “felt attacked and unfairly blamed for the challenges our nation faces as we strive to improve outcomes for all students.” He has vowed to change that and is working to do so.
Many teachers don’t have time to listen to speeches or read policy; they’re too busy making sure their students are learning. And for that matter, speeches only get us so far. As we finish out this year’s Teacher Appreciation Week, it is most important that we listen to, honor, and support teachers in doing the work that changes students’ lives. However, I also encourage you to take some time to listen to what policymakers at the U.S. Department of Education have to say. You might just be surprised.