Q&A with Department of Ed's Deb Delisle and Steve Robinson on Teachers and Technology

Q&A with Department of Ed's Deb Delisle and Steve Robinson on Teachers and Technology


At the September 10th "Mini-Maker" event to kickoff the MENTOR Makerspaces program, Leonard sat down with a couple of Washingtonians for candid Q&A around teachers and technology.

Deb Delisle, Assistant Secretary for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Steve Robinson, Special Assistant in the White House Domestic Policy Council were great sports, taking on a number of difficult unscripted questions and generally avoiding the campaign stump. Read below for their thoughts on celebrating teachers, dealing with educational bureaucracy, and how policy is trying to keep up with technology in disrupting education.

Leonard Medlock: What inspired you to join the bus tour?

Deb Delisle: For me, it’s an opportunity to see some of the incredible and inspiring things going on in education around the country. This morning we had an opportunity to visit Napa New Tech High School and just to be able to see an innovative model working well for all kids was very inspiring. Just being part of an energy and having a willingness to step out of our Washington offices and connect with people on the ground is really amazing.

What are some of the major goals for the proposed STEM Master Teacher Corps?

Steve Robinson: The STEM Master Teacher Corps is an effort by the President and Secretary Duncan to think about all of the aspects that make a great teacher. We often talk about bringing more STEM teachers into the field, but it’s also important to think about those great teachers who are already there -- recognizing them and maybe asking them to do something extra. Part of what the President has often talked about is what does the career arc of the teaching profession look like? What are the steps beyond just coming in and teaching a class? For those teachers who are really terrific -- which there are many -- how do we select a number of them, highlight their best practices, and use them to recognize excellence in the STEM profession.

Are these teachers intended to be leaders for the national STEM teacher community?

Robinson: That’s interesting. When we announced this, we brought in about a dozen teachers across the community who fit this [working] definition of a master teacher. Although these teachers only received recognition from various programs, a lot of them, because of this recognition, have taken on extra responsibilities on their own. I think it’s important to realize that sometimes teachers are really modest about their accomplishments, and just by having this recognition they’ll often say, “Hey there’s more I can do... now that I have some backing and recognition, there are a few things that I’d actually like to do.” I think that extra impetus is often very helpful.

Delisle: I think there’s been a great surge, too, in supporting teachers to share best practices. So we think this is a really exciting way to create a really strong network of teachers who are really effective with their students -- particularly in the areas of STEM -- to share what they’re doing everyday. So people aren’t necessarily originating ideas, but replicating those that already work.

One thing we’ve seen through the social media-sphere is that teachers sometimes feel jaded with the Department of Education. There are so many layers between the DOE and the classroom -- administrators, districts, state legislators, unions, etc. -- that there seems to be a disconnect. The latest Race to the Top funding is bypassing several layers to reach districts directly. Are there any plans to move a step further and engage teachers?

Robinson: That’s a tough question. With regards to the federal role in education, most people think that--

Delisle: -- we should stay away.

Robinson: Right, that we should stay away, or that we run the whole thing. In fact, the amount of funding that the federal government provides for education is relatively small -- generally less than 10%. It’s easy to sometimes miss that, but the leverage that the federal government has is relatively crude in some ways. So there are efforts like RTTT-D that are going to the district level, but what the President and Secretary Duncan are trying to do within the Department of Education is move to a model that highlights the great ideas happening across the country. For lots of teachers, they’re really isolated and it’s hard to find new ideas so the Secretary is really focused on how to transform the DOE into an agency of innovation -- what does that actually mean and how do we do that? How do we highlight great things that are happening and encourage people to learn about them out and adopt them as they see fit? As far as the role of the President, you know he speaks about teachers in a very glowing way. In his State of the Union, he talked about teachers teaching with passion and creativity, and I think that’s how he really thinks about teaching. Education is very important and the job of teaching is very difficult so we have to be supportive.

So would you say that Department of Education is looking for better ways to celebrate and de-villainize the teaching profession?

Delisle: I would say that’s true. As a federal agency we have these requirements to make sure that monies are spent in the way they’re intended and in the way that legislation provides. Taking a step away from that, we’re thinking about how we can celebrate all of the good work that’s happening around the country and how we can minimize some of the impact that negative media has had on education. And how we can diminish that -- not to exclude it or not be cognizant of it -- to ensure that the educators who are doing really great work stay inspired to keep doing a great job on behalf of kids. So in the department, we’ve been looking for all kinds of ways to highlight successes of teachers. We’ve actually had people come into the department and speak to staff members about how policies are being implemented at the state and local level. That’s really important for us because we translate the policies that are created through legislation, but I want our folks to always remember that eventually it’s going to impact kids in the classroom.

Robinson: There’s also the R-E-S-P-E-C-T Project -- this kind of national conversation that’s been going on this year with teachers across the country. This is something the President asked for money for in the budget, and that’s basically been run through the DOE and in some ways by the Teacher Ambassador Fellows. There have been talks with thousands of teachers across the country to see what the teaching profession really looks like. If we could re-envision the profession, what would things look like? What needs to change? What do we need to keep? What are the important aspects of teaching? We’ve been thinking about it across the whole spectrum -- recruitment, preparation, induction, support, professional development -- the whole thing. What is it about teaching that makes the profession? How do you highlight those aspects? How do you make the profession stronger? We’ve been going about it by having real conversations.

So to actually define the teaching career as opposed to what is the current role of teachers?

Delisle: Right.

I’ll preface this by saying I’m not sure it’s a fault at the federal level, but it’s often perceived that way -- and that is performance-based assessment. Some teachers are in a position to address individual students needs, but at least for some period have to teach to the test even when there are more pressing academic deficiencies. Are there any initiatives coming from the DOE that support mastery-based learning?

Robinson: That’s part of what the RTTT district competition is intended to do. When you look at personalized learning, what does that actually mean? How do you figure out what are the actual needs of the students and how do you meet those needs? That’s the biggest new initiative that addresses that question.

Delisle: We’re really at a crossroads in education in thinking about what do web really want our students to know and be able to do, and how do they demonstrate that ability. So we just had a car ride down from Napa and had a big conversation around this -- sometimes it’s easier to hold teachers accountable by a student's grade or their percentage of achievement on a test, but we have to realize that’s just one part of learning and that learning encompasses a lot of different factors. So for example, how responsible you are, how you contribute to the life of your school and community, or to your classroom and the people you work with, how you engage in learning and take responsibility for your learning -- there are so many attributes that are really life lessons that we can’t let go by the wayside.

From my position living in Silicon Valley, it seems that technology is moving way ahead of policy, and pushing disruption across those attributes in sometimes unintended ways. Are you guys wary of that or afraid? Is it okay that technology may pick up the ball and take it somewhere else before policy can catch up?

Delisle: For me it depends on where technology heads. New Tech HS, that we visited this morning, is a good example. When people create meaningful and purposeful entry points for technology to engage students, we’re seeing how technology can really help kids harness technology in ways never before dreamed... I don’t think any of us can deny that technology is quintessential and critical in the lives of students so to turn that off before they get in the door is silly of all of us. We have to think about using technology in a very thoughtful way, how to bridge the digital divide, and how teachers are trained to use technology in a very judicious way.

Robinson: I think that tech can be very empowering for teachers. Teachers are no longer the person in the room who has all of the knowledge. Any kid with a smartphone knows more about any subject that what the teacher does. It’s really a question of how is the role of the teacher redefined to help students understand what all this information is, what’s the best way to use it, and how do we develop those deeper skills -- collaboration, communication, creativity, and analytical thinking. So I think that’s the challenge as we move forward and we have to face that challenge -- it’s difficult but we have to face it.

Here’s the last question -- I was perusing the Department of Education site and I really dug into the applications for various grants and programs. I was blown away by the number of acronyms, requirements, and regulations, and it reminded me of recent efforts by Microsoft and Google -- companies with hundreds of millions of users -- to simplify their legal notices to users. Are there any efforts to better connect people to this maze of information you [the DOE] have? Are there efforts to simplify and clarify things?

Delisle: That’s really a good question. I wish I could say, “Yeah, we have this really aggressive action we’re taking to do that,” but I’m not sure that it’s on our radar screen. Not because it’s unimportant, but I think we’ve gotten so engaged in the work that we’re doing -- churning out and making sure people have the information they need to be successful to win money competitions. I can say that we’ve made a really strong move in our office to provide technical support to folks. The department does a lot of that through webinars and FAQs so that if there is a piece of legislation that passes into policy and we have to implement that policy, people can understand it and know it. There’s always an opportunity to post questions or comments prior to a grant being posted. You have an opportunity to speak about it, and every comment must be addressed before it becomes part of the federal registry, so sometimes language is clarified as a result. The questions also go through many lenses -- [Deborah rattles off several agencies] -- so I know all of us, being in the federal government, have those bureaucracies that we just cringe at.

Robinson: And usually all of these offices -- when they look at it -- they add stuff [everyone laughs]

Delisle: Maybe we need to bring you in for a year to look at everything and distill it down to a few pages.

I bet there’s a startup out there to do just that!

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