Gregory Mullenholz just completed a year advising federal education officials as a U.S. Department of Education Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow. He previously was a fifth-grade teacher and staff development teacher at Twinbrook Elementary School in Rockville. He will return to Montgomery County Public Schools as a Math Content Coach at Greencastle Elementary School in Silver Spring. He was interviewed by phone on July 13.
Tell me about being a Teaching Ambassador Fellow.
It was an amazing experience. There were 16 fellows from across the country. We were the leaders of the RESPECT Project, which is working to create a vision of what the teaching profession should look like in the 21st Century.
RESPECT [is an acronym for] Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching.
We would talk with teachers and they would say what drives them and what they want their profession to look like. Our goal was talking to teachers and to get teachers talking to each other and their unions.
I had a geographical territory and was really successful in just calling schools and getting groups of teachers together. I spoke with about 3,500 teachers in over 250 roundtable discussions. It was pretty impressive.
We would come back and take [the teachers’] feedback to [Department of Education] senior policy advisors.
As the year progressed, what we would see happen would be we would talk to the teachers and the advisors would be discussing the same thing. We could tell [the teachers] the advisors were listening and acting on their feedback.
I was [also] placed in the office of the Secretary [of Education] to work on technical assistance for the “Race to the Top” initiative.
Can you describe that?
Race to the Top is a discretionary grant program that has awarded over $5 billion in funding to states that have demonstrated a willingness to advance reform in four areas: turning around the lowest-performing schools; building longitudinal data systems that measure and track student growth as well as inform instruction; recruit, retain, develop and reward effective teachers and principals, especially in schools where they are needed the most; and adopting college- and career-ready standards.
The department has shifted the way it interacts with the states; it’s now a more collaborative approach.
I’d work with states to make sure they were reaching their goals. It was a good fit for me because I had worked in a school and with staff practices. I taught fifth grade for six years and did staff development work, all at Twinbrook Elementary School.
They also taught us a lot about policy and how it works and we taught them about teaching.
What is the main concern of teachers?
From a national perspective, the profession itself is not necessarily a sustainable one. People go into teaching because they want to make a difference, change the lives of kids for the better, but they end up feeling undercompensated, underappreciated and under-supported. Their concern is that they can't stick very long with the profession they've come to love. Half of the teachers who join the profession are gone by the end of the fourth year; 66 percent of them come into the profession feeling unprepared and many come in with large student loan debts that will take them over a decade to repay. It's simply not sustainable.
Are teachers concerned about testing?
Yes. With the focus on attainment of proficiency over growth under No Child Left Behind, teachers have had to spend a tremendous amount of valuable instructional time preparing for state tests. This has taken its toll on arts instruction, physical education and non-tested subjects like science and social studies. The concern around testing, in addition to the time spent on test prep, is also whether or not these tests measure the right things. The tests certainly do not measure 21st-century skills or higher-order thinking. Rather, they measure rote and formulaic response, not either of which are skills our students need to be college- and career-ready. Particularly hard hit are teachers and students in schools with high poverty levels. Being that these students are further behind to start, the time that they spend prepping for a test is more than students who are further ahead socioeconomically. These students, in particular, are in need of a well-rounded education that uses targeted intervention to meet their individual academic needs, not time-heavy test preparation that puts them further behind their peers.
“Voices in Education” is a twice-monthly feature that highlights the men and women who are involved with the education of Montgomery County’s children. To suggest someone you would like to see featured, email Peggy McEwan at firstname.lastname@example.org.