But while people debate and predict what a reauthorized ESEA will bring, the U.S. Department of Education has been steadfastly chugging along. Known as ED, or just the Department (not DOE), it’s the agency that makes sure that, amidst the political bickering, the day-to-day implementation of federal education programs still happens. There’s a serious team of people working to make sure it does. I spoke with Danielle Smith to learn more about what that work actually looks like.
Danielle is a management and program analyst in the newly-formed Office of State Support (OSS). OSS was created to give states one coordinated touch point for the various federal programs in which they participate. Before OSS, Danielle worked in the Implementation Support Unit (ISU), where she managed technical assistance for Race to the Top grantees. Danielle was a program manager at Mass Insight Education before she went to the Department and started her career in education as the director of the Ward 7 Initiative at Georgetown University, which connected university resources with the community and schools to support PK-16 education.
I talked to Danielle about the federal role in education, pushback against Common Core, and an embarrassing photo shoot. Read more below.
We do a lot! OSS supports states to implement key federal programs to raise standards for college and career readiness for students, increase teacher and leader effectiveness and support, improve low-performing schools and reduce achievement gaps, and ensure all students have equitable access to excellent teachers and leaders. Right now we’re particularly focused on ESEA flexibility renewal, a new iteration of School Improvement Grants, and state equity plans.
The creation of OSS combines all the major state-facing federal programs. Each state will now have one primary contact, rather than different contacts for each program. Ideally, this means that we can provide more efficient, coordinated support to each state and be more helpful in figuring out how to leverage federal funds to support their districts, teachers, and students.
You've spent several years at ED and worked at both the state and local levels. What do you think the federal role in education should be? How has your opinion evolved since you started your work in education?
I really do believe that the federal government can play an important role in incentivizing new ideas, incubating promising strategies, and providing funding and time for those new ideas to take hold. The federal government can also provide meaningful support to states and districts that are tackling really challenging work at a greater scale than many of us have seen in our lifetimes.
My opinion has certainly evolved since I began working in education. When I first started, I was primarily working at the local level, so I didn’t appreciate that the federal government had any important role in K-12 education. The important people were the ones working in schools every day, supporting students and teachers, and clearing the systemic hurdles that were clogging the road to better educational opportunities for kids. Bureaucrats in Washington seemed very far removed from those important day-to-day efforts.
As I moved to doing more state-focused work, I started to appreciate that the federal government could help shape the national conversation and encourage states—and ultimately districts—to be more ambitious about how they were supporting schools. I still didn’t get exactly how that was happening. And I certainly didn’t get how the feds could actually support this work. But I knew that the types of conversations we were having—about reform, the state’s role in reform, and how states and districts needed to work together in new ways to make bolder systemic changes—were influenced in some way by the messages and the dollars coming from D.C.
What are your reactions to the pushback against Common Core? Should Common Core advocates be worried?
When I travel to states to talk with them about how their work is going, the first thing I usually hear is about how the transition to new standards has been tough, and that teachers and schools need more time before they’ll really feel confident about new instructional practices (and the new tests that go with them). But the teachers I’ve talked to like them. Full disclosure – the districts select the teachers that we talk to, so they’re probably not choosing vocal opponents, but the teachers that I’ve met are really advocates for their new standards.
I think a lot of the pushback that we see is related to misinformation. These are not federal standards. They are state-created and state-adopted standards. And many states now are implementing their own versions of these common standards. They are not curriculum. They do not guide what students learn or how teachers teach. Teachers are still determining how those standards get translated into practice. They do provide a roadmap for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. They do raise the bar so that all kids who graduate with a high school diploma will be prepared to enter the workforce or attend some form of college without remediation. That’s a good thing.
Should advocates be worried? I hope not. The further into implementation we get, the less resistance we see. Whether a state adopts the Common Core standards or their own version of higher college- and career-ready standards is not the issue. The issue is going to be making sure states don't make hasty decisions to roll back standards transitions that are already underway and that require educators to interrupt the really important progress they've made. That would be disrespectful to the educators who helped create those standards, spent hundreds of hours creating new curriculum and leading and participating in training to implement them, and continually observing and refining their practice to deliver high quality lessons for students. I hope that work is recognized and respected.
Who have been your favorite people to work with at ED?
I can’t pick favorites, because I really do work with so many “favorite” people. I’m not sure what your impressions are of “the feds” but I can tell you that most “feds” I know are passionate people who really care about trying to make government work better and smarter to support schools. And I haven’t even worked in enough offices to meet them all!
So instead of naming favorites, and in the spirit of award season, I’m going to hand out superlatives to some of ED’s impressively awesome and maybe lesser-known bureaucrats:
Best Nutty Professor Award goes to Brad Jupp for his supporting role as Special Advisor to the Secretary in all work related to teachers. A career educator from Denver Public Schools, “the Jupp” is the consummate professor. He is bound to ask insightful probing questions and leave you with at least three things that you might not have considered before while using words like “righteous” and throwing down extensive knowledge of old-school hip hop.
Best Co-star Award goes to Jamila Smith, who is officially the longest standing member of the technical assistance team and co-starred with me in an embarrassing photo shoot that may or may not have been in a national publication. Jamila is not only an incredible professional, helping hold down the technical assistance team and serving as the Department’s go-to resource on sustainability of reform, but she also amazes with her superhuman abilities to juggle a demanding job and still throw legendary birthday parties for her three toddlers.
Best Director (Musical or Comedy) goes to Monique Chism, the director of the new Office of State Support, for leading the comedic, and sometimes musical, merging of six offices into one. Monique’s musicality is part of what makes her a great leader—including when she took home the winning prize at the office holiday party dance contest.
Best Director (Drama) goes to Ann Whalen, the fearless former director of the ISU. I have so much respect for Ann’s leadership. She is incredibly smart and always helped us up our game to make sure that we were delivering high quality support while navigating the sometimes dramatic contours of RTT.
Best Deputy in a Supporting Role goes to Patrick Rooney, who leads the Race to the Top Assessment work for the Department and in 2013 stepped in to help lead the technical assistance team, then served as interim director of the ISU during transition, and now works as the new Deputy Director for the Office of State Support. Patrick is thoughtful, fun to work with, and best of all, calm! I’m so grateful for his steady support and leadership throughout our office’s multiple transitions.
What advice do you have for young ed professionals who are interested in working at the Department?
Apply! Come join our team! The Department is a great place to learn and, most importantly, to serve. Our most important job is serving the states, districts, and schools that educate all our students, so if you have a sharp mind and an appetite to learn, I would highly encourage you to pursue opportunities at ED. And we really benefit from team members who have experience working in schools, districts, and states who can help us apply that practical knowledge to shape how policies are carried out.
Interested in learning more about working at ED? Register to attend YEP-DC's Edu-Jobs event on Feb. 3, where Management and Program Analyst Beth Plewa will facilitate a session to discuss her own experiences at the Department, alongside over a dozen other area education professionals.
Ashley Mitchel is an analyst with Bellwether Education Partners, and her Q&As with local education leaders are a regular Recess feature. Reach her via email or Twitter.