The revolving door between the ivory tower and government has spun many times, bringing to Washington such luminaries as Henry Kissinger and Daniel Patrick Moynihan from Harvard, George Shultz from Stanford and John Deutch from MIT.
By comparison, the path from the schoolhouse to the Potomac has been seldom traveled. Few teachers or principals have made the leap from classroom to the Cabinet, White House staff or bureaucracy. Though dominated lately by lawyers and business people, Congress has had its share of former teachers, including House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
With so much federal attention to education but little firsthand experience to guide policymaking, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley thought it would be a good idea to have some seasoned practitioners around to consult. He borrowed a school model, establishing in the department what have evolved as rotating positions for a teacher in residence and a principal in residence.
Therese Dozier was the department's first teacher in residence, informally. In 1993, the onetime national teacher of the year from Columbia, S.C., arrived with Riley, a former South Carolina governor, as his adviser on teaching. Two years ago, the position was formally created and filled by Mary Beth Blegen from Minnesota--another teacher of the year--whose two-year term has been extended another year. In the meantime, Dozier has remained on Riley's staff, assigned to shepherd legislative initiatives designed to produce more and better teachers.
So far there have been five principals in residence, the first selected in 1993 at the urging of Madeleine Kunin, a former Vermont governor who was then deputy secretary. The current resident principal, Paul Schwarz, came from Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, an innovative school fabled in the annals of education reform. His two-year appointment ends this month.
The trio of professional educators--Dozier, Blegen and Schwarz--has tried to help career bureaucrats see beyond their cubicles and appreciate realities of school life most have never known firsthand, except perhaps during their days as students. "They can't picture what it's like to be in a principal's office, in a faculty room, in a classroom," Schwarz said.
Describing her previous role as the unofficial teacher in residence, Dozier said, "I served on all kinds of committees to give the teacher's perspective."
Dozier recalled the time, for instance, she argued that the allocation of a teacher's time had to change for there to be any hope the nation would meet ambitious education goals by 2000. A staff member suggested that a new project already in the works would do the trick: Pay substitutes while regular teachers rewrite curriculum and plan school reforms.
Wrong, Dozier replied, because good teachers would refuse to leave their classes in the hands of substitutes generally incapable of providing the same level of instruction. Instead, teachers were put to work on school reform during summer vacations.
Similarly, both resident practitioners said debates in Washington about problems like school violence often focus on misguided or simplistic solutions.
While Congress debates gun control and the public demands tighter security measures in the wake of the Littleton, Colo., shootings, Dozier and Schwarz suggested that school safety would be more surely enhanced by smaller, more personalized schools where the staff knows the students well and everyone feels connected.
"A school isn't a building. It's a community of people," Schwarz explained.
LEARNING FROM WASHINGTON: Besides schooling department staffers and members of Congress, the educators in residence have learned a thing or two from them about making policy and law.
Schwarz remains baffled by the abstract process of formulating policy to suit unseen millions of schoolchildren because, he says, he had a hard enough time just figuring out which subjects that students in his own school needed to learn.
When Dozier returns to teaching social studies, she intends to revise her lesson plans on how Congress works.
"The democratic process of trying to reach a consensus is not as straightforward as it is in the textbooks."