Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Friday, October 28, 2011

Mentzer wants to remove political barriers to education reform

Education policies too often get in the way of student learning, Ciara Mentzer discovered as a fourth-grade bilingual teacher in the South Bronx in New York City.

Ciara Mentzer


After graduating in May 2012, Ciara Mentzer became a policy associate with Advance Illinois, an organization that promotes a public education system in Illinois that prepares all students to be ready for work, college and democratic citizenship. She became a communications strategist at Chicago Public Schools in September 2014.

"I have seen the inequality of opportunity firsthand, having attended one of the best public schools in Illinois and having taught in a public school in the poorest congressional district in the United States," says Mentzer, a second-year student at the La Follette School. "As one might expect, the diversity and depth of need in urban schools, compounded by limited resources and often under-qualified teaching staffs, can be daunting. However, what struck me most profoundly was how often education policies hampered academic progress in high-needs schools."

City, state and federal policies determined everything from when her students were expected to test "proficient" in English after entering the United States (one year), to whether Mentzer was supposed to teach them grammar (she was not), and how long any lesson should last (five minutes – she was timed).

"My fourth-grade bilingual special education students were also required to follow curricula identical to that of all other fourth-graders," Mentzer says. "Accordingly, they were compelled to complete literary essays even though some could not yet read. The goal of not leaving any students behind was translated into a one-size-fits-all education system that ignored individual needs. It is one thing to strive for students to graduate with identical proficiencies, but quite another to deny teachers the flexibility to employ varying strategies to meet diverse needs."

Wanting to influence the policies that dictate what goes on in the classroom, Mentzer left teaching after three years to serve as communications director for a member of the New York State Assembly. "I felt that I could be of greater use to my students if I could influence the policies that shape educational experience," Mentzer says. "I gained an unfiltered, insider view of how state policy is conceived, formulated, negotiated and enacted. I saw the influence wielded by so many – constituents, lobbyists, unions, the press, to name a few – and the dynamics among them that shape legislation. Consequently, I have a much greater understanding today of the obstacles that block the path to significant education reform."

To deepen her understanding of policy issues and strengthen her quantitative skills, Mentzer came to the La Follette School to earn a Master of Public Affairs degree. The program's flexibility has let her pursue her interests in education and politics. "At La Follette I have been able to strengthen my quantitative skills and learn a wide range of approaches that allow one to assess program and policy quality and effectiveness," says Mentzer, who received a fellowship during her first year and now is a project assistant with professor Don Moynihan.

She earned a bachelor's degree in political science and international studies from Northwestern University in 2003 and went to school at night while teaching to earn a master's degree in bilingual education.

At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, more courses in political science have helped Mentzer to gauge the political feasibility of policy proposals and to outline the strategies that might be employed to steward policy from proposal to enactment. "Education policy classes have allowed me to focus more specifically on the array of policies proposed and implemented in schools across the United States, as well as to take a closer look at the evolving research methods for assessing the degree to which these policies are translating to better educational experiences for students," she adds.

Mentzer used her summer to explore education advocacy through two internships. She worked for Advance Illinois, a nonpartisan organization in Chicago that seeks to strengthen schools in Illinois, Mentzer's home state. Advance Illinois played a pivotal role in the negotiations around a sweeping Illinois education reform package passed in May. At Advance Illinois, Mentzer drafted and edited news releases and op-eds, updated and maintained the agency's web site, and researched education policy issues. "It was a great experience and a great introduction to the education reform movement in my home town," she said.

Mentzer also worked for a campaign in Illinois' 10th congressional district. "As a campaign fellow, I conducted legislative and policy research for the candidate, wrote policy briefs and press releases, and generally lent a hand in whatever was needed," she says.

These experiences reinforced her belief that the greatest obstacles to education reform are political rather than pedagogical. "We need to find ways to accurately evaluate teacher quality by measuring student progress, while ensuring that we do not unintentionally penalize teachers who work in challenging classrooms," Mentzer says. "We need to rethink the way we structure teacher contracts and tenure, as well as how we generate curricula that will best prepare students to become successful contributors to society. All of these changes will require thoughtful research, considerable funding, crucial negotiations with teacher unions, and the political consensus essential to bringing these reforms to fruition."

Mentzer hopes to do policy research after she graduates in May, either for a nonprofit or within government, she says. "I am very much interested in the intersection of policy and politics — in the selection of the strongest policy solution and the path to implementation."