Published Online: March 28, 2014

Legislators Should Listen More to Teachers

Legislators could improve their work on education issues if they would ask more questions and listen more to teachers

Not long ago, I had coffee with a woman who ran unsuccessfully last year for a state legislative seat. Although we had several mutual friends, we’d never met before. But she’d seen me argue with somebody online, liked what I had to say, and suggested we meet.

She asked lots of questions, and we had a great conversation. Although she worked briefly for Head Start, she admitted there were lots of theories and ideas in education policy she found murky.

Then she said this: “Wouldn't it be great if there were a guide for legislators to making useful education policy?” So here it is:

#1. You don’t know education just because you went to school.

Even if you were paying attention in high school, your perspective as a student was extremely narrow and is now obsolete. Study the issues, which are more complex and resistant to change than you think. Here’s a brief list of things that, in my experience, legislators don’t know diddly about:

  • A cooperative classroom and how to achieve it;
  • Formative assessment;
  • Effect of class size on daily practice (not test scores);
  • Difference between standards and curriculum;
  • Special education;
  • Research-based value of recess and exercise;
  • Differentiation vs. tracking;
  • What quality teaching looks like in practice; and
  • The fact that all learning is socially constructed.

And on and on.

#2. Plan to pay many non-photo op visits to lots of schools. Do things while you’re there. Read with 3rd graders. Sit in on a high school government class or small-group discussion about Shakespeare.

Play badminton in a coed gym class. Take garden-variety teachers out for coffee after your visit; let them talk, and just listen. Resist the urge to share the “good news” about legislation you’re cosponsoring. Ask questions instead.

#3. Take the tests that kids have to take.

Then you’ll understand why “achievement data” and what to do with it are sources of high anxiety for public schools, teachers, and students.

#4. Be picky about what you read, listen to, and believe.

Media is not fair and balanced. In an online world, information and sexy, upbeat story lines are for sale. At the very least, read both sides, with your crap detector on full alert. Consider that media often enshrines flat-out lies in the public consciousness simply because they’re a good headline or the deliverer is charismatic.

#5. Examine your assumptions.

When teachers roll out unsubstantiated chestnuts (“No wonder he’s the way he is—just look at his parents!”), it’s teacher lounge talk. But, when elected officials say clueless things, voters pay attention. For example: “Incompetent teachers are being allowed to teach, and substandard service is being tolerated.” Whatever your deepest convictions about unions, teacher pay, urban poverty, or kids today, check those biases at the door. Represent everyone in your district, not just the people who agree with you.

#6. Follow the money, not the party.

A lot of what’s happening in education “reform” today is centered around taking advantage of the large, previously untapped market of K-12 education. Before you get on any partisan policy bandwagon just for the thrill of passing a law, ask yourself: Who really benefits from this? Who loses?

#7. Remember you were elected to represent your constituents’ goals and desires, not some special interest group.

Even if the prepackaged legislation is slick and convenient and the Koch brothers are willing to fly you someplace warm with golf courses, do the work yourself. Looking yourself in the mirror will be a lot easier in the morning.

#8. Be like Rob Portman.

Change your mind and your public proclamations when the evidence is convincing. Changing your mind — if you do it publicly, and don’t try to sneak the shifts past voters with tap dancing and weasel language — makes you stronger, demonstrating that you have confidence in your own core values and leadership. After all, Diane Ravitch altered her views and earned herself a few million devotees.

Corollary: Admit when you don’t understand value-added methodology, the reason STEM is so hot, or constructivism in mathematics education. There is nothing more pathetic than a legislator trying to act like he knows something by tossing out a few buzzwords.

#9. Big and bold gets headlines, but tinkering around the edges gets results.

Want to raise teacher quality? Don’t endorse firing the “lowest” quintile, publicly rank-ordering them in the newspaper, or bringing in untrained but photogenic Ivy Leaguers. Do it the old-fashioned way: careful recruitment, building teachers’ skills and knowledge, investing in their capacity and leadership over time.

#10. Honor our democratic foundations.

Public education is the most democratic of our institutions, one of our best ideas as Americans. Public schools may be tattered and behind the technological curve, but systematically destroying the infrastructure of public education is profoundly selfish and immoral. Don’t be that legislator.

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