Education Opinion

Evan Stone and Sydney Morris, Co-Founders, Educators for Excellence

By Sara Mead — May 26, 2011 6 min read
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As young teachers in the New York City Public Schools, Evan Stone and Sydney Morris struggled with a feeling that the policies and practices that affected them and their students were being developed with little teacher input or voice. So they decided to work to change that, by created Educators for Excellence to organize teachers and provide an independent voice for them in public and policy debates over education.

Today, Educators for Excellence has 2,500 members, a staff of 6 former teachers, and is already putting its imprint on legislation and policy in New York State. Educators for Excellence reflects two emerging trends in education reform today. Like many of the other leaders profiled in this series, Stone and Morris work to empower and build connections among teachers, so that they no longer feel alone and unheard. Their work also reflects the growing recognition in education reform circles that driving real change in education requires organizing and empowering the people on the ground--teachers, parents, and community-members who care the most about how education policies affect their children. An avid runner and soccer fan, Stone, 26 was raised in Los Angeles and earned his bachelor’s degree from Yale. Morris, 25, was raised in New York and holds a bachelor’s degree from Tulane and a master’s from Pace University. Both came into the classroom through Teach for America and currently live in Manhattan. [Click for more.]Why did you decide to found Educators 4 Excellence?

Sydney: Both Evan and I were teaching at same school--a traditional district elementary school in the Bronx--through Teach for America. We were in our 3rd year teaching. I taught 2nd and 3rd grade, Evan taught 6th grade. As we realized the great amount of control and responsibility teachers have within the four walls of their classroom, we started to wonder why we had almost no say in what happens outside of it.

We started to get frustrated, and talked to other teachers and found they were feeling the same way. We felt that we weren’t evaluated in a meaningful way or given tools, resources, and support to improve. We weren’t acknowledged or rewarded for the toughest job any of us could imagine doing.

We heard over and over that teachers felt they didn’t have a voice in the system or a way to do anything about it or take action on behalf of their students.

So we began thinking about the potential for an independent movement of teachers who could become informed and involved in the system and become part of the decision-making process. Who knows better than teachers how policy translates into classroom practice?

Evan: Once we identified the problem we wanted to bring teachers together in a way that allowed teachers to become more active in the governance of their own profession.
Our founding document is a Declaration of Teachers’ Principles and Beliefs. We asked teachers to become members of Educators for Excellence by signing onto the declaration. We currently have over 2,500 members in New York State.

Tell me a little more about how you engage teachers?

Sydney: Our work progresses in 3 stages, modeled after the process that we ourselves went through: Learn, network, take action.

As they should be, most teachers are focused on their classroom; they don’t always have the time to follow what’s going on in education policy. We want to provide teachers with access to information on policy, policymakers, and research in a format that is digestible, accessible, and relevant for them.

The second stage is network: Teaching is a very isolating profession, and we want to give educators the chance to network with like-minded professionals. We do this through both informal networking opportunities and more formal events, such as our Policymakers Q&A series and panel discussions. We’ve had [former New York Schools Chancellor] Joel Klein, [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg, and UFT President Michael Mulgrew all in to speak. We’ve done a panel discussion on value-added data. We try to reflect variety of positions and perspectives on issues.

The third stage is take action: We organize smaller “policy teams” of 10-15 teachers who go really deep on one issue in the declaration over the course of months, and then we develop policy recommendations based on that. So far, we’ve developed and released one set of recommendations around an alternative to last-in, first-out and one on what we think the 60 percent of the teacher evaluation system that is subject to collective bargaining should look like.

What have been your biggest victories/successes to date?

Evan: Going through this process we’ve really seen that teachers can have an impact on policies: Policymakers want to hear from teachers. Some of our teachers’ recommendations are reflected in state legislation that is currently moving forward in New York. E4E teachers present their recommendations to legislators and we engage our membership to be advocates for their students outside of the classroom by sharing their ideas with elected officials and policymakers.

What have been the greatest challenges?

Sydney: I think the biggest challenges have been around starting an organization, given we had very little background in launching or running organizations or businesses.
The second biggest challenge has been getting the word out, letting teachers know. Our growth has been entirely based on grassroots, teacher-to-teacher word of mouth outreach. We’re amazed at how quickly it’s grown and hope to continue to elevate the voices of many more teachers.

What do you ultimately hope to accomplish? How will Educators 4 Excellence impact the education debate/conversation 5, 10 years from now?

Evan: We have two long-term goals: First, to See our profession really be elevated, to bring back prestige to teaching. We know how tough this job is and how hard the people in it work. For too long policies have been created without the input of classroom teachers. Second, to see teachers ideas translate into policy changes that improve outcomes for kids.

Some people would say that teachers already have a voice through teachers unions--why is your organization necessary?

Evan: Teachers unions have a tremendously important place in this dialogue. Across the country we’re starting to see unions take a real leadership role in advancing policies that put the needs of kids first.

But a union needs to have one stance on every issue. In New York City the UFT has 200,000 members. There are going to be a lot of differing opinions on how we make changes and get to ultimate goals. There didn’t seem to be an outlet within the union for us to have the kind of dialogue we wanted to have.

Creating an independent organization gives people a venue and a place for dialogue and increases the opportunities and possibilities for educators to become involved.

What advocates/organizers/educators do you admire, and who influences your work?

Sydney: I’ve learned the most from the conversations we’ve had with hundreds of classroom teachers. I’ve learned about their different perspectives and beliefs. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the perspectives of policymakers are often so misaligned with those of teachers, in terms of how policies actually translate into reality in schools and classrooms.

Evan: Albert Shanker greatly influences our work. He not only was able to empower voices of thousands of teachers but realized that we need to prioritize the interests of students and began to work towards that when he led the American Federation of Teachers.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.