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Education Opinion

Response: Policy Decisions Must Be ‘Done With’ Teachers, Not ‘Done To’ Them

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 12, 2015 16 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here)

This week’s question is:

How can teachers best affect broader educational policy decisions?

Part One in this series featured guest responses come from Karen Baptiste, Eric C. Heins, Mary Tedrow, and David Griffith. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Karen on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today’s post includes contributions from Randi Weingarten, Susan Ochshorn, Meghan Everette and Jody Spiro. I’ve also included comments left by readers.

Response From Randi Weingarten

Randi Weingarten is President of the American Federation of Teachers:

The simple answer: Teachers must raise their voices.

Teachers are closest to the classroom. They know what their students need. Yet, when it comes to setting and implementing education policy, the norm is still that it’s “done to” teachers, not “done with” them. In order for our nation’s public education system to give all children the chance to dream their dreams and achieve them, teachers must have a seat at the table for any decision that affects their teaching and their students’ learning.

At AFT’s \TEACH conference this summer, educators from across the country gathered to talk about raising our collective voice to make neighborhood schools places where parents want to send their kids, where students are engaged, and where educators want to work. The theme of the conference was “Your Voice Matters,” and the driving message was the idea that we need to raise our collective voice in our contracts, in our schools, in our communities, in statehouses and on Capitol Hill if we are going to achieve the public education system that our students, our communities-- and we--deserve.

As Peggy Brookins, an accomplished teacher who now serves as interim president and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, said: “There must be a teacher voice in everything that involves teachers. We can no longer surreptitiously have things done to us and at us, without us being at the table.”

Teachers are increasingly raising their voices. Where they are raising and combining their voices, the seeds of positive change have emerged. Collective voice, exercised through the union, is power--the power to drive real change. AFT leaders and members believe the union can help teachers continue to make their voices heard.

Teachers have found countless ways to make their voices heard beyond their classrooms--from serving on curriculum committees to obtaining quality resources, to testifying before school boards on programs and policies that help or hurt student learning, to reaching out in the community for extra supports.

At the local level, the AFT’s Teacher Leader program empowers teachers to help drive education policies governing our schools. This year, teachers from 12 AFT local affiliates participated in the program and not only built up their inherent leadership skills, but also learned how to connect practice, research and policy.

Since we launched the program three years ago, participating teachers have studied everything from homework policies and graduation requirements for career and technical education programs to the impact of early childhood education on student achievement and implementation of the Common Core State Standards with a diverse range of learners. At the same time, teacher leaders also have put their skills into practice by providing professional development on working with English language learners, by analyzing the benefits of a fine arts program, and by uniting students, teachers and parents to fight inappropriate and excessive testing. Since participating in the program, teacher leaders have grown their leadership by launching programs to try to stop the violence in their communities; by creating professional development for their entire school community--from administrators to bus drivers--on ways to mitigate human sex trafficking in their schools and community; and by serving their members as chapter executive board members, as curriculum and instruction developers, as mentors and trainers.

AFT local unions are working hand in hand with school districts across the country to create professional learning opportunities for teachers. AFT’s Professional Development Program offers 45-hour graduate-level courses, three-hour modules, webinars and technology tools in order to appeal to all educators--and these offerings are created and delivered by classroom teachers as well as administrators. And because this program is built from collaboration between labor and management, teachers are given the time, tools, and support they need to thrive and grow.

That’s the power of teachers raising their voices together.

At the state level, AFT members are leading the charge against activist state legislatures and governors like Greg Abbott in Texas, Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, and Scott Walker in Wisconsin, who are intent on preserving a rigged, trickle-down economic system, and who aim to get there by eviscerating unions and silencing the voices of workers.

Look at what we did in Texas, a state that has eliminated collective bargaining for teachers. Without collective bargaining, teachers and other workers in Texas are denied an important mechanism to raise their collective voice and take collective action. This impact is felt at the community level because teachers are unable to use collective bargaining to negotiate for things that improve learning conditions for kids--such as smaller class sizes, early childhood education, planning time for teachers and labor-management collaboration.

Despite this void and a virulent anti-union environment, Texas AFT has been able to fight back and fight forward. Last spring, members of Texas AFT traveled to Austin to talk with legislators and rally at the state Capitol. Their efforts blocked attempts to do away with payroll deduction, establish several different iterations of voucher programs, privatize struggling schools and boost parent-trigger laws. At the same time, Texas AFT helped to ensure that bills to expand prekindergarten as well as reading and math academies were passed along with six bills that address the testing fixation in the state. All of this in one legislative session.

That’s the power of teachers raising their voices together.

At the national level, the AFT and our members have helped bring about what previously seemed implausible in Congress--bipartisan action to overhaul No Child Left Behind. The new law, which the president signed last week, protects the original intent of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act by maintaining a focus on equity as well as teaching and learning, while relieving the pressure caused by high-stakes testing. Teachers testified before Congress about the ramifications of a test-and-punish education system that does little to support and improve education outcomes and give every child access to a high-quality education. In addition, more than 100,000 AFT members and leaders raised their voices to demand that members of Congress support a reset of federal education law and policy.

Included in this reset is a provision to allow funds to be used for surveys of teaching and learning conditions. This provision was championed by two senators who took notice of an 80-question survey--the first of its kind-- that was filled out by more than 30,000 educators nationwide, and showed how teachers are worn down after years of top-down, failed education reforms. This survey was a joint effort by the AFT and the Badass Teachers Association that was first spearheaded by Jamy Brice-Hyde, a social studies teacher in Horseheads, N.Y. Brice-Hyde raised her voice about the overwhelming stress that teachers are experiencing on the job and influenced federal policy.

That’s the power of teachers raising their voices together.

Advocating for English language learners. Demanding policies on student discipline that are fair and effective. Calling for caps on class sizes. Ensuring that special needs students get the services they require and deserve. Developing accountability systems based on shared responsibility for improving teaching and learning. Giving food, clothing or school supplies that students lack.

Across the country, teachers are doing this and more to support their students. Teaching is our heart. Our students are our soul.

When it comes to policy that dictates what happens in our classrooms, we’re the experts and on the frontlines. Teachers must have a seat at the table. We are raising our voices to demand that seat--for our students, for our schools and for our communities.

Response From Meghan Everette

Meghan Everette is a third grade teacher in Baldwin County, Alabama. She is an ASCD Emerging Leader and a Scholastic Teacher blogger. Connect with Meghan on Twitter @bamameghan:

Teacher voice is one piece missing from the education policy table. Take a look at who is talking and you’ll find media, politicians, government employees, and generally anyone except a teacher. But why? Teachers can, and should, affect policy decisions and should actively seek to influence these decisions. It isn’t as hard as it seems.

First, teachers need to be informed. Follow leading education journals and resources in print, on Twitter, and online lets teachers know what is happening. Staying connected in social media and through conferences helps teachers know what local and national issues are affecting other teachers around the country (and world). Personal experience is a key part of your message, but teachers exercising their voice need to be conscious of the profession as a whole.

Armed with this information, get in contact with local, state, and national lawmakers and influencers. Write letters and emails to representatives and their staff. Set up a time to talk to influencers in the community. I found that my state legislator happens to direct the choir at a church next to my school - I can pop over with coffee any time to chat. It truly is that simple.

Want to affect bigger change? Join in on education advocacy conferences such as state NEA meetings or ASCD’s Leadership Institute for Legislative Advocacy (LILA). Get in touch with Hope Street Group’s state and national teaching fellows. Seek out those groups that are already connected and join in for immediate access with a support system that will help get your message across.

Attending LILA this past year, I found meetings with all of my state representatives already arranged. I was taught how to make my message meaningful and actually engaged in real practice with educators who had been there. I tromped up to the Hill with policy points in hand and the backing of a well respected education organization 125,000 members strong. I found staff eager to hear from a teacher in the classroom and full of questions about what I thought - me - my opinion counting and influencing.

Intimidating for the average teacher? Certainly. But the reality is policy makers are elected officials. They need to listen to their constituents. They work for us and we have every right to have our voice heard.

Response From Susan Ochshorn

Susan Ochshorn is founder of the consulting firm ECE PolicyWorks. She has served in a number of advisory positions, including on the council of the Early Learning Initiative at the Education Commission of the States. She blogs at the Huffington Post and at ECE Policy Matters, the go-to place for early childhood teachers, those who train them, and the decision makers who determine their professional course:

Citizens always “have sought to perfect the future by debating how to improve the young through education,” David Tyack and Larry Cuban wrote in Tinkering Toward Utopia, but “actual reforms in schools have rarely matched such aspirations.” Their observations date back to 1995, before No Child Left Behind became law. Today, teachers are under siege, their wisdom devalued, their autonomy undermined, and their spirits squashed amid the depredations of standards-based accountability and corporatization. The result: a growing insurrection against educational policies that threaten the foundations of teaching and learning, not to mention our democracy.

For early childhood teachers, the new kids on the block in this ecosystem, the mismatch feels most stark, and disturbing. Shepherds of children’s learning from birth through third grade, they are reeling. Early childhood’s merge with the K-12 system has disturbed the delicate ecology of Rousseau’s whole-child approach, in which collaboration, empathy, and creative solutions emerge in the rough-and-tumble terrain of human relationships, and exploration proceeds according to an individualized timeline. This collision of cultures has reached new heights of absurdity with the Common Core, as states struggle to map the standards across the spectrum--including history, economic concepts, and civics and government as foundations for two-year-olds’ emergent knowledge.

The vast majority of early childhood teachers are women, many of them under-educated and living on the margins. The pressures on them under the current regime are unprecedented, and support, inadequate. But they’re nowhere to be found at the policy tables. They need to claim their seat at the table--to “lean in,” as Sheryl Sandberg urged America’s women. This billionaire who crashed through the glass ceiling couldn’t be more removed from the low-wage corps of early childhood educators. But the spirit is right, and the alternative is not acceptable. Otherwise, those who know little about children, and are woefully inadequate to the task, will continue to make big decisions with dangerous repercussions.

Those who teach our youngest students are beginning to emerge from the shadows--among them, Angie Sullivan. A second-grade teacher in Nevada, she knows the fear of speaking up. “We need to stop doing that and be much more aggressive,” Sullivan says, “each single voice can be raised in the area of our expertise, and we deserve to be listened to--our professional skill counts.” She hopes more good men and women will stand up and “say what they know to be best for kids.” Here lies the path to change.

Response From Jody Spiro

Jody Spiro, who has worked with teachers and other education leaders across the country and internationally on education reform efforts, is currently director of education leadership at The Wallace Foundation. She is the author of Leading Change Step-by-Step: Tactics, Tools and Tales (Jossey-Bass, 2011) and the forthcoming High-Payoff Strategies: How Education Leaders Get Results (Jossey-Bass, November 2015):

Everyone is aware that teachers are the number one school-related factor for ensuring the learning and growth of their students. Clearly, teachers’ expertise in conducting instruction for the students in their classes is essential. What is less often realized is the important role teachers should play in influencing broader policy decisions. Since it is they who have daily interaction with the students as well as the instructional expertise, this larger role is important so effective practice is spread outside individual classrooms and pervasive throughout the school. How can this best come about?

Effective principals are well aware that “shared leadership” is essential for the school’s success a recent survey of large urban districts indeed confirmed that, in matters related to curriculum and instruction, princpals turn most often to teacher leaders. Every teacher can be such a leader. Here’s what it takes:

In addition to instructional skills, teachers need to be effective change leaders. The good news is that most change management skills are well known to teachers as effective instruction planning and delivery skills: assessing readiness, analyzing motivation, anticipating what resistance might surface and planning to minimize it, identifying early “wins” to gain momentum, and working collaboratively to get things done.

With these skills, and the deep knowledge of students’ needs, teachers get voice through participating actively in the school’s leadership team(s) and professional learning communities, by mentoring other teachers and sharing effective practice. Three examples of this have recently come to my attention:

In an elementary school that had just implemented new curriculum, the teachers on the leadership team felt that a new reading curriculum was needed also. The principal, however, was reluctant to add one more thing to teachers’ already full plates. Those who suggested adding the new reading curriculum suggested that, before scuttling this idea, teachers be surveyed about their readiness to take this on. The data told the story. Teachers overwhelmingly supported adding the reading curriculum. And this new program was begun.

A middle school that was implementing new curriculum did so by having a professional learning community (PLC) whereby teachers modeled lessons for other teachers in their grade levels. Those who tried out the curriculum brought their experiences back to the PLC where their experiences were discussed, lessons learned, and revisions made in the curriculum and this program.

Finally, teachers in an elementary school were eager for the school to try out “departmentalization” whereby students had different teachers for different subjects. Those on the leadership team were able to demonstrate to the principal that student achievement had been declining under the present structure and it was time to try something new (data once again). Since the fourth grade teachers were experienced and eager (“ready”) to try this, it was agreed that the fourth grade classes would try out this new structure for a year. Then the results would be evaluated with an eye toward school wide implementation if successful.

These are but three examples of how teachers can use their deep knowledge of teaching and learning, combined with change leadership, to affect broader policy decisions.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Randi, Jody, Susan, and Meghan, and to readers, their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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