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Education Opinion

Response: Policymakers Should ‘Treat Teachers Like Equals’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 11, 2017 17 min read
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(This the final post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here; Part Two here; and Part Three here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What do you think are the most important things that many policy-makers don’t understand about teachers, students, and schools?

In Part One, Jennie Magiera, Dr. Sanée Bell, Amanda Koonlaba, Matthew A. Kraft, and Douglas Reeves shared their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jennie, Sanée, and Amanda on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Barnett Berry, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Kate Sacco, Cathy Seeley, and Pia Lindquist Wong contributed their answers.

Part Three‘s responses came from Donna Wilson, Marcus Conyers, Jen Schwanke, Dr. Rachael Gabriel, Dr. Sarah Woulfin, Karen Gross, and Brian Moore.

We’ll wrap-up this series with commentaries from Suzie Boss, Aba Ngissah, Meghan Everette, Tamara Fyke, and John George. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Suzie Boss

Suzie Boss is a writer and educational consultant from Portland, Ore., who focuses on real-world, project-based learning. Her most recent books are All Together Now: How to Engage Your Stakeholders in Reimagining School and The Power of a Plant: A Teacher’s Odyssey to Grow Healthy Minds and Schools (by Stephen Ritz with Suzie Boss):

How long has it been since most education policy-makers set foot in a classroom? I haven’t been able to find any data to answer this question, but I fear that too many at the policy level are not basing decisions on recent interactions with teachers or students. Why is this a concern? Looking at education from the 30,000-foot level (or relying on memories of bygone school days), it’s hard to hear the voices, concerns, and hopes of those who are most invested in the day-to-day business of teaching and learning.

If policy-makers were closer to the classroom, they might be in for some surprises.

In my newest book, “All Together Now: How to Engage Your Stakeholders in Reimagining School,” I highlighted the disengagement from decision-making that many teachers feel:

According to the Center on Education Policy, most teachers believe their voices are not often factored into the decision-making process at the district (76 percent), state (94 percent), or national (94 percent) levels (Rentner, Kober, & Frizzell, 2016). Results are somewhat better locally, with 53 percent of teachers agreeing that their opinions are considered most of the time at the school level. Yet state or district policies are seen as barriers to teaching by nearly half of those in the profession.

This is especially concerning when you consider that teachers are on the frontlines of actually implementing policies. Without their buy-in, school reforms stand little chance of succeeding.

Something else policy-makers may not know is that teachers are increasingly spending their own time and energy on peer-to-peer learning. The past few years have seen a groundswell of do-it-yourself professional development, including #edchats, #edcamps, and teacher-led communities of practice. This investment in time, energy, and resource-sharing is an important reminder of the commitment to learning that educators bring to their profession.

Student attitudes might also surprise policy-makers. Here’s the dispiriting conclusion of Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education: “The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure” (Busteed, 2013).

As they progress from the elementary years into high school, students are less and less apt to think that they have a voice in decision making at school, according to student voice surveys conducted by the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations (www.qisa.org). Most students (63 percent) begin middle school believing they have a voice; the percentage drops to 36 percent by grade 12. (QISA, 2014). The irony is not lost on student voice experts Quaglia and Corso, who state: “The more our students mature, the less opportunity they have to offer their opinions and participate as leaders in meaningful ways.” (Quaglia & Corso, 2014, p. 2).

Yet when students are invited to weigh in on school change initiatives, they then to be eager to contribute. That’s been the experience of the young people leading StudentVoice.org, a youth-led initiative to amplify student voice in school change. I’ve seen the same willingness to be part of school change efforts any time I’ve invited students to take part in conference panels or participate in professional development for their teachers.

So what do I wish policy makers knew? That students and teachers are all too often untapped as a resource for improving education. And that without their support, school change efforts have little chance of succeeding.

Let’s find better ways to close the gap between those on the frontlines of education and those contemplating big-picture strategies for improvement.

Response From Aba Ngissah

Aba Ngissah is a teacher at Hudnall Elementary School in the Inglewood Unified School District in Inglewood, Calif., and is a member of the Instructional Leadership Corps, a collaboration among the California Teachers Association, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford:

Dear Policymaker,

Every time a person blinks, there are new policies being put into place with the intention of improving student achievement. Unfortunately, the expertise that resides in schools—teachers, students—is often overlooked. Consequently, policies fail to reach their full potential.

Create policies with teachers.

While policymakers claim to have the best interest of the students, their 35,000 foot view is far from the classroom and often do not reflect the realities experienced by teachers, students, and the school community. It is like saying, “I can help you become a better forensic scientist because I watch Criminal Minds and read novels and articles about forensic science.”

Until policymakers fully understand the profession of teachers, the expertise of teachers, and the vast knowledge of teachers, the policies they create will likely continue to be less than effective. Policymakers must realize that becoming an administrator, working in a district office, or developing policies does not connote that one is more intelligent than a classroom teacher; it is merely a different path taken. In fact, successful implementation of policies requires the engagement of teachers. Teachers work directly with students and parents, and, thus, are crucial in the planning and implementation of any policy. Formulating policies with teachers at the table, many of whom hold master’s degrees, doctorates and in some cases, National Board Certification, will surely increase the likelihood that education reforms will have their intended effects—to improve student learning outcomes.

Create policies with students.

How is possible that in the United States of America, policy that directly affects students is formulated without the powerful tool—student voices? Policymakers must understand that our students are not numbers, but complex beings with complex minds and needs and their voices, along with their parents’ voices, must be heard.

An example is when full day kindergarten was implemented. Parents and teachers’ voices should have been heard. Children, 4 1/2 and 5 years old, engage in a full curriculum, but with no naps or downtime to process all that they are learning and doing. While the children eventually adapt to this, at what cost? Teachers must squeeze in more core curricula and there are less opportunities for developmental activities. Kindergarten teachers, with whom I have spoken, say they try to “sneak in” naps for their students because it improves their academic productivity and is beneficial to students at this developmental stage.

Create policies that support schools.

During the NCLB era, the flawed AYP caused some districts and administrators to direct teachers to teach only the “Power Standards.” The results were teachers teaching in a manner that was detrimental to students. Why? Because schools were being held responsible for increasing test scores, but lacked the support they needed to improve. As Richard Elmore, a Harvard professor, proffered, for every unit of accountability, an equal investment in capacity building must be made. Without that, policies focused on school improvement are likely to fall short of their goals.

Policymakers, please reach out to teachers with different viewpoints, treat teachers like equals, build relationships with teachers and students and understand that the decisions you make may have long-lasting effects, both positive and negative, on a child’s life.

Response From Meghan Everette

Meghan Everette is a Teacher on Special Assignment in the Salt Lake City School District and a regularly blogger for Scholastic’s Top Teaching site:

Have you ever seen the book called, “What Men Know About Women,” and when you flip it open, it is blank? Not a unique gag, the book could be more aptly titled, “What Policy Makers Know About Education.” While it is an over-stereotyped assumption, most everyone does believe themselves an expert on schools. And why not? Most everyone working in policy making attended school for at least 16 years. They have been daily residents in classrooms and know what school looks like. Or do they?

I have to believe that for someone who attended school but doesn’t work in education, becoming a teacher would be like pulling back the curtain on the great and powerful Oz. What else could be so shockingly different from what you thought you knew? The simple fact is, you don’t know teaching unless you are doing it. Even those that have been teachers before aren’t in the trenches daily. As soon as you leave a classroom, much like experiencing labor, your perspective shifts and the pain suddenly doesn’t seem so familiar. What is it that policy-makers don’t understand about education? It isn’t so different from anyone else; you can’t know it when you don’t live it and there is nothing else like it in the world. The real problem is, no one believes or trusts this. There is no walk through that can prepare or liken the experience for you. And even though that can be said time and time again, policy-makers, like the rest of the world, believe in their hearts that they attended school and know what it is.

And yet, though that is the basis for any other issue, that is not what policy-makers do not understand most about educators. There was a change a few years ago in the teacher evaluation system in my state. Educators were quite vocal about the vote pertaining to this change online and in person. While I was in Washington, D.C. meeting with staffers for my senator, I expressed that I didn’t agree with the proposal and I didn’t know anyone else that did either. The staffer said the senator has been to a school and talked to educators and it seemed ok with them. (We won’t even examine the fact that talkeing with educators at one school isn’t exactly a representative sample.) I asked her to relay the circumstances of the meeting and it appears that the suit-clad senator graced the faculty meeting with his presence and told teachers why he supports the idea. No one argued.

Teachers talk with 6-year-olds all day. They are insulated in their communities and schools. They have conversations with and about kids. So when a powerful person comes in and tells them what is what, they aren’t going to argue and raise concerns. They aren’t going to play devil’s advocate or challenge the norm. These are people who spend their life being the authority and telling a class full of students what will happen. They know when they are supposed to nod and agree, just as their students do. Policy-makers, who feel comfortable in schools since they have years of attendance under their belts, don’t recognize the authority that they have. They don’t understand the intimidation felt by many teachers when faced with a person they perceive in power. Whole school structures are set to have power players you bow to, and this is no different.

So what policy-makers need to realize is while teachers are highly intelligent, highly opinionated, and valuable members of the constituency, they also need to recognize their intimidation. It should be clear that policy-makers, or anyone outside teaching, cannot truly know what goes on in the school, but it should also be an open conversation, not a talk-to, to learn as much as possible. They need to be in schools. Not for special events, but for the everyday, day to day. They need to see the uncontrollable kid have a meltdown and the lunchroom run out of chicken nuggets. And more than anything, they need to be regular Joes and open conversations, not policy points, to connect and learn.

Response From Tamara Fyke

Tamara Fyke (@entrprenurgirl) is a creative entrepreneur with a passion for kids, families, and urban communities, and is the creator/author and brand manager for Love In A Big World with Abingdon Press. She received her master’s degree in education from Peabody at Vanderbilt. Tamara lives in Nashville with her three children she adopted. She has worked for over 20 years in the field of social and emotional learning with Love In A Big World—to learn about the Love In A Big World curriculum, with character development and social and emotional learning at its core, visit www.loveinabigworld.com:

I think that many policy-makers, except those who have spent real time in the classroom, do not understand the social and emotional dynamics of the school. With the overemphasis on student testing and teacher accountability, the simple fact that students and teachers are human beings, not numbers, has been lost. A face must be paired with the data.

Schools are complex organizations, housing countless dyads and triads of relationships, such as student-teacher, teacher-teacher, teacher-administrator, administrator-student, administrator-family, teacher-family-student, administrator-teacher-student, etc. I believe policy-makers at the federal, state and local levels need to be mindful that education is about the business of people, not scores.

As James Comer of Yale University says, “While most of today’s jobs do not require great intelligence, they do require greater frustration tolerance, personal discipline, organization, management, and interpersonal skills than were required two decades and more ago. These are precisely the skills that many of the young people who are staying in school today, as opposed to two decades ago, lack.”

With vast amounts of knowledge available at our fingertips, education has become less about memorizing facts and more about problem-solving. One of the best ways to solve problems is through conversation, genuine and open dialogue. The path to meaningful conversation is simple but not easy... relationships.

Relationships matter. Giving time and space during the school day for building relationships through strategies like morning meeting and advisory time, pay back dividends in increased engagement in academics. Students will work hard and excel when they know their teachers care.

In order for teachers to care for their students, they must be cared for as well. Through routine self-care and intentional support and appreciation from administrators and parents, teachers care tanks can be refueled.

A focus on relationships builds community. Parents and business partners will engage when they can see and feel the improved culture and climate of the school.

I believe it is time for policy-makers to invest money into strategies and practices that cultivate a sense of belonging.

Response From John George

John George currently serves as the principal of Dexter McCarty Middle School in the Gresham Barlow School District. He was the Oregon Middle School Principal of the Year in 2014. Prior to serving as a middle school principal, he was a turnaround principal and a district office administrator. George specializes in instructional improvement and turning around struggling schools and districts. Connect with George on Twitter @duckfan66:

Everything! They went to school, so they are experts just like everyone else. They totally understand the trauma and difficulties that students face today with poverty, language issues and social media. Policy makers need to be communicated with about the realities of what “school” is like in the 21st century. With accountability, standards, countless policies and mandates, students can’t just “play school” like in the old days because they are familiar with the script. Public education is under siege because the people don’t understand, know or acknowledge the level of services we are required to provide that go above and beyond teaching and learning. It is imperative that educators, teachers and administrators, communicate with their legislators and community members, to teach them about what we do. What it is to be an educator in today’s society. Society has changed and so has the clientele.

Responses From Readers

Michael Waters:

First, there is poverty and hunger. More children live in poverty and are not food secure here in the U.S. than in many other first world nations. Second, kids need books; not nonsense word fluency drills, timed tests, not flash cards, not reading programs in a box. The school I teach at has less than half of the library funds we had in 2001 when we achieved a School of Excellence award. Third, if you have never taught a child to read, you should probably shut up and listen to someone who has.

Rodney Woods:

I wish that policy makers understood how hard the vast majority of us work to help educate and grow our students. I wish they knew how discouraging it was to us to constantly have our pay and our benefits put under attack. I wish they understood that testing does not tell you the whole story. I wish they understood that students all have unique challenges they face every day. I wish they understood that most teachers love their students and want more than anything to see them ALL succeed.

Thanks to Suzie, Aba, Meghan, Tamara, and John, and to readers, for their contributions!

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

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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Look for the next “question-of-the-week” in a few days..

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