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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Education Opinion

Response: ‘The Divide Between Policymakers & Educators Can Be Narrowed by Dialogue’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 05, 2017 20 min read
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(This the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One 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.

Today, Barnett Berry, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Kate Sacco, Cathy Seeley, and Pia Lindquist Wong contribute their answers.

Response From Barnett Berry

Barnett Berry is the founder of the Center for Teaching Quality, a national nonprofit that’s transforming the teaching profession through the bold ideas and expert practices of teacher leaders. His latest book, written with colleagues Ann Byrd and Alan Wieder, is Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead but Don’t Leave:

I appreciate the opportunity to write a few words about what policy-makers don’t seem to understand about teachers, students, and schools. Their teaching and learning policies do not reflect what the research evidence suggests should be done to improve education. I could write a very long essay, with hundreds of footnotes. Instead, in as parsimonious fashion as possible, I will offer up what I wish they knew and embraced.

How teachers teach effectively: The most successful school systems in the world focus on unleashing the potential of teachers as leaders from the classroom. In these systems policymakers expect all teachers to be well-prepared and that make investments so they continue to develop their expertise over time. In the top systems professional development is defined primarily by teachers collectively analyzing student work and going public with their evidence of impact. We have no such system in America. In fact, U.S. policymakers of late have fixated far too much on fixing teachers by measuring their effectiveness by standardized test scores of their students.

Don’t get me wrong: We need rigorous teacher evaluation tools and processes. But teacher evaluation ratings, generated by the highly popular value-added measures, are highly unstable and often erroneous. They just cannot disentangle teacher effects from other influences on student learning. There is no evidence holding teachers accountable for the test scores of the students they teach will make them a better teacher. Creating a system of professional learning, led by our very best teachers (and we many of them) is the most effective way to spread teaching expertise.

How students learn. Researchers, drawing on the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and human development, have informed the field of education for some time on how students learn.The most important finding is that humans (and students of any age) come to formal learning with prior knowledge—and in order for them to learn deeply (consistent with the needs of global economy), teachers need to be able to activate what is already known and engage the learners as leaders of their own learning.

A number of years ago, Lee Shulman, world-renown education researcher, pointed out that “learning is least useful when it is private and hidden; it is most powerful when it becomes public and communal.” However, most of our education policies—including how we measure student achievement and hold schools accountable—overly values the factual recall of information and discounts the importance of how students learn from and with each other. Unlike what is found in top performing nations, our accountability tests most often push teachers to cover a lot curricular ground, and do so quickly. Policymakers can change this by putting a greater emphasis on accountability that expects student to produce knowledge and defend what they know—and invest in highly skilled teachers as assessment experts, not testing companies, to determine which students are learning what and why.

How schools improve. Scholars have proven that meaningful school improvement takes time. Turning around a low-performing school may take a number of years—and cannot be accomplished if teachers do not stay around long enough to develop their collective expertise. (Many high need schools lose 50 percent of their teachers annually). Some of the most important evidence comes from Tony Bryk and his colleagues. Drawing on years of data from Chicago Public Schools they found that trust among professionals, parents, and students are at the core of school improvement.

They also pointed to the five drivers of improvement: a coherent instructional guidance system, strong parent-community-school ties, a student-centered learning climate, professional capacity-building, and principals who cultivate a growing cadre of other leaders—particularly their teaching colleagues—who share responsibility for and co-own the work. Bryk has made the case that most school reforms of the past have been implemented too quickly, with too little focus on the adaptive learning of teacher and principals who serve students every day. He calls for a more rigorous approach to school improvement that allows the field to “learn fast to implement well.” What if our accountability system valued this approach?

I am not quite done. There are at least five quick facts I believe policymakers need to know as they deliberate over the next generation of school reform.

  1. Teaching is very demanding, professional work—with teachers making 1200-1500 decisions a day, most of them unforeseen and requiring complex decision-making and more time to plan, study, and refine their practices.

  2. Because most teachers are poorly paid, about 1 in 4 moonlight to pay the monthly household bills—undermining the time they need to learn with their colleagues.

  3. Students, as they progress through their K-12 schooling become less and less engaged in their learning—primarily due to rigid curriculum and overzealous standardized testing, and too few opportunities for project based learning. (Only 4 in 10 high school students are engaged.)

  4. Since the 1970s, public schools, despite the problems they face and challenges under which operate, have improved—based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

  5. Public schools outperform charters—with more variation within the two sectors than between them.

Now what will it take to get this insight into policies that support teachers, students, and schools?

Read this scholarship for more insight in teaching, learning, and school improvement.

Bryk, A.S. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement. Kappan. 91 (7). 23-30.

Bryk, A.S., Gomez, L., Grunow, A. LeMahieu, P. (2015). Learning to improve: How America’s schools can get better at getting better. Cambridge MA: Harvard Publishing Group

Darling-Hammond L. (2010). The flat world and education: How America’s commitment to equity will determine our nation. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hiebert, J. and Stigler, J.W. (2017). Teaching versus teachers as a lever for change: Comparing a Japanese and a U.S. perspective on improving instruction. Educational Researcher. 46 (4). 169- 176.

National Research Council (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington DC: The National Academies Press.

Shulman, L. (1999). Taking learning seriously. Change. 31 (4) 10-17.

Response From Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher. She is a staff blogger for Edutopia and also blogs at tweenteacher.com She is the author of such books as: Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement (Corwin, 2017), DIY for Project Based Learning for ELA and History (Routledge, 2015), and DIY for Project Based Learning for Math and Science (Routledge, 2016):

I’ve said this before: there’s an equation to student success. Each variable must be functioning. The equation is as follows:

Schools/teachers + Family + Policymakers + Student = Achievement

However, I have yet to hear a policymaker stress the importance of any variable save for the need for strong schools/teachers. This results in placing blame on one single variable when all have a hand in helping students to succeed.

I liken it to the metaphor of growing a tree. Let’s say that you want to grow a giant sequoia and the seed is in the dark, hasn’t been watered in months, and the soil is from the beach. You decide that the only key to growing a successful sequoia is that you need to change the soil. The fact that it’s in the dark and it’s not in the right soil will still cause failure. Improving only one variable will not result in success.

Yes, it’s true that teachers have a great responsibility here. It’s vital that they must focus on engagement as well as content, and that we must continue to evolve our practice or we are teaching antiquated information and pedagogies. Period. That’s not up for debate. But it’s just as true that parents must get their students to school on time and help them make better decisions outside of school hours. It’s just as true that policymakers must properly fund for our diversity of learners and their 21st century education. It’s just as true that students must come to the table willing to try or everyone’s efforts are for naught.

I also want policymakers to know that kids are all Works in Progress and that makes test results flawed. Any one bad day can collapse a kid, and that is hardly anyone’s fault. Childhood, by definition, is about trial and failure. Childhood is about struggling to be re-born again, but this time, as an adult. It’s messy. It’s confusing. And with many outside elements seemingly plotting against the success of our kids, it sets schools up for failure. Schools compete with the agony of transitions in families. We compete against crushes and being dumped. We compete against video games and media that can be far more engaging than any adopted textbook. We compete against the hours a student spends with no supervision, and we compete again the hours a student spends with harmful adult influences. We compete against hunger and poverty, anger, and sadness. I tell you, I would vote for any candidate that seriously began to talk about all variables that affect a student’s education, who didn’t just attack schools/teachers. We are the easiest target, to be sure. And we can improve. But our role in student success is a single variable amongst others. We are a vital element in the equation of student success, but we are not the only one.

Response From Kate Sacco

Kate Sacco has taught Elementary Education in a suburban public school district in Western New York since 1992. Kate blogs about teaching and learning at www.katewithakeyboard.blogspot.com. You can find her on Twitter @rubykatie:

Free public education has made it possible for most citizens to have spent time in classrooms. However, being in a classroom doesn’t make everyone an expert on education. The average person, parent or policymaker doesn’t understand the complex details that go into making a classroom a successful learning environment.

Policymakers, from school administrators to the Secretary of Education, make decisions that have tremendous impact on teachers, students and classrooms—without including educators. Here is a short (and incomplete) list of what policymakers should consider when making decisions:

  1. Poverty has a tremendous impact on learning and achievement. Our nation’s demographics are continually changing. Many students come to school hungry, without proper clothing and supplies and without the vocabulary and parental supports that are necessary. We must address poverty first and foremost as a priority.

  2. Before investing in technology, take a look at the furnishings and the buildings where classrooms are located. Currently, a significant amount of money is spent on tablets, projectors, and smart TVs. However, desks, chairs, and other furnishings often date back 50 years or more. Access to technology is important, but infrastructures in classrooms and schools is aging and in need of updating to support student learning.

  3. Today’s students are exposed to more information, but that doesn’t mean children are smarter than previous generations. If anything, children today are less prepared for academics than ever before. They lack the social, motor and problem solving skills than students of previous generations.

  4. Basics are important. Printing, cursive writing, scissor skills, shoe tying and imaginative play all help to create pathways in the brain to greater learning. Kindergarten was meant to ready children for future academics. By skipping these skills, students are less able to problem solve, delay gratification, increase core strength, gain stamina and complete tasks successfully later on.

  5. Teachers are professionals. We have graduate degrees in Education, including coursework in child development. We would like to be respected for our experience and knowledge. All that “playing” has sound educational theory behind it. Include us in the decisions you are making.

Response From Cathy Seeley

Cathy Seeley is a former Senior Fellow from the Charles A. Dana Center, past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and former K-12 director of mathematics for the state of Texas. Dr. Seeley is widely known as a speaker, and her books include Making Sense of Math (2016), Building a Math-Positive Culture (2016), Faster Isn’t Smarter (2015/2009) and Smarter Than We Think (2014):

Policymakers often come into a new role believing they should make a change in the system or institute a new program. But this kind of thinking can often lead to unintended negative consequences. One of my major professional goals is to do whatever I can to end what I call “yo-yo decision-making.” (Seeley, 2015, 2016) This is the term I use to describe what is perhaps the worst thing we do in education—the rampant practice of discarding the program or practice we just started implementing in order to implement a different program or practice, usually well before the original program could take hold and show positive results.

Whenever a school or school system adopts a new initiative, the impact on teachers, students, and support staff can be significant. Thus, it’s critical that before an adoption decision is made decision-makers take into account the research behind the program and what teachers and others will be called on to do in order to make it work. In order to implement the adopted program, we generally expect teachers, in particular, to invest considerable time, energy, and commitment to learning the new program and changing their practice accordingly. We ask not only teachers, but also students and their families, to be patient as they experience the inevitable lumps and bumps along the road to implementation. The first year or two of any new program will almost certainly not look like an ideal model. Every context is unique, and there will be features of the program that don’t work exactly as intended. Even expert practitioners are learning the program as they’re doing it, effectively as novices. Also, change is challenging, and there is likely to be resistance from someone affected by the change. None of this means the program is flawed or ill conceived.

The mistake policymakers too often make is to pay attention to the glitches, concerns, and resistance, while ignoring what is working and the potential benefits of the program that may lie just ahead. Instead of fine-tuning or making adjustments, they choose to abandon the program, usually bringing in some new initiative. And the new initiative predictably brings with it the expectation that teachers will, yet again, invest considerable time, energy, and commitment to learning the program and to changing their practice accordingly. Students who may just be getting used to the previous program are now subjected to further change, often to the detriment of their learning.

This on-again-off-again yo-yo of enthusiastic launch followed by diligent implementation leading to abandonment and yet another new implementation effort wreaks havoc at every level of the system. Teachers become discouraged and resistant to committing to the new program, thus jeopardizing its effective implementation. And students’ learning is compromised—they are unable to build on the work they did last year as this year’s classroom is organized differently with different priorities.

Sometimes the best thing policy makers can do is the most subtle and unnoticed. They can listen to all stakeholders, including teachers, supervisors, students, and families, as they identify what is working or showing potential and what might need adjustment. Instead of bringing in something new, they can work with teachers and those directly involved with the program to make adjustments. In doing so, they can reaffirm their commitment to the initiative, building on the research and rationale that led to its adoption in the first place. This long-term vision and commitment provide both the encouragement and support that helps teachers continue to improve and helps students learn what we want them to learn.


Seeley, Cathy. (2015). Faster Isn’t Smarter: Messages About Math, Teaching, and Learning in the 21st Century (Second ed.). Sausalito, CA: Math Solutions. See Afterword for discussion of Yo-Yo Decision Making.

Seeley, Cathy. (2016). Building a Math-Positive Culture: How to Support Great Math Teaching in Your School. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Response From Pia Lindquist Wong

Pia Lindquist Wong is Associate Dean for Research and Engagement in the Teaching Credentials Department at Sacramento State University. She has been a teacher educator since 1995 and focuses on urban teacher preparation. She is active in local education politics (co-chaired a successful bond campaign for a local school district) and state educational policy-making (she is on the Board of Directors for the California Council for Teacher Education and is also co-chair of the Commission on Teacher Credentialing’s Committee on Accreditation.) She has co-authored two books, one on Paulo Freire’s tenure as Secretary of Education for Sao Paulo public schools (Education and Democracy: Paulo Freire, Education Reform and Social Movements) and another on urban professional development schools (Prioritizing Urban Children, Their Teachers and Schools Through Professional Development Schools):

There will always be a certain disconnect between policy-makers and teachers and students. Each group engages in its activities with distinct goals, daily routines, and contextual pressures.

Within that context, there are a few key realities that policy-makers consistently seem to miss about teachers, students, and schools. First, schools are ecosystems, characterized by intricate relationships and interpersonal dynamics. Policies that treat school personnel, whether administrators or teachers or support staff, as interchangeable widgets drastically underestimate how important these interpersonal relationships are and how much time it takes to develop productive ecosystems. Policies that undermine teachers’ ability to form relationships and build community among students (e.g., lack of support for reasonable class sizes, hiring and reassignment policies, cuts to non-instructional support personnel, etc.) ultimately limit teachers’ ability to teach and students’ opportunity to learn and grow.

In a similar vein, the operational and relational layers that must respond to policies run much deeper and require more time than most policy-makers account for. A simple change in instructional materials could require attendant changes to assessments, assessment schedules, classroom technology, room assignments, teacher assignments, and student schedules. Thus, a policy about a seemingly discrete aspect of the school day may initiate a cascade of related changes and adjustments that only ends with something as apparently unconnected as the hall monitor schedule. Within this context, it is also imperative that policy-makers understand that not only does policy implementation take time, because it involves more components of a school ecology than just the target of the policy, the personnel time and effort needed to make the change are often unaccounted for. Educators must often fix the plane while they are flying it; this greatly complicates the policy implementation process.

Finally, policy-makers need to remember that the overwhelming majority of teachers begin their career as staunch idealists. They not only want to teach every child their subject matter, they also want to help shape that child into a productive, well-adjusted, engaged citizen and professional. Many of them are prepared to go above and beyond what is compensated to make this happen—developing individually tailored curriculum to meet students’ needs and interests, experimenting with their instruction to find the right connection with students who are struggling or need more challenge, lunch hour and before school tutoring sessions, seeking out extra resources for students who need them, purchasing materials with their own money, sponsoring clubs and extra-curricular activities without extra salary, engaging in professional development on their own time, and so on.

Moreover, most teachers are careful observers of their students and constantly toggle between long term goals (end of term, end of year, etc.) and short term gains (daily signs of progress, uncharacteristic or unanticipated changes in attitude or effort, off-handed comments that reveal thinking, motivation or emotion, etc.). Policies that ask teachers to focus on outcomes that fall significantly outside of their intrinsic reward system send perverse messages to teachers. Policies that pit school against school and force teachers to “compete” damage that often delicate ecosystem in ways that can make productive teaching and learning improbably if not impossible.

I began this piece by asserting that the divide between policy-makers and educators will likely always exist. But it can be narrowed through dialogue and efforts by policy-makers to systematically engage teachers and their daily realities, seeking a broad spectrum of classroom and school realities and with an inquiry stance. Better alignment is possible and should be energetically pursued.

Thanks to Barnett, Heather, Kate, Cathy, and Pia for their contributions!

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Look for Part Three in a few days..

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