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Education Opinion

Response: ‘Writing A Letter Isn’t Enough’ To Affect Ed Policy

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 12, 2015 18 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

This week’s question is:

How can teachers best affect broader educational policy decisions?

Today’s 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.

Decisions about education are often made by people whose only experience in the classroom has been taking classes when they were in school. That doesn’t mean they don’t have any insight, but the exclusion or marginalization of active K-12 educators from this decision-making process can result in damage to students, their families and to teachers themselves.

How can we teachers affect this dynamic?

I was a community organizer for nineteen years prior to becoming a high school teacher twelve years ago, and learned the organizing adage that affecting change requires power, which is either organized people or organized money, and that the most effective kind of power is to have both.

For us teachers, that kind of equation leads to embracing our unions as the most effective way to affect policy decisions. This perspective will be reflected in guest responses from two of the most effective teacher union leaders in the United States (a response from Eric C. Heins, President of the California Teachers Association, appears in today’s post and Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, has written a piece for Part Two) in this series. I should disclose that I am a proud longtime member of the CTA.

I’d suggest that teachers who live in communities where their unions are not strong or for various reasons are not active in them, there are other ways to potentially influence policy. In other words, power can result in our ideas becoming heard and more likely to be implemented even if decision-makers don’t want to listen or to act; while influence is dependent on the openness of decision-makers to want to hear from us, and their not feeling an overwhelming pressure from others who have power and think differently.

There are many avenues towards teacher influence - and doing them certainly does not exclude union participation and can, in fact, enhance it through knowledge gained and and additional relationships built. These actions could include joining teacher advocacy organizations like the Center For Teaching Quality or ASCD, developing relationships with local reporters to encourage accurate coverage of education issues, writing guest columns, authoring blogs and/or books, participating in social media conversations on critical issues -- the list is lengthy.

For additional information and resources, you might want to explore two collections I’ve developed:

The Best Resources For Learning Why Teachers Unions Are Important

The Best Posts & Articles On Building Influence & Creating Change

You might also be interested in previous posts in this column on Education Policy Issues.

Now, here are today’s guests:

Response From Karen Baptiste

Karen Baptiste is currently an Associate at the Center for Transformative Teacher Training. She is a life-long educator who started her career in the NYC Department of Education and is known for high-energy professional development at national conferences on brain-based learning and Universal Design for Learning. Karen currently serves on the Legislative Committee to advocate and propose suggestions on national educational policies and initiatives. She was identified as a worldwide educational Emerging Leader, ASCD, class of 2013. Follow her on Twitter at @kbaptiste22:

“So what, now what!” Such were the words uttered recently by a teacher referring to a recently passed legislative bill on education.

Like this teacher, at many points in my career as an educator I’ve been frustrated with failed policies passed down from the federal government to the state, and down the line to local school districts. The mistake this teacher makes in asking, “So what, now what” is that she felt powerless to impact policy---which is far from true.

Tempted to show her a Schoolhouse Rock video, I explained to this teacher that one great place to start is to write her local and state representatives to share concerns about policies and proposed legislation that will impact teachers and students. But writing a letter isn’t enough to realize broad-based change. Instead, it’s through proactive, consistent, and ongoing advocacy that teachers will achieve the legislative and policy support they so richly deserve.

To that end, I want to share four steps that every educator can take to become an effective advocate.

  1. Identify your Advocate Type

Did you know that there are five Advocacy IQ (Influence Quotient) categories that everyone falls within?

  1. Relationship Builder- a person who follows their lawmakers on Twitter or Facebook; shares resources with colleagues; attend and participate in town hall meetings
  2. Awareness Raiser- writes blogs, op-eds, or letters to the editor; engage students in local policy discussions; inform your local PTA/PTO
  3. Motivator-conducts parent/community outreach; work with lawmakers to introduce an initiative
  4. Organizer-develops a tool kit of resources; host a community conversation; conduct an advocacy campaign
  5. Policy Wonk-critique and recommend policy proposals; serve on a committee; work with lawmakers to introduce a resolution or initiative

Decide which Advocacy IQ you are or want to become--be practical! We are all busy and may not have the time to do everything that sounds great. Choose a type of advocacy that you can make sufficient time for and you will be good at.

  1. Figure out your passion

There is no shortage of issues in today’s education system to start advocating for, including:

  • The abundance of over-testing students
  • A lack of a multi-metric accountability system that does not rely on a single test to determine how effective a teacher is;
  • A lack of resources and training to improve teacher retention rates in this country;
  • Failure to support a whole-child approach to education

Whether it’s one of the issues I’ve noted here or something else altogether, I encourage you to focus on the initiatives and/or policies that directly impacts your district and decide how you want to share your concerns or solutions.

  1. Utilize a Healthy Practitioner Voice:

As you identify your type of advocacy and the issues you’re passionate about, remember that a healthy, constructive voice is going to be most effective.

While it’s easy to cite problems, I encourage educators to present themselves as passionate and confident, not jaded and confrontational. Be empathetic and share your story and the stories that will drive change. Tell your listener about the experiences of your students---personalizing the narrative will resonate.

You may encounter individuals who are making decisions about education with no educational experience, but treat them as if they actually care until they prove otherwise. Presume reasonableness, identify common problems and offer realistic solutions. Nothing is worse than someone who complains with no suggestions on what and how to do it. Continue to follow-up and remain vigilant!

  1. What Else?

If you require a team of stakeholders from all over the country to motivate and empower you, attend the Leadership Institute for Legislative Agenda (LILA) next year to meet your state and/or local elected official. LILA has helped me along with other passionate educators develop and sharpen my advocacy skills.

That teacher I referred to at the outset of this post? We’ve stayed in contact as she has already drafted a letter to her local representative about reducing the reliance on over-testing students. It’s a great first step and I look forward to joining the ranks of policy change agents.

With the pressures facing today’s teachers and the need to ensure our students are educated with dignity and respect, silence is a form of injustice. As teachers, you’re already impacting the life-long trajectory of the students you work with. With these few steps, so too can you impact the policy that shapes our profession. There’s never a bad time to start impacting policy, so I invite you to start now. We need you!

Response From Eric C. Heins

Eric C. Heins is President of the California Teachers Association and a third grade teacher:

Classroom teachers have a major impact on their students every single day, in ways that are too numerous to ever fully recount. It goes without saying that virtually everyone reading this has had their lives changed enormously for the better by a teacher. And while educators generally have (or at least should have) some degree of autonomy when it comes to what goes on in their classrooms, many decisions that impact how and what we teach, and how best to serve students, are made by others - too often by those with little or no expertise in education.

Educators take great pride in their work and care deeply about their students, so they are sometimes frustrated by systems that seem designed to exclude their knowledge and views on important policies and practices. That’s why it is so important for teachers and education support professionals to get involved, and to become active participants and leaders in education policy discussions.

There are many ways for educators to contribute, starting as close to home as their own school sites. Serving as a grade-level leader, becoming a department chair, or volunteering for curriculum review or school discipline committees all allow teachers to impact their schools and students in ways that they wouldn’t be able to if they remained largely isolated in their classrooms. Being respected by peers as an instructional leader, mentoring new teachers and sharing innovative ideas with colleagues can all help teachers lend their voice to local decisions that impact teaching and learning.

But being the most respected teacher in a school can only take an individual so far in terms of impacting broader policies. The simple fact is that you can’t talk about education policy without talking about politics. Just about everything that goes on in public education is affected in some way by decisions made by politicians, often hundreds or even thousands of miles away from a teacher’s school site. That is why it is imperative that teachers be involved in the political process. And one of the most effective ways for an individual teacher to impact education policy through the political process is to get involved in their local and state unions.

Being an active member of a union allows a teacher to help shape policy positions and advocate for those positions with a collective voice and strength that would be impossible to do alone. Local unions in California and across the country are working to ensure that educators are represented on committees that implement standards and curriculum, select textbooks, develop evaluation models and, in some places, guide the district’s budget. At a state level, this collective strength has enabled members of the California Teachers Association to fight for school change that helps students --things like smaller class sizes, more counselors, local funding control and more resources allocated to struggling schools. It has also allowed us to stand up to attacks on schools and attempts to privatize our greatest public institution.

By coming together with parents and community members, educators were key to the success of Proposition 30, a ballot initiative that increased state revenues and helped bring our schools back from years of massive cuts, skyrocketing class sizes and thousands of teacher layoffs. And there are similar examples of educators collectively shaping policies through political action in states all across the nation. That’s one reason why those who are antagonistic to public education or to providing schools the resources they need are constantly trying--through legislation, ballot measures and the courts--to exclude teachers and their unions from the political process.

Combining union activism with educational expertise and leadership has also allowed individual teachers to testify before lawmakers as important legislation is considered, and to represent their colleagues and to stand up for students on state and national commissions and boards.

Impacting education policy in a way that helps guarantee the best possible opportunities for all students to learn and succeed is a cornerstone of what my union is all about. As educators we must speak out loudly and clearly for our students and our profession. And working together, we have the power to lead the change for our children’s future.

Response From Mary Tedrow

Mary Tedrow is Director of the Shenandoah Writing Project housed at Shenandoah University and the Porterfield Endowed English Chair at John Handley High School . Both are located in Winchester, VA. Mary has been teaching since 1978, is National Board Certified. Check out her blog:

Though I shy away from approaching strangers, I hung around after a Congressional candidate spoke so I could introduce myself to him. My mission was to ask about his education policy, a topic never mentioned in any stump speech.

After introducing myself as a career classroom teacher, I asked for his education platform. He recited the current, facile, argument du jour:
“Well, I think we need to have a system of accountability. We need to be sure that teachers are held responsible for the work that they do.”

“I agree. How would you hold teachers accountable?” His eyes lit with the shine of the newly conscripted.

“Test scores! We should test children at the beginning of the year and then retest at the end. Then we’d know what happened. Teachers are paid with tax dollars. We need to be sure they are doing a good job.”

As a former military man, the spit-and-polish order resonated.

“Do you have grandchildren?”

“I do!” he beamed. “Two. The oldest is a boy who just turned four.”

“Tell me, when he goes to kindergarten, do you want him to face a test on the first day of school? Is that the introduction to a lifetime of learning you want for him? And then, of course, he will be tested at the end of the school year too, to see if his teacher did her job.” His smile faded a bit.

“And, if the adult in the classroom knows that his ability to provide for his own children and make a mortgage depends on the outcome of that test, the teacher might be tempted to re-test the children throughout the year, just to make sure they’re progressing, even if only in small, narrow steps.”

Some of the light left his eyes as he imagined this fate for his much loved grandson.

“How about later, in middle school. He will have to take a test in art and gym, band and shop class, won’t he? If you’re going to hold all teachers accountable there will be tests everywhere and some potentially desperate teachers trying to hold on to their livelihood, left in a room with impressionable children.”

In just a few minutes the congressman-to-be was re-thinking his glib “hold everyone accountable” education plan. He asked, “Well, if you don’t use tests, how can you know if the teacher does a good job?”

Now we were ready to have a conversation. In the next five minutes I described other ways to show both school and teacher success without relying on testing every child every year.

In the past decade, any remotely conscious teacher has seen how education policy affects not only our work with children but also the quality of life for children and adults in the education enterprise. With the profession under attack and children thrown under the reform bus, teacher reticence around policy can no longer be encouraged. We need to speak up.

To affect education policy, first and foremost, tell a story, always protecting the identity of students. Teacher stories have more power to sway than bare statistics.

Choose one story that illustrates the problem and then tell it well. Prepare a contrasting narrative that reveals what school could and should look like.

Other tips to get your point across: Avoid educational jargon. If you must use numbers, convert all percentages to ratios. Instead of 25% say one in four. Talk in simple terms about schooling as a human interaction that involves, above all else, our children.

Who you tell those stories to and the settings you choose depends on your willingness to expose yourself.

Here are some entry points for teachers:

  • Your neighbors and the parents of your students.
  • Local candidates, for any office. At the meet and greet for every party’s candidate, identify yourself as an educator. Ask about education. Explain how policies manifest in a child’s life. Provide alternatives.
  • School board meetings. Attend and voice your opinion. Most school boards have a time for public comment. You are a taxpayer too and have the same right to express an opinion. Come prepared. There is a time limit.
  • Write to the local newspaper from the authoritative position of professional educator. Keep the tone professional and informative. Again, avoid jargon. Offer alternatives to proposed policy.
  • Expand your voice through blogging.
  • Expand your voice through tweeting.
  • Approach the media. Education never gets enough ink. Press the media to cover the policy debates.
  • Show up where laws are being crafted. Speak to your representatives from the authority of professional educator. Know your facts.

Finally, stay informed, sign those petitions, and send emails to your representatives. They do make a difference, especially when there are many coming from the same arena: teachers. Protecting children from wrongheaded policy is the moral imperative of our profession.

Follow this link for more tips on talking to non-educators about education.

Response From David Griffith

David Griffith is the Sr. Director of Government Relations for ASCD, a global community dedicated to excellence in learning, teaching, and leading. Learn more about ASCD’s advocacy efforts at www.ascd.org/policy or sign up to receive newsletters and updates that will keep you involved at www.educatoradvocates.org:

Education policy directly affects what happens in schools and classrooms. It’s crucial for educators to share their expertise so that policy decisions support both their practice and their students. Here are four suggestions for how educators in any role can influence education policy.

Get informed

In addition to learning strategies for improving your practice, get informed about the latest policy debates and discussions. Stay updated on school board and state board conversations, discover policy blogs with relevant insight (even if you don’t always share the same view), read education organizations’ advocacy newsletters. Often, there’s confusion about who’s making decisions and why they’re making them. Getting clear on the facts is an important first step.

Build relationships

When educators proclaim that policy and politics isn’t for them--that they just want to teach--it’s as shortsighted as closing their classroom doors and claiming they don’t want to learn from or support their colleagues. Find out who your representatives are and introduce yourself. Share your areas of expertise (i.e. professional development, teaching English language learners) and become a resource on these topics. Get to know the staffers who play key roles, from drafting policies to providing access to decision makers.

Share your story

Share with policymakers your firsthand knowledge about how policies are playing out in your schools and classrooms. And when you share these stories, move beyond generalities and philosophical beliefs. There’s a reason English teacher Luke Flynt’s testimony to his local school board about Florida’s use of test scores in teacher evaluation went viral. The detailed specifics he shared about his own evaluation results clearly highlighted the problems with the state’s system. Finally, don’t forget to emphasize what’s working well; this is just as important as sharing what’s not.

Recruit your colleagues

Influencing policy typically takes more than one voice. Help others see the connection between policy and practice, and become an advocacy mentor. ASCD’s #EdAdvBecause campaign encourages educators to share why they are advocates and why their colleagues should join them. Share your own story on Twitter and Facebook using this hashtag. After all, educators who advocate are teaching and leading.

Thanks to Karen, Eric, Mary and David for 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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