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Education Opinion

Teacher Voice and Race to the Top

By Paul Manna — June 21, 2010 4 min read
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Note: Paul Manna, a professor at William & Mary, is guest-posting this week while Rick Hess is on a consulting project in the Republic of Georgia.

Many thanks to Rick for allowing me to guide the conversation for a few days. I want to pivot from Pat McGuinn’s three interesting posts about partisan politics from last week to explore some new terrain with you. I’ll focus this week on policy implementation. It’s a topic I’ve enjoyed writing about and discussing with my students (here and here) for the last several years. Personally, I think the most fascinating part of the policy process begins after federal or state education bills become law. How public officials in state agencies, district offices, and schools try to carry out those initiatives is what largely determines whether they will have the effects that their authors anticipated. In this opening post, I’d like to consider one element of the implementation debate that has emerged in discussions over the Race to the Top (RTT) competition: the role of teacher voice in the process.

Some critics of RTT have argued that its implementation will flounder because people too distant from the classroom, not teachers themselves, have been calling the shots. Walt Gardner’s opening post in his Education Week blog raised this argument, as did Stephen Sawchuk in a discussion earlier this year. Political scientists have offered much evidence to support the idea that policies suffer when they remain tone deaf to ground-level realities. Among others, Michael Lipsky’s famous work on “street-level bureaucrats,” and classics from James Q. Wilson and Jeffrey Pressman and Aaron Wildavsky have developed these claims quite well. In the RTT context, though, I had trouble understanding the argument that teachers have had minimal opportunities to have their voices included in the process. Here are three examples of where it seems that teacher perspectives have had an opportunity to influence the debate.

First, when the Department of Education developed regulations to govern RTT, anyone in the country could have offered comments on how to improve the competition’s design and the efforts the money eventually would support. The department received over 1,000 responses, including some from teachers and their representatives, on draft regulations. It makes for an interesting thought experiment to wonder how the policy dynamics would have been different if some larger fraction of the nation’s three million teachers (say, 10 percent or even 1 percent) had offered critical comments at that stage. Certainly, teachers are busy people who have more immediate matters competing for their time than offering reactions to draft RTT regulations. Still, mustering such responses in the policy debate is not unheard of. Earlier this year, for example, when state budget debates heated up, teachers offered their opinions in thousands of letters to elected officials and newspaper editorial pages across the country.

Second, one element factoring into RTT scoring was the requirement that states line up local support for their plans. The implicit theory of action here was that RTT would have limited impact unless districts were on board. Part of that support was to include endorsements from local leaders representing teachers, usually union officials. Reporters from Education Week and others have covered this matter of local support in some detail. The winners in RTT’s phase 1 competition, Delaware and Tennessee, have discussed how they logged many hours listening to local teachers as a way to generate needed support. To check out explanations from officials in those states, interested readers should read their comments from the Education Department’s April 2010 technical assistance meeting for RTT phase 2 applicants.

Finally, in states winning RTT grants, districts that signed up to participate will be required to develop plans indicating how implementation will look in their local communities. Presumably, those plans will emerge at least partly from discussions in working groups that will include teachers. Having been a teacher myself (for three years at this public high school before starting graduate school in the late 1990s), I know that such discussions occur because I sometimes participated in them when my district received large state or federal grants. That pattern likely will be replicated in the RTT context.

While there are many reasons to criticize or question RTT’s prospects for success, which I’ll return to later this week, the program’s designers did seem to create space to incorporate teacher voice in several ways. For those who believe otherwise, I would be interested in hearing your responses to two questions. First, despite the examples I’ve discussed above, why do you believe that teacher voice has been short-changed in RTT? Second, how could the RTT competition have been redesigned to better incorporate teacher voice? What I’m anxious for here is to have us get past the generic notion that policymakers should “listen to teachers” when they craft their initiatives. The question is, given the legislation that Congress enacted in the stimulus, how could the Education Department have created a process that would have been more sensitive to teachers’ concerns than what the architects of RTT actually designed?

--Paul Manna

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