Education Opinion

Teachers and Education Policy: Two Voices in Dialogue: Part 2

By Patrick Ledesma — November 23, 2010 7 min read
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Teachers Anthony Cody and Patrick Ledesma, both NBCTs and members of the Teacher Leaders Network, have taken two very different approaches to promoting the teacher voice in education policy. Anthony began with an open letter to President Obama, and then launched a Facebook group, Teachers’ Letters to Obama, which now has more than 3,000 members—some of whom spoke with Secretary Duncan last May. Patrick has served for the past four months as a Teacher Ambassador Fellow for the US Department of Education, and in that role has represented teachers in discussions of policy. What follows is a dialogue between them, sharing their perspectives. This is Anthony’s response to Patrick’s post here, The Teacher Voice in the US Department of Education.

The following is a continuination of Teachers and Education Policy: Part I.

As we write, we must continue to build and expand the quality of dialogue between teachers and US Department of Education (ED). This is a challenging time to be an educator when so many of our traditions, beliefs, practices, and expertise are being analyzed and questioned. At the heart of the teacher struggle beyond the specific policies is the need for teachers to better define the process for how we engage with policymakers. Establishing a more meaningful process will ensure that teacher expertise is integrated in education policy.

The Need for Sustained Dialogue

As we both work in our respective roles to advocate for the teacher voice in education policy, we can learn from previous dialogues to better prepare and structure future discussions.

You wrote:

The call from Secretary Duncan was an acknowledgment of that frustration, and an invitation to extend the dialogue. There has been a breakdown in communication between America's teachers and the Department of Education, that stretches back long before the current administration. There is a huge logjam of unheard ideas, perceptions and wisdom. We have not shared a vision for a long time.

We have to create conditions that unclog this logjam. This will be very difficult work. We have to understand what meaningful dialogue between teachers and ED looks like.

We both experience the concept of the teacher voice in policy from different perspectives. From your angle and example, we better understand the power of technology through social media and collaborative platforms in teacher self-organization at the grassroots level to bring concerns forward to the US Department of Education .

The Teacher Ambassador Fellows add the perspective of working in the classroom with students while working directly with ED officials. This program is only in its third year and our role continues to evolve and expand. Both the EDWeek article and my post about the TAF serve to illustrate our experiences within ED. We can only report what we see and let others interpret our perspectives. We accept that there will be a wide range of reactions from teachers—many reactions are positive, some are cautious, a few are negative. This comes with the territory of pioneering new teacher roles in policy.

As I’ve described in another post, there are several opportunities for teachers to work in policy. We need to expand the number of teachers who work in these opportunities to learn about policy so that when they return to the classroom, they bring these perspectives back to the grassroots level.

We have a common goal and we leverage technology and access in ways not previously used. Both our perspectives can yield a more complete picture of teachers and education policy.

Let’s examine the dialogue you’ve described from your perspective.

What you were able to accomplish with your conference call was a very significant and positive step forward for teacher involvement in policy—a group of teachers self-organized online and were able to arrange a conference call with the Secretary of Education. More importantly, the preparation evolved online for others to participate directly and indirectly.

You and the teachers during that conference call had what policymakers refer to as “the elevator speech"—each of you had your rehearsed statements and you had a set time to give it. Your expectations were ambitious—change the current direction of the US Department of Education based on your short conversation and yearlong advocacy efforts.

But during the actual conversations based on your post, it sounds like each side had different ideas on how to proceed.

The funny thing about the conversation was that the whole time, they seemed to think we had questions, and their job was to answer them. We had actually approached the conversation from a different place. We thought perhaps they might want to ask US questions, or hear our ideas about how to improve schools.

What can we learn from this important encounter?

I would like to suggest that short rehearsed conversations with lines clearly drawn in the sand are frustrating for both sides. Each side will score points with their supporters as can clearly be seen on your comments, but if our goal is to advance dialogue, there has to be a better structure that gives opportunities for both sides to learn.

I am not suggesting that you or TLO were at fault for your problems and frustrations. In fact, this event illustrates the good will on both sides of TLO and ED to improve dialogue.

At the same time, I am wondering what lessons we can take away from this example since you have stated that you remain open to “an exchange of ideas and perspectives in the hopes that we can learn from one another.”

Are there other models for dialogue and advocacy?

What if the purpose of your initial reaching out to ED that day was to establish a process for sustained dialogue that would occur regularly over a few weeks or months, where teachers and ED officials could identify very specific topics, share materials and resources, and work together for common goals to define areas where there is agreement, and if there is disagreement, to identify the specific components within the defined parameters of each issue?

Establishing a common agenda with a defined and specific purpose with a timeline for multiple opportunities for conversation is the next logical step in teacher advocacy for policy involvement.

These multiple opportunities for conversation would put less pressure for “the elevator speech” and make both sides less vulnerable to technology or scheduling difficulties. With an agenda, both sides know what to expect, each side has time to contribute.

I emphasize this need for us to create sustained dialogue because while you focus on the specific policy issues in your writing, from my broader perspective as a fellow, I see a deeper and more essential problem that teachers lack opportunities and examples of how to successfully engage policymakers in a meaningful and sustained way. We lack practice and successful models to learn from, and we reinvent the wheel at each encounter.

I think we both can agree that this leads to ineffectiveness and disconnect in policy.

Ideally, teachers should be involved as partners at the beginning, during the development of such policies so that our input is not an after thought or seen as optional, that our input is seen as a necessity for policies to be successful in improving the lives of our students.

Is there a model of sustained dialogue between teachers and the Department of ED?

A possible early example of this type of dialogue is already happening thanks to our Teacher Leaders Network (TLN) organized by the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ).

The TLN-ED dialogue involves several teachers from Teachers’ Letters to Obama (including a teacher who participated in your original conference call with Arne), along with other teachers from TLN, various CTQ staff, other Teacher Ambassador Fellows, and senior ED staff.

CTQ and ED worked together to identify a specific topic, share recommended materials and resources, and discuss key issues that can affect this policy. Besides the webinars, an online discussion forum also facilitates these conversations between teachers and ED staff.

The end result will be a synthesis of our discussion and publication for us to build policy and have future discussions.

In this model, there are opportunities for learning on all sides.

This is one example of the type of dialogue that occurs over several conversations. It’s a small start. Will this influence policy? It’s too early to tell.

But we do know that:

    This level of collaboration goes one step beyond previous efforts for teachers to engage policymakers. We already know the limitations of one-time events from both perspectives and frustrations from trying to give the elevator speech. Teachers will learn more about the ED staff from these interactions, which improves their ability to engage policymakers in the future. ED staff may benefit from interacting with practicing teacher leaders, and perhaps begin to better appreciate the importance of the teacher voice. Teachers are at the center of this collaborative process.

These are small steps forward, but the kind of examples we need to understand how to more effectively advocate for future dialogue with policymakers.

Does this example move fast enough for some educators wanting immediate policy change? It may not, but, to use your analogy, we must start somewhere to unclog this logjam.

If our goal is to advance the teacher voice in policy, we need to develop more tools for our toolbox to begin clearing this logjam of ideas.

So, Anthony, regardless if we see us as repairing or continuing to build the dialogue between teachers and ED, for that small step forward, if we could create an opportunity for longer dialogue on one specific issue so we can go for a deeper level of analysis (and not get washed away by the sudden unleashed free flowing logs) where could we start?

Which log shall we try to first remove?

As I write this post, one possibility comes from David Cohen’s comment on my original post about the teacher voice in ED. David Cohen belongs to both TLO and TLN.

Have there been any policy proposals that were altered or adjusted in any way to reflect the input of teachers or the professional organizations representing them? Some of them are looking for evidence that their input has any significance here.”

You also asked, “Where can we find evidence that our efforts over the past year have had an effect?”

Perhaps this is a timely topic to develop more meaningful dialogue with ED and the unions. By first understanding the impact of the teacher voice through unions and how unions represent teachers through their current work with ED, we better understand these relationships defining and influencing how teachers can engage in policy.

After all, we have to start somewhere.

The opinions expressed in Leading From the Classroom are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.