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Education Opinion

The Pyramid, the Funnel and the Megaphone

By Nancy Flanagan — November 21, 2011 2 min read
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Who calls the shots in educational decision-making?

Where are policy ideas generated and developed? Who implements them when they become rules and mandates? Who suffers when policy causes unintended consequences--or even damage-- to school communities and children?

I participated in a wonderful professional development workshop last weekend, hosted by the Virginia Education Association and created by the teacher leaders who work with the Arizona K-12 Center. We looked at the prevailing model of ed policy decision-making, illustrated in The Mitchell 20 film: a hierarchical pyramid, with decision-making power concentrated at the peak--Congress and the Department of Education-- flowing down through layers and layers of state bureaucracy, district offices and administrators, and ending up on the shoulders of teachers.

Call it a Reverse Truman: the Buck stops at the opposite end of the pyramid, in classrooms where teachers are trying to do the impossible and being punished when their efforts to be “accountable” fall short. Carrying the weight of resolutions made far away.

Teachers often dream of turning the pyramid upside down--a funnel. All that great input from educators about what they need to be successful in increasing student learning? If only it could trickle down, from what bureaucrats call “the field,” through local administrative offices and state policy-making boards, right into federal agencies. A gushing stream of great ideas, based on real kids’ needs and real practitioners’ experience. Which, presumably, would be collected and emerge as genuinely helpful ed policy.

Right.

The problem with the funnel scenario? The narrow end actually believes--and asserts-- it’s collecting unfiltered feedback from K-12 educators already. A lot of that input, however, is screened, selected and shaped by layers in the funnel: Non-profits whose mission is influencing teachers to “speak out” on policy issues (aligned with their funders’ goals). Long-standing education organizations whose very existence depends on being players on the federal policy field. Politicians who claim teachers are nation-builders, then slash funding for education.

In which direction should the dialogue about school reform run? What would happen if we turned the pyramid on its side, rendering all parties equal and the conversations horizontal and bi-directional?

In the words of Sonia Smith, who teaches in Chesterfield, Virginia: What if we turned the pyramid into a megaphone?

It’s an appealing metaphor: flattening the hierarchy, giving equal weight to voices across the spectrum and disrupting the gravitational pull of unequal power. I like the placement of teachers at the wide end of the megaphone, where they belong--amplifying good practice, serving as spokespersons and ambassadors for good policy. Policy that reflects the realities of curriculum, instruction and school organization in the 21st century. The end of top-down policy focused on measurement, rankings and penalties--not to mention rigid compliance.

Perhaps it’s time to leapfrog over the “teacher at the table” image. It’s time to point out that it’s our table, the place we work every day, pursuing our moral purpose: teaching children. We deserve more than a seat at the policy table. We deserve to open new discussions, propose new legislation and re-create public education.

Who’s ready to help tip the pyramid over?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.

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