Education Opinion

When Education Policy Goes ‘Clunk': Why Teacher-Policymaker Partnerships Help Students

By Justin Minkel — April 14, 2014 6 min read
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I have a frying pan that won’t balance on my stove. The handle is too heavy for the pan, so as soon as you set it down on a level surface, it topples. Clunk.

Every time I try to use this failure of a frying pan, I wonder, “Didn’t anyone test the prototype before mass producing 10,000 of these?” Clunk. It would be an easy fix. Make the pan a little bigger, or the metal heavier. Make the handle a little smaller, or the plastic lighter.

My next thought, naturally, is about how my frying pan connects to education policy.

One reason we need partnerships between policymakers and teachers is that teachers often bring the focus back to kids, rather than politics or vague economic arguments about “remaining competitive with China.” But there is also a powerful pragmatic argument for involving teachers as partners in making policy--not just implementing it, speaking in favor of it, or “giving input.”

Forget for a moment whether the intended outcomes of a given policy are even the right goals. When policy is made without teachers, it usually fails to achieve even those goals the policymakers intended. Clunk.

NCLB is a cornucopia of failed policies, stuffed with plenty of fruits still rotting on the vine six years after George W. Bush and Margaret Spellings finally went away.

Take the generic goal of “raising expectations for all students.” One reason the law failed was an unintended--and, given the absence of even a single teacher when the law was written, unforeseen--consequence.

Districts desperate to make AYP sacrificed what they knew was right for kids in favor of a little “strategery.” These districts focused resources on “bubble kids” just below proficiency, ignoring those students who were either above grade level (“They’ll test “proficient” even if they make minimal growth”) or far below grade level (“They’re not likely to catch up to “proficient” this year even if we devote a lot of time to them.”)

It took half a decade for legislators to introduce fixes like a blunt growth model that at least let districts get credit for moving a student from “below basic” to “basic.” These fixes might have been in place on the front end if even a handful of thoughtful teachers had been consulted when the AYP provisions of the law were written.

Most policymakers I know are not mustachio-twirling villains with nefarious intentions. But sometimes they don’t know what they don’t know. They haven’t thought enough about the “implementation gap"--the gulf between a policy’s intended impact and its actual impact once it rolls out with real kids in real classrooms.

There’s plenty of skepticism among teachers about Arne Duncan’s Teach to Lead initiative. But I think it represents a growing realization that policymakers need us. Not just to sell their policy changes, not just to implement their reforms, but to partner with them in creating policies that will do what they’re intended to do.

Last week’s post focused on the potential for teachers to shape teacher prep by serving in hybrid roles as practicing teachers and full-fledged professors. This post lays out an approach to true partnership between teachers and policymakers.

The role: Practicing teachers can advise policymakers on upcoming legislation and policy on the front end, as key decisions are being made.

The rationale: Teachers can often spot the unintended consequences of proposed policies, like the strategic focus on “bubble kids” instead of all kids when accountability measures fail to measure individual growth. Teachers also tend to be more invested in new policies when they helped to shape them. With NCLB, there was a tremendous amount of “civil disobedience"--teachers technically following the letter of the law without investing much time and skill in its true intent.

What it looks like: Teachers and policymakers can be partners instead of adversaries, but it requires sustained collaboration. Models for this kind of collaboration do exist. Here are three:

1. The Arkansas Exemplary Educators Network

In Arkansas, a network of state Teachers of the Year and Milken Educators has come together to advise the Arkansas Department of Education and the state legislature. The network is led by each year’s Arkansas Teacher of the Year, who completes a year’s working sabbatical with the department, including a seat on the State Board of Education, before returning to the classroom.

Part of the network’s purpose is to bring ideas, problems, and solutions from teachers in our districts to members of the legislature, department, and state board. As a result, policymakers know how the policies they enact are playing out in actual classrooms.

2. Hybrid roles

These roles are becoming more common. Chris Poulos, the 2007 Connecticut State Teacher of the Year, teaches high school Spanish half-time while working with the Connecticut Department of Education the other half to help shape and communicate new policies. Chris serves as a two-way conduit; he brings new policies and their rationale to teachers in the state, but he also brings teachers’ concerns and suggestions to the Department. Part of his job description is to ensure that teachers have a voice in shaping state education policy.

3. The Teachers at the Table Act

The proposed Teachers at the Table Act, championed by Congresswoman McCarthy from New York, would create an advisory group of teachers to advise the U.S. House and Senate Education Committees. The two-part rationale for the bill is simple: Teachers should have a direct role in creating the policies that shape our classrooms, and these policies work better when teachers have a hand in their creation.

What it will take: We need to stop seeing teachers as mere consumers of policy, curriculum, and professional development, and start seeing teachers as potential co-creators of policy, curriculum, and PD. Policymakers need to do a better job of partnering with teachers on the front end as they create new initiatives. For our own part, teachers need to make sure we’re constructive, not just reactive, in reaching out to policymakers with proposed solutions.

Next Steps: We need to hold Secretary Duncan accountable for the promises made in his Teach to Lead initiative unveiled last month. (For a brilliant post on the difference between hoping teacher leadership happens and ensuring that it happens, read Banning Hope by NNSTOY Executive Director Katherine Bassett.)

We need to make the link explicit between teacher leadership and student learning, including examples of how partnerships between teachers and policymakers can help close the implementation gap between intention and actual impact.

We need to consider the place for hybrid roles, which 73% of teachers are interested in pursuing at some point in their career, in strengthening policies at the school, district, state, and federal level.

Finally, teachers need to make sure that when we speak at a school board meeting, approach our principal or superintendent with a new idea, or write a letter to the local paper, we begin with student needs and keep the conversation constructive. That doesn’t mean we hold back from proposing system-shaking changes, but framing potential solutions tends to do more good for our students than reciting familiar problems.

Our students deserve policies that meet their needs. To make sure they get them, we need to build enduring partnerships between teachers and policymakers.

It wouldn’t have taken much to fix my defective frying pan. A little more thought given to the connection between design and function. A little time spent testing the final product before it made its way into thousands of homes.

Our students have suffered through too many policies that sounded good on paper, then went clunk in practice. Let’s do what we can to spare them the next clunk.

Next week’s post will focus on teacher leadership in developing curriculum and designing professional development.

The opinions expressed in Teaching for Triumph: Reflections of a 21st-Century ELL Teacher 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.