Education Teacher Leaders Network

Why We Need Teachers at the Policy Table

By Susan Graham — May 30, 2007 6 min read
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I sincerely believe that every stakeholder in education policy has good intentions. I also believe every stakeholder has a perspective through which he or she views education policy. We call it a vision when it’s ours and an agenda when it’s someone else’s.

That’s okay with me. But education should be a public trust to promote the welfare of all citizens and our society. Unfortunately, far too many powerful people are becoming less interested in investing in that public trust than they are in making withdrawals in the form of economic or political capital. Bringing the voices of accomplished teachers to the education policy table could help restore the balance we need in our public schools portfolio.

As part of a new partnership, teachermagazine.org is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

What makes teachers’ voices critical to current school policy discussions?

1. Teachers are on-the-ground researchers. Education researchers objectively consider impact on “school populations” rather than the impact on individuals. But teachers bear the responsibility for the impact of research and policy on vulnerable children. Policy research identifies “outliers” as information that distorts conclusions: children who don’t fit the research design are eliminated from the study to avoid distortion of results. But teachers teach those potential distortions because that little outlier is someone’s baby. Our kind of research is anecdotal and prescriptive rather than analytical—and both have value. Teachers are case study experts, who test and validate theory. Ask us what works.

2. Teachers are cautious. That’s important when policy decisions impact children who have no policy voice. Teachers are keenly aware that the impact of education policy may take years to determine, may have variable measures of success, and is likely to be informed by a myriad of non-related variables. These are our children, not lab subjects, and change takes time, consistency, and patience. Teachers are more concerned about the outcome of children than of policy. Ask us how to do no harm.

4. Teachers have creditability. Indeed, this may be our greatest asset to policymakers. While politicians and pundits can excite a lack of confidence in public education, the general public has a low tolerance for attacks on teachers as individuals. Could that be because it is difficult to find anyone who cannot recall a teacher who transformed their life or the life of their child? Ask us because the public trusts educators more than they trust the education policymakers.

5. Teachers are altruistic. Oh, we want to make enough money to pay our mortgages. We would appreciate a little workplace respect. And if we are to be held accountable, we believe we ought to have some say in how we do our work. But we are probably the least likely to bring a power agenda to the table. Ask us, in spite of everything, why we have chosen to remain in the classroom with children.

So why aren’t teachers currently at the policy table?

1. We have lacked a common voice. The immediacy of the needs of our students tends to isolate us in our classrooms and limit our access to our colleagues. The virtual world is changing that. In our Teacher Leaders Network virtual learning community, we share ideas about practice, policy, resources, and perspectives. That is just one indicator that teacher voice is growing—gaining expertise, sophistication, and intensity.

2. We have lacked a common standard and measure of excellence. However, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards provides a rich and objective assessment of what teachers should know and be able to do, and more teachers are measuring themselves against that standard. We are developing a common language and a common measure of excellence recognized both within and outside the education profession.

3. We have lacked the skills of policy and politics. We need more of a framework to develop our understanding of policy, our networking and communication skills, and the attributes of effective leadership. But we are teachers, and our work is information, motivation, and persuasion, so all we really need is opportunity for this kind of learning. When given that chance, we are quickly mastering the language of policy, the etiquette of negotiation and collaboration, and the networking that gives us access to stakeholders.

4. We have lacked the urgency. However, one unintended consequence of NCLB has been to drive us to action, because we see that despite good intentions schools are indeed leaving children behind. They are left behind not just because they may not pass a test. They are being left behind because concept knowledge without understanding or application will not provide the education they will need to survive in a 21st century workplace. While teachers may have been willing to make personal concessions about teaching, more and more of us are unwilling to make compromises about what we know is in the best interest of our students’ learning.

What do we need in order have a greater influence on policy:

1. We need time and resources to get involved in policy discussions, to do research, to support new teachers, to collaborate with our colleagues. We need time that does not come at the expense of our students.

3. We need quality professional development experiences that are prescriptive and ongoing rather isolated one-size-fits-all events. While professional speakers have a place in the professional development process, do not assume that teachers always need to be fixed, entertained, or motivated by someone who has never been inside our school. We need embedded learning that provides time and support to incorporate and share new information, tools, and skills.

4. We need better communication and working relationships with higher education. We need collegial collaborative relationships in which K-12 teachers can benefit from the research and pedagogical theory that teacher-preparation programs provide. At the same time, we need and expect acknowledgment that classroom teachers are expert practitioners. We need preparation programs to include us in discussions that inform and enrich the teacher-education process.

4. We need less criticism and more support and fair play from politicians and the media. Come sit in our classrooms and walk in our shoes before you judge or direct our work. Please do not stereotype us as missionaries or mercenaries. Education and educators deserve serious nuanced conversations, not quick sound bites and catchy headlines.

5. We need a little respect. We need the assumption of good intentions. We need an acknowledgment that when a teacher is not highly effective, that is not just a personal failure on the part of the teacher. It is a failure shared by the system that prepared an ineffective teacher, that employed an ineffective teacher, and that left an ineffective teacher to flounder. It is the failure of a society that expects a great deal and invests very little.

Teachers are willing and able to help with the heavy lifting of improving the quality of American education. But far too often we are left out of the discussion, or even perceived as dysfunctional cogs in the education system. We spend our days with your children, future employees, the next generation of voters. Whether we are a potential peril or exceptional experts, it seems only logical to find out what we know, what we do, and what we think about teaching and learning.


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