Teachers Seek Decisionmaking Power

By Lynn Olson — March 19, 1986 6 min read


States should give decisionmaking power back to individual schools and teachers, according to educators from 48 state· who gathered here this month for a “National Teachers’ Forum” sponsored by the Education Commission of the States.

The forum was part of E.C.S.'s three-year project, “Teaching in America: The Possible Renaissance,” designed to help state leaders find better ways to recruit, reward, recognize, and retain teachers.

That the project specifically seeks to incorporate the views of classroom educators was a fact applauded by those attending the forum here.

“What happens quite often,” said John Janty, a mathematics teacher at Waunakee High School in Waunakee, Wis., “is that commissions and so on are set up by the people who are affected by the poor results of education, like legislators and industry, but they fail to look at the source of improvement, the teacher.”

Mr. Janty cautioned that mandates imposed from above are often not carried out by teachers, or are carried out unsuccessfully.

The 56 teachers participating in the forum were selected by a panel of their peers from more than 400 nominees. Chosen on the basis of articulateness and involvement in education reform, the participants were asked in the selection process to describe what had led them to teaching, to assess the effectiveness of their initial teacher-training programs, and to name the most and least attractive features of their jobs.

At the forum, participants said the ideas of teachers should be heard because they are the “bridge” between policymaking and change in the classroom. Teachers bear the burden of whether policies succeed or fail, they said, and are an untapped resource for discovering what works.

“I would like to see the individual building have more power, and with that power, discretionary funds,” said Joan Bushee, a 2nd-grade teacher at Ockerman Elementary School in Florence, Ky. “We say all these things, but then it stops there.”

Diverse Agenda

During the three-day forum, teachers gathered in small working groups to “brainstorm” on a wide array of problems in the field and possible solutions.

They offered critical views on such topics as:

  • The “demoralizing” effects of merit pay and teacher-competency testing;
  • Continuing-education courses that are often taught by people with less experience and knowledge than the teachers who take them;
  • The time teachers are forced to spend on noninstructional activities;
  • The tendency of administrators and education-school faculty members to become too removed from the classroom, making them unable to offer practical advice and training; and
  • The lack of “reciprocity” agreements between states and school districts, which would enable teachers to move from one place to another without losing benefits and seniority.

On the positive side, teachers said they appreciated the new influx of state money and attention to education. And although they disagreed with some of the strategies adopted by their states, they applauded attempts to raise teacher” salaries and recognize and reward good teaching.

But the participants also noted the growing complexity of their classroom roles, saying they are faced with an increasingly diverse group of students, many of whom come to school with serious noneducational needs. The public seems to expect educators to be teachers, social workers, and parents simultaneously, they said.

“I think we need to take those responsibilities that we’ve accepted on our shoulders and spread them back out again,” said Susan J. Moore, a 4th-grade teacher at Mountain View Elementary School in Anchorage, Alaska.

Greater Involvement

But the topic stressed most by the teachers was their need to be listened to, and they suggested possible ways that their voice in policymaking could be amplified. These included holding additional teachers’ forums in their own states; creating state-level commissions and professional-standards bodies composed entirely of working teachers who would report to governors, legislators, and departments of education; and setting up state-level “education trust funds” to provide schools and districts with discretionary money for innovative proposals.

“Tho much of reform has been top-down,” said Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey, chairman of the E.C.S. and originator of the teacher-renaissance project.

“Maybe some of it had to be top-down to begin with,” he said, “but at this point it’s got to be fed by the creativity of teachers in the classroom. Their ideas have simply not been sought.”

“The teacher in the classroom often feels powerless,” said Mark R. Hansen, a visual-arts teacher at Forest Lake High School in Forest Lake, Minn., “and also like he doesn’t have the time.”

‘Take Years’

Frank Newman, president of the E.C.S., said state policymakers need to devise strategies that encourage risk-taking on the part of teachers and schools. Such strategies, he said, should focus less on mandates and more on providing technical assistance and support.

“It’s tempting to think that the answer is for states to do less,” Mr. Newman said. “I think it’s much more a matter of how one goes about it.”

“Our preoccupation over the last 50 years has been with centralization, because it’s neat,” said Peter Smith, lieutenant governor of Vermont and an E.C.S. commissioner. “We’re now confronted with the downside of centralization, which is that it doesn’t recognize when people need or deserve or can handle latitude and choice and option.”

Mr. Newman cautioned, however, that “it’s going to take years to get teachers to have more authority in the running of schools.” Not only will state policymaking have to become more sophisticated, he said, but the attitudes and self-concept of educators themselves will also have to change.

Whether the teacher-renaissance project will result in greater involvement in the policymaking process for teachers is uncertain.

Mr. Janty said he came to the forum “rather skeptical,” but added, “I’ve changed my mind.”


Ms. Moore predicted that the success of the initiative will depend largely on what teachers do back home. “As an impetus for change, this was a good idea,” she said of the forum. “I don’t think it was meant to do anything more than that. It’s like the old pep rallies that people used to attend.”

Mr. Newman told participants they would receive a draft paper summarizing the ideas discussed at the forum and have a chance to comment. The paper will be presented to E.C.S.'S steering committee at its April meeting, with the assistance of two of the teachers present at the forum, at E.C.S.'s annual meeting this summer.

Mr. Newman also promised to provide teachers with a list of E.C.S. commissioners in their states, for help in following up on forum activities, and with summaries of some of the forthcoming national reports on education, such as those by the National Governors’ Association and the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy.

In addition to this month’s forum, the teacher-renaissance project includes a series of “Talks with Teachers"-in Indiana, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wyoming; publication of a report on teacher policies in the states; and a forthcoming report summarizing suggestions on teacher reform from some of the nation’s education scholars.

E.C.S. officials also plan to produce videotapes of the talks with teachers and this month’s forum.

A version of this article appeared in the March 19, 1986 edition of Education Week

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