Student Well-Being

Are Teachers ‘At the Table’ Or ‘On the Menu’? Hard to Tell.

By Liana Loewus — June 24, 2013 4 min read
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Thursday’s “Evaluation Reform: Finding Solutions through Teachers” at the American Institutes for Research was just the type of 30,000-foot-level Washington event that disenfranchised teachers seem to fear is changing the course of their profession. Researchers and think-tank leaders discussed findings and policy recommendations that could have major on-the-ground implications for teachers. There was a token teacher on the panel. The unions were painted unilaterally as obstructive. It all ended with wine and cheese.

The irony is that this event, co-hosted by the nonprofits AIR and Public Agenda, centered on a new book entitled Everyone at the Table: Engaging Teachers in Evaluation Reform, published by Jossey-Bass. The book contends that teachers need to be engaged in the hard work of crafting evaluation policies and offers strategies for teacher leaders and administrators to use in getting them involved.

The majority of the AIR audience consisted of spillover from a meeting hosted by the Gates Foundation for “teacher voice” groups—those that tend to serve as alternatives to the teachers’ unions. (The Gates Foundation provides support for Education Week.) Sabrina Laine, vice president of AIR, explained in an email, “We were really fortunate that our event coincided with a convening that the Gates Foundation had already planned ... and given the topic of the panel presentation, the Foundation included the event as an option for their meeting participants.” Gates also provided support for the book.

Laine, one of the book’s four co-authors, kicked off the event by quoting Jennifer Martin, a teacher-blogger on Education Week Teacher who, in addressing the need for teacher policy involvement, recently wrote, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” (Martin is a fierce advocate for and newly elected board member of her union’s local affiliate. She is not, as Celine Coggins, the CEO of Teach Plus and moderator for the panel, stated, a Teach Plus fellow.)

However, from there, the talk veered from a focus on empowering teachers to get involved to a discussion of how to handle teachers once they are involved.

The communications director at Public Agenda and another of the book’s co-authors, Allison Rizzolo, said it is a “legitimate concern” that a meeting to discuss evaluation policy might devolve into a forum for teacher venting. But, she said, engaging teachers “has been done well so many times that we do have best practices for transforming the dialogue from a gripe session to a productive conversation.” Ellen Behrstock-Shoerratt, an AIR senior researcher and another co-author, offered some techniques administrators can use while working with groups of teachers to keep these policy conversations from derailing—including a “jigsaw reading activity” and “an interview activity that’s a bit like speed dating.” Ross Wiener, executive director of the education program at The Aspen Institute, said that those leading the conversations should “set the parameters of what’s non-negotiable,” such as the evaluation elements that are required by law.

For better or worse, the message was clear that teacher engagement works within bounds, much like a managed classroom. Less clear, though, was to whom the message was directed—it seemed better suited to district- and state-level administrators than the teacher-led organizations in the room.

It was not until the sole teacher on the panel—Anthony Mullen, 2009 National Teacher of the Year and former blogger for Education Week Teacher—took the floor that the specifics of what teachers are contributing to these policy conversations were broached. When Coggins asked how he’d been involved in policy, he said, “I’ve had very few opportunities to affect policy, both on the state and national level. I’ve repeatedly asked the state superintendent to meet with me and he has declined.” The answer was clearly not what the moderator had expected. (Mullen later told me he knew little about the event before he got there and thought he’d be promoting a book, which he did not receive in time to read, on teacher leadership.)

Mullen further steered his comments straight down to the ground level. After receiving an “exemplary” rating on his own evaluation, Mullen said he expressed disappointment to his principal that he didn’t “see on the rubric anything to do with social-emotional needs.” A special education teacher at an alternative high school, Mullen said he told his administrator that a better measure of teacher effectiveness would take non-academic factors into account. “It’s not hard for me to teach a kid Newton’s Law,” he said, “but it’s much harder for me to catch a falling kid.”

An hour into the program, arguably the most pressing (and mind-boggling) question about the book had not been answered: Why were no practicing teachers co-authors? When I asked this during Q&A, Rizzolo said that the book is based on two years of research in the field and that a variety of teacher focus groups weighed in. (Many of the “teacher voice” groups in attendance—including Teach Plus, Educators 4 Excellence, and VIVA Teachers—were mentioned in the book.) Behrstock-Shoerratt said that the book highlights the “great work teachers are doing,” but that “so many teachers just don’t have the time to write a book.” (Mullen, as noted in the program handout, recently collaborated with a Japanese education official on a book about strategies for teaching students with special needs. Our teacher-blogger Ilana Garon’s first book will be coming out in September. I could go on.)

At one point, in relaying what he hears his colleagues saying about changes to evaluation processes, Mullen said teachers are mostly just “confused.” It’s the same sentiment they were likely left with Thursday night.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.