Education Funding Opinion

Teachers and Education Policy: Two Voices in Dialogue: Part 5

By Anthony Cody — November 26, 2010 4 min read
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Teachers Anthony Cody and Patrick Ledesma, both NBCTs and members of the Teacher Leaders Network, have taken two very different approaches to promoting the teacher voice in education policy. Anthony began with an open letter to President Obama, and then launched a Facebook group, Teachers’ Letters to Obama, which now has more than 3000 members -- some of whom spoke with Secretary Duncan last May. Patrick has served for the past four months as a Teacher Ambassador Fellow for the US Department of Education, and in that role has represented teachers in discussions of policy. What follows is a dialogue between them, sharing their perspectives. This is Anthony’s response to Patrick’s post here, Teachers and Education Policy: Two Voices in Dialogue: Part 4.

I agree this dialogue between us has been useful in clarifying where we are now.

The whole question of dialogue is a tricky one, and as you noted, I have some mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I do believe in the power of listening to one another. I think the members of Teachers’ Letters to Obama put a tremendous amount of energy into investigating the issues, discussing our points of view and arriving at some common understandings, so we could share those with the Department of Education in our conversation. Clearly we were disappointed, because there was not a substantive response to the particular issues we were most concerned about. When we say we wish to be heard, what we are saying is we wish our understandings actually mattered - actually made some difference, and that we could see some shift in policy that reflects the understandings we shared.

I think your fellow Teacher Ambassador Fellow, Steve Owens, makes a valid point in his comment on your latest post. Perhaps we are looking for something more along the lines of a negotiation. Unfortunately, the 3,088 members of Teachers’ Letters to Obama are a pretty small pressure group, and the Department of Education does not really need to negotiate with us. We are not presently in a position of power - and that is the problem with teachers across the nation as well. We have shifted to the margins of decisions regarding education policy. Our unions remain our most powerful base of organized strength, but they have been rendered politically vulnerable by constant, often propagandistic attacks (see OprahPaganda, here.) The control has shifted to an alliance that trusts in the power of standardized tests to improve outcomes and the power of the market to drive innovation.

You write:

I agree with your comment that '"having a seat at the table can never be an end in itself." I would add that "having a seat at the table is necessary to achieve the goals teachers seek."
Sustained engagement is a difficult and complex part of that process. As teachers, we remain engaged to make steady progress with students in the classroom, that same level of endurance and professionalism is needed at all levels of policy.

To which I would respond, taking that seat at that table needs to be a tactical decision, based on what is gained and what is lost
. I would venture to guess that the reason Teachers’ Letters to Obama was not offered a seat, (and some other group was), was due to our continual communication with our constituency. I think the primary source of strength we have is our ability to influence and hopefully activate large numbers of teachers and parents around these issues. When Florida’s Republican governor Charlie Crist decided to veto the Race to the Top-inspired Senate Bill 6 last spring, it was because thousands of teachers wrote and made phone calls, and hundreds showed up with picket signs at every event he attended. So for me, at this point, if the condition of a seat at the table is that I cease public advocacy, it is not worth it. And I think those who are at that table need to look to see if the process is indeed advancing the issues we care about. Because process is necessary to achieve change, but process can also be used to create the illusion of openness and movement, when the reality is that there is neither.

So I ask again, can you share any evidence of progress on the issues I raised - or others -- from the ongoing dialogue you continue to engage in?
If there is no progress, there is no point, and our presence at their table may signify some degree of acquiescence on our part.

For me, I think we have reached, as Steve Owens suggests, an impasse. There are others that have a great deal more power than us who are calling the shots. Our expertise does not matter much in this process. Our ideas do not matter much. We are vilified by the media, owned by the very corporations that seek to profit from the destruction of public education. The only way our ideas and expertise will matter is when we have a great many teachers, parents and students actively demanding that we be heard, as they did in Florida last spring. So that is my path. And I do not see it as walking away from the dialogue. I see it as a step we need to take in order to be heard.

A fellow member of the Teacher Leaders Network recently reminded me of something Frederick Douglass said more than a century ago:

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

I believe that our limits are being tested right now, in a thousand ways, across this great land. Within the next decade we will see either the destruction or the resurrection of that which has made this country what it is to the world. Our public education system is a key part of this, and those of us with some degree of clarity and vision need to be outspoken and visible. If we disappear into quiet negotiations at unseen tables for sustained conversations that produce not a thing, we will be sorely missed.

In concluding this dialogue, I want to acknowledge and thank Patrick for agreeing to it in the first place, and to putting his perspective forward. It is not easy to be an ambassador between parties in conflict. I wish him luck in the path he has chosen.

What do you think? How should we pursue our goal of shifting Federal policies? How can we be heard?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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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