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Teaching Profession Opinion

How to Help K-12 Policymakers Help You

By Rick Hess — April 02, 2015 5 min read
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On Monday, I penned a column about “Why Can’t Politicians Get Out of Schooling?” It was met with some predictable pushback, including by readers who asked why pols pick on teachers and not cops or doctors. Of course, that’s just flat wrong. Go ask those police in New York City who turned their backs on the mayor or physicians furious about accountability metrics and reimbursement rates written into the Affordable Care Act. The reality is that public employees and those reliant on public funds are always subject to political decisions, and those decisions are always informed by lots of things other than what the affected parties think would make for good policy.

This brings up a related point. I’ve seen some of the advice in The Cage-Busting Teacher described as “lean in” for educators. That’s not quite right. I’m a political scientist, not a pop culture guru. My advice is geared more to explaining how public employees can thrive in public bureaucracies. So, to paraphrase Jerry Maguire’s plaintive plea in Jerry Maguire, what can public employees do to help policymakers help them?

First, believe it or not, teachers have a sympathetic audience. People care what teachers think. In 2013, the annual Gallup poll on schooling found that more than 70 percent of Americans have “trust and confidence” in public school teachers. Greg Mullenholz was a Washington Teaching Ambassador in 2011. Mullenholz says, “What fascinated me was this perception that folks at [the U.S. Department of Education] would look at us and think, ‘They’re just teachers.’ But the high-level folks actually had a lot of respect for what we had to say. We would meet with them regularly to discuss the feedback we were getting from teachers in the field, and they’d use it to inform what they were doing.”

Second, keep in mind that policymakers can make people do things, but they can’t make them do them well. Policy is a blunt tool: it tells people what they must do, or what they must not do, and that’s about it. That works passably well if the challenge is collecting taxes or mailing out Social Security checks. But it works less well when the question is school improvement. The problem is that policymakers can’t make schools or systems adopt reforms wisely or well. The trick is, most of what we care about when it comes to teaching and learning is about how you do things, rather than whether you do them. Yet, equipped only with blunt instruments, policymakers are under a lot of pressure to make the world a better place. Worse, policymakers know that their good ideas often go south once they’re implemented, which makes them hesitant to trust those on the ground. That’s why they’re eager to find sympathetic professionals who can help figure out how to ensure that policies actually do what they’re supposed to do.

Policymakers aren’t writing laws for people they know and trust; they’re writing them for strangers who they’re entrusting with the public’s kids. Randy Dorn, superintendent of Washington State, is a former teacher, principal, and legislator. Dorn says, “Politics is really relationships, just like schooling is. I always ask educators, would you give ten dollars to a stranger who walks up to you on the street? Because that’s how a lot of people approach legislators. They show up and just ask for millions of dollars or laws that they’d like to see. If a stranger walks up to you on the street and says, ‘Can I have ten dollars? My child needs it,’ you don’t know whether to trust them. You probably won’t give it to them. But, if you’ve seen them and talked to them two or three times, and you feel you’ll meet them a fourth time, then they’re an acquaintance. Now you’re a lot more likely to lend them the money.”

Third, keep in mind that rules are written heavy-handedly . . . on purpose, with an eye to stopping obvious stupidity. Policymakers can’t make rules that only apply to bad actors. As one key U.S. Senate staffer explains, “I see these educators who are doing great things out in schools and systems. I want to write the rules for them. But I can’t. I have to write them for the lowest common denominator.” Public officials are responsible for taxpayer funds and the quality of schooling. If someone hundreds of miles away misspends funds or harms a kid, public officials may be blamed and will certainly be expected to fix it. As a consequence, aggressive self-policing and mechanisms to safeguard against malfeasance are crucial. Show up with those kinds of alternatives in mind. Denouncing accountability or evaluation systems, and having no alternative to offer other than “trust us,” is a losing hand.

Fourth, when educators do get the chance to speak to policymakers or in public hearings, they often do so in ways that don’t help their cause. If you understand where policymakers are coming from, it gets a lot easier to focus on what might influence them. This means doing three things in particular. One, don’t demand more money. Everybody asks lawmakers for money. If policymakers had more money to give, they’d give it. Harping on that will suck all the oxygen out of the room, and won’t accomplish much. Two, emphasize shared concerns. In other words, presume that officials care about the same kids that you do—and explain the idea with a view to how they might see things. And, three, offer solutions and let them know how they can help, besides forking over more bucks.

I remember meeting with a group of accomplished North Carolina teachers who were disheartened by the state’s decision to abolish tenure, eliminate hundreds of millions of dollars annually in pay for advanced degrees, and use only a small portion of the savings to create a modest annual bonus of $500 for a quarter of the state’s teachers. The teachers were irked and offended. I totally got that. But those legislators also had valid concerns. They were concerned that tenure too often protected the undeserving and that paying for advanced degrees subsidized too much course-taking that didn’t improve instruction. Disagreement should not be a reason to dismiss a legislator as misinformed or hopeless.

Those legislators may not want to pay for education degrees, but that doesn’t mean they’re wedded to cutting teacher pay. If teachers take policymakers’ concerns seriously and propose a viable alternative, they can alter the terms of the discussion. Rather than arguing whether to pay for the old credentials or to cut pay, the question can be how those dollars can best attract, retain, and energize terrific teaching. Framed that way, it’s tougher for anyone to argue that the money should simply go away—or to dismiss the proposals educators are putting forward.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to all this. For anyone who wants to dig deeper, check out my new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.