Opinion
Teaching Profession Commentary

Why Aren’t Teachers Weighing In on Educational Policymaking?

By Sheryl Boris-schacter — March 14, 2006 5 min read

Picking up any newspaper in America on a given day can give one the impression that people care deeply about the academic success of the children in our public schools. There are passionate debates about whether students should be permitted to choose charter alternatives, learn about “intelligent design,” speak their home language at school, or be taught to read by a single methodology. There are critiques about how social stratification is perpetuated by stubbornly segregated schools, how standardized-test scores drive real estate values, how shameful achievement gaps persist, and how schools of education fall woefully short on their promise to deliver well-prepared teachers.

Yet comprehensive responses to these problems have come so slowly that one has to wonder whether there is truly a will to ameliorate them. Somewhat perversely, the most widespread and consistent response at state and federal levels to this range of concerns about improving schooling has come from outside the profession, and in the form of student testing.

It’s fair to say that the resources allocated to the design, dissemination, scoring, and tracking of standardized tests since the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 have been unprecedented. As was pointed out in yet another piece in the popular press, one result is that we now have schools across the country with insulting and demoralizing labels such as “in need of improvement,” schools that we do not know how to respectfully and effectively remediate.

Perhaps the growing number of schools deemed to be failing will compel us to confront the persisting obstacles to our maximizing the collaborative potential of American educators.

In a Jan. 3 op-ed in my hometown paper, The Boston Globe, S. Paul Reville said that we lack the strategies necessary to address the deficits identified, and that “it is morally and educationally unsound for authorities publicly to label poor performance without a plan and the capacity to intervene.” I couldn’t agree more. But I must confess that what distinguished this essay for me was the suggestion that part of the solution could be found in the greater inclusion of classroom teachers in educational policymaking.

Reville argues, I think reasonably, that policy must be locally contextualized and authentic in the eyes of those at the point of service delivery. What is astonishing to me is not the proposal that teachers be involved in policy construction, but that they have not been. It is so obvious to include professionals in the deep thinking and problem-solving of their own practice that one has to wonder why the idea warranted an opinion piece in a major American newspaper. I think there are three reasons: Teachers rarely consider policymaking to be an integral part of their work; policymakers do not think of consulting teachers because of the history and tradition of task division; and few teachers would suggest that the best way to address educational issues is through increased student testing. Their input, therefore, could undermine the current political agenda.

These conclusions are the result of several assumptions:

• Teachers are poised to know the most effective instructional strategies to be used with the students in their community.

• The American teaching force is overwhelmingly female, and there are lingering stereotypes regarding women, women who teach, and what constitutes “women’s work.”

• The structure of schools and the school day prevents teachers from having the time to work effectively with colleagues on issues of policy.

• Schools of education reinforce the teaching role as one that is classroom-based and substantially separate from engagement in policymaking.

• The profession is unnecessarily rigid regarding the roles people play. For example, principals rarely teach, teachers rarely engage in administrative work, and school board members do not often consult teachers or principals about setting policy.

Perhaps the growing number of schools deemed to be failing, or “in need or improvement,” will finally compel us to confront the persisting obstacles to our maximizing the collaborative potential of American educators. Why, for example, don’t we consult the teaching force about what constitutes effective pedagogy? What precludes schools of education from requiring newly minted teachers or midcareer professionals to enroll in policy courses? Why do we insist upon delivering classes and organizing schools in the same ways we have for the past one hundred years? Why do we continue asking our nation’s principals to do an increasingly impossible job that all but obliterates their role as instructional leaders? Why can’t we effectively recruit more men and people of color to the profession and offer everyone higher wages? If people care deeply about the success of public school children, as newspaper articles imply, then why aren’t we willing to pay for it?

The trouble for me is not that I have these questions, but that I have had them for my 30 years of teaching. I naively assumed that the social upheaval that characterized the cultural revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s would apply to education. I assumed that by 2006, teachers would be paid and treated as professionals, and that their ideas would be valued and their advice taken. I assumed that there would be more flexibility in how people could progress in their careers. I assumed that the achievement gaps and funding inequities would have been resolved. I was wrong.

Instead, schools and schoolchildren are still being used as political pawns, teachers are treated as second-class professionals, educators’ work is unnaturally compartmentalized, and schools in poor districts remain underfunded and disproportionately “failing.” Perhaps the continuance of these conditions benefits those already enjoying power and privilege afforded through race, class, and gender. It is hard to imagine an alternative explanation for the stubborn entrenchment of the attitudes and systems that perpetuate the problems identified decades ago.

I think this is why S. Paul Reville’s suggestion that we include teachers in policymaking struck me so viscerally. Forgive me for feeling pessimistic about our collective will to alter these conditions of training, remuneration, professional culture, and organizational structure so that teachers could participate in policymaking. I don’t think the children in the “schools in need of improvement” can wait 30 years for us to realize we are squandering precious resources by failing to get teachers’ voices at the policy table.

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as Why Aren’t Teachers Weighing In on Educational Policymaking?

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