Power Play

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Can teachers be leaders in the policy arena and still lead a classroom?

In a carpeted meeting room at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., 14 teachers are getting a lesson in power. It's a Wednesday morning in late fall, a time when these teachers are usually putting students through their paces in nearby Fairfax County, Virginia. Instead, they're spending the day talking with some heavy hitters in education policy, getting a feel for what it takes to be a player in local school politics, statehouses, and even the marbled halls of Washington.

The meetings are part of the teachers' work as fellows with the National Teacher Policy Institute, an offshoot of Impact II, a national teacher network based in New York City. The institute aims to correct what Impact II members see as a key failing of education reform today: Policy, they say, is too often crafted without input from those who know the classroom best: teachers. With 80 fellows based in Fairfax and four other sites across the country, the institute is turning a small cadre of teachers into policy experts who can hold their own with cranky legislators, know-it-all reform experts, slick lobbyists, and stubborn school board members.

As part of their fellowships, the Fairfax teachers are becoming serious policy wonks. Some of them have done independent research, attended monthly meetings, developed position papers, and organized workshops for more than three years now. Like their institute counterparts across the country, they are intimately familiar with how policy is made--and how it is changed.

Now, the time for action has come. With the start of its fourth year this fall, the institute is sending its fellows out to shake the policy tree and get results. But as they move into this critical phase, the teachers are also coming to grips with what could be a crippling handicap to their plans. How can they be two places at once, the statehouse and the schoolhouse? How can they testify at a pivotal legislative hearing when their fourth period class is tackling Ulysses? In short, how can they bring to the policy arena the wisdom of years in the classroom without actually leaving the classroom?

The 14 Fairfax teachers at the education department today are vexed by these questions. Many are veterans whose calendars are already packed with work in their districts as mentors, technology coordinators, and committee representatives. The way schools are structured, it seems impossible that they can both participate in policy and remain in their classrooms.

The frustration of the teachers is evident as they meet with Mary Beth Blegen, teacher in residence at the department. "We work until 3 p.m. and then start meeting until 9 p.m.," 5th grade teacher Carol Horn tells Blegen. "We are stretched to the limit."

Yet none of these teachers wants to quit teaching. And even as the institute has taken them deeper into the policy realm, they've fiercely guarded their time with students. The classroom is home base, the source of their ideas. "Being in the classroom keeps you alive," says music and technology teacher Kristi Thomas.

Obviously, something has to give. "I don't see an avenue right now for teachers to stay in their classrooms and still be leaders," contends Faye Wagoner, a 7th grade teacher.

Blegen, however, counsels the teachers to revisit their priorities. After nearly two years in Washington, ground zero for federal policymaking, the 30-year classroom veteran is convinced that teachers can help their kids by giving up some of the time they spend with them. "We cannot continue to look at time the same way," she says. "We have to convince ourselves that our professional-development time is as valuable as the time we spend with students. Teachers have to go through a process of realizing we are equally important outside the classroom, with parents, administrators, and even lawmakers. If we don't go through that process, we won't have what we need for the kids in our schools."

When President Bush assembled the nation's governors and education experts in Charlottesville, Virginia, for the 1989 U.S. education summit, no classroom teachers were invited. Teachers, so the planners supposed, could implement programs, but the thinking was to be done in the statehouses and universities.

About the same time, Impact II asked the City College of New York architecture department to design a "school of the future" to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the organization. The architecture students, in turn, solicited the input of 10 Impact II teachers, asking them to dream of the ideal school. "You wouldn't believe their answers," says Ellen Meyers, Impact II's vice president and director of the policy institute. "Things like 'more outlets,' 'clean hallways,' 'fix the windows.' It was so depressing. We realized you can't be invited to a summit if you don't have a vision."

Meyers decided that Impact II could help teachers find that vision. The group had been founded in 1979 to help teachers share curriculum, but now its leaders saw the need to train teachers in the mysterious yet volatile world of policymaking.

After some planning and the publication of several books of teacher-designed reform proj- ects, Impact II in 1995 opened what was supposed to be a short-term teacher policy institute, with 50 fellows from New York City funded by the Metropolitan Life Foundation. Within a few months, these fellows were taking on leadership roles in school-based management committees, unions, community groups, and other policy arenas. As the institute neared its close, they wanted to continue their training, and Impact II began planning for an expanded national institute. "The teachers' greatest concern was that their work would wind up as a document gathering dust on the shelf," explains Meyers.

Impact II opened the National Teacher Policy Institute in 1996, with fellows at six sites: New York, Boston, Chicago, Fairfax County, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara County, California. (The Boston Impact II office did not continue the program, and the Chicago site has expanded to include teachers statewide in Illinois.) Policymakers generally greeted the new institute warmly. "Today we're doing much more radical policy, profound changes in schools and learning, so it is more important than ever that people on the firing line have a voice," says Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States. "My initial reaction to NTPI was this has to be good no matter how successful it is. There's just far too little understanding in the education community about policy."

In their early work, the fellows studied issues such as teacher induction, teacher networks, and the teacher's role in school change. Last year, they spread the word about their findings, presenting their research to school board panels and state advisory committees. In Fairfax, the teachers compiled their research into a book, Voices From the Classroom: Connecting Practice to Policymaking.

This year, the institute's fourth, is pivotal. The Booth Ferris and Exxon Education foundations have joined MetLife as sponsors of the program, and the institute has added 56 new fellows. The group now wants to put its ideas to the test. "Year four is our action year," Meyers says. "We're looking at actually influencing policy."

The institute's shift to more active advocacy doesn't mean its fellows are lobbying in state capitols and buttonholing legislators. Instead, many are turning their classrooms into laboratories where they will study how policy plays out in learning. At a meeting this fall, the New York fellows met with institute adviser and New York University education professor Frances Rust to discuss models of "action research," research done by practitioners within the normal course of work. Rust told the fellows how California's early elementary teachers are gathering data in their classrooms on a new state policy limiting K-3 class size to 20: "The teachers are able to say, 'This is what it looks like in the first year of the new policy.' It gives policymakers constant feedback on the impact of a new program in its developmental stages."

This year, institute fellows have launched action research on a variety of topics. A Santa Barbara County teacher is studying the merits of different reading strategies for students with limited English skills. A fellow from Illinois, meanwhile, is examining whether problem-based learning boosts student achievement in science. And in New York, a team of fellows is looking at what additional resources are needed for students to meet new state and city standards. International High School teacher Janet Price, a member of the team, will do a cost analysis and evaluation of her school's use of faculty advisers to help seniors pass a new writing test mandated by the New York State Board of Regents. Says Price, "We are very consciously trying to refocus the standards conversation from results, results, results, to looking at what is needed to meet those standards--for example, what does it take for 6th graders to read 25 books a year or for seniors to pass the Regents' writing test."

Such research could prove a critical companion to traditional, university-based education research, Rust contends. "We expect that there will be important insights that will translate into policy recommendations in each area," she says. "I also suspect that we are on the verge of putting together a model of how to build and sustain a learning community that could be extremely helpful to policymakers thinking about school reform and professional development."

ECS' Frank Newman sees similar benefits: "Policy almost never happens in a single, cataclysmic action. Over the years, there's considerable shaping that goes on. The value of teachers is to assess the impact. What helps a lot is concrete examples."

For the teachers, action research also represents a rare opportunity to do double duty, to both teach and influence policy. Price, who works in a teacher-led school, says the research may be her only foray into policy. "It has to be something I'm doing anyway or else I'll never have time to do it," she says.

Policymakers would be hard-pressed to ignore Carol Horn and Kristi Thomas, two institute fellows and teachers at William F. Halley Elementary in Fairfax Station, a school just south of the nation's capital whose enrollment includes many children from poor and immigrant families. Thomas has raked in her share of honors--she's won the Washington Post's Outstanding Teacher award and was 1995 Fairfax County Teacher of the Year--and she helped bring Halley into the Information Age by creating a Web site that links staff, parents, and district administrators.

Horn, meanwhile, is one of only 1,835 teachers in the country who have earned certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Since transferring to Halley in 1997, from a gifted and talented program, she's made a big impact, modeling project-based lessons to her colleagues and showing them how to incorporate "gifted" teaching strategies into the general curriculum. The week Horn visited the Department of Education with the other Fairfax fellows, her students were excitedly digging up "ancient" artifacts they had buried in the Halley schoolyard, totems of a make-believe civilization that they had created. Interpreting the objects for another class, they described the customs and beliefs of the "Quagars," creatures who were obviously the product of 5th grade zaniness: three to nine feet tall, the Quagars wore T-shirts covered with patches and listened to rock music. When the men married, they changed color.

Horn, Thomas, and their colleagues enjoy a great deal of autonomy at Halley. A council of teachers, administrators, and parents make many of the school's governing decisions, and principal Jan Funk lets teachers run classrooms largely as they see fit. Funk was recently named Fairfax County's Principal of the Year; Horn calls her "a leader of leaders."

Outside Halley's walls, the teachers' influence wanes considerably. Indeed, teachers throughout Virginia say they've had little say in the state's recent wholesale restructuring of education policy. In the mid-1990s, Virginia approved standards that defined what students should know at each grade level. Though hailed by the American Federation of Teachers and other national groups, the standards drew fire locally from teachers who criticized them as too prescriptive and too specific. Last year, the state introduced a new battery of high-stakes tests geared to the standards--tests that don't square with some teachers' ideas of curriculum and assessment.

Regardless of how they feel about the state's standards and tests, many teachers object to how they were created. Most of the debate took place outside of schools, between legislators and state and district officials. Frontline educators were rarely consulted about these changes, teachers argue, but they're being asked to carry them out. And there are tough penalties for schools that don't get up to speed quickly. Schools where large numbers of students don't pass the new state tests risk losing their accreditation, and last year, Halley's scores fell below the state and county averages.

Virginia is not the only place where education policy is being turned on its head. Years ago, the management of education was left largely to local school boards and officials. But in the decade since the Charlottesville summit, governors and lawmakers have come to see state spending and regulations as levers to change the schools. Districts, in turn, have responded to state action--and public pressure--with their own sweeping reforms.

Where teachers have been players in these changes, their roles have varied. While some states and districts have enlisted teachers as policy partners to great effect, others have been less successful. Some reformers, for example, claim that standards efforts have floundered in states where massive teams of teachers were assigned to write initial drafts. The teams bickered, splintered, and finally compromised with thousand-page documents that critics claim do little to define a body of knowledge that students should learn.

At the institute, many fellows have successfully assumed roles as policy advisers. As a group, the New York City fellows critiqued an early draft of the Education Commission of the States' "State Policymakers Guide to Networks." They also held a candidates' forum on education during the 1997 New York mayoral election.

Some of the New York fellows, however, left the classroom to take on new leadership roles. Computer teacher Peggy Wyns-Madison has been promoted to technology coordinator for her community district within the New York City system. Peter Dillon, who was frustrated as an ESL teacher in a regimented, top-down Brooklyn high school serving Caribbean immigrants, left that job in 1997 and became interim acting assistant principal of a small, innovative Manhattan school that focuses on students' cultural heritages. And Mark Silberberg, a teacher at the High School for Economics and Finance, realized a dream by opening a charter school in Hoboken, New Jersey, this fall.

For the teacher aiming to shape policy, time is the enemy, explains Leo Casey, a New York fellow on leave from Clara Barton High. Before his leave, Casey was juggling his full-time classroom load, his duties as a local union chapter leader, and his work with the institute. "In combination, it had just become too much," he explains. "The education world does not make it possible for folks to stay grounded in teaching--say, teaching one or two classes--and participate in the broader education reform movement. There are a few jobs that allow someone to do that, and I hope to find myself in such a position one day not too far in the future."

Maine teacher Barbara Kelley has the kind of dual career that Casey wants. A physical education teacher at the K-3 Vine Street School in Bangor, Kelley last year was named chairwoman of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the group that certifies top teachers. She spends 60 days out of the classroom--about a third of the school year--on NBPTS business. NBPTS pays her salary for those days, as well as some of the cost of a long-term substitute teacher to fill in for Kelley. One other accommodation made at Vine Street for Kelley: She has her own phone line and voice mail. The school's 40 other teachers, meanwhile, share three lines.

Such arrangements are rare, but Kelley argues they'll have to become more common if teachers are to remain rooted in the classroom yet still work on policy. "The biggest problem is time," she explains. "If the public perception of teachers remains that they're only doing their job when they're in front of their students, then you will never come up with bigger solutions. It's a question of changing the paradigm of how people think about teachers and teachers as leaders. When you think about teachers as leaders, you come to the inevitable conclusion that you're going to have to do something about time."

Back in Washington, as the Fairfax teachers move through their day of meetings, conversation returns again and again to this question of time. After their talk with Mary Beth Blegen at the education department, the fellows drive to the National Education Association's headquarters and meet with President Bob Chase and other top union officials. Mary Futrell, dean of George Washington University's education school and a former NEA president, exhorts the fellows to take on the challenge of leadership. "I'm tired a lot," she tells them. "That's what leadership requires." Lynn Coffin, who directs the NEA's push for professionalizing teaching, bluntly says, "If you're going to be a leader, no one's going to give you a voice. You have to have a voice."

Such talk invigorates many of the fellows and strengthens their resolve. Some will continue to do action research from the classroom, while others talk about taking a hiatus from teaching to do work in the central office or the local union chapter. But some of them talk of having it all, of redefining the job of teacher so that they can lead in both the classroom and the policy arena.

As they drive home together after the NEA meetings, Thomas and Horn talk about the day. Mary Futrell's call for leaders resonated with Thomas. Horn, meanwhile, wonders if she could be more effective as a mentor if she taught only half a day.

By the end of their drive, the two are plotting big changes for Halley Elementary. They have decided to propose a new teaching schedule to allow time for collaboration, mentoring, innovation, and policymaking. They will pitch it as a pilot for the district. As the two teachers finally part, they are tired but upbeat; time no longer seems like such a formidable foe.

Vol. 10, Issue 6, Pages 40-42

Published in Print: March 1, 1999, as Power Play
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