Elizabeth Evans is founding CEO of New Voice Strategies, which created the VIVA Idea Exchange. A nationally recognized community organizer and nonprofit leader, she has been working on issues related to how we educate American children for the last dozen years.
The screaming headline read: “The all-out, all-ages overhaul of school is happening now.” Did you see that on the cover of the September 15 New York Times Magazine? I picked it up just as I started thinking about this blog post. I kept glancing back at it as I thought about why I believe teachers can and should play a dramatically larger role in policy leadership — in their own unions, in their school districts, and in their states. To equip all children to succeed in a knowledge economy, we need teachers front and center in policy design.
Eduwonk has been my ‘must stop’ check in on education policy for almost a decade. In the two years I’ve been building New Voice Strategies, I’ve hardly found an ed policy advocate who doesn’t use Eduwonk as an essential source. Yet, precious few teachers have ever even heard of Eduwonk. What’s going on? How can we policy advocates be so isolated from the professionals who actually do the work?
Headlines like the one in the New York Times are part of the problem. We all share a sense of urgency to drive improvement in our schools in the face of a global knowledge economy. And our track record at lasting systemic change is no comfort. We have to look back a good 150 years for a model. And, too often, teachers experience that urgency as another fad, new directive, or some other outside demand. Why? Because not enough teachers are part of the policy creation conversation from the outset.
We’ve been accused of talking too much and doing too little. Fair enough. I think policy wonk-dom is filled with a whole lot of talking, often to familiar friends, and not much listening. Blogs are especially likely to reflect this listening dearth — snarky comments are way more frequent than reflective, substantive responses or action plans. In the meantime, teachers are busy in their classrooms working with students, filling out paperwork, interpreting the latest impenetrable bureaucratic mandate, putting out a fire. Yet, without their expertise, professional training, and thoughtful input on implementation of any policy, the policy is likely to fail.
That’s the nut we’re trying to crack — how to bring teachers into the center of policy-making without taking them away from their jobs and without piling on yet another task to their overflowing plate. The VIVA Idea Exchange uses the best of peer networking and technology to give teachers opportunities for collaboration that can dramatically change the value and impact of policy and, yes, influence their classroom practice. No, we’re not aiming for some invisible hand to control teachers’ every decision. Instead, we’re doing something about teachers’ isolation and marginalization.
The VIVA Idea Exchange strengthens existing peer connections and builds new ones. Now, a teacher in suburban Minneapolis and a teacher in International Falls can collaborate and advise the state education commissioner on how to evaluate teachers. Then, they can continue their relationship and work on lesson planning, literacy instruction, and tackling specific instructional needs of their students. Teachers in different neighborhoods in Chicago can share ideas at three o’clock in the morning about the implications of the inevitable longer school day and how to design it to work best for their students and their professional needs. Two strong-willed, opinionated teachers, who would never encounter each other were it not for the opportunity to collaborate online, reached a meeting of the minds on how to reshape the school calendar. And, now they each have new classroom strategies because of their newly forged professional relationship.
Yet, we can only do so much. If policy makers and politicians approach conversation with teachers as a public relations stunt, another opportunity to spin their message, or a tactic in negotiations, all the teacher talk in the world will add up to not much. It’s going to take listening by leaders to put teachers in the center of the policy making process. At New Voice Strategies, we don’t choose sides, we choose listeners. We’ve had the good fortune to work with, among others, the statewide union leaders in Massachusetts, Minnesota and Iowa, charter advocates in Arizona and New Jersey, and superintendents in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Minneapolis. They sometimes differ dramatically on fundamental issues of how to make public schools work for students. What they all do agree on: there’s great power and promise in finding new ways to bring classroom teachers into policy making, that re-shaping the role of teachers in policy making will strengthen their classroom practices, and they are willing to gamble on an unconventional approach because they feel the urgency to improve opportunities for learning for more students.
Teachers need an invitation to the table. They also need time to tap into their expertise, collaborate with peers, and come up with workable solutions. That’s what VIVA is offering teachers: a new channel for leadership, a broadened platform to get what they need to succeed with students, and a new megaphone to replace the simplistic headlines that lead to simplistic, ineffective solutions.