Policy and Practice: Why Teacher Voice Matters

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.

8 Replies to “Policy and Practice: Why Teacher Voice Matters”

  1. I agree, Elizabeth. For a long time those of us in the schools found it hard to bring about lasting change because state and federal policies did not support such actions. I personally witnessed meaningful change embraced by teachers, principals and parents dismantled by changing leadership. It is no wonder that teachers are cautious to invest precious time and energy on new initiatives!

    Now, policy supports change more than at any other time since the beginning of “school reform”. However, there is considerable concern (and rightly so) for the integrity of implementation. How do you translate broad, theoretical policies into actionable sequences? There are examples of successful designs struggling to survive in districts across the country. These designs have been created by educators who want to solve the issues within their profession. Working in bureaucracies that are not conducive to these efforts, these educators need policy makers, administrators, teacher unions and parent groups to recognize and support their efforts. To bring these designs to scale financial and administrative support is necessary.

    How can these educators get noticed and supported? When do these programs move out of probationary status and have the chance to sustain?

  2. Working in a traditional public school, or charter school for that matter has many restrictions. I think too often what does not happen in the consideration of developing educational designs that do the most good for our children are the rabid politics associated with the creation of any change that instructors, administrators, and staff want to make and the non participatory attitudes of the controllers of our educational system and I think we know who they are. It is very easy to talk about instituting student-friendly curriculum and developing schools that are informed by many of the strategies and philosophies that I happen to be studying presently in a graduate school course for a Masters in Education, but the day to day reality of working in public education brings challenges that many administrators and instructors don’t address because they are just trying to keep their jobs and change is not something they believe they have the power to make.

  3. All the politicians need to come and just sit in a classroom for at least a week just to see what a teacher have to go through. They contently make up the rules about what we have to teach without thinking about how we are going to teach and implement it in the classroom. I wish that they would just leave us alone and let us do what we are there for.

  4. I definitely agree with you C. Renae! I think these politicians need to come sit in a classroom and see what goes on throughout the day. It is easy to create new standards and tests, but, implementing them with these rigorous standards is completely different. I agree that they should leave us alone and let us do what we are great at. It is almost like they are taking the fun out of teaching. They keep changing the standards and changing the evaluation tools to make it seem more complicated. Unfortunately, change occurs frequently and we have to deal with it the best way we can.

  5. I agree with everyone that has responded. I think it is crazy that these politicians keep making all these educational changes, but they have not experienced a true classroom. The teaching profession seems to be getting harder and the expectations keep getting higher and higher. Kids do not have time to actually be kids because days are jam packed with curriculum. We had GLCEs, now it is Common Core, but I am sure that within a few years things will be added or changed to the State Standards and what is expected from the students and teachers. It seems that the more that is changed, the more work teachers seem to have, even though the changes are supposed to make our lives “easier.” Teachers are extremely important to our society and have a major impact on kids, but we aren’t viewed as “important” by everyone. I love being a positive role model to kids and using my time to impact the lives of my students. I enjoy teaching, but it gets stressful and frustrating that all the “stuff” that is thrown a teacher’s way. I just wish that teachers had more support from more people.

  6. I cannot even begin to express how much this entry means to me. I have always felt that the people doing the work should have just as much say, if not more, as the other people involved in creating policies. If teachers considered professionals, why not trust us to make decisions that will ultimately help the children in our classrooms? We see these students every day. We know what they need. Everything seems to be about money these days and we adopt and use these items because of things that are seemingly more important than the reason schools exist in the first place, student learning.

  7. Being a teacher is a great responsibility. Aside from what the standards are, and what district goals require, we deal with an immense amount of issues throughout our busy days. I teach kindergarten, so I have everything from crying, hurt feelings, shoe tying, parent phone calls/emails/notes, “he hurt me”, etc. And the list continues.
    Those that have the authority often do not know what it takes to be in the classroom, and have that responsibility. I think it’s easy for those with power to tell those under them what to do without even knowing what the reality is. I agree with previous posts that those who hold the power (even district administration), need to join us in the classroom for an eye-opening experience of reality… Because, they are the ones that really need it in order to make decisions that are appropriate for kids!

  8. Being a first year teacher, I can imagine the level of discomfort many veteran teachers have faced being introduced with so many changes in curriculum (or as it has been labeled more recently, “shifts”). I agree with Jeff that politicians should consider observing and interacting in classrooms, collaborative planning and faculty meetings, keeping in mind the day to day issues, hours of instructional time, and specific state mandates we are faced with. Too often, teachers are merely “introduced” to new policies and expected to perform exceptionally immediately. Something seems wrong, when a state is deciding whether or not to keep a set of State Standards or redesign them and there is less than 3% of teachers’ voices being heard. Teachers have the responsibility of growing students despite their individual challenges, such as cultural background, academic levels, and behavior; therefore, shouldn’t we also have the authority to make the appropriate choices for how to best serve our students?

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