In the fall of 1993, the United States Department of Education (under Richard Riley, Secretary of Education) held what was intended to be the first annual National Teacher Forum. Organized by Terry Dozier, Special Assistant to the Secretary, state Teachers of the Year and their chosen outstanding teacher partners were invited to Washington D.C. to discuss how to bring the teacher voice into policymaking.
I’ve been to lots of conferences and seminars, but few impacted my life as a teacher leader more than the first National Teacher Forum. I can remember, verbatim, phrases—Honor what we know!—and aphorisms we used: Teachers want to be partners in, not objects of, education policy.
The idea of teachers at the policy-making table was downright thrilling. We deserved to be at the table—in fact, it was our table. Our contributions could make a huge difference in policy around student learning and public school organization. We had answers to education’s persistent questions. Ask us!
We were all assigned a partner in the US Department of Education. We went to workshops (this was where I first heard of National Board Certification). We networked with the legislators and bureaucrats who were making policy around the work we did every day. We were encouraged to start our own state forums for accomplished teachers. Best of all, we started something few of us had heard of before this: an online bulletin board and discussion group. I was a moderator of that group—and still have many professional friends from that time.
I wish I could give you links so you could explore this wonderful program, and read the publications that resulted, but an hour of googling and a scouring of ed.gov have yielded zero information on the Forums (there were eight—the entire initiative and its published results were taken down in 2001, as No Child Left Behind turned education policy in a vastly different direction). I found two publications—Teachers Lead the Way, from the 1997 Forum, and a reprint of the 1994 Forum document, Prisoners of Time, which was apparently (and ironically) co-opted by the Education Commission of the States.
I share all this to illustrate the fact that teachers have long been interested in controlling their own professional work, and willing to share their expertise and perspectives with policymakers. Personally, I’ve been involved in several initiatives to bring teachers to various policy tables. After the National Teacher Forums bit the dust, State Teachers of the Year organized themselves—and even proposed Teachers at the Table legislation (which went nowhere). The idea keeps bubbling up.
Point being: the only people who think having a substantive teacher voice in education policymaking is a great idea are teachers. And, of course, their state and national unions—who represent the broad outlines of teacher-friendly policy via lobbying and advocacy, and are wary of independent teachers proclaiming their teaching expertise makes them policy experts, as well.
Publications and media about the teacher voice haven’t shut down in the intervening 30 years. Independent blogging, non-profits and social media have elevated pieces about the necessity of asking teachers whether a Big Sexy Idea about how to ‘fix’ issues in public education will work (usually, no) and what might actually improve teaching and learning.
In short, as Jose Vilson says in his TED Master Class, no conversation about education should happen without the teacher voice front and center.
But—as with all things in education—there are caveats in thinking that gathering a group of teachers (even award-winning teachers) and asking for their policy ideas would be the fastest way to better schools.
Teachers aren’t trained to do policy creation and analysis. They can tell you, in excruciating detail, what bad policy does to student learning in their context. But good policy is written with measurable goals and specific outcomes in mind, accompanied by the supports and spurs that will get us there. It requires imagining not only happy results but unintended consequences.
Policy is not (exclusively) mandates and incentives. Sometimes, it involves capacity-building, persuasion—or overt systemic change, which takes time and accrued data to analyze. Regularly asking teachers to comment on the changes wrought by policy shifts ought to be a no-brainer, however. Acting on educators’ feedback would be even better.
Here’s an example: My state instituted a third-grade retention law in 2016, wherein students who didn’t meet the third-grade standard for reading proficiency would be held back—a mandate, taking away a decision that had always been made by teachers and parents. Half the states in the nation now have similar policies—and politicized policymaking has made other states feel they need to crack down on those lazy eight year-olds.
It’s a terrible policy, for dozens of reasons, beginning with its target audience and punitive nature. In six years, it hasn’t yielded anything beyond angst and anger, much of which has been directed at teachers and schools, not clueless (or, sadly, vindictive) lawmakers.
The good news here is that MI Governor Whitmer seems poised to sign a bill repealing the third-grade retention mandate. Nevada’s repealed theirs, too. The MI bill’s sponsor, Senator Dayna Polehanki, is a former teacher. A Michigan Teacher of the Year, Leah Porter, testified in hearings.
There’s a role for teachers in examining and fine-tuning education policy—and a strong need for teachers to run for public office to share their experience and expertise. As we said, at the 1993 National Teacher Forum: Honor what we know.
Oh, teacher are at the table, all right.
We’re the entree.
Yeah. In many contexts, I would agree.
If you had asked me 30 years ago whether the teacher at the table was a viable idea, I would have predicted a steadily increasing teacher voice in policy. In fact, I think that in the 90s, teachers were steadily building influence and organizational structure. I see the great turnaround as the 2000 election, which triggered ‘accountability’ and standardization.
Agreed. But t you’re right that we NEED to be discussing and helping to create policy. But trust in teachers has sadly evaporated. Thanks for the article.