fresh voices from the front lines of change







We were sitting in a Starbucks in Arlington, Va. It was our first meeting. Previously, Iowa governor Tom Vilsack and I had talked by phone and exchanged blog posts on education. His campaign staff had reached out to a number of educational bloggers, as he was seriously considering running for president and thought education was a good issue for him. Since he was going to be in my neighborhood, we agreed to get together.

At one point I mentioned that the governors had just had a meeting on education, and he nodded. I remarked that each had brought a business leader to the meeting. The governor nodded again. And then I asked, “Why didn’t you bring a teacher?"

The governor was surprised, and acknowledged he had never thought of it.

That was in 2005. The nation’s governors had a meeting to talk about education and the voices of teachers had not been included.

That was not unusual, and would not be unusual today. For too long, for too many discussions when people converse about our schools and our students, somehow the voices of those who are most intimately familiar with the issues of teaching and education are not part of the process. As a result, one might argue that our plans to improve public education are flawed, perhaps even damaging.

I come to this subject from an unusual perspective. Unlike many teachers, I have been able to get my voice heard and my perspective included at levels ranging from policies in my individual school to conversations with members of the House and Senators who do not represent me.

But mine is only one voice.

There are many other voices, some of which have been included but far too many excluded in the making of the decisions driving our educational policy, nationally, within the states and in local districts. There are examples where it has been included. This includes teacher evaluation and compensation in Denver. It includes those teachers who have served as Teacher Ambassadors in the U. S. Department of Education. It includes state and local Teachers of the Year to whom the relevant departments have turned as resources.

But being included at the table may not matter if the voice is not listened to. Former National Teacher of the Year Anthony Mullen has addressed this during his tenure as the voice of the nation’s teachers. In this blog post he wrote:

Teachers are being left out of the process of designing national standards and this is a recipe for disaster. Committees comprised of government officials, academics, and policy makers form an incomplete framework without the support of teachers. Teachers, after all, will be expected to implement the standards once adopted. The malformed thought that teachers should not play an integral role in helping develop national standards is just that: a malformed thought. I can feel a palpable anger when standing next to teachers who feel ignored and marginalized by the committees designing national standards. 
It’s time to let teachers help right a wobbly table.

But perhaps more pertinent is what he experienced, and about which he wrote, in the event where he begins his blog post:

I am a fly on the wall sitting at a table. Seated at a round table are three state governors, one state senator, a Harvard professor and author, and a strange little man who assumes the role of group moderator.

After he listens to them discuss for some time what needs to be done about education, he is finally asked what he thinks. Please note his words, which I quote extensively:

Where do I begin? I spent the last thirty minutes listening to a group of arrogant and condescending non-educators disrespect my colleagues and profession. I listened to a group of disingenuous people whose own self-interests guide their policies rather than the interests of children. I listened to a cabal of people who sit on national education committees that will have a profound impact on classroom teaching practices. And I heard nothing of value.

"I'm thinking about the current health care debate," I said. "And I am wondering if I will be asked to sit on a national committee charged with the task of creating a core curriculum of medical procedures to be used in hospital emergency rooms."

The strange little man cocks his head and, suddenly, the fly on the wall has everyone's attention.

"I realize that most people would think I am unqualified to sit on such a committee because I am not a doctor, I have never worked in an emergency room, and I have never treated a single patient. So what? Today I have listened to people who are not teachers, have never worked in a classroom, and have never taught a single student tell me how to teach."

An uneasy silence cloaks the table. The governor from the South looks at his watch, the governor from the North bows his head, the governor from the Midwest stirs his coffee, the diminutive senator stares at me, and the strange little man grabs another strawberry. One by one the lunch guests leave the table. 

I return to being a fly on a wall at a table.
I wonder how many other teachers have been treated in such a manner.

It is not that teachers cannot express, verbally or in writing, their understanding of what needs to be changed in their profession. I am far from alone in being a notable education blogger who approaches things from the perspective of the classroom.

What I – and many other teachers – would like to see happen is that the voices of teachers would become more audible, to demonstrate the difference that it makes when teachers voice is included.

It might help were there a systematic study of how teachers are included and excluded in the shaping of educational policy. Such a study would almost certainly be more qualitative than quantitative, but there are enough examples of teachers who have been allowed to participate in the policy process. Perhaps we might then better understand why the inclusion of teacher voice tends to lead to more effective policies. It would be a start if teachers who have been allowed such participation were given the opportunity to share their experiences, including the difficulties encountered.
Not all teachers want to take the responsibility for the making of policy. Some prefer to keep their heads down and simply do what they can to improve the lives of their students.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that increasingly teachers feel disrespected, as Anthony Mullen noted. As a result, they are not offering the insight and experience that might be the difference between successful educational policy reforms and simply doing more damage to our schools and especially our students.

It is not that teachers have not tried. I point to my friends Anthony Cody and Nancy Flanagan, who have pulpits at Education Week where they offer not only their own insights but also those of other educators. Anthony, Nancy and I were among the organizers of the 2011 Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action. More than 7,000 teachers, parents, university professors and students came to the Ellipse in Washington to hear from experts and activists, march around the White House, and hold a conference to advance a different perspective from “reformers” who advance an agenda that in many ways is anti-teacher and conceivably hostile to the best interest of students. That is an agenda that advocates for charters and ever more reliance upon mass-produced tests, even though there is no research base supporting the vast majority of the “reforms” they have succeeded in imposing upon America’s public schools.

Occasionally those of us who are better known are called by reporters, as I was a year ago by a new education reporter in a western city writing about the 10th anniversary of No Child Left Behind. She at least wanted to hear the voice of a teacher on the subject. I was happy to offer mine, but one voice is insufficient.

One role journalism has often played is to expose to the larger audience wrongs that need righting in our society. Some of our most important and significant journalism has been when readers or viewers are made aware of injustices, of people being excluded. Whether it was Jacob Riis writing about “How the Other Half Lives” or Dana Priest, Anne Hull and Michel du Cille informing the nation of the shocking conditions to which our veterans were subject at Walter Reed, telling a story with a point of view can be a powerful form of journalism. In television journalism, think of the power and impact of a documentary such as Edward R. Murrow’s “Harvest of Shame.”

I do not presume that I write with the power of any of the aforementioned outstanding journalists. I do know my topic, because I am immersed in it as a teacher who tries to find time to have an impact upon educational policy outside of my classroom. I have, over the more than 17 years I have been in the classroom, gotten to know many who similarly try to ensure that the teacher voice is heard. Some of them have been journalists. I have been fortunate to have my voice included in more than few pieces by Jay Mathews and to have my words repeated in the blog of Valerie Strauss. Many others are themselves teachers who have walked similar or parallel paths. Others I know only through reading their words, as I have read the words of Anthony Mullen. Through our writings, through those journalists who will feature our work, we are sometimes able to broaden people’s understanding of the reality of teaching and the classroom.

Unfortunately, when it comes to education, teaching and schools, most of the writers on the beat lack the background to understand the topic for which they are supposed to serve as the conduit through which ordinary folks come to understand the important issues about education. The Education Writers Association is the trade organization for those in the media who write about educational issues. For one of their conferences a dozen educational bloggers were invited to participate. I was at a table with three other bloggers and about a dozen reporters and editorial writers on the educational beat. I asked how many of the people there could accurately describe/define each of the following:

  • Reggio Emelia
  • Campbell’s Law
  • Simpson’s Paradox
  • Zone of Proximal Development

All of these are important concepts in education, and part of what is wrong is that none of the journalists at that table could describe all four, and only one of them had even heard of all four.

In case you are wondering, Reggio Emelia is a town in Italy which developed the world’s best early childhood education program. Campbell’s Law, promulgated by Donald Campbell in the 1970s, tells us that the greater the weight we place on any social indicator the less real value it has – an important concept when we raise the stakes on tests, for example. Simpson’s Paradox describes the statistical anomaly that disaggregated groups can each improve their score on some measure but if the proportion of the lower scoring group is increased the overall average score drops. The Zone of Proximal Development is the key concept of Lev Vygotsky and an important idea in the constructivist approach to education. Simply put, it is the idea that the maximum real learning occurs when a student is pushed beyond her comfort zone but not so far that she cannot, with support, achieve the task before her.

There are some cases where the voice of teachers is included. This is far more common at the local level. For instance, at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, prospective teachers are interviewed by a panel that includes multiple teachers and only one administrator. While I taught in Prince George’s County public schools, the panel on designing how teacher evaluation would be tied to student assessment included one elementary and one secondary teacher as well as high-ranking systemwide administrators, people from the testing office and other key constituencies within the system. Last school year, one of the Teacher Ambassadors at the U.S. Department of Education, Genevieve DuBose, persuaded 50 senior staff of the department – most of whom had never themselves been classroom teachers – to go spend at least half a day shadowing D.C. public school teachers. My friend Dan Brown wrote about the program in this blog post.

While this is a useful approach, would it not make sense to include selected teachers at all steps in the process of making educational policy? After all, it is teachers who we will depend on to carry out the policies we design. So perhaps it might make sense to listen to what they have to say before we make major commitments of time and resources.
We hear many voices saying they value teachers, that an outstanding teacher can make a major difference. Many of us are familiar with the words offered by Henry Adams who said, “A teacher affects eternity. He can never tell where his influence stops.”

We teachers are aware that our influence can be both positive and negative. To be certain that it is positive, we need to have our voices heard as educational policy is being formed. And yet, for too long, teachers have been forced when they are allowed to speak to do so in a frame that is not authentic. In my conversation with the reporter, she began a question by framing it in terms of “accountability,” and I immediately stopped her. Those of us who take teaching seriously dislike that word because it implies that we would not care nor act responsibly towards our students absent some outside measure. To a teacher, that is a wrong mindset, an improper frame that loses sight of the students for whom we are responsible.

It is precisely that different mindset which is why so many of us believe in the importance of including the voice of teachers. Or as Anthony Mullen put it so cogently, “It’s time to let teachers help right a wobbly table.”

Kenneth J. Bernstein is a schoolteacher and a blogger whose work appears on Daily Kos and other sites.

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