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Elizabeth Hampton

Elizabeth Hampton

Posted: February 9, 2011 12:07 PM

Education Policy: Letting Teachers in on the Conversation


It's a rare occasion when you find someone with little to say about education. Everyone, it seems, has a finger to point, two cents to toss in or a soap box upon which they must stand and be heard.

This is completely understandable. Not every American can speak knowledgeably on the political backdrop catapulting unrest in the Middle East. Even fewer (some politicians included) can deftly navigate the health care debate. But if you're a citizen of this country, you have likely spent time in a school building and therefore, when it comes to education, you've darn well got something to say.

Amid the cacophony of opinions, there is one set of voices I think we need to hear more from: teachers.

From academia to politics, the views and decisions driving education policy are frequently devoid of educator input. As such, the individuals who yield greatest influence on what happens in our schools are not actually in our schools. This schism causes an unproductive separation between what should happen and what does happen. Too often, teachers are bound to policies and demands that they disagree with. Moreover, the philosophical approaches to our education system are frequently incongruous with what's realistic.

If it were up to teachers, the profile of the American education system would look starkly different. People who haven't worked in a classroom have a justifiably different outlook on how to address the needs of schools. Take, for example, Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America. Kopp has turned TFA into an educational dynasty and in many low-income or urban areas her program has been influential in putting young teachers into the classroom. Unfortunately, this organization, which gets its members from top colleges and universities, only asks for a two-year teaching commitment. After that, the organization has systems in place to assist graduates in the pursuit for other work. If you're reading between the lines, "other work" translates into more prestigious, better paying jobs.

Kopp has never taught a day in her life. Yet, when describing how to "fix" education in America, she exudes nothing short of unabashed confidence. Had Kopp spent anytime actually teaching, she might understand that a constant influx of new teachers purports a culture of instability. And kids are not big fans of instability. I think if TFA had been designed by a classroom teacher, its mission would be very different.

If teachers had a voice in policy decisions, there would likely be a modification to our current system of student assessment. Many educators cringe at the thought of standardized testing. How is it, then, that testing culture has only become more deeply ingrained in the composition of our education system? Policy makers who push for more testing (and teacher evaluations based on testing), have probably never watched the agonizing sight of a child who is struggling to complete a standardized exam.

The debate on overhauling tenure is another area in which teachers' voices are persistently absent. Yes, we need tenure reform, but the rhetoric around this issue is inundated with negative portrayals of veteran teachers. They're overpaid, insolent and begrudging our children the education they deserve -- so the charge goes. As we push for tenure reform, we need not fuel divisiveness between young (cheap) and experienced (expensive) teachers. Instead, let's take the proverbial wart from our veteran teachers' noses. Many of the experienced educators at my school are extremely hard workers and have nothing short of unflappable dedication for their students.

Educators conceptualize the needs of schools and children differently than those outside of the profession. It's easy for a spectator to overlook the unforeseeable hiccups and realities that we face each day. As such, it's easy to take on the role of expert and jump to misinformed conclusions. It brings to mind the adage about walking a mile in a man's shoes before your really know him: perhaps until you've stood at the helm of a classroom, it's unfair to pass judgment on this profession.

How can the voices of teachers be heard? Teacher-driven research and academic research need to form a partnership. When theory meets practice, the results will be far more applicable and realistic. Additionally, teachers need to take part in the conversations that drive policy. Lately, it seems our voices are only heard in the context of embroiled union battles. We can do better than that.

But for any of this to work, the public needs to respect and value what teachers have to say. We are not the bad guys here. In fact, many of us got into this profession (which is not so glamorous, even with summers off) because we care about and want to work with kids. It's time to elicit our opinions and advice.

We're in the classroom everyday -- we might just have an idea of what our schools and students need.