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William Ferriter Headshot

Adding Practitioners To Policy Conversations

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Far be it from me to rock any boats, but every time education's current thought leaders decide to make major proclamations about my profession, I get a wicked case of the Poli-willies.

Now, I know what some of y'all are thinking: "Here's another classroom teacher trying to protect the status quo in the American schoolhouse. He doesn't care about solutions because solutions mean his cushy job is going to change. That's why we need thinkers from beyond the traditional educational establishment to bring fresh thinking to bear on the challenges that are keeping our kids from succeeding."

And don't get me wrong: I know full-well that people like Davis Guggenheim, Bill Gates, Oprah, Michelle Rhee and all the kind folks at NBC's Education Nation are incredibly bright and talented. It's just plain difficult for a dullard to make it anywhere in today's world, let alone to the top of a very short list of influential leaders, media moguls and gabillionaires.

But I've been around for a long time -- and if there's one thing I've learned, it's that being an influential leader and/or a billionaire doesn't automatically mean that you can identify, fund and support educational solutions that make any sense.

The sad truth is that the merit pay programs, large scale privatization plans and coercive accountability models that are currently the reform du jour in today's conversations about "saving America's schools" aren't going to work. They don't respect what we know about knowledge-based workers, they drive good teachers away from the classrooms where they're needed the most, and they result in rigid adherence to instructional practices that are failing our students.

So where do we go from here? How do we fix a system that is failing thousands of children every year? Which solutions are worth pursuing and which should be pitched?

There's no easy answers to those questions -- especially when pinched budgets force us to make uncomfortable choices, political forces make productive conversations almost impossible, and unique local contexts make one-size-fits-all solutions impractical.

Our first step should be to bring more full-time practitioners to the policy-making table.

Principals like Chris Lehmann of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia are successfully redefining what school leadership looks like in action and teachers like Renee Moore -- who has spent the majority of her career working with the poorest students in the Mississippi delta -- have first-hand experiences with the challenges facing schools in high needs communities.

David Cohen understands how educational policies translate to union settings. Dan Brown knows the benefits that charter schools bring to the American system. Ariel Sacks lends valuable insights on the best strategies for recruiting and retaining new teachers.

My point is a simple one: Principals and teachers posses the kind of first-hand experiences necessary for translating educational policies into practice. We can spot the kinds of inevitable glitches that consistently plague reform efforts if you'll give us a chance. Instead of underestimating what we know, add our voices to your conversations.

We care about solutions, too. But we're tired of dealing with the inevitable wreckage that comes every time poorly planned solutions are forced on our schools.