A version of this commentary was published in Education Week. For practical resources that teachers can use to lead discussions on evaluation reform, check out Everyone at the Table.
The push to involve teachers in policy design and implementation is not new. Teachers' unions historically have served as (sometimes the only) mouthpiece for teachers in policy. In the past five years, other kinds of grassroots teacher-voice organizations have sprouted too, including Educators 4 Excellence, Teach Plus, and VIVA Teachers.
As the school year commences, how can teachers and principals leverage the growing interest in teacher voice to improve teacher engagement at their own schools?
Many teachers can probably already think of a few colleagues in their school or district who are ready to jump at the chance to discuss, say, teacher evaluation and common-core implementation. But what do the other teachers think? The most sustainable policy is the one that is based on the widest range of perspectives. Teachers and education leaders should reach out to include those sidelined from the policy debate and to those who hold opinions different from their own.
At a meeting this summer of state teachers of the year, Philip Bigler, the 1998 national teacher of the year, said: "When I was a regular classroom teacher, nobody wanted my opinion. ... Once I became the national teacher of the year, everyone wanted to speak to me and assumed I was an expert on everything. But even when I was a regular classroom teacher, I still had a lot to say." Teacher-leaders and advocates have many things of importance to say about teaching, but so do "regular classroom teachers."
When it comes to education reform, teachers and others have tough, emotional conversations ahead. Teacher evaluation and preparation, performance-based compensation, instruction, and classroom management, for instance, are often deeply personal, emotionally fraught, politically heated, and mind-bogglingly complex. Leading conversations around them is so challenging that it's tempting to sit some out.
To move forward, all players must determine common ground and acceptable compromises. Even when a conversation stays on track and focused on solutions, how can participants identify shared interests? How can they navigate contentions? How do they separate solutions that all will view as workable from those likely to fail upon implementation?
This will be hard work, but it will be worth it. It's also not unprecedented: Many teachers are already engaging their colleagues and informing policy, and they're doing it very well. The nation is facing many complex issues in education policy. Through an appreciation for teachers' experiences, insights, and ideas, and a commitment to genuine collaboration, teachers and education leaders can lead the way on meaningful education improvement.