Public Agenda
Commentary

How To Boost Teacher Voice In Policy

Allison Rizzolo and Ellen Behrstock-Sherratt

Reprinted from Education Week - August 16, 2013


In just a couple of months, the Badass Teachers Association, a new teacher-advocacy group dedicated to productive discourse that improves the teaching profession, has made a deep impression on the education reform community and seen its ranks explode. Its members-only Facebook group now numbers more than 20,000. If this isn’t a sign that teachers are aching to have their voices heard, we’re not sure what is. But to truly have an impact on education policy, advocating for a seat at the table is just step one in a long, arduous, yet essential path.

Given their proximity to the issues, teachers should be leading discussions with their colleagues on education reform. They should also be engaging with other key stakeholders, including principals, superintendents, and parents, in robust explorations about possible approaches.

Asserting one’s voice among the powerful elite of advocates, lobbyists, policymakers, foundations, and others may seem like a daunting challenge. Yet getting a seat at the table is not the only challenge teachers will face: Working with colleagues, administrators, parents, and policymakers to address complex, divisive issues like teacher performance and struggling schools will be monumentally hard work.

Many teachers are already engaging their colleagues and informing policy, and they’re doing it very well. In working with those who have forged the way on productive engagement, we’ve witnessed and encountered many of the challenges that arise after gaining entry into the conversation. Anticipating such challenges, and knowing some practices for overcoming them, can facilitate better engagement that results in policies that truly benefit teaching and learning.

First, it’s critical to ensure that the perspectives of all teachers are included. The push to include 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, a number of grassroots teacher-voice organizations have sprouted, including Educators 4 Excellence, Teach Plus, and VIVA Teachers. The new Badass Teachers Association casts the net even wider.

Yet for all the talk of “teacher voice,” we must bear in mind that teachers in fact have many different voices, perspectives, and concerns—and these all deserve a place at the table. As the Center for American Progress put it in a report released in June: “Teacher voice is not monolithic.”

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 topics like teacher evaluation and common-core implementation. Yet the best, most sustainable policy is designed when all perspectives are included.

Last month at a meeting 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 offer huge benefits to the field, but we must be mindful to include the “regular classroom teacher” in the conversation as well.

To achieve diverse, inclusive teacher participation in policy development and implementation, teachers will need to reach out to those among their colleagues who may not have had a stake in the policy debate before and to those who hold opinions different from their own.

Teachers and others must also navigate tough, emotional conversations. Issues like teacher evaluation and preparation, performance-based compensation, instruction, and classroom management are often deeply personal, emotionally fraught, politically heated, and, in some respects, mind-bogglingly complex. Leading conversations around them is a challenging role to embrace, and even participating in them may seem like a bad idea. What’s to prevent the discussion from stagnating into exhausting complaints or unraveling into cynical arguments?

One step to generating productive conversation is first providing space for an honest and frank exchange of views. Some venting can be helpful, though it’s important not to wallow in complaints and to move on to problem-solving as soon as possible. Identify which differences of opinion will weigh significantly when choosing a path forward, mark them to revisit at a later point, then refocus the conversation on solutions and move on.

Using a skilled, trained, and fair-minded moderator can also keep conversation productive and focused. An effective moderator does not allow his or her opinion to interrupt the flow of the conversation and is comfortable with an open dialogue without a predetermined conclusion. Participants should also be confident in their moderator’s lack of bias. Identifying and supporting effective moderators may take some time investment, but participants will in all likelihood end up having a much more productive conversation.

To move forward, all players will need to establish common ground and determine acceptable compromises. Even when a conversation stays on track and is solutions-focused, how can participants identify common ground? How can they navigate those issues which are—and will in all likelihood remain—in contention? How do they actually pinpoint the solutions that seem workable to everyone and the ones that will most likely end up on the cutting-room floor?

One concrete approach that we’ve seen transform endless debate into robust dialogue and solutions is Choicework, a methodology developed by Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation and based on theory and research from the social scientist Daniel Yankelovich.

The premise of Choicework is basic: When people are presented with three or four concrete, real-world approaches to a problem, they have an easier time grounding the discussion as they explore the pros and cons of different paths forward. In using such an approach, a few things commonly happen among discussion participants:

  • They come to accept that there are no easy answers. Tough problems will require considerable thought and possibly a measure of compromise.
  • They begin to empathize with those who hold opposite views. Even if they will never embrace those views themselves, they understand why opponents think the way they do.
  • They realize their own preferred approaches often have trade-offs they may not have acknowledged before.
  • They overcome denial and wishful thinking and gain a clear sense of what’s worth compromising on and what isn’t.

A face-to-face dialogue moderated by a neutral facilitator is usually best, but the key discussion principles can be used in a variety of situations. Generally, in approaching and designing a discussion, it’s beneficial to focus on helping participants grasp the concrete possible approaches and generating empathy and understanding through dialogue. Such an approach is more likely to yield workable solutions and to reach resolution more quickly than alternative avenues.