11 April 2014

Hot and Steamy...Policy?

I've spent a few years watching the policy sausage get made. It isn't pretty. On the train home from a recent conference, a college professor asked me if I miss the classroom and why I keep working where I do. The answer to the first question is easy: I do. The second answer is more complicated, but a major factor is that there are very few teachers in my role---and I think that decisions made at the state level about classrooms should include a teacher's voice. Actually, I think it should include lots of teachers' voices, but policy is not a particularly arousing endeavor.

But you don't need to leave the classroom for the cube farm to have an impact on educational policy. And you don't have to go to Washington DC, either, to make a difference. So, in this post, I'll give you a few ideas to get you started. And in the next one, we'll take a look at why even small steps can be so very powerful.

Legislators know that teachers are voters. Maybe that sounds obvious, but let's face it, a lot of people who can vote don't choose to do so. But educators take their responsibility seriously. Make the phone call, send the email, or write the letter about an issue that's important to you. When you make contact, you remind them that you vote and they are accountable to that.
  • Identify the correct level of government that can make the decision. Don't like standardized testing? You can talk to someone at the federal level, but I can pretty much guarantee you that won't lead anywhere. Having said that, there are still things you can do to change outcomes if you can't have an effect at the source.
  • This leads to point two: pick your battles wisely. You have to be realistic. For example, your state legislator will know (or a staffer will remind them) that having tests is tied to federal funding---so a legislator will not eliminate them. However, they do have power over how the results of state tests are used. Does your state have policies around graduation requirements, funding formulas, or other areas tied to testing? They don't have to. Put your pressure there. You're not going to get rid of big tests. You can get rid of bad policy around how they're used.
Don't want to chat with the yahoos at the state capital? Work more locally, then. Meet with the mayor or send an email to a city council member. Sure, they don't make policy around testing (for example), but they are in regular contact with those who do. Share your opinion and experience. You might be surprised how interested others can be and where your words are repeated and shared.
  •  Be patient. Policy making is glacial. Not only does it take a long time for something to be put in place...it can take even longer to get rid of it. (Just look at NCLB...now nearly a decade past when it was to be reauthorized, but no one will touch it.) But don't mistake the lack of complete resolution to your request to represent inaction. 
  • One passionate squeaky person raises the awareness and ideas in a lot of other people. Part of my role, for example, is to advocate for our small districts. They don't have a designated person for their needs in the agency. Instead, I spend a lot of time adding "What about the little schools?" to conversations. Sometimes, that's met with "Meh." But more and more as of late, I get people telling me their stories along the lines of "I thought of you when I was talking to x about education topic y and said we needed to remember how to address what this looks like in small schools." Equity for small schools is starting to be normalized as people talk about policy. It doesn't mean those schools will see something different tomorrow, but it means there are a lot more people who will start to address them directly. Speak  up. Speak often. Even if it's just a question you raise during a hallway conversation. Put your $.02 in as consistently as you can.
Don't want to go to the mountain? You can always invited policy people to come to you. If you're convinced your legislator is clueless about what happens in a classroom...give them a clue. Ask them to come hang out for a day (or a class period). I never hear of EdCamps or other local events that actively recruit policy people. Instead, I hear attendees whine about how "they [policy wonks] don't get it." We're teachers. Why not take advantage of our skills and educate them? If you can't get your legislative representative, grab their staffer. S/He is likely the one feeding the opinions to the rep, anyway. Reach out and get the power behind the throne on your side. Again, work at local levels, if you need to.

Policy work isn't attractive to most educators. I know I don't find it sexy. However, it's important to remember that this is public education. I don't doubt for a moment that teachers are the most critical component in affecting student learning, but they are not the only part in the system. Closing the classroom door and complaining about the rest of the education world will change nothing. Make something happen. Make policy part of your work.


Hugh O'Donnell said...

SG, you've nailed it. May I quote you in toto (with appropriate citation, of course)?

Thank you for articulating a most important professional obligation.

The Science Goddess said...

I'm sure that whatever you add to this post will only be an improvement! :)