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Response: Policymakers Need to 'Spend More Time Listening to Educators'

(This the first post in a four-part series)

The new "question-of-the-week" is:

What do you think are the most important things that many policy-makers don't understand about teachers, students, and schools?

Many officials who make education policy have no K-12 school experience—except for having been a student for twelve years when they were growing up. That knowledge gap can be a problem for teachers, our students, and their families.

This series will explore what key issues many policy-makers might not understand about teachers, students, and schools.

Today, Jennie Magiera, Dr. Sanée Bell, Amanda Koonlaba, Matthew A. Kraft, and Douglas Reeves share their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jennie, Sanée, and Amanda on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.


During my 19-year community organizing career prior to becoming a teacher 15 years ago, we used a framework that relates to this week's question. Our perspective was that problems existed for one of three reasons: Decision-makers either didn't know the problem existed; they knew it existed but didn't know how to solve it; or they knew it existed but had pressure on them not to solve it. In the first case, we just had to tell them about the problem. In the second case, we had to provide ideas and strategies for how to solve it. And in the last case, we had to organize the same or greater amount of pressure to get them to do the right thing.

We found that our concerns tended to exist because of a mix of those three reasons, and I suspect that might be the case with education issues, as well. But it all starts with us intiating contact—I don't know about you, but I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for a policy-maker to come visit me!

My quick nominations for the top three ideas about education that most policy-makers don't know are: how teachers can only influence approximately one-third of the factors related to student academic achievement; the fact that extrinsic motivation tends to work when encouraging mechanical tasks that require little creativity, but is unlikely to promote practices that require higher-order thinking skills; and, finally, that though "data" can be useful, it doesn't always tell the whole story. Instead, we must be data-informed, not data-driven.

Response From Jennie Magiera

Jennie Magiera, author of Courageous Edventures, is the Chief Program Officer for EdTechTeam focusing on diversity and equity in education. A White House Champion for Change, Apple Distinguished Educator, Google for Education Certified Innovator and TEDx Speaker, Jennie works to redefine teaching and learning through innovative new practices. Jennie is also passionate about redefining professional learning, having served on the Technical Working Group for the US Department of Education's National Educational Technology Plan and co-founding PLAYDATE and other conference concepts. You can follow Jennie at @MsMagiera and learn more about her at bit.ly/edventuresbook:

Here are three things I would like policy-makers to know:

(1) I have many well-intentioned family and friends who speak with authority on the topic of education because they experienced it for 13+ years as a student. To policy-makers making these same claims, I want them to consider this: the school experience from our youth was from the perspective of a student, not an educator.

I too thought I knew what to expect going into my first classroom on my first day of school. Afterall, I had experienced many first days of school myself as a student. I had even spent years preparing at university, completed student teaching. So I thought I was prepared. However the truth of the matter was that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. That first year was terrifying, exhilarating, exhausting, frustrating, empowering and must of all—surprising. Each year I spent teaching over the next decade I learned something new about the profession, about myself as an educator and about the system itself. I recently was asked by someone hoping to "break into" the world of education curriculum from another industry and was asked—what is the best way for me to get to know the needs of teachers? I replied: teach. Being a teacher is something that can't be captured in a movie, television show, blog post or book. It's something you have to experience to understand.

So, to policy-makers determining what's best for students and teachers—for those of you who have never served a group of students as a teacher of record—please spend more time listening to educators and truly hearing us.

(2) In addition to the above, the world has changed greatly since we were students. As such, so must our education system. The maxim of "it worked for me so it should work for them" does not hold true. We've grown as a society to better acknowledge and celebrate our diversity (although there is still much needed growth to be made here), we have developed new technologies to facilitate better learning opportunities and have learned more about developmental and learning sciences. The basis for what a learning environment should look and feel like cannot and should not be based on what we experienced as children.

(3) Not all schools are the same; not all teachers are the same; not all students are the same. Each school has its own culture, community and needs. Each teacher has her own areas of strength and growth. Each student has his own hopes, passions and curiosities. When considering policies, ask how it will affect the myriad of unique individuals who are a part of this system. When characterizing need—ask yourself if you're stereotyping a large group of schools and communities with a single story. Nigerian novelist and TEDx speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says "The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete." Are we using incomplete information to create broad understandings of our education system—especially in underserved communities—and then building binding policy based on those understandings?

So to the policy-makers here: Take time to collect more stories and build a more robust understanding for yourself. Come visit our schools. Come to the "inner city" of Chicago and sit with our students. Watch them progress, perform and play. Then see how policies can affect their lives—for better or for worse—and consider that impact when making your next decision.

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Response From Dr. Sanée Bell

Sanée Bell, Ed.D. is a middle school principal and adjunct professor who resides in Houston, Texas. She has experience as an elementary principal,  middle and high school teacher, and basketball coach. Dr. Bell recognizes her impact as a leader and uses her role to inspire, motivate, and empower others. Sanée shares her thoughts on leadership on her blog saneebell.com and via Twitter @SaneeBell:

Dear Policy Maker,

Leadership is about service. As a leader, we are not able to serve effectively if we are not present where the service takes place. As a policy leader, how often do you visit the schools located in the districts that you serve? When you visit, do you visit during the school day and interact with students, teachers, and administrators?

What you need to know is that we want you to visit our schools. We want to engage in conversation with you about the work that we do each day. We have things to share that will help you make the best decisions for the students and communities you serve. We care about policies and understand that as a democratic society that we need them, but we want to make sure that you know the faces and stories behind the policies you are proposing and passing.

Leadership is about being responsible and accountable. No policy will force educators into being responsible and accountable. When is the last time you took a test with high stakes? What test did you take to determine your proficiency as a policy maker? Since schools are judged and given letter grades for performance, isn't it fair to grade policy makers on the effectiveness of their policies.

The majority of educators in the business are in it for the right reason. Please stop questioning our motives, dedication, and purpose by putting policies in place that reinforce compliant inequity. We are on the same team, and we all want what is best for kids. Let's work together on behalf of the students we serve by creating policies that include the input and expertise from educators in the field.

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Response From Amanda Koonlaba

Amanda Koonlaba, Ed. S. is an educator with over 12 years of experience teaching both visual art and regular education. She is a published author and frequent speaker/presenter at education conferences. Amanda was named the Elementary Art Teacher of the Year for the state of Mississippi in 2016. She holds an Elementary and Middle Childhood Art certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Amanda is on a mission to ensure every student in America has access to a high-quality arts-based education. You can connect with her at Party in the Art Room or on Twitter:

I don't think a lot of policy makers understand the privatization movement. There is a highly-organized and well-funded movement to privatize public education. Chronic underfunding and test-and-punish policies have led to perceived failure. This is propaganda. America's public education system is not a failure.

Additionally, these test-and-punish policies have led many families to feel they have to leave the public education system to have their child's needs met. Here's a generalized example formed from the many stories that I have heard: A student struggling to read, with diagnosed learning disabilities, is not making progress at their public school. The student does not perform well under pressure and is chronically stressed from the demands of preparing for and taking state assessments. The public school is understaffed and is struggling to meet the needs of the many individual students it serves. The school is constantly under pressure to raise test scores and accountability ratings. The family uses its resources to move the student to the private school across town. The student gets more one-on-one instruction and benefits from less standardized testing. Now, the family wants a voucher to pay for the private education their child is receiving.

Basically, the schools have been set up for failure through these policies. Many people are unhappy and want school choice policies to make them happy again. You hear people talking about choice being a civil rights issue. This is rhetoric. It is untrue.

Choice may solve the problems of a few families, but it doesn't fix systemic problems. In other words, it doesn't fix the problems of the system that serves the majority of the people. This is not about protecting the system. It is about doing what is best for the majority of the people. It is about improving what we have to make the system better for students. It is about students.

I think it is appropriate here for me to give a disclaimer. I do not fault families for this. Not one single bit! A lot of parents are having to make very hard decisions about their child's education. If anything, I am empathetic toward them. I hope and pray I don't get faced with this as a parent. I love parents. Seriously. I adore parents. Parents are amazing the way they love and care for their children. I write what I write and fight this fight because I do not want parents to have to make this choice. Diane Ravitch proclaims that no parent should be tasked with having the burden of shopping for the best school for their child. All schools should be good schools. I believe this, and I fight for it! (That book was a game-changer for me, by the way. I highly recommend it!)

Now, another thing to consider in this argument is many of the same people driving the school choice movement also drove the test-and-punish policies. Follow the money! Seriously, use that handy thing called Google and search "Follow the money education privatization."

Anyway, school choice allows tax dollars to go to private schools. Many corporations and already-extremely-wealthy individuals in this country will benefit from investing in these privatized services. This is the privatization of public education in a nutshell. (Google it. Better yet, go read some Living in Dialogue by Anthony Cody or Diane Ravitch's blog.) I think if more policy makers understood how the pieces of this puzzle fit together, they'd be against a lot of these things. I can't seem to get my own elected officials to understand how this works. They tell me they are against the privatization of public education but then vote for choice policies or test-and-punish policies. It is maddening! I am seriously wondering if I should do a webinar on this issue!

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Response From Matthew A. Kraft

Matthew A. Kraft is an assistant professor of education and economics at Brown University. His research focuses on efforts to improve educator and organizational effectiveness in K-12 urban public schools. You can follow him on Twitter at @MatthewAKraft:

Misunderstanding Teacher Effectiveness

When we think about effective teachers, many of us envision educators who by natural talent and shear will succeed with their students in spite of the schools where they work. Hollywood presents us with portraits of these heroic figures in movies such as "Stand and Deliver," "Dangerous Minds," and "The Freedom Writers." We also envision the foils to these paragons of success - a la "Bad Teacher"—caricatures of indifference or incompetence.

These characterizations come from and reinforce a fundamental misunderstanding of teacher effectiveness that is pervasive in the public debate and policy discourse about teacher quality. We assume that teacher effectiveness is a singular quality that is fixed and independent of school contexts. Teachers enter the classroom and either excel or fail, independent from the settings in which they work.

These assumptions have shaped federal and state efforts to improve teacher effectiveness at scale through policy reforms. They have led policymakers to 1) prioritize identifying, rather than developing, effective teachers, 2) undervalue the importance of school-wide practices and working conditions, and 3) fail to recognize or support the diverse ways in which teachers affect students' long-term success.

For example, teacher policy reforms required by the No Child Left Behind act and incentivized by the Race to the Top federal grant competition have fundamentally changed teacher credentialing and evaluation practices. However, they have had a much more limited effect on the quality of instruction in classrooms. Both the focus and the subsequent shortcomings of these signature Bush- and Obama-era education reforms can be viewed as the consequence of incorrect assumptions about why teachers are effective.

A growing body of evidence illustrates that teacher effectiveness is, in fact, dynamic, context-based, and multidimensional. 

We know that, on average, teachers improve substantially in their first five plus years of the job and that both the rate and duration of this professional growth varies substantially across individual teachers. We know that school climates and organizational practices play an important role in supporting or undercutting teachers' efforts in the classroom. We also know that teachers affect students' success in school and life by helping them to develop a range of cognitive and social-emotional skills not often captured by standardized tests. Teachers, like all professionals, commonly have different strengths and weaknesses across this wide set of skills rather than being effective or ineffective at them all.

How might policymakers pivot their focus to reflect the dynamic, context-based, and multidimensional nature of teacher effectiveness? Here are three ideas: 1) invest in the hard work of helping good teachers become great by building on their strengths and addressing their weaknesses, 2) help school leaders cultivate climates that are productive working and learning environments, and 3) recognize and support teachers' efforts to develop students' social-emotional competencies. These are not easy or quick prescriptions for top-down policy reforms—but they offer the potential to improve instruction in a way that reflects the true nature of teacher effectiveness. 

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Response From Douglas Reeves

Douglas Reeves is the author of more than 30 books on education and leadership. He blogs at CreativeLeadership.net and Tweets @DouglasReeves:

If I could ask policymakers to understand just one thing about teachers, students, and schools it would be this: corporal punishment doesn't work. That may seem like a strange request, as we might expect near universal agreement that beating children is a bad idea. In fact, 19 states still permit corporal punishment and a recent National Public Radio report revealed than more than 110,000 children were the victims of this barbaric practice in the past year. 

In 1960, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a report that demonstrated conclusively that corporal punishment was counterproductive. It not only failed to improve student behavior, but led to multi-generational child abuse. Nearly 60 years after that report, legislators not only permit corporal punishment, but more broadly believe that punishment and bullying is a sound basis for educational policy. If they humiliate some teachers and reward others, publish their test scores and cryptic ratings based on state test scores, then they will suddenly reveal their long-withheld effective instructional techniques. Of course, bullying, threats, and violence actually do work in the short term. But the result is a lifetime of resentment and retaliation. 

While no policymaker would long tolerate a hostile work environment, many of them seem happy to inflict this on teachers, administrators, and students.

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Thanks to Jennie, Sanée, Amanda, Matthew, and Douglas for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder—you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first six years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don't include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q&A Posts

Classroom Management Advice

Race & Gender Challenges

Implementing The Common Core

Best Ways To Begin The School Year

Best Ways To End The School Year

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

Student Assessment

Brain-Based Learning

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Advice For New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering The Teaching Profession

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Two in a few days..

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