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Moving Towards Productive Dialogue Between Teachers and Policy Makers

"Teachers today need to be treated more as professionals and knowledge workers, and less as interchangeable cogs in an educational factory line out of the last century. Teachers need and deserve more autonomy and respect and they must become real participants and partners in reform if outcomes for children are to dramatically improve."

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made these remarks when highlighting lessons learned from the International Summit on the Teaching Profession and the Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States report.

Given this needed respect for teachers as important participants and partners, the essential question is, "To what degree do teachers feel that they are real participants and partners in reform?"

Organizing and facilitating teacher outreach was one of the more rewarding aspects during my year as a Teacher Ambassador Fellowship with the US Department of Education (ED). Outreach was accomplished through various teacher focus groups in Washington DC and in different education conferences and venues around the country.

From ED's perspective, one benefit of these outreach efforts is the opportunity to interact with thousands of educators at these conferences to provide information and solicit questions and feedback.

From the teacher perspective, these "one time opportunity" conversations, though insightful for those who never had an opportunity to interact with federal representatives, seemed, at times, incomplete due to the absence of any sustained or deeper conversations, especially when discussing complex issues.

Ultimately, there are limitations to the "one time opportunity" format of outreach since this structure of conversation usually revolves around sharing "talking points" created by both sides to get their points across in the least amount of time possible.

For classroom teachers who have limited opportunities to interact with policymakers, this collective inability to advance the conversation beyond media sound bytes impede progress in the current policy dialogue. In the absence of these interactions, classroom teachers get their information elsewhere, whether accurate or inaccurate.

While these traditional outreach efforts serve a purpose for general outreach and should continue, we need more meaningful models for teacher outreach that can build deeper shared understanding between teachers and the high-level policy makers.

Our current dialogue on education policy between teachers and policy makers remains polarized. It's time to start rebuilding the bridge to redefine the "middle ground" in these debates.

A more meaningful collaborative process will yield better outcomes.

One possible example of a better process and small step forward comes from the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ). Their new report Teaching Effectiveness for the New Millennium highlights their recommendations resulting from a series of dialogues focusing on teaching effectiveness between 23 teacher leaders from CTQ's Teacher Leaders Network (TLN) and officials from ED.

The 23 teachers represented a diverse cross section of the profession from classroom teachers in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms, representing State Teachers for the Year, members of the National Education Association's Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching, Teach for America, and certification through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

US Department of Education (ED) officials included Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Brad Jupp, Scott Sargrad, and Greg Schmidt. Teacher Ambassadors Edit Khachatryan, Laurie Calvert, Steve Owens, and I also participated.

Focusing on one issue with the same participants in a series of meetings had several advantages:

1) Better Preparation: Participants recommended several resources as background materials to frame the discussion.

2) More Detailed Discussions: Participants could explore the issue in more detail and each participant had more time to analyze and reflect on the discussions for follow up questions in both the webinars and discussion forums.

3) Sharing of Perspectives: There is a need to understand how each group perceives their respective roles and responsibilities in solving these complex education issues.

Through this process, I believe that teachers develop a deeper appreciation of their own responsibilities at the local level and the limitations of federal role. Hopefully, policy makers appreciate the need to involve those who work where the interpretation of policy becomes classroom practice.

If policymakers want their broad initiatives to have positive effects on the lives of individual students with less of the unintended consequences that have resulted from current policies, they must access the expertise of classroom teachers to better understand all the variables at the classroom level.

Several themes emerged from the sustained interaction of expert teachers and policy makers such as more alignment between student learning and assessments, strategies for using multiple measures to evaluate teaching effectiveness, and ways for teacher leaders to collaborate with administration for more meaningful teacher evaluations. Other themes included promoting hybrid roles, emphasis on professional growth, and more accountability of state distribution of equitable funding.

The full report is here.

Hopefully, the publication of this collaborative exchange creates a shared responsibility for all participants to continue to expand their understanding of the complexity of policy and practice to improve the processes that can rebuild the relationships. This type of exchange should not be the first and last effort.

The Department of Education can continue to engage more teacher experts in sustained outreach initiatives as partners to improve public education. More examples such as Teach.gov, the Strengthening Teaching site, the Teacher Ambassador Fellowship program, teacher representation in groups such as the National Assessment Governing Board, and other teacher involvement projects will improve the practioner and policy partnership.

In our era of professional online networks and social media, the outcomes of engaging individual teacher leaders and their education organizations have ripple effects, since those teachers, in turn, share their interactions with other educators and their networks.

There are potential substantial outreach benefits to these collaborative dialogues, while the absence of these relationships can have the opposite effect.

Here is a better model to replicate, refine, and expand in future dialogues for teachers to become real partners. More meaningful and sustained teacher engagement should be a priority.

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