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Teachers and Education Policy: Two Voices in Dialogue: Part 3

Teachers Anthony Cody and Patrick Ledesma, both NBCTs and members of the Teacher Leaders Network, have taken two very different approaches to promoting the teacher voice in education policy. Anthony began with an open letter to President Obama, and then launched a Facebook group, Teachers' Letters to Obama, which now has more than 3000 members -- some of whom spoke with Secretary Duncan last May. Patrick has served for the past four months as a Teacher Ambassador Fellow for the US Department of Education, and in that role has represented teachers in discussions of policy. What follows is a dialogue between them, sharing their perspectives. This is Anthony's response to Patrick's post here, Teachers and Education Policy: Two Voices in Dialogue: Part 2.


Thank you for your thoughts in response to my post. In your answer to my description of the apparently fruitless discussion with the Secretary last Spring, you tell us that this dialogue has, in fact, continued, but with some different group of teachers.

I wonder what made this subsequent group capable of a sustained dialogue of the sort you advocate, and Teachers' Letters to Obama apparently undesirable? When TLO had the chance for a dialogue with Mr. Duncan, we immediately reached out to the teaching profession and invited input. We asked people to share what they thought we should focus on, and asked people to volunteer to speak. We had an open and transparent process to poll people about the issues that were of greatest concern, and we spent a great deal of time developing our views so we could represent a broad constituency.

But although you grant that we approached the process with good will, this was apparently not enough for the Department to seek to continue the dialogue with us.

Perhaps you might find out for us why that was the case?

You suggest,

What if the purpose of your initial reaching out to ED that day was to establish a process for sustained dialogue that would occur regularly over a few weeks or months, where teachers and ED officials could identify very specific topics, share materials and resources, and work together for common goals to define areas where there is agreement, and if there is disagreement, to identify the specific components within the defined parameters of each issue?

Then you go on to wonder,

... if we could create an opportunity for longer dialogue on one specific issue so we can go for a deeper level of analysis (and not get washed away by the sudden unleashed free flowing logs) where could we start? Which log shall we try to first remove?

As I write this post, one possibility comes from David Cohen's comment on my original post about the teacher voice in ED. David Cohen belongs to both TLO and TLN.

"Have there been any policy proposals that were altered or adjusted in any way to reflect the input of teachers or the professional organizations representing them? Some of them are looking for evidence that their input has any significance here."

You also asked, "Where can we find evidence that our efforts over the past year have had an effect?"

Perhaps this is a timely topic to develop more meaningful dialogue with ED and the unions. By first understanding the impact of the teacher voice through unions and how unions represent teachers through their current work with ED, we better understand these relationships defining and influencing how teachers can engage in policy.

After all, we have to start somewhere.

Here is the thing. We DID start somewhere, more than a year ago.
The reason I provided that detailed account of our attempts to shift Department policy was in order to demonstrate where we started and what has happened as a result. Which, so far as I can tell, is exactly nothing. My purpose is not, as you suggest it ought to be, to achieve a "sustained dialogue." My purpose is to change the disastrous policies currently being enacted by the Department.

We engaged hundreds of teachers in the process I described so that we could arrive at a consensus about what needed to change, and develop clear alternatives. Now you suggest that the next step in our process should be a dialogue where the focus is on finding out where our input made a difference in those policies? I am sorry, but shouldn't we have noticed by now if our input made a difference?

I summarized the key points that emerged over and over again when we asked teachers what we should focus on. Teachers want:

  • An end to the over-reliance on standardized test scores for high stakes decisions.

  • Support for more pay for teachers, but NOT based on test scores, even using the "growth model" the Department seems to think magically cures all that ailed NCLB.

  • An end to the ineffective and cruel labeling of schools as failures, drop-out factories and other epithets, and a more creative and positive set of options than the four bad choices the Department offers to "failing schools."

  • Genuine support of our public schools, and an end to the aggressive promotion of charter schools, as we see in the insistence that states remove any limits to their expansion.

These policies are destroying schools, careers, and opportunities for students right now.
Experienced teachers are moving up their retirement, disgusted at the disrespectful way they are being treated. We are losing a generation of teachers before their time, and that wisdom will not be easily replaced. The curriculum is being narrowed faster than ever, and with the new "do less with less" budgets, we are seeing even greater cuts to luxuries like libraries and classes under 35 students. The Secretary advocates doing away with pay for advanced degrees, since they are not proven to raise test scores, so contracts are being renegotiated that will redirect scarce money away from degrees and towards pay tied to these scores. We hear from Rhode Island that Central Falls High, where Secretary Duncan called the firing of the entire staff "courageous," is struggling to find substitutes to cover classes vacated by overstressed teachers. Even schools that choose the less draconian "transformation" option find themselves engaged in a pointless and demoralizing process.

Meanwhile, a new breed of venture capitalist has entered the education arena.
Encouraged by opportunities in "turning around failing schools," publishing, testing, and charter schools a host of "education investors" and entrepreneurs are seeking to remake our public schools in the image of our for-profit health care industry, where tax dollars underwrite services to the wealthy, the poor and hard-to-teach get leftovers, and profiteers reap the rewards. All enabled by recent Education Department policies that enhance the expansion of charter schools and make crisis and churn a permanent condition in schools of poverty.

I repeat and underscore all this, because these issues must be the focus of our dialogue.
Having a "seat at the table" can never be an end in itself. We sought a conversation with Secretary Duncan to communicate our clear dissatisfaction with his policies and ask for a change.

If the Department wishes to understand better why we are so concerned about these areas, we are available to discuss them. If you have evidence that the Department actually heard us and actually shifted its thinking and policies on any of these issues, again, I would like to hear about that.

Thus far, we have seen no movement.
It appears that a handful of billionaires have far more influence than millions of teachers. This dialogue with teachers remains broken, and cannot be mended, much less sustained, without a clear shift in the Department's policies on these core issues.

What do you think? How should teachers approach the Department based on our experience over the past year?

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