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Are You Better Off than You Were Two Years Ago?


I wish I had a dollar for every teacher who's ever said "Well, I'm not political, but..."

The sentence usually ends with a statement about how policy-makers don't understand the demanding problems in education (the issues are more complex and vexing than you might think)--and are further screwing up an already convoluted system.

Some educators do get political. In a collective bargaining state, that usually means rising through the union ranks, combining your voice with similar voices. At the micro level, it may mean cozying up to school administrators, or forming an action committee to deal with bathroom passes. If the definition of politics is "a process by which groups of people make collective decisions," few individual teachers feel empowered, informed and influential enough to sway decision-making at the state level. Which is too bad, as a great deal of state policy-making is done by the presumably-well-meaning-but-clueless.

Lately, federal policy-makers have gotten serious about sticking an oar into education policy. Remember when federal lawmakers saw education as a state and local issue, with the feds limited to issues of civil rights, equity and economies of scale? No more.

I recently sat in a room with some famous Talking Ed Heads whose topic was: Should students' formative assessment data count against teachers in their data-based evaluations? Most of them had no concrete idea what a formative assessment was--and assumed it was more on the order of a quiz (as opposed to the test, which was, of course, "summative.") But the Race to the Top has elevated and incentivized data-based teacher evaluation, so here we are, with daily classroom practice impacted in large and significant ways by far-removed political forces.

Here are a few reasons for teachers to get political in a hurry:

#1) Even some of our smarter pundits are dividing Ed World into the left (teachers and their unions) and the right ("reformers"). Meaning that teachers are not reformers. Alexander Russo:

I don't think this is just a unions vs. reform story that's going on. It's just as much about the economy and the elections. Especially on the turnaround front, school reform has gotten enmeshed with job security issues.

Well, everything from the Oil Spill to reining in Goldman Sachs is enmeshed with job security in a weak economy. Which expensive bums are we going to throw out? I'm tired of blogs claiming that David Obey wanted to sacrifice RttT-spurred "reform" on the altar of saving a few thousand meaningless jobs. If those reforms were demonstrably productive--investing in improving instruction, beefing up curriculum, recruiting and preparing better long-term teachers for the most challenging jobs, creating innovative small schools for our neediest kids within their home districts--I'd feel better about trimming jobs. But the proposed reforms--in spite of a lot of soaring rhetoric, phrases like "college and career ready"--are mostly unproven re-treads.

#2) There's a growing and disturbing media movement to portray veteran teachers as "crappy" and outspoken champions of public schools as "preaching to the choir"--a false and simplistic refrain that masks both good and bad practice, and doesn't provide solutions. Lots of communities are well-served by public schools, staffed by skilled and dedicated career teachers--and it doesn't weaken the case for reform to say so.

#3) We're not better off than we were two years ago (or ten years ago, for that matter). Eight years of get-tough federal interventions haven't taken us where we need to go. I have no doubt we can make wide-scale significant improvements to public school systems in America. But we can't do it without engaging teachers--all teachers, not just the handful that met in New Orleans last week, or those who are blogging, serving on state committees or running for office themselves.

Time to get political.

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