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Ten Things Legislators Should Know and Do When Making Education Policy

A couple of days ago, I had coffee with Betsy Coffia, who ran last November--unsuccessfully--for a seat representing the 104th district in the Michigan House of Representatives. Coffia and I had never met, although we have several mutual friends. We found each other on-line, in a Facebook argument over Detroit Public Schools' Emergency Manager. She liked what I had to say, and suggested we meet.

It was a great conversation. Coffia plans to run again, and asked lots of questions: What did I think about cyber-schools? Charter chains? The value of early childhood programs? Well-known education non-profits in Michigan? Although she worked for a time in a Head Start program, she admitted there were lots of theories and ideas in education policy she found murky.

Then she said this: Wouldn't it be great if there were a guide for legislators to making useful education policy? So here it is:

#1) You don't know education just because you went to school. Even if you were paying attention in high school, your perspective as a student was extremely narrow and is now completely obsolete. Study the issues, which are more complex and resistant to change than you think. Here's a brief list of things that, in my experience, legislators don't know diddly about:
• A cooperative classroom and how to achieve it.
• Formative assessment.
• Impact of class size on daily practice (not test scores).
• Difference between standards and curriculum.
• Special education.
• Research-based value of recess and exercise.
• Differentiation vs. tracking.
• What quality teaching looks like in practice.
• The fact that all learning is socially constructed.
And on and on.

#2) Plan to pay many non-photo op visits to lots of schools. Do things while you're there. Read with 3rd graders. Sit in on a high school government class or small-group discussion about Shakespeare. Play badminton in co-ed gym class. Take garden-variety teachers out for coffee after your visit; let them talk and just listen. Resist the urge to share the "good news" about legislation you're co-sponsoring. Ask questions, instead.

#3) Take the tests that kids have to take. Then you'll understand why "achievement data" and what to do with it are sources of high anxiety for public schools, teachers and students.

#4) Be picky about what you read, listen to and believe. Media is not fair and balanced, and in an online world, information and sexy, upbeat storylines are for sale. At the very least, read both sides, with your crap detector on full alert. Consider that media often enshrines flat-out lies in the public consciousness simply because they're a good headline or the deliverer is charismatic.

#5) Examine your assumptions. When teachers roll out unsubstantiated chestnuts ("no wonder he's the way he is--just look at his parents!") it's lounge talk. When elected officials say clueless things, voters pay attention. For example: " Incompetent teachers are being allowed to teach and substandard service is being tolerated." Whatever your deepest convictions about unions, teacher pay, urban poverty or kids today, check those biases at the door. It's your job to represent everyone in your district, not just the people who agree with you.

#6) Follow the money, not the party. A lot of what's happening in ed "reform" today is centered around taking advantage of the large, previously untapped market of K-12 education. Before you get on any partisan policy bandwagon, just for the thrill of passing a law, ask yourself: Who really benefits from this? Who loses?

#7) Remember you were elected to create policy that represents your constituents' goals and desires, not ALEC's. Even if the pre-packaged legislation is slick and convenient, and the Koch brothers are willing to fly you someplace warm with golf courses--do the work yourself.

#8) Be like Rob Portman and change your mind and your public proclamations when the evidence is convincing. Changing your mind--if you do it publicly, and don't try to sneak the shifts past voters with tap-dancing and weasel language--makes you stronger, demonstrating that you have confidence in your own core values and leadership. Diane Ravitch altered her views, and earned herself a few million devotees, after all.

Corollary: Admit when you don't understand value-added methodology, the reason STEM is so hot, or constructivism in mathematics education. There is nothing more pathetic than a legislator trying to act like he knows something by tossing out a few buzzwords.

#9) Big and bold gets headlines, but tinkering around the edges gets results. Want to raise teacher quality? Don't endorse firing the "lowest" quintile, publicly rank-ordering them in the newspaper, or bringing in untrained but photogenic Ivy Leaguers. Do it the old-fashioned way: careful recruitment, building teachers' skills and knowledge, investing in their capacity and leadership over time.

#10) Honor our democratic foundations. Public education is the most democratic of our institutions, one of our best ideas as Americans. Public schools may be tattered, and behind the technological curve. But systematically destroying the infrastructure of public education is a profoundly selfish and immoral thing to do. Don't be that legislator.

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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