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Here Are 10 Policy Lessons Teachers Should Know

Washington

"What are the pressures that keep you up at night?" Celine Coggins asked a roomful of top educators here at the National Network of State Teachers of the Year's annual conference.

Test scores, one teacher said. Funding, said another.

Education politics. Decreasing compensation. How to best meet students' needs. 

Coggins, who's the founder of Teach Plus, a policy fellowship for teachers, nodded at each answer. "I've asked that question to 5,000 teachers at this point," she said. The answers typically fall into three categories: individual student needs; time, and the lack thereof; and "all the outside factors that push into your classroom," she said.  

Many teachers aren't at the table in policy conversations, Coggins said, making the last category especially frustrating.

But here are Coggins' 10 lessons for teachers who want to get involved in policymaking, adapted from her upcoming book, "How to Be Heard: Ten Lessons Teachers Need to Advocate for Their Students and Profession."

  1. There are no experts. Teachers tend to stay away from getting involved in policy because they feel like they don't know enough, Coggins said. But instead of expertise on all things, policymakers value people who have a strong knowledge base on one issue and are always willing to learn more.  
  2. Policies that affect your classroom are not random. Teachers shouldn't think policymakers are crazy, ill-informed, or anti-teacher, she said. Instead, consider where the rule came from—it typically stems from a good intention.
  3. Bilingualism matters. Teachers tend to speak "the language of practice," Coggins said. They focus on the individual student. But the language of policy has a broader focus, and the marker of success is re-election or re-appointment, not necessarily the effect on one student's life. Teachers need to understand that language, too.
  4. Equity is everything (and nothing). Every person's definition of equity is different, Coggins said. Every policymaker will say they care about all kids, but teachers have to ask what, exactly, they mean by that: Would kids in high-poverty areas get more funding than those in affluent school districts?  
  5. "Is it good for kids?" is the wrong question. There are so many great programs and policies that are good for kids, but policy means making tradeoffs, Coggins said. Policymakers have to consider what is the highest-leverage investment to help improve student learning.
  6. Accountability measures are inescapable. Taxpayers and parents have a right to know what's working and what's not, Coggins said, so teachers shouldn't attempt to throw out all standard measures or get rid of testing. On the latter front, she said, "the best thing we can be doing is figure out how to get testing right, have it encompass the right things, [and] be as limited as possible."
  7. Effective policy advocates "think inside the triangle." The triangle points are equity, accountability, and resource scarcity. How can a policy hit all three of those points?
  8. There is no such thing as one best policy for all. It's important to remember that policies govern large, diverse groups with differing best interests. There are winners and losers in every policy, Coggins said. The name of the game is getting the best results for as little money as possible. 
  9. Entry points for change are hidden in plain sight. Look for a concrete problem that needs to be solved, and take advantage of that window of opportunity. 
  10. If you're not at the table, you're on the menu. Trying to change policy shouldn't come after the law has been passed. "As the next set of things rolls down the pipe, we need to make sure teachers are there early on. ... Get in there and fight the good fight and recognize that sometimes it's going to be contentious," Coggins said.

Teachers, she and others at the conference said, have a chance to be at the table with the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. But a NNSTOY federal policy survey found that only 19 percent of respondents said teachers in their state have been able to provide input into how social-emotional learning, for example, will be addressed in their state's ESSA plan. 

Recently on Education Week Teacher, one educator shared three ways teachers can "take charge" of ESSA implementation. "If we resign ourselves to believing that nothing will change in education policy, then nothing will change in education policy," she wrote, echoing the message at the NNSTOY conference. 


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