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It’s Time to Take a Seat at the Table

May 17, 2010

Pick up a newspaper or magazine.  Peruse the internet or your daily dose of tweets.  It won’t take long to hear the complaints as the bill of particulars lodged against our public education system grows longer with each passing day.  Whether the issue is funding, tenure, assessments, choice, or unions, it seems no one is pleased these days.  And, yet, everyone is an expert.  No doubt because they once attended a school somewhere.

As the debate rages on about how to close the achievement gap and provide a quality education for all children, there is no shortage of viewpoints and philosophies.  However, there is little consensus about most issues except, maybe, the relatively small role that teachers play in education policy.  It is more than a bit ironic that the very professionals who teach students are often the last voices heard in policy discussions.  I’m not talking about folks who used to be teachers or once studied teaching or represent teachers or know a teacher.  I’m talking about the folks who are currently entering the classroom, teaching a full day or more, and then getting up and doing it again the next day.  Rarely are we asked by the national policy makers on either side of the issue:  “How does this policy affect your ability to instruct your students?” or “What is the best model to gauge the growth and learning of your students?” or “What data should be used to hold you and other teachers accountable?”

However, now there is an opportunity for teachers to get involved, and the result just might be a seat at the table for teachers.

As the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) goes through the reauthorization process, there are some obvious concerns that must be addressed.  As a nation, we must find a way to guarantee accountability without demoralizing teachers.  We must create methods to assess literacy and numeracy without eliminating creativity and the arts.  We must develop models to gauge growth in learning that are based on high expectations for all students, but also take into consideration the gap in academic readiness between a kindergartener living in poverty and one living in a more privileged community.  In addition, as the late Senator Ted Kennedy advocated, we must bring together standardized test data with qualitative data that can only be gathered by those who are in classrooms working with students.

The Teachers at the Table Act is an opportunity for teachers to play a legitimate and meaningful role in education policy decisions.  Initially introduced in 2007 by Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) as S. 2060, and by Representative Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Representative Lee Terry (R-NE) as H.R. 2896, this Act was reintroduced in the current Congress as part of the reauthorization of ESEA as S. 1137 and H.R. 2624.  Proposed by state Teachers of the Year, the legislation is an effort to bridge the gap between intention and the implementation of ESEA and No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  The legislation calls for the creation of a Volunteer Teacher Advisory Committee, whose duty “shall be to monitor the effects of [ESEA], on the ground and in classrooms, and the focus of the Committee shall solely be on children and families.”  This non-partisan committee of twenty teachers, representing various geographic regions, grade levels, and subject areas, will submit annual reports to Congress and the Secretary of Education.  The contents of the report will include, “both quantitative and qualitative data that evaluate the effect of [ESEA] on student achievement” as well as “the effect of [ESEA] on closing the achievement gap between high and low performing students.”

Teachers, along with parents and students, must demand a seat at the table, rather than simply standing on the sidelines and letting others speak for us.   The Volunteer Teacher Advisory Committee as contemplated by the Teachers at the Table Act will give teachers, representing the true nature and diversity of our students and schools, a genuine opportunity to provide direct feedback on the critical issues facing our profession and the state of public education.

Every federal, state and local policy relating to education affects classroom instruction, curriculum, and assessment in some way.  If we do not speak out and offer solutions to bring about positive change, change will be forced on us by those who do not stand in the classroom and teach our students.  The Teachers at the Table Act is a move in the right direction.  It allows qualified practitioners who see the daily impact of education policy to have an opportunity to represent what is best for students and their learning environment.

We teach our students the power of the thoughtful and informed voice.  Let us use our thoughtful and informed voices now to help pass the Teachers at the Table Act.

Write your Senators and Representative and ask for their support for the Teachers at the Table Act.  The website for the correct addresses for your Senators is http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm and for your Representative is http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/index.html

 

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2010 4:31 pm

    Time to take a seat at the table? ABSOLUTELY!!!! I was listening to an event at the Urban Institute on redefining the profession during which Randi Weingarten mentioned that teachers were often left out of the debate. Andrew Rotherham and Joel Klein both strongly disagreed and said teachers and their unions most often crowd out logical solutions – hard not to be incredulous at comments like that while listening to a panel charged with discussing the reinvention of teaching that lacked the insight of even a single educator

    • Kelly Kovacic permalink
      May 19, 2010 8:30 pm

      It is interesting how actual practitioners of our profession are often left out of the discussion. I appreciate the fact that unions exist to represent teachers, but I think that teachers need to speak for themselves more often. There are perspectives, experiences, and ideas that only a practicing teacher can communicate effectively. Our voices need to be heard by writing, emailing, and phoning our elected officials, voting with the best interests of students in mind, and bringing specific solutions to the table.

  2. May 18, 2010 10:25 am

    Good post, Kelly!

    Here’s a question: Are you concerned about the TATT Act requirement that the Volunteer Teacher Advisory Committee be made up only of current and former Teachers of the Year?

    I say this as a former TOY myself (MI, ’92-3). TOYs are an amazing group, year after year, but being a Teacher of the Year doesn’t make teachers policy-savvy, especially at first. Most of them spend their TOY year learning how to navigate policy, advocacy and media–and there are lots of pitfalls.

    The Andrew Rotherhams and Joel Kleins of the world will quickly find the “right” TOYs to sit on the Advisory Committee. Most influential policy-makers use the advisory function in the same way that lawyers use expert witnesses. Something to be cautious about (and submitted from long experience with trying to get teachers at various tables…)

    I am SO enjoying your blog!

    • Kelly Kovacic permalink
      May 19, 2010 8:32 pm

      Nancy: I share your concern about a “packed” committee that may only serve as a mouthpiece for one special interest or another. That concern exists whether Teachers of the Year (TOYs) or non-TOYs are selected to the committee. In fairness, the selection process should probably be extended beyond the pool of TOYs and represent the diversity of our profession, both as individuals and as veterans of various education models. However, as you suggest, in my conversations with current and especially former TOYs, I usually find a high level of involvement, interest, and intellectual curiosity, along with a rich diversity of circumstances.

  3. June 4, 2010 6:59 am

    This is a really good blog post. Last night, I was watching The Lottery at a community screening in Harlem. The focus of the panel discussion afterwards was, of course, addressing questions about charters. One principal from a traditional public school sat on the panel (members of the teachers union were invited to attend, and they didn’t show). My friend was with me. She is not a teacher, but her mother is a teacher. She grew up in Philippines. She pointed out that the families depicted in the film and on the discussion panel afterwards expressed several times that when they were growing up they didn’t have much support outside of school, and when they had their own kids, there was so much about public school that they didn’t know. They were truly not involved until someone got them involved, oftentimes, by chance.

    Recently, public school principals in Harlem have started mobilizing to advertise their public schools to community citizens. The interesting thing was that the New York Times depicted this as somehow wrong-headed; that public schools should not have to advertise, but these charter schools are making them do so, because the charter schools are stealing kids. That’s actually not true. There are only so many spots that can be filled in a charter school, and these schools have to have lotteries in order to fill these spots “fairly.” What’s really happening, I think, is that public school people are finally realizing that teaching a class and slogging through these tough work days as teachers is never going to be enough.

    I have to ask. How can schools be an integral part of our community and people just don’t know anything about what is going on inside of them? How can it be that a place a person sends his child to every day escapes some of the most vital attention in the community?

    It’s very interesting what you all are doing with this legislation in California.

    Seems to me that teachers at least have to be out more in the community, doing things that are community focused and beneficial to more people than just the students in their classroom. I know that’s actually asking a lot. I was a teacher. There’s hardly any time to get things done as it is. But think about it, how many people really know who the great teachers are, in their own community?

    Okay, done with this semi-coherent rant…

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