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Emerging Trend: Teachers as Advocates

I keep waiting on the invitation:

Who: Teachers

What: Education Reform Policy Party

Where: Wonk Circles All Over

When: NOW!

Why: We want YOU to help envision & shape the next generation of schools.

The paradox, of course, is that as the reformation of education garners greater and greater media attention, teachers — the unrecognized professionals — continue to find ourselves left out despite the fact we have one of the largest stakes in the debate.

While it would be fun to point fingers at others, the truth is that we have a long history of grudgingly accepting whatever comes down the pipe at us, so it may well be of our own doing. Fortunately, that is changing, and none too soon.

However, thanks to the Race to the Top and the unprecedented funding by the federal government, the reform effort has amassed a following of armchair experts who all seem to sing from the same hymnal:

  • Market driven solutions will work.
  • Increasing competition among teachers will improve their “performance”.
  • Firing teachers must be a first priority.
  • Threats achieve results, especially if the threats involve closing a school.
  • Standardized tests are effective measures of success.
  • More standards = more learning.

Yet the most egregious (albeit tacit) tenet of the movement seems to be that reform should happen to teachers rather than with teachers.

While nearly everyone intimately involved in the reform effort would publicly deny this, the fact is that teachers remain the underutilized voice on how to improve our schools.  The most recent example of this was in the New York Times Sunday Magazine’s May 23rd piece, “The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand“.

The over 8,000 word education reform article did not quote one teacher.  Not one!

It’s outrageous! When an editor from one of the world’s most powerful newspapers does not insist that a teacher’s voice be included in such a premiere education piece we learn a lot about the esteem teachers are held in. It’s the The-emperor-has-no-clothes moment of truth. Finally, we see and we should be livid! After all, we have the most profound of roles in our schools — we teach the children.

Imagine for a second a comparable examination of banking reform that does not quote from at least a single banker. It would never happen.

Fortunately, the letters in response to the article raised this concern, perhaps most poignantly by 2nd grade teacher, Emily Miller.

There are many things in Steven Brill’s article that trouble me, but my greatest concern about the education-reform debate is the absence of teachers’ voices. When the country was debating the economic-stimulus plan, policy makers asked economists for advice, and the press frequently provided a forum for them to express their opinions. Yet when discussing education, the experts — those who work with children every day in classrooms — are rarely consulted. Many of those who were interviewed for Brill’s article said that they want what is best for children. It seems to me that if this is a genuine concern, those who best understand the challenges and problems in our schools, namely teachers, should be asked what they think.

The fact is, teachers have little history making or getting our voice heard. We are the unrealized professionals.

Thankfully, change is in the air.  Through social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, & ASCD Edge educators are building networks that turn up the volume on their ideas, concerns, and potential power of their numbers.  This ability to make our voice heard is an important first step toward being substantively included at the table.

It is a start, but we still need to do more. But how?

As with most grassroots efforts, it begins at home: Think Globally, Elect Locally.

Our local officials and state representatives need to know our names, not just the names of the union reps.  During the summer, we can make calls to our elected policy makers, write letters to the editor calling out publications for misrepresenting us, and learn how to advocate. We can interact with politicians running for office and insist they answer questions about education.  And if their answers seem copy-pasted from the Reform Hymnal, we help educate them, or deny them our vote.

Perhaps Jessica Luallen Horten said it best in her piece, “Calling Teachers to Action Beyond SB 6“:

I implore you to think about your beliefs about how children learn, what have you discovered in your years of experience? Write it down, share it, speak it and continue to examine it every day. If you truly want to advocate for children, you will become active in the process that will shape their tomorrow.

We have an opportunity to capitalize on the press and the widespread focus on education, even if we never get an invitation to the party. It’s time to bust down the doors and demand to be heard. As the experts in the field, we have a civic responsibility to speak truth to power and to armchair experts everywhere.

Change will happen.  However, the onus is on us to either be recipients of it or agents in it.

How else can teachers get involved? What other ways can we help shape the debate?

About Jason Flom

Teacher, advocate, father, husband, and learner with Polyannic tendencies. I daydream about bikes, climbs, and helping ensure curiosity survives education.


13 thoughts on “Emerging Trend: Teachers as Advocates

  1. I’m grateful for your post and collaboration, Jason. It’s great to see you here!

    I think direct political communication with elected and appointed officials is a particular weak point of mine. However, I’m keenly interested in reforming Virginia code re: assessment. Your post reminds me of that work and encourages me to begin undertaking it this summer.

    What’s your take on parent involvement in the SB6 veto? How explicitly should teachers and schools be working with parents politically? What’s your advice for teacher advocates looking to wrangle faculty members with disparate political views into an effective lobby?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 11, 2010, 7:05 pm
    • You raise a great point, Chad, regarding the power of the teacher/parent partnership. SB 6 provided a glimmer of that potential. The trick seems to be in finding an issue where parents’ and teachers’ objectives intersect, and the responsibility seems to fall on the educators to do so. Fortunately, that is relatively easy. The place we all intersect is on the students’ welfare, but as with anything the devil is in the details.

      I think the wrangling process is like throwing spaghetti on the wall. We gotta keep hurling it until something sticks! : ) In all seriousness, it really is about choosing issues that cannot be easily pigeon-holed as one party or another. That was what brought democrats and republicans together in opposition to SB6 — being united behind something beyond political boundaries. IMHO. : )

      Posted by Jason Flom | June 14, 2010, 9:33 am
  2. What about this movement guys… seeducation – at
    it reeks of gifting expertise, volunteer experts…
    Just found them today.. here is their founder Noam Kostucki speaking at TedxWarsaw:

    Posted by monika hardy | June 11, 2010, 7:23 pm
    • Can we do the edreform within public ed? Or do we just go for a movement of the masses? Do we need to separate? Are we wasting money trying to forge through the politics?… should we just move?

      Some of Noam’s main points in his talk:

      1. Be transparent.. share as much knowledge as you can for free.

      2. Accept that you are losing a little bit of control for common good.
      What if youtube and wikipedia (the amateurs have shown that they can lead the world to be better) and facebook become the platform for everyone to become teachers.

      3. Create new role models, inspire our children, build the world we all dream of.

      All we need is the confidence that being good to each other is clever..

      Posted by monika hardy | June 11, 2010, 9:23 pm
      • You raise some great questions, Monika, which I might boil down to this: Tactically, how & where do we steer our efforts to make the most impact? (If you can answer that question, I think you may have as many consulting job offers as you can shake a stick at.) I think taking those three points from Noam’s talk is probably a good starting point, because they are fairly geographically transferable. That advice can help steer efforts big or small, near or far.

        1. Share education knowledge wherever you are.
        2. Don’t get hung up on every detail.
        3. Be subversive where you can.

        For me, it seems that education reform is not just about public schools. It is more about the debate and understanding about what education is and, more importantly, what it could be. Right now the vocabulary diatribe of “accountability, performance, and standards” has the floor. I think we need a vocabulary stimulus package. We need a more apt lexicon for talking about learning — innovation, engagement, vigor, relevance, application, etc. Some of that effort transcends space, time, and an identified battle line. Sometimes just educating a parent about why we did what we did is enough. Doesn’t always feel like a skirmish, but consistent efforts to help others understand education issues beyond the headlines is important.

        For example, my friends always laugh at me when we are hanging out because they can’t go very far down a topic without my education interjection. The goal is not to divert attention away from the matter at hand or to focus attention on my soap box. It is simply to plant education vocabulary everywhere. Like Johnny Educationseed. (or perhaps seeducation for that matter!). : )

        Thanks for the comment, the questions, and the resources. Cheers.

        Posted by Jason Flom | June 15, 2010, 12:10 am
  3. Jason,

    I appreciated our conversation on Edchat the other day. We talked about many of these issues. We need to organize a grassroots movement in my opinion. We have these opportunities to be heard and collaborate. We have the opportunity to become one loud roar instead of many whispers. I don’t believe we are taking advantage of social media and the viral spread of information. It can happen. We’ve seen it with the Shift Happens videos and Prensky’s Digital Immigrants and Natives theory. We’ve seen Seth Godin do it time and again.

    I get angry like you that teachers are continually left out of the story, especially when we are a huge part of the story. I get upset when we are blamed. I think we need to get angry. I think we need to be pushed over the brink in order to finally move us to push ed reform.

    Posted by Shelly Sanchez Terrell | June 12, 2010, 9:22 am
    • Shelly,

      It was that Edchat that helped crystalize my thoughts on the matter of teachers as advocates.

      I think there are hints of teachers moving beyond the classroom walls, but the process of coalescing and achieving a resounding volume on a platform of ideas is still in its infancy. I know I sound like a broken record when I talk about it, but what the teachers pulled off in Florida in raising their voices against SB 6 is a hint of the potential. They (we) leveraged social media to join forces, banding together against a foe that happen to piss us all off at just the right time. But the unity was temporary. Once the bill was vetoed, some new ties remained, but for the most part we all went back to the fights we were fighting.

      I think you are right that we are not taking full advantage of the opportunities, yet. However, I am beginning to believe that we are setting a stage, either for our future selves or the next generation of educators to be more involved and more influential than teachers currently are. Its going to take time, perhaps a frustratingly long time, but I think we are getting there, click by click. : )

      Posted by Jason Flom | June 14, 2010, 11:08 pm
    • Shelly, I meant to put it in the post, but forgot. I then meant to include in the reply to you, but forgot. (Daddy Day Care brain). Tim Furman (@tbfurman) posted this after last week’s Edchat about what he would have added to the chat if he’d been able to make it. Microlobbies. He’s been making them work.


      Posted by Jason Flom | June 15, 2010, 11:54 am
  4. As always, Jason, you are right on the mark !! Your help during the Florida SB6 debate and on the Facebook Stop Senate Bill 6 and Stop Race to the Top walls has been invaluable! Keep fighting the good fight !

    You are correct about that motto: Think Globally, Elect Locally. It gives us a plan for our summer off ! I will certainly spend much time writing and on the phone this summer! Time to make a plan, get organized, and get the word out!!!

    Kudos again for your insights and wisdom !

    Posted by gatorbonbc | June 13, 2010, 8:06 pm
    • Thanks, Bonnie. You know in writing a reply to Shelly, I realized that one of the great things that came out of the SB 6 fight was the new network of involved teacher advocates who are following the stories, connecting the dots, and not allowing the Powers That Be to be that powerful. I feel quite certain that I would not have had the opportunity to connect (and feel kinship) with some of the great folks (yourself included) who suddenly all seemed to be comrades in arms. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

      I’m not sure how things are shaping up down in your neck of the woods, but everyone here in Tally is oil, oil, oil. Candidates are suddenly lifelong environmental supporters. I’m finding that if I want to talk education I need to link it to oil. My thought is this:

      We’ve got a Race to the Top, which has all these legislators going goo-goo gaa-ga for some non-recurring funds. They are rushing to pass bills, enact laws and are even willing to throw the baby out with bathwater if it means securing some green bling. What if we could get the federal government to institute a Race to the Stop which would award money to states who come up with the best plans for either 1. drastically reducing their own state’s oil consumption; or 2. developing industry that will be able to help the nation reduce its consumption of oil. Could such a race entice state governments to become innovation hounds, sniffing out new and great ideas?

      The tie to education? All states have research universities which could be research and innovation hubs in which students can take courses designed to solve a problem or explore a specific issue in the green industry. On down the line, students in primary and secondary schools can also wrestle with the issues, but locally, in their own microsystems. Learning about, designing, and installing site specific infrastructure that helps reduce energy use. Essentially, students will apply skills to solve problems while we ensure our students graduate from high school with applicable knowledge & insights about what is going on in the world around them. They leave school with some job ready skills for a green industry.

      This is nothing new, but just trying to capitalize on the conversation happening today. We need to get our people to have education on the tip of their tongue during every turning point, crisis, and/or opportunity. Like scattering a bunch of seeds. And then, perhaps one or 500 will germinate, and one day someone in charge will think, “Hmmmm. I’ve got an idea for education reform that doesn’t include additional standardized tests.”

      Posted by Jason Flom | June 14, 2010, 11:38 pm
  5. Absolutely right… we must keep them transparent and continue to germinate those seeds! You are certainly a man of words!

    My favorite quotation these days: “Think Globaly, Elect Locally” ~Jason Flom, 2010

    This year will be the Summer of Empowered Teachers, 2010 !

    Posted by gatorbonbc | June 17, 2010, 9:59 am
  6. Jason, I just discovered Cooperative Catalyst through a link to your original post. What an incredible resource, and what an inspiring conversation!

    For too long, we classroom teachers — the frontline educators — have been the silent profession. We have allowed education reform to be done to us — by politicians and Educrats and “experts” — rather than with us. It’s time we found our voice. It’s time we realized the full potential of our profession to educate others about what teaching and learning effectively really takes. It’s time we stopped waiting for the invitation and started advocating for ourselves and for the students in our care.

    Perhaps the misguided direction of the current political/media focus on education reform will be the catalyst that finally unleashes our voices.

    Posted by Anne Kemp | June 18, 2010, 8:17 am

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