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Bruno: Should You Have To Teach Before You Wonk?

6240707542_2dbd88d10c_nI'm a teacher who likes to write about education politics and policy.  Oftentimes my classroom experience directly informs my thinking on those subjects. As the Education Realist points out, however, most of the major names in education punditry from across the spectrum seem to have conspicuously little in the way of actual teaching experience. He thinks we need a "concentrated effort to get teacher expertise into the debate," and I agree (with a caveat).

Obviously teaching experience isn't absolutely necessary to make a meaningful contribution to  the discourse. Virtually all of those individuals on the limited-teaching-experience list have done at least some work that I respect and that I believe has contributed to the greater educational good. 

You can also probably make the case that teachers shouldn't have an outsized role in policy discussions. For one thing, there could be conflict-of-interest issues, so we don't want teachers dominating education policy anymore than we want doctors or other health service providers dominating health policy.

It's also entirely possible for teaching experience to provide only the illusion of expertise. How many teachers, for instance, "know from experience" that students have different "learning styles"? Moreover, a lot of policy issues - like vouchers and school choice - are only indirectly related to classroom practice anyway.

That said, and as the Realist illustrates, it's probably nevertheless safe to say that experienced teachers should be better represented among the leading edu-pundits. If nothing else, this would help widen the education reform conversation's often-myopic focus on human resource management to include things like curricular content, pedagogy, training, and - yes - "out-of-school" factors.

My aforementioned caveat is this: in my experience when prominent individuals or groups attempt to "increase teacher voice" in the debate, they are usually referring specifically to teachers who agree with them. Diane Ravitch, Teach for America, and StudentsFirst all have web presences where you can go to get plenty of "teacher voice". Those places also have a distinct echo-chamber quality that certainly doesn't promote productive dialogue and may be counterproductive from a policy standpoint.

So who, then, is going to lead this "concerted effort" to bring teachers into the debate? - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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That's my goal! Many of us in the classroom can tell "leaders" the limitations of their policies, but our voices are not being heard.

I like your post.. I know your writing focus is on teachers, but I'd add that it's equally important to bring parents into education policy debates as well. And not just the PTA or PTO representatives -- and for similar reasons you note in your caveat graf about teacher-oriented echo chambers.

Keep up the good work on this blog..

I challenge this: "in my experience when prominent individuals or groups attempt to "increase teacher voice" in the debate, they are usually referring specifically to teachers who agree with them."

The situation is more extreme than you describe, Paul. The influential forces in education have a screamingly evident utter absence of experience -- not just as teachers, but as parents or "stakeholders" (a buzzword in my locale) of any kind in the public school system at all. It's so extreme that it's pathological. In addition, not only are educators entirely ignored as voices in policy-setting == they're disdained, as though their "conflict of interest" (I call pure BS on that in any case) or supposed self-interest make them contemptible.

It's so extreme that trying to discredit those who point it out by claiming we only want teachers' voices heard if they agree with us is really not OK.

And by the way, why shouldn't health professionals be the dominant voice in health policy? Who should?

Disclaimer that I am not now nor have ever been a teacher, though I'm married to a teacher. I was an active parent and volunteer in San Francisco public schools for 16 years.

@Melissa - I do wonder to what extent voices aren't being heard rather than whether they're being heard but ignored.

@Paul - Thanks for the kind words. I think you're right about parent voice, although again the problem remains that many groups and individuals claim to be raising "parent voice" in the debate, but really mean "this handful of parents who just so happen to enthusiastically agree with me". As with any group, opinions are rarely monolithic.

@Caroline - Education policy affects teachers, potentially in very significant ways that I think more than pass the normal bar that we would use in other circumstances for constituting potential conflict of interest. (I absolutely have a conflict of interest when weighing in, for example, on the issue of how much I should be paid.) Obviously, as you say, that doesn't mean teacher voices should be excluded - people with "conflicts of interest" are also usually "stakeholders" - but it is something to consider when weighing them.

As for health care providers, I'm not crazy about anybody being "the" dominant voice in health policy. Doctors frequently complain about, for example, Medicare holding the line on reimbursement rates, but it doesn't follow that Medicare should just up its reimbursement rates to whatever level doctors demand; that could affect the distribution of health care access to individual patients very significantly. Obviously, what health care providers want and think is highly relevant - Medicare reimbursement rates shouldn't be too low! - but why let them "dominate" the discussion about it?

I agree entirely with what you've said here, Paul. If there's one thing you left out in summarizing my position, it's this (from my post):

"Well, as I’ve written before, teachers are, as a group, astonishingly uninterested in policy. Even union issues engage maybe 20-30% of the teachers at any meeting I’ve attended; the rest are checking their watches. This is a function of personality. Wonks and teachers are from opposite ends of the spectrum. Teaching appeals disproportionately to concrete thinkers interested in the immediate payoff, attributes largely antithetical to the average policy wonk job."

In other words, I think it's a temperament issue, not some grand conspiracy.

Also, I mention (as you do) that many of the teachers who are in the policy arena are either fully committed to one side or the other, or they have something to sell.

I mentioned you and John T (and, for that matter, me, but I'm anonymous) as teachers who seem to be genuinely interested in discussing policy and are informed both by data and experience. It's a pretty small group.

As for who is going to lead it: Right now, teachers like us don't have much of a platform. The platforms all belong to groups advocating for one side or the other. That's the problem. You're very lucky to have this place, I think, which has no clear advocacy position.

@Ed - Do you think teachers are less policy-engaged than other professions?

And it really can't just be you, me, and John, right? That'd be depressing. Maybe we should work on a list.

Oh heck yes, I think teachers as a group are less policy engaged. I was a computer programmer and applications consultant for fifteen years, and *we* talked more about ed policy than teachers do. And we talked even more about tech policy, politics, social policy, you name it. Then I worked at Kaplan, which was all part-time workers that only saw each other rarely, and *we'd* get into discussions about ed policy, college admissions, testing, and yes, politics---way more than teachers do. These were people I saw just 2-3 times a month, maybe, and we'd talk politics. Teachers, no.

I've really thought about the list a lot, and I have found very few teacher writers who engage in policy discussions using both data and experience. In the entry, I mentioned you, John, and Patrick Welsh. If you include teachers who are fully committed to one side, but use data and aren't just hacks, you can add in Gary Rubenstein.

But most of the other good teacher bloggers I can think of blog as teachers or learners. They have opinions on policy, but they don't really engage in it. Some random examples: Jessica Lahey, the Right on the Left Coast guy, DY/Dan, math equality.

I'm going to repeat myself again, but because if I rewrite it I'll miss some key piece:

"What I don’t run into very often are full-time teachers who read a lot about policy, engage with the data, put it up against their own experience working with the average kid (mid to low ability), and then opine about that policy based on their own analysis, which includes both their experience and their knowledge of existing educational policy.

That is, we don’t hear from teachers much as subject matter experts. Few of them are interested in policy because they aren’t wired that way. Most of the rest out there agitating have an agenda. "

(Or they are blogging as teachers, but that's different.)

And of course, I'm probably skipping the fact that some of them who do try to blog on policy just aren't very good. As you say, they rely entirely on experience, "know what they know", and don't understand data. Or they're just too...narrow. SO maybe I'm saying there just aren't very many *good* teacher analysts!

The UK has more teachers discussing policy than we do, from what I can see.

Speaking of understanding students, there's actually this great site to help students understand what method of learning suits them best. They have a learning style assessment module, you can take it for free. Here's the link:

Ya,this point is very much true that it's also entirely possible for teaching experience to provide only the illusion of expertise..Your blog is awfully appealing....I am contented with your post.

@Paul Bruno-I used to work for a group called VIVA teachers. They organize idea exchanges online in different cities where teachers can give their practice-based opinions on education policy. Issues have included teacher and principal evaluation and how to best use an extended school day. ALL teachers in the area are invited to participate (not just the ones who agree with the organization). VIVA's CEO is very focused on the need for REAL teacher voice. All "VIVA" statements are made based on teacher-written policy reports (not based on the organizations' beliefs). You should check them out: www.vivateachers.org

Teachers definitely can have a conflict of interest when it comes to policy issues. So can parents, and students, and principals, and administrators. That doesn't mean they don't deserve to be included in the conversation. I think that if we include ALL teachers and ALL parents (not just the PTA) and ALL students (not just the ones hand-picked by the principal) we will have a much more well-rounded and fair discussion of the issues.

@Education Realist-I have no research to back up this statement (just my own experience as a teacher): I think that teachers' lack of following education policy has less to do with disinterest in policy and more to do with an overwhelming workload and a need to spend all available time getting the basics accomplished (lessons, grades, talking to parents and counselors, etc.) and when there is a little free time, most teachers need to spend that time learning techniques that will directly help them in the classroom.

After a few years some teachers find that their work load gets easier, but the good ones (the ones who would like to have time to read about education policy) fill that extra time with new ways to benefit students and their schools. The more time I had, the more I reached out to parents and spent time with my students after school. I wasn't disinterested in policy (very much the opposite), I just couldn't prioritize my interest in education policy over the needs of my students. (Please don't interpret that as an affront to you. It is not. I think it's great that you have found the balance that I never could between teaching and policy.)

VIVA Teachers' Idea Exchanges are a great way to get busy teachers, who may appear uninterested in policy, involved in the education dialogue. Teachers can post comments online, 24 hours a day, and it only takes a few minutes. Their comments are often based on experience rather than data, true, but I think there is value in those comments. The most involved teachers create a report of the main ideas to be presented to the policy makers. An online platform like this which is open to everyone and doesn't require a large time commitment could be the solution to getting real opinions from teachers, parents, and students about education policy on a national level. Then the policy makers could debate and write policies with a much more well-rounded view of the issues; and teachers, students, and parents would be more likely to support the final policy because they were included in the conversation.

Jessica, your two paragraphs to me are *exactly* the sort of thinking that makes me say that most teachers aren't suited to discuss policy.

In what other career do you find people first claiming that an entire career's first few years is so overwhelming that they can't do anything else? And then, when they acknowledge that things get better, they turn themselves into martyred saints?

I understand that you aren't trying to insult me, and I'm not insulted. What I'm saying is that your self-congratulatory devotion is part and parcel of most teachers' psyche, and it's why they are temperamentally unsuited to discuss policy.

Anyone who seriously thinks people in one career are more dedicated to their job than in all the others should not be talking policy.

I'm inclined to go mostly with Ed Realist on this one. I do think brand new teachers (probably like brand new members of any profession) are unlikely to have gobs of time and motivation to dedicate to policy, but my experience is not that teachers are spending all of their would-be leisurely hours thinking of more and better ways of helping their students.

I don't think that's a knock on teachers, btw. Expecting all teachers to live and breathe their work would probably be neither fair nor useful.

@Education Realist- I think there are plenty of careers that are very time-consuming in the beginning. ER Doctors and 1st year lawyers come to mind, but I’m sure there are others. And I didn’t say that teachers couldn’t do anything other than teach during those first years. When I became a teacher, I was a singer, a dancer, and I had commitments to friends and family. I didn’t give those up; but I didn’t have any “available time” to spend on education policy.

I never said teachers were more dedicated than people in other careers. I said that the “good ones” were dedicated to their career. I’m sure that the same can be said of other professions. And I don’t understand why being proud of your work makes you unsuited to have a voice in your field.

You said it’s temperament that makes someone follow or not follow policy; I think it could just be how someone prioritizes their time. While I could have found time to spend on policy either by giving up some of my existing priorities or by not spending as much time with my students and their families, I got the most satisfaction by not giving up either. I was never a martyr because I didn’t feel like my choice to not be actively involved in policy was killing me.

I did eventually get involved in local policy issues but I had to walk a careful line between voicing my opinion and keeping my job. If I had been offered an anonymous way to influence policy related to my work, I would have found the time to do it.

@Paul Bruno- I’m not suggesting that teachers should be policy makers who spend their days discussing education policy or that we should encourage good teachers to leave teaching for careers in policy. Teachers who move into administration and policy seem to quickly forget what it was like to be “in the trenches.” All of a sudden they are quoting the county’s platitudes and every new policy is “for the children.” I have only met a few administrators whose experience in the classroom really made them more informed leaders.

We don’t need more teachers to become wonks. We need wonks who value teachers’ experience and want to give current teachers a voice in policy discussions. Since teachers don’t have much time, we need a quick and easy way to get them involved. As I mentioned before, I think VIVA Teachers was able to do that with their idea exchanges. Maybe there are other ways out there too.

We need to come up with a way to hear from all of the stakeholders (parents, students, teachers) so that before we write a policy that will affect the masses, we understand the full extent of the problem and have considered all of the possible solutions. Teachers, parents and students will likely base their recommendations on their experience rather than data and research. Some of their ideas will be improbable, but some will be ideas that policy makers alone would never have considered. Teachers can also help policy makers understand why certain education theories do not always work in practice.

Then policy makers can create a policy (based on research AND real classroom experience) which is more likely to succeed and which all stakeholders can respect.

"I said that the “good ones” were dedicated to their career."

No, you were very specific about what "good teachers" did:

"After a few years some teachers find that their work load gets easier, but the good ones (the ones who would like to have time to read about education policy) fill that extra time with new ways to benefit students and their schools."

In other words, teachers are never "good at their jobs" without spending all their time thinking about how to improve their teaching. You are now backpedaling, but your original post clearly displayed your limitations--not as a teacher or a subject matter expert, but as an analyst of teaching and educational policy. You have strong beliefs about what a "good teacher" should be, and it comes down to being a martyr. That is a temperament issue.

"I did eventually get involved in local policy issues but I had to walk a careful line between voicing my opinion and keeping my job. If I had been offered an anonymous way to influence policy related to my work, I would have found the time to do it."

I mention this in my post as well. In a world where teachers can get fired for expressing any political or social policy view, it's dangerous. This, I agree with.

But any teacher who wants to be discuss policy has to not only get off the damn cross but stop insisting that the profession *should* be on the cross, that the best ones enjoy the cross. Most teachers are incapable of that. Particularly, in my view, the ones with the high achievement markers that everyone's thinking of when they discuss upgrading the teacher pool.

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