Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Why Teachers Should be Included in Education Policy-Making

May 29, 2012

One of the things that has always surprised me is the lack of teacher’s voices in education policy.

Many people at the highest levels of local, state and federal education departments have generally had little to no classroom experience. In addition to being concerned about this distance between policymakers and practitioners, I also worry about what this means for my career. Will I always be relegated to a school building or a cubicle in a district office?  Will my expertise ever be recognized in education policy? Is there anyone I can look to who has made the transition from teacher to policymaker?  

When I originally began teaching in New York City, I was bright eyed and bushy-tailed, excited about all the ways that I could change education. After reading John Dewey Experience and Education, I was thrilled about teaching students through collective experiences and letting the world be our classroom. While I was able to accomplish this within my four walls, apparently that’s where my influence ended.  As I began to deepen my understanding of the education system and could envision reforms that would help things along, I realized there was no place to share my thoughts. 

At all levels, teachers have no voice in local education policy.

While there were plenty of opportunities to have conversations with other teachers on blogs and Department of Education sponsored professional learning communities, there were seemingly no pathways for educators to have direct conversations with those tasked with reforming the system. Here in New York City, for instance:  

  • At the school level teachers serve on School Leadership Teams, which have the job of establishing school based policies regarding budget and curriculum.  However, the power of these teams to bring impactful school change often goes untapped.  In many schools it turns into upholding the status quo instead of piloting suggestions.
  • There are Community Education Councils comprised of parents, community members and a non-voting high school student. These councils can serve as advisory panels for overcrowding, kindergarten admissions and school zoning. However, they lack teachers’ voices.
  • At the city level there is the Panel for Educational Policy, which makes decisions on everything from school closures to trip regulations.  It is comprised of eight members who are appointed and removed at the Mayor’s discretion, and five members who are appointed by each borough president, teaching experience not required.

At all three levels, teachers have no voice in local education policy. (In reality teachers should not only be at the table, but should be part of facilitating the discussion.) As someone who wants to help bring broad-scale changes to education I’m left feeling blocked out of these reform opportunities.

This explains why when strangers realize I’m a teacher and ask polite questions about the state of education, all my thoughts come pouring out. After ten years in the classroom, I’ve developed opinions about it all: the public release of teacher evaluations has had a detrimental effect on teacher morale; class size really does matter; no, I’m not a strong proponent of mayoral control; and yes, having students take a high-stakes exam days after coming off of spring break with little time for meaningful review is ridiculous.

These strangers-turned-therapists get so much more than they probably care to hear. And while this usually turns into an exhilarating conversation, I also want to have these discussions with those who have the power to change education policy on a larger platform.

In New York, as in other locales, change can start in the schools. It would be empowering to enter a School Leadership Team meeting and know that my voice counts. After discussing the pros and cons of curriculum changes, can we pilot a program and see how it works in one class or grade before the idea is completely dismissed? Also, can the Community Education Councils have school representatives? Not only would this allow teachers to influence local education, but it would open the avenues of communication between parents and schools. Finally, the Panel for Education Policy should be a diverse mix of educators, community leaders, and others who have a stake in the academic success of our children.

Instead of private meetings behind closed doors, teachers should be invited to play a role in improving  the very thing that we build our lives around – education. We are experts in more than just reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Children are more than just data points to us.  We must restructure local policy-making bodies to include teachers so education policy is shaped by those who practice it daily.

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