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Suggestions for Teachers Speaking Truth to Power

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “How Professional Educators Can Make Policy Work for Their Profession” by Frederick Hess in Kappa Delta Pi Record, October-December 2015 (Vol. 51, #4, p. 160-162).
In this article in Kappa Delta Pi Record, Frederick Hess (American Enterprise Institute) says that many American teachers are feeling disempowered, disrespected, and ignored by policymakers and legislators. “Believe it or not,” says Hess, “teachers have a sympathetic audience. People care what teachers think.” According to the 2013 Kappan/Gallup poll on schooling, more than 70 percent of Americans have “trust and confidence” in public school teachers. But educators need to be smart and strategic in how they present their concerns, says Hess. “Put simply, teachers must engage as professionals if they are to change a maddening status quo. Doing so can empower them to take a more assertive role in shaping policy that promotes a more professional culture.” Here are his ideas for educator advocates:
• Teachers need to recognize that they are in an asymmetrical relationship with policymakers. “These officials can do more for educators than educators can do for them,” says Hess. “For better or worse, education is going to be governed by public officials. Those officials determine how money will be spent, performance will be judged, and children will be served.”
• Given that unequal power relationship, winning policymakers’ trust is essential. “It helps enormously to know what policymakers are looking for,” says Hess. They want to do good things for their constituents, but aren’t always sure what’s the best way to “do good.” They get conflicting advice, have limited resources, and are extremely reluctant to raise taxes. They know that good ideas are sometimes messed up in practice, so they’re wary about whom to trust. “That’s why they’re eager to find people who understand their aims, know what’s happening on the ground, and can help boost the chances that policies work as intended,” says Hess. “How do you convince them that you’re one of the people they can rely on?”
• Recognize the environment policymakers live in. “Practitioners can expect policymakers to be busy and scattered,” he says, “so they’ll pay more attention to 10 people than to one and to a concrete proposal than a vague suggestion.”
• Trust-building begins with acknowledging weak links and suggesting solutions. “For example,” says Hess, “if police stand by silently when colleagues fail to perform acceptably, or excuse irresponsible colleagues, we question their professionalism. That may be unfair, but the result is a loss of confidence all the same.” According to a recent survey in Education Next, teachers say that about five percent of those teaching in their local schools deserve an F grade and another eight percent deserve a D. This handful of poor performers will dominate the policy discussion unless the problem is faced squarely and constructive ideas are offered.
• When addressing policymakers in public forums, don’t start by demanding more money. Everyone wants more money, even school districts spending more than US$20,000 per student a year. “If policymakers had more money to give,” says Hess, “they would give it.”
• Emphasize shared concerns. “In other words, presume that they care about the same kids that you do,” says Hess, “and explain the idea with a view to how they might see things.”
• Talk about the things that policymakers can change. “Think beyond your immediate frustration,” says Hess. “Make sure you know what change you’re asking for and how the policymaker you’re talking to might help. Officials can’t help people with things they don’t control.”
• Bring data. “Your voice and story matter,” he says, “but data supersizes the impact.” It’s especially compelling when teachers talk about measurable gains in student achievement and how they happened.
• Articulate what should happen. Say specifically what needs to change and how that change will solve the problem. “That takes some work,” says Hess. “It’s not easy, and it will require talking to people and making sense of things. Once you do that, though, you’re a huge asset to a policymaker.”?

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