Posted by Justin Minkel on Sunday, 06/22/2014
I’ve always thought that when it comes to teachers and legislators, we need more marriages and fewer first (and only) dates. I’ve experienced too many one-time meetings that are more a trading of monologues than true dialogue. Lawmakers deliver pre-crafted talking points, teachers speak truth to power without worrying much about whether power listens; meeting adjourned.
Last week I experienced a welcome exception to that script. Five teachers from the Center for Teaching Quality met with 30 Education Chairs from the National Conference of State Legislatures for two days of debate, dialogue, and a shattering of stereotypes.
The meeting was notable for both the candor of the conversation and the level of mutual respect. That respect was in evidence not just during sessions, but in one-on-one conversations as teachers and legislators refilled our seventh cup of coffee or wandered the rocks along the San Francisco Bay once the official day’s business had concluded.
These three statements from legislators have stuck with me.
1. “So what do you think about _____?”
Two minutes after I sat down at a table, a Representative from Tennessee leaned over and said, “So what do you think about looping?” The two-day convening was filled with moments like these. Legislators kept asking us questions—not as a prologue to a dissertation of their own thoughts on the topic, but because they genuinely wanted to know what we thought.
On the surface, the legislator from Tennessee fit the stereotype of a Southern politician—a middle-aged white Republican congressman in a suit—often painted as an opponent of public education. Yet he asked dozens of incisive questions throughout the convening that revealed a keen curiosity as well as a deep respect for teachers’ work.
He told me the second day, “You know, I used to be a teacher, and I loved it. But my wife was a teacher, too, and when we tried to get a loan to buy our first house, the bank told me they wouldn’t extend credit to two teachers—we just didn’t make enough money. So I went into another line of work.”
There were several former teachers among the 30 Education Committee chairs, including a couple of retired career teachers with 35+ years in the classroom. The group also included a Senator-Teacher from Colorado in a fascinating hybrid role; he teaches middle school one semester each year, then goes on leave from his district for the legislative session.
These legislators were all over the map politically. The initiatives they had led in their states ranged from reducing kindergarten class size in Nevada to requiring that every graduating senior in Idaho pass a test on the Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged. But they came to listen, not just to speak, and they asked our opinions on everything from over-testing to teacher prep.
2. “We keep testing because we’re not seeing the results we want.”
On a panel that began with a focus on high-performing countries, I expressed my belief that we’re measuring the wrong things—basic skills rather than 21st century skills. While the U.S. tests students every year with relatively cheap and low-quality tests, many high-performing countries like Finland spend more on tests that measure more complex abilities, but they only test every three or four years.
A legislator from Oklahoma told me, “We keep testing because we’re not seeing the results we want.” It was a fascinating window into the way many lawmakers see testing—as an antidote to low academic achievement, not just a measurement of it. A solution, not just a diagnosis of the problem.
I told him the metaphor of feeding the elephant—though in a fit of state pride, I swapped the elephant for a hog. “If I kept weighing my hog every day, but I never fed the thing, I’d end up frustrated because the hog wouldn’t get any heavier. ‘I keep weighing this animal, but it’s not gaining any weight!’ If you reallocated some of the money, time, and focus that goes into annual standardized testing, and spent it instead on tutoring, professional development, or recruiting skilled teachers for high-needs schools, you’d be more likely to see the increase in student achievement that you want.”
The legislator grinned, and he came up later to thank all of us. It was one of those elusive moments when you come away with the clear sense that you imparted something useful and lasting to a lawmaker, in this case a small but meaningful adjustment in the way he views the connection between student learning and testing.
3. “You’re not, either!”
Near the end of our panel, I told the legislators that they had shattered my stereotype of politicians. They were respectful of teachers, courageous in their convictions (most of them continue to support Common Core despite heat from both the right and left), and dedicated to working on behalf of students. I said, “You are not the stereotype.”
They laughed, and someone from the back of the room called out, “You’re not, either!”
Just as I had my assumptions about lawmakers when I walked into the meeting, they had their own set of assumptions about teachers. Both sides made some adjustments to our stereotypes when a category of people gave way to actual individuals.
Apart from the incremental adjustments we all made in our view of education, the trust built between a handful of teachers and a handful of legislators may be the most important outcome of the meeting.
Teachers have undoubtedly become a scapegoat for all the ills of our education system, real and imagined, ranging from the inferior education that inner-city students receive to the economic threats posed to American dominance by rising nations like China and India.
If you ask people what they think of teachers in general, then ask them what they think of their own child’s teacher, you often hear a glaring disconnect. The stereotype of teachers as lazy, reform-resistant, bottom-of-the-class union goons just doesn’t jive with the reality of hardworking, thoughtful professionals that most parents experience as their child goes through school.
But many teachers do our own share of stereotyping—making sweeping statements about “soulless administrators,” painting anyone from the Gates Foundation as a helmeted clone in the Empire, or assuming that middle-aged white Southern Senators don’t give a damn about lower-income students of color. Sometimes it’s a relief to realize we’re wrong.
The five teachers at the convening gave the legislators plenty to think about. It was remarkable to me that educators from five different states, who teach students ranging from 2nd graders to high school seniors, shared so many convictions when it came to policy solutions. We agreed on the need to develop tests that measure more than pick-the-right bubble basic skills, for example, and that if teacher prep programs are indeed weak, it makes more sense to fix them than eliminate them.
We also broke the stereotyped image some of the legislators had of teachers. They saw how deeply we care about students and how hard we have worked to get better at our craft. They realized that teachers can be constructive partners in thinking through education policy, connecting what works in individual classrooms to the level of state systems.
But we learned a lot from the legislators, too. We realized how difficult and complicated their work can be, and how many barriers exist to common-sense solutions. We learned that sometimes the middle-aged white Representative from Tennessee cares deeply about equity, and the union-busting Rep from Alabama is desperate to bring students in his state the kinds of schools they deserve.
We disagreed about plenty of policy, and the legislators disagreed among themselves. But everyone in the room listened more than we spoke, respected the integrity of the speaker even when we disagreed with their position, and came away from the convening as partners rather than adversaries.
There’s already talk of turning this initial meeting into an ongoing partnership, in which teachers and state legislators could learn together and collaborate on specific legislation.
The convening was exceptional, as first dates go. It just might turn into an even better marriage.