Earthling’s voyage to planet policy

Last week I had my second unusual opportunity to attend a policy meeting on recruiting and retaining high quality teachers in high need public schools. This meeting was convened by Center for American Progress (CAP) in Washington, D.C., and was meant to shape recommendations to the new federal administration on this critical issue in education. Teachers and students at my school were excited that I would be able to advocate for them at such a “high” level, and my principal was wonderful to allow me the day away from school for the cause.

The meeting was at the very grand Regis Hotel. Fifty or so people from foundations, institutes, companies, and organizations, all with an interest in ed. policy, sat around a large rectangular configuration of tables under a crystal chandelier and spoke through microphones when called on by a moderator from CAP.  I must say, many of the voices at this meeting were much more difficult to listen to than those at the Ford Foundation meeting in NYC, for several reasons. First, the meeting was quite large and I noticed that most participants said their pieces without responding to other speakers’ points.  The trajectory of the discussion was thus disjointed and very little real conversation seemed to take place.  Second, I was taken aback by just how removed most of the discussion was from the realities of real teachers and students in high need schools, which I thought would be the focus of the meeting.

As the sole practicing teachers in the room, Renee Moore and I were each given five minutes toward the end of the agenda to provide a “teacher’s perspective” on what it will take to keep us in the profession.  We both talked about the need to recognize and build on the expertise of effective teachers in high needs schools and the need to improve the conditions under which teachers work from a variety of vantage points. We agreed that attention to these two points would be more powerful than the sole use of financial incentives for teachers in high need schools, though increased compensation would be a valuable component of any initiative to recruit and retain teachers in such schools.

I’m told that not long ago, teachers were not invited to the annual CAP meeting, and until recently, not allotted formal time on the agenda to speak.  So what I’m about to say should be understood within a context of progress made in the ongoing struggle for the inclusion of teacher voice in education policy.

After Renee and I each spoke, participants focused their discussion around the need to fine-tune existing data systems.In fairness, these first few comments were from people who had been recognized by the moderator before Renee and I spoke, and had been told to wait until after our piece. Nonetheless, except for one or two comments that made reference to either of our points, our messages were all but ignored. Participants seemed to be fighting to get their own last points made before the day was done.

The emphasis on data systems seemed questionable to me in a discussion of recruiting and retaining teachers in high-need schools. While I agree that good data is an important piece in determining what changes need to be made, as a few participants pointed out, we already have the data we need to know when and why people leave high need schools. Considering how tight the budget will be in today’s economy, and how many good teachers are leaving the profession each year, immediate action is necessary to begin to fix the situation–not more looking at it from afar under the light of a crystal chandelier.

While these policy-wonks [I now understand why that expression is used] went around and around the mulberry bush about data — just after Renee’s and my points, and again after small group discussions — I felt my blood pressure rising.  I actually had the heated thought, “Well if this is what our profession is being turned into, maybe I will leave after all. Most of these people obviously wouldn’t care.” Though I’m a conscious resister of the forces that propel so many teachers to leave the classroom, this feeling provided a window into the depth of the problem with many of the people who influence education policy.  Frankly, they are stuck in a conversation with themselves. It’s the same problem that we see when teachers don’t think to include student voice in their classrooms. The “learning” or progress falls short, because there is no real conversation. (Interestingly, the national high school dropout rate in urban areas is approximately equal to the national teacher attrition rate for teachers in the first five years: 50%. Coincidence? I think not.)

A lot of people came up to me after the meeting and said how great it was to “hear your story.”  But soon enough, this compliment fell short. Did they understand what I was getting at? Were they willing to discuss the issues?

After one of the moderators was the fourth person to say, “I’m so glad we got to hear your story,” I decided to speak up.

“Thank you so much for having me,” I said, “but I was disappointed that the concluding remarks of the meeting seemed to focus only on data [a tool to diagnose problems and track progress] and not on any plans to actually address the issues of teacher retention.”

She replied, in a gentle tone, “Oh, but we talked about those things…”

“Yes,” I responded, “but I really didn’t see those issues addressed in the recommendations for the new administration, which was strange and surprising.”

I hope that I showed that I’m not satisfied JUST BEING at a fancy meeting.  I’m not a storyteller, and I’m not trying to be a celebrity teacher collecting feathers in my hat. I may be dazzled by a crystal chandelier, but I don’t forget the reality that brought me there. Most of all, I cannot justify taking a day away from my students to be listened to, but not heard.

So here I am, singing into the blogosphere… holler if you hear me!

[image credit: http://ciclops.org/media/gl/2007/4076_9552_1.jpg]