Bringing teachers into the policymaking process
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In the aftermath of this contentious election cycle, it is easy to forget there is something Republicans and Democrats can agree on: Educating all our kids is one of our government’s most important tasks, and one on which our collective future depends. A good education leads to a better life for our kids as they grow into adults and face the demands of an increasingly competitive global economy.

But even as legislators, from the local to federal level, understand the importance of education policy, they often fail to seek counsel from perhaps the most important experts: teachers. As a result, vital pieces of legislation like 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act are drawn up and implemented across the country with limited direct input from those who know America’s classrooms best.

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This is not good politics. Teachers—and the parents of the children in their classrooms—are voters who don’t want to be ignored. This does not yield good policy. As we saw with the No Child Left Behind law in 2001, when we fail to consult teachers, the result is legislation that does not work. We should not make big picture decisions about education policy without consulting the end users who have the most expertise in how those choices play out in our nation’s schools. These laws directly impact the daily lives of tens of millions of American school children, parents and teachers; we need to hear directly from teachers on what they need and what changes they think will have maximum impact.

Our failure to consult teachers on policy also speaks to the broader issue of how we as a society undervalue and underappreciate teachers. This is especially true when we compare the U.S. with other countries – such as Finland – where becoming a teacher is a professional career track on par with being a doctor or a lawyer—and one that commands societal respect.

Fortunately, there is a simple fix. There is a legion of teachers in America, and their knowledge, skills and expertise are waiting to be tapped by any lawmaker or other stakeholder willing to reach out and listen. They could be our “teacher advisors.” We need to engage them from the federal level to the local level, where so much education policy happens and where knowledge of local needs is particularly key.

There are numerous ways to do this, many of which are happening right now across America.  We don’t need to invent new approaches; we just need to expand the models that are already working. For example, teachers can act as full-time teacher advisors to policy-makers for a set period of time. This already occurs with the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship, where science, technology, engineering and math teachers spend 11 months in federal agencies or congressional offices, adding their voices to education policy discussions. Or it could be summer internships like those in the state of Delaware, where teachers spend six weeks working full-time in the state’s Department of Education. Or lawmakers could consult teacher advisory groups, such as the Teachers Advisory Council in Kentucky. Made up of about 40 teachers from across the state, the Council provides a direct line of communication from the classroom to the state commissioner of education.  All these examples are invaluable, but we need more of them to ensure that this engagement becomes the rule, not the exception.

An essential component of any of these initiatives is that the teachers involved are working in the classroom, so that their current teaching experience finds its way straight into policy debates and decisions. Their firsthand experience—more so than theories and abstractions—can be our guide.  

Engaging with teachers in this way helps everyone. Teachers bring their knowledge into policy circles and then take that experience back to the classroom—ultimately bettering both places. Creating space in the policymaking process for teachers’ voices also elevates the status and prestige of the profession, as the public sees practitioners and politicians engaging in dialogue for the betterment of all. These essential conversations provide an opportunity for teachers to take leadership on – and feel ownership over – policies they will help implement in classrooms.  And this collaborative, inclusive approach will yield smarter decisions about America’s classrooms.

If policymakers want buy in from the educators and stakeholders – who will eventually be the ones implementing new policy – we need to ensure that real life experts have a seat at the table as we hash out new education legislation. Including teachers in the development of policy not only benefits the quality of the policy itself – it also bolsters the success of its implementation.

Too often, America’s politicians only hear from educators who are responding to policies handed down to them. That’s reactive; if we wait for that moment, it might be too late. By having teachers as trusted advisors from the start and proactively embedding them in the process of developing policy, both local and federal lawmakers can make sure that America’s kids get the quality teaching they deserve and need. Whether it happens in Congress, a state capitol, or a local city government, politicians from both sides of the aisle can agree on the need to listen to our teachers. Education policy will be at its best when we heed the ideas and input of our teacher advisors.  

Rep. Mike Honda represents California's 17th District. Talia Milgrom-Elcott is the co-founder and executive director of 100Kin10, a coalition of government, public, and private sector groups formed in response to Obama’s 2011 call to train 100,000 STEM teachers in ten years.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.