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Expert teachers: Candidates need to consult them on the trail

Florida teachers could get a big pay increase

This week could be a big one for education. Democratic presidential candidates are in New Hampshire, hoping to convince voters to support their visions. At the same time, this week marks the third anniversary of Betsy DeVos’s appointment as Education secretary and a period of federal policy that has been disastrous for public schools. 

Contrasts between current visions for education policy by Democrats and Republicans remain stark. While DeVos pushed to cut billions of dollars from the education budget and shift millions to private companies investing in for-profit charter schools, several Democratic candidates outline generally consistent education policies with different priorities from DeVos.

For instance, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) prioritizes increased public funding for early education, K-12 and college. Mayor Pete Buttigieg advocates for better teacher pay, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) espouses accountability for charter schools and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is for increased teacher diversity. 

As a teacher educator and education researcher with more than 15 years of experience, I find these policy visions hopeful. But one thing has not changed, and it concerns me. Teachers are essential experts in the field. Yet it seems that regardless of who is in the White House, teachers’ influence among policymakers is too limited.

The lack of teachers informing education policy is not a surprise. In fact, there’s a troubling trend in federal education policymaking: Too often, the “experts” consulted by education policymakers and quoted in education news represent research and lobbying institutions funded by private interests — not teacher interests.

Consistently, education policy is designed by people far from the day-to-day realities of the classroom, instead of the people who live public education as classroom teachers.

It’s time to see teachers as a necessary voice on learning and bring them into education policy decision-making, regardless of who’s at the nation’s helm. Teachers are degreed, licensed professionals responsible for moving kids to the next level of learning, and their expertise ranges from in-depth content knowledge to students’ social and emotional development. There is much we can all learn from them.

Ironically, narrow legislative emphasis on teacher accountability is only one-way teachers get the blame for any shortcomings in U.S. student achievement when in effect it’s teachers who find a way to make up the gaps when students’ home communities lack investment and opportunity. Research shows that over 90 percent of teachers pay for classroom supplies out of their own pocket or through crowdfunding sites, and that doesn’t acknowledge what I know from working in high-poverty schools: despite their relatively low pay as professionals, teachers give much more than that. Many keep food on hand, buy bus passes and lend cash when a student can’t pay for childcare to attend school.

Teachers are there for students every day with much more than money, though. Teachers are role models and mentors who spend their days cultivating the relationships shown to keep students in school. They pick up the slack when budgets are cut, finding ways to meet the needs of children with learning and language challenges, as well. 

This is not to say all teachers do it all and that humans don’t make mistakes. But it’s a grave problem that despite the education, experience, and commitment of the majority of teachers, they don’t have a legitimate seat at the tables where education policy is designed. They have to strike to be heard, and then, as in Chicago, newspapers covering the strikes and the mayor accuse them of hurting the kids. This shouldn’t be the case.

Ultimately, like it or not, teacher unions consistently represent the largest number of teachers. Some of the most successful recent teacher strikes have been based on Bargaining for the Common Good, a model for forging alliances with community groups and others to demand action on shared priorities. As unions expand their vision and voice in this way, they move beyond simply endorsing candidates to become informed resources for policy initiatives. So it’s not that teachers aren’t trying. It’s that they’re not getting through.   

Until the day when teachers join education policy discussions, at the table rather than in the streets, legislators at every level will continue to reinforce a status quo of education policy designed beyond schools to be implemented on schools instead.  

The Democratic field is still wide open and there are many decisions to be made before the November elections. Sen. Sanders says he likely will appoint an Education Secretary with teaching experience. Sen. Warren says she will appoint a former public school teacher as Education Secretary. This is good news.

But while encouraging, talk about a teacher as Education Secretary is limited. Presidential candidates need to talk about how they’re seeking out needed perspectives by reaching out to educators right now, on the trail.

Legislators can take better advantage of the many ways teachers have organized to try to influence policy-making. This goes well beyond union support at election time. For example, The Center for Teaching Quality, Teach Plus and Educators for Excellence, which just released the results from a national survey of teacher policy priorities, are just a few grassroots-based advocacy organizations with specific missions to get teacher voice into education policy debates.  

It’s time for legislators to recognize the value of teachers in and beyond the classroom, now, while policies are still taking shape. 

Dr. Jennifer L. Cohen is an associate professor of Education in the Department of Teacher Education at DePaul University’s College of Education and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Betsy DeVos Elizabeth Warren Pete Buttigieg

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