Last Friday I went to Angela Engel‘s talk about “Influencing Education Policy” at the Alternative Education Resource Organization’s 7th annual conference. At one point during the talk she asked for the group’s ideas about who were the power players who influence education policy. She wrote every idea down. A little while later, she came back to the list and said, “you forgot YOU!”
She said policy is really the route to influencing education. She noted that there might be a rift between people at the conference and even among progressive educators generally. Having campaigned for state office in Colorado, she had really honed her ability to connect with people who are different from herself and ask, “What can we do together?” So she worked from the premise at the talk that what we all had in common was a commitment to heal inequities in education. Democracy and a free and just society could also be goals we hold in common.
The 3 pillars of a free and just society she diagrammed were: 1. Media/free press; 2. Government/elected representatives; 3. Free education.
She asserted that high stakes testing designed to hold teachers and students accountable is counter to the goals of the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson believed that citizens needed to be educated in order to hold their government accountable; that a society needs education to create empowered, critical thinkers who could participate wisely in electing their government.
Instead, current learning standards and high-stakes testing are designed to hold teachers and students accountable. They do not create empowered, critical thinkers. Multiple choice items especially reinforce the lowest level of thinking, but so do open-ended or constructed-response questions where something subjective is graded according to what is looked for or what is being allowed.
We need to flip this accountability situation back!
So if Free Education is one of the pillars of a free and just democracy, what are the pillars of Free Education? She says they are:
1. Neighborhood schools; 2. Higher education for the teachers; 3. Public monetary investment; and 4. Policy. All four of these can be influenced, supported and upheld by the people, just regular people.
Neighborhood schools are a community investment [by this I think she meant less about money and more about how neighbors support and look out for the school and their children]. Neighborhood schools foster a sense of local community. I think this also means it really gives children a sense of being from a place, having gone to school with neighbors. [I live in a district with controlled choice but I did have two ways to indicate I wanted my children to go the school we can see from our house. My children have friends from school whose houses they can walk to; the parents get to know one another and care about neighbor’s children etc.]
Higher education for the teachers is crucial. Engel thought it was odd and ironic that at the same time students and teachers are being held to rigid standards, organizations like Teach For America and the New Teacher Project have sprung up with alternative tracks for what she called “non-trained teachers.” She suggests we really need to hear from retired teachers on this topic. [I have a couple of family members who started their careers in Teach for America. It does seem to me that they are largely assigned to the neediest students.]
Public monies are increasingly needed to meet mandates, data analysis and test development. Public monies should be spent to maintain schools [and children’s educational experience, including quality teachers I would add].
Policy. Current policy on accountability is strangling public schools. If you limit and over-regulate schools, how can they be effective? For those who might think that such mechanisms create safety, assurance, security, she suggests reading Alan Watt’s book The Wisdom of Insecurity.
How are we going to flip the accountability system in education back to the direction it should be. She said we need to focus on identifying our allies and consolidating support. The internet especially makes it easy to develop a national strategy. She says all the work being done in the right direction has value, even if it’s not quite what we might call it, or coming exactly from our perspective. She says pressure needs to come from all directions.
Five strategies she gave for identifying allies, consolidating support, and wielding influence: 1. ‘think tanks’; 2. media; 3. campaigning; 4. education; and 5. lobbying.
“Think tanks” can be as simple as bringing together for say, breakfast, all kinds of interesting and thoughtful people. When you are directly connected to a big thinker, share the info, introduce them to others, etc. Identify and bring together folks with a shared message.
As for “media” Engel said “get savvy about using it.” For example, develop relationships with your local journalist. Submit articles, op-ed pieces. Invite journalists and local television to important events. Suggest guests for local radio shows. For example she obtained coverage in the media for the “Friday Food Bags” her school’s teachers had started providing for children they realized did not eat adequately on weekends. She also recently agreed to be an online columnist for a national education publication.
By “campaigning” Engel suggested just volunteering for legislative candidates you support. When you go to help them out, take five or six friends with you.
By “education” she was referring to advocacy and public relations. [Massachusetts Association of School Committees also mentioned advocacy as part of a School Committee person’s role.] She suggested bringing in authors, psychologists, literacy experts to your school for parents. She also pointed out that public educators need to communicate all the good work that goes on in their classroom.
As for “lobbying” Engel suggests supporting your legislators. Put together an educational policy platform. Find out who their education advisor is and communicate with them.
I did buy Engel’s book, Seeds of Tomorrow: Solutions for Improving Our Children’s Education. I hope to review it here sometime this summer. But I’ll admit I did pick up a pile of books there, partly because the authors were around and I could get the books signed, so it might take a while to get through them.