I asked one of my professors during my first or second year of grad school, How are education policies made? I demanded an answer to a truly impossible question, and my professor’s answer was appropriate: It is a very complex process.
As a fifth grade teacher, I couldn’t fathom the enormous chasm that lived between the in-the-name-of-achievement intentions of various policies and the way they were lived out in actual classrooms. As a brand-new teacher, I assumed these were official laws, coming down on high from some dictator-type person perched in his uncomfortable wooden chair (you know, the kind that swivels and is always featured in movies about teachers). But when I became a literacy coach, and got a glimpse of what it’s like to be an administrator, I realized that decisions about policies–these supposed laws that govern the way schools and classrooms run–are made at many different levels and it’s a lot more confusing than you’d think.
That sounds a little obvious now that I’ve said it out loud, but if you think about it teacher education programs don’t spend a lot of time talking about the history or process of educational policymaking decisions in this country. It seems that policymakers would need and want teachers to know and understand the history and process of educational policymaking, so that they could be active participants in that process once they become teachers. Aren’t teachers the experts on teaching after all? Writing about this makes me think about polls that newspapers and new shows so often speak of. I’ve never been asked a question for a poll for the Post or Daily News or any other publication or production of any kind in my twelve years as a New Yorker, and I don’t know many people who have. How can these polls possibly claim to represent my view if I’ve never been asked? Being a teacher kind of feels like this, only way worse, because they’re not just being narcissistic and complaining–they actually aren’t ever asked, not even a little.
I have to give credit to the administration at both elementary schools in the city where I’ve worked–they listened to their teachers, even if they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) always act on what they heard. Even if you’re lucky enough to work with a principal who has a heart of gold, their hands are often tied by bureaucratic red tape. One time, I was urgently called into the office to help purchase books and other supplies with a large sum of money that the school would lose the following day if we didn’t use it up. This made no sense to me. How were we trying to force the purchase of a bunch of random materials for thousands of dollars when we actually–desperately–need new books? soap in the girls’ bathrooms? pencils? a librarian? But illogical things like this happened all the time, and policies were always at the root.
I remember thinking at the start of the school year, when are kids going to know who their teacher is? There was so much jumbling and re-jumbling of students at the start of September that classrooms didn’t fall into a rhythm until well after Columbus Day. How were we supposed to effectively employ the start-of-the-year rituals we’d learned in our teacher certification programs and new teacher professional development sessions when we didn’t even know who our students would be for the first month of school? How were our students supposed to feel comfortable and ownership over their classroom when they might have to leave it the following day? That supposed plateau that a teacher hits after the first few weeks of guiding students through daily routines when the classroom is running like a well-oiled machine remained a myth for many of us.
I also remember days upon days of additional students in my room in a space that already housed 32. I remember looking up what the UFT contract said about splitting up classes, which is the process of distributing the students of a teacher who is absent among the remaining teachers’ classes. According to the contract, this was only to happen in an emergency situation. For my first three years of teaching, you could almost guarantee it would happen every Monday and Friday when absences were high, and there was one stretch of time when one of my colleagues was on extended sick leave and it happened for several weeks straight. I couldn’t understand–where were the substitute teachers? I inquired once and recall the answer having something to do with a sub pool draught and a thin budget. Like other things that didn’t seem to make sense, this was another “policy” that didn’t quite work and made my job very difficult. And sadly, all it did was make the teachers resent each other when they were absent and got in the way of meaningful instruction.
At the end of the day, it wasn’t the students, the content, my colleagues, or students’ parents who made getting any teaching and learning done nearly impossible when I was a fifth grade teacher; it was the inconsistency in the school environment. The ground beneath our feet always seemed to be shifting–as soon as the schedule was set, it changed; as soon as we mastered a new curriculum, it changed; as soon as we got used to the new learning standards, they changed; as soon as we’d painstakingly written our students’ names in bubble letters on construction paper (and added glitter as long as we knew we’d be getting four hours of sleep tonight instead of five), our roster would change; and the list goes on.
So I guess when I talk about policy, I’m referring to any decision that determines how things “should” go in a classroom/school/district. And in my research, I’m concerned with making sure that the policymaking process starts considering what gets in the way–the stuff that policy decisions don’t often account for or anticipate, and that only teachers know. I mean, who ever decided there should be 300 leveled books (or maybe it was 500…the year 2003 seems so long ago now) in each elementary school classroom library? They certainly didn’t consider how that was supposed to happen in schools that were underfunded, under-resourced, and under-staffed. In my grad school text books, I recall images of jovial-looking teacher types talking and laughing while leveling books at a table in what looked like some sort of well-equipped teacher lounge. The reality of getting my books leveled included weeks upon weeks of late nights looking up titles in a book one at a time (this was before Google being the oracle it is now), writing out different letters on color-coded stickers, covering each label with clear packing tape, and organizing the leveled books into appropriate baskets. Students were kind and helped out, but where was my release time for this behemoth of a task? Why did I have to spend so much of the time I needed to spend preparing lesson plans leveling books? (And for those of you who don’t think teachers work hard enough, I came in early and stayed late for most of my five years in the classroom, and still never had enough time to reasonably meet all of the expectations placed on me. The more I read about teachers’ daily lives, the more I realize my experience is hardly singular.)
Policy is big and expensive, and in my opinion, so out of left field sometimes. I wonder how much news of failing schools, coupled with the growing national anti-teacher union/tenure sentiment, is actually a cloaked mark of the failure of polices like No Child Left Behind (which trickled down to create the 300-some-odd-leveled-books rule), rather than of the failure of students and teachers, which is the more popular theory. Clearly, schools aren’t working as they should; and thankfully, we know a lot of what is wrong. If we could just get policymakers and teachers at the same table regularly, talking, reflecting, and problem-solving together, we could make real change happen. I know it’s not a silver bullet, but it would be a start.