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November 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 3

Confronting Inequity / Leveraging Teacher Knowledge

Teachers shouldn't be mere "conduits of policy."

EquityProfessional Learning
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A central paradox of the teaching profession is that although teachers are tasked with supporting students in knowledge development, they are often not considered experts of their own craft. Consequently, schools often become places in which teachers are meant to comply with policy rather than contribute to its development. More than 25 years ago, Linda Darling-Hammond (1990) provided a realistic description of the job when she wrote:
The teacher is viewed as a conduit for instructional policy, but not as an actor. As a consequence of this view, policymakers have tended to invest a great deal more in the creation of a control system for teaching than they do in the development of teacher knowledge. (p. 339)
Historically speaking, the downgraded position of the teaching profession might be connected to the overall shift in federal education policy after the landmark A Nation at Risk report (Gardner et al., 1983). In that report, the authors used generalization and invectives to create a panicked conversation around the state of our nation's public schools. They wrote:
America's position in the world may once have been reasonably secure with only a few exceptionally well-trained men and women. It is no longer (p. 14). … We conclude that declines in educational performance are in large part the result of disturbing inadequacies in the way the educational process itself is often conducted. (p. 26)
Thanks in part to such wording, any emphasis on teacher agency within school systems seems to have shifted toward accountability and standardization. Both anecdotal and empirical evidence substantiate this assertion. As a former a high school social studies teacher and now as a researcher in education, I have spoken candidly with numerous teachers who say they don't feel respected as professionals. Moreover, a recent report from Pennsylvania State University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that among professional occupations, teachers ranked lowest in feeling their opinions mattered at work (Greenberg, Brown, & Abenavoli, 2016).

Re-Energizing a Profession

What matters at this stage is whether the tide can be reversed. Could the U.S. teaching profession be transformed so that teachers are considered experts—or "actors," to use Darling-Hammond's word—and not mere "conduits of policy"? What might that change look like? And, perhaps most important, does it matter?
I can offer one promising example from my own career. When I was a classroom teacher at an urban magnet school in Nashville, I had the opportunity to work for an administrative team that explicitly sought to create a system in which teachers' institutional knowledge was included in school-level policy decisions. Norms were developed through faculty meeting practices and other initiatives—including public recognition of teachers for exceptional performance—that centered on ideals of community, discussion, and action. This created an environment in which we as a faculty felt appreciated, respected, and connected.
The school also heightened the role of teacher professional learning communities (groups of five to ten educators from different content areas) in addressing schoolwide issues. At the time, the teacher PLCs were focused on ways to solve issues of inequity within the school. Through the frontloading of teacher institutional knowledge, a basic problem was uncovered: Many students were receiving multiple discipline referrals and suspensions. Specifically, teachers observed that over the years many students would "cut-up" to try and cause a reaction from both the teacher and their peers.
Rather than instinctively blame the students for these actions, the teachers had the institutional, community, and historical knowledge to understand that student misbehavior of this sort was an effect of a larger cause: Many students felt that members of the school community did not take an interest in their well-being. As a faculty, we decided that a way to mitigate this perception was to develop a restorative mediation program to build relationships and support students in making better decisions. We called the program "choose-to-learn" or CTL.
The central idea behind this program was to lessen punitive discipline practices by giving students chances to work through their outbursts with committed faculty members. The results of this initiative could be observed almost immediately. Overall, discipline referrals decreased, and the CTL room became a place most students entered only once or twice—often changing their actions after simply having a faculty member listen to their views.
A major reason for this program's success was our administrative team's belief that teachers had unique expertise on students' needs. By supporting faculty in having a voice in programs such as CTL, leaders created a school environment in which teachers were no longer mere conduits of policy, but contributors to it. This established teachers as respected sources of information and professional knowledge. Moreover, because the whole faculty contributed to the policy design, buy-in for its implementation was strong.

Boosting Teacher Efficacy

This is just one example from one school. But it shows that by developing distributed leadership frameworks and relying on teachers' collective knowledge, schools can not only solve persistent problems, but also begin to challenge inherited structural assumptions about the teaching profession itself.
The paradox of teaching as a profession is complicated. In reality, teachers are both harbingers of knowledge and conduits of policy. For school policies to be effective, however, they must reflect the needs of teachers and their students within their design. For that to happen, teachers must have a role in the development process. This is important to increase not only teacher buy-in, but also personal and collective teacher efficacy. Through leadership models that leverage teachers' expertise, schools can become places in which all members feel connected and supported in reaching agreed-upon goals.
References

Darling-Hammond, L. (1990). Instructional policy into practice: "The power of the bottom over the top." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 12(3), 339–347.

Gardner, D., Larsen, Y. W., Baker, W. O., Campbell, A., Crosby, E. A., Foster, C. A., et al. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. An open letter to the American people. A report to the nation and the secretary of education. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Greenberg, M. T., Brown, J. L., & Abenavoli, R. M. (2016). Teacher stress and health: Effects on teachers, students, and schools [Video]. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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