Several presenters at the convocation addressed the issue of what science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teacher leaders can contribute to education policy and decision making. These contributions could take many different forms, depending on teachers’ interests and the contexts in which they work. The result, as the speakers’ presentations detailed, is a vast and largely untapped opportunity for STEM teacher leaders to improve student learning.
The changes required to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) require extensive involvement by teachers, noted Bruce Alberts, University of California San Francisco, in his introductory remarks at the convocation. The NGSS increasingly will require that students “use information—sort, analyze, and critique it—to make and defend arguments, solve problems, and incubate ideas,” he said. Teachers, he noted, will be at the center of the synergistic changes required throughout K-12 education to achieve this vision.
More broadly, teachers are at the center of a complex and interconnected system, Alberts pointed out (see Figure 2-1). Though these interconnections provide opportunities to improve and support teaching—Alberts emphasized the role of college faculty in producing graduates who are prepared to become excellent STEM teachers and teacher leaders—they also can produce gridlock in attempting to change the system.
FIGURE 2-1 Teachers are at the center of a network of influences, which can provide them with leverage for change but also yields a system prone to gridlock.
SOURCE: Modified from National Research Council (1990, Fig. 1, p. 97).
As Alberts pointed out, schools remain predominantly hierarchical organizations. Even as businesses have learned to harvest “ground truth” from their employees to improve systems, many schools have remained relentlessly top-down. “What keeps me up at night is that our best teachers need to have much more influence on the education system at every level, from districts to states to the federal government,” he said.
Alberts’ desire to involve teachers in education policy and decision making was a major impetus behind the creation of the Teacher Advisory Council at the National Academies. A similar organization, modeled after this council, also exists in California and has been extremely successful in making the voices of teachers heard there. “We need one in every state,” said Alberts, “and we need to empower them to have an effect on state policies.”
Alberts also emphasized the need for funding organizations to support projects that replicate and adapt what works and not always focus on innovation. Funding agencies must work to decrease the strong incentives for “uniqueness,” which is an enemy of coherence, he said. Government needs to support programs that have been shown to work so they are used much more widely. “If all we have is innovation and no spreading of what works, then we won’t make much progress,” he stated.
“What are the benefits of engaging teachers in policy?” asked Diane Briars, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, who also was the mathematics director for the Pittsburgh Public Schools for 20 years. She provided two answers in her presentation.
When policy makers think about the best ways to attract and retain talented STEM teachers, they tend to think about pay raises, she said. But “that’s typically not what I hear when I talk to teachers,” said Briars. Instead, she related, teachers are more interested in things like teaching one less course so they have time during their workday to collaborate and engage in professional activities. Teacher engagement in policy making could help implement such ideas.
Teachers also can help change what they may see as counterproductive policies. For example, many teachers are overwhelmed with assessments at different levels, including district, state, and federal levels, said Briars. Involving teachers in education policy would help reveal how multiple policies coming to bear on a single classroom can have the opposite of the effect desired by the policy makers who design or implement them.
Teachers need time to be prepared and to become engaged with education policy and decision making, Briars noted. A major difficulty in education today is the public perception that teachers are working only when they are in front of students. Teachers need time to interact with other teachers, reflect, and improve their own practice, she said.
At the same time, Briars added, teachers have the most convincing voices on education issues of interest to the public, such as the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Teachers need time and support to develop not only the knowledge but also the advocacy strategies to influence policy, she stated, “so that we are all working together to improve mathematics and science education and not working across purposes.”
High school chemistry teachers have played “a prominent role in advising and guiding the development, design, and implementation of a number of our programs, products, and service offerings,” said Terri Taylor, assistant director of K-12 education at the American Chemical Society (ACS). As she explained, the ACS is a large scientific association, with more than 161,000 individual members. Its areas of strategic focus include providing information, advancing members’ careers, communicating chemistry’s value, and improving education, and it pursues these objectives through a robust network of members, committees, divisions, and local sections.
Over time, education has increased in priority within the ACS, said Taylor. The society has a Committee on Education, which has oversight for educational activities across the organization. One of the committee’s activities has been to develop policy statements, such as the ACS policy statements “Science Education Policy” and the “Importance of Hands-on Laboratory Activities.” The committee also is responsible for the development of guidelines documents, including The ACS Guidelines and Recommendations for the Teaching of High School Chemistry (American Chemical Society, 2012), and it reviews and responds to standards developed by others, such as the NGSS.
High school chemistry teachers have been heavily involved in all of these activities. For example, high school chemistry teachers were integral to the writing and dissemination of the first and second editions of Chemistry in the National Science Education Standards (American Chemical Society, 2008). They also are a key part of the development of resources that incorporate the NGSS. Other ACS publications, such as ChemMatters magazine and the textbook Chemistry in the Community, have benefited tremendously from the guidance and leadership of high school teachers, said Taylor. High school teachers were also directly involved in the advocacy for and establishment of a new organization at the ACS, the American Association of Chemistry Teachers, which was scheduled to launch shortly after the convocation.
High school chemistry teachers bring irreplaceable assets to partnerships with others, said Taylor, including expertise, practical experience, a diversity of perspectives, strategic direction, creativity, and a deep understanding of students, other teachers, and administrators. These attributes “impact our programs and our policies in very significant ways,” she said.
Taylor also described several challenges in involving teachers in education policy and decision making. One issue is the best way to involve novice teachers. Achieving geographic and demographic diversity among teacher leaders also can be challenging, she said. Teachers need logistical and administrative support to participate in policy making. For example, the ACS often pays for substitutes to allow for teachers to travel to meetings. Also, some chemistry teachers resist identifying themselves with a disciplinary organization like the ACS. Taylor noted that sometimes there is a struggle to get educators to buy-in when the American Chemical Society tells them that they are chemistry teachers, that they belong, and that the ACS wants their input and leadership. Lack of this kind of self-identification can be a barrier to getting some great people in the room, said Taylor.
Finally, Taylor observed that she was a high school chemistry teacher who became involved with the ACS and eventually became a staff member. “It’s a testament to the fact that this can work out well,” she said.
Cindy Hasselbring, special assistant to the state superintendent for special projects at the Maryland State Department of Education, brought perspectives from two states where she has worked, Michigan and Maryland. In Michigan, where she was a mathematics teacher for 16 years, excellent teachers are recognized in various ways, such as through teacher-of-the-year awards at the state level and National Board Certification and Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator fellowships at the national level. In Michigan, a single person was in charge of several of these recognition programs, and this administrator realized that the teachers selected by these programs constituted a tremendous resource. She formed an organization called the Network of Michigan Educators that included teachers who had earned these various forms of recognition, with funding from the Michigan Department of Education.
These teachers “bring a different voice” to education policy, said Hasselbring. For example, they talk at state board of education meetings not about the negative aspects of teaching but about the many positive things that are happening in Michigan schools, such as innovative teaching practices and partnerships between schools and community organizations. For state board members, “that has become one of the favorite parts of the state board meeting,” said Hasselbring. The network is also available to answer questions from the state superintendent or state legislative education committee about such issues as the Common Core State Standards, NGSS, or teacher certification. In addition, teachers belonging to the network provide leadership at state education summits. “They are used as a sounding board,” said Hasselbring. “They are valued as a voice that’s different.”
In Maryland, recognized teachers often serve as providers of professional learning. Also, teachers-of-the-year meet with the superintendent to discuss how to address existing challenges, award-winning teachers are providing input to the STEM Education Strategic Plan on which Hasselbring is working, and every school has one trained STEM teacher leader. “People need to value the voice of a teacher,” Hasselbring said. “If you have that, you can find ways to use them in policy.”
Francis Eberle, acting deputy executive director for the National Association of State Boards of Education, noted that many teachers want to work on change outside the classroom, not just among their students. But, he said, teachers take different avenues to work toward this goal.
One avenue, as noted by Hasselbring, is to meet with boards of education and other policy makers. “It provides a reality check for policy
makers,” said Eberle. As an example, Eberle mentioned the issue of graduation requirements. Such requirements can be easy to define for traditional sequences of science and mathematics classes, but the move to more integrated, technology-oriented, or competency-based sequences of classes raises questions about how to credit students for their achievements. Other policy issues where teachers could have valuable input include teacher licensure, partnering with colleges or universities, or implementing the NGSS. In all of these areas, said Eberle, “the teacher voice is very important.”
Eberle also raised several challenges in getting teachers involved in education policy and decision making. Changing policy typically requires persistence, he said. It may take months to make a policy change, or it may require waiting for an entire election cycle. Also, teachers can work only part-time on an issue, whereas lobbyists and others can devote much more time to that cause.
A second challenge identified by Eberle is being prepared to advocate for and implement change. Policy making can be a complex process, involving public hearings, other forms of input, events that have to occur in sequence, and so on. To be effective, teachers need to know how the process works.
Finally, policy making often relies on networks, he noted. Teachers have networks of their own that they can use to influence policy, but these often are different than the networks of policy makers. Nevertheless, teachers’ networks can be very influential in shaping certain kinds of policies, such as those involving student assessments, particularly when teachers are able to involve other organizations in pushing for a policy change.
Barnett Berry, the founder, partner, and chief executive officer of the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ), started his presentation with three pieces of evidence that make the case for teacher leadership.
Teaching remains one of the most revered professions in the eyes of the public, said Berry, but many members of the public still have a difficult time thinking that teachers are working in the best interest of their students when they are not in front of a classroom. However, no other top-performing nation in international comparisons of educational attainment has its teachers in front of a classroom for so many hours per week as in the United States, Berry said. Teacher schedules in other countries also differ from day to day, whereas in U.S. schools, most teachers have pretty much the same schedule day after day. Such flexibility launched and fuels the kind of creativity that is expressed in leadership, said Berry.
In addition, the top-performing countries in international comparisons of STEM student achievement, such as Finland and Japan, or provinces and cities, such as Shanghai and Singapore, invest heavily in teachers and teacher leadership. This teacher preparation and professional development has a heavy emphasis on developing research skills, which Berry said “is the root of much of the leadership that then emerges from those teachers once they enter the classroom.” Teachers do lesson study1 to become more expert in both content and pedagogy, and the professional development systems in these countries provide opportunities to get beyond “what” to teach to “how and why” to teach. For these and other reasons, teaching is more quality-based than data-driven in other countries.
Top-performing countries have a thinner curriculum and more flexibility at the school level for teachers and principals to design a schedule to meet the needs of students, Berry noted. Teachers also have the time to be influential in their communities and to build greater trust with the public so that there is less need for external accountability systems that can limit teacher effectiveness. These countries have sophisticated systems to evaluate teachers and identify teachers needing improvement. Also, Berry reported, in these other countries, 60 to 80 percent of credentialed educators teach children at least part of the day, whereas in the United States, the percentage ranges from 42 to 48 percent.
Polls show that teachers in the United States are looking for opportunities to lead that do not require them to leave teaching, Berry said. Most teachers—84 percent—say they are not interested in becoming a principal, according to one survey (MetLife Foundation, 2012). However, about half said that they are somewhat interested or very interested in hybrid roles that involve both teaching and leading.
CTQ has become an incubator of teacher leaders using this hybrid model, Berry said. It is a champion of “teacherpreneurs,” which Berry defined as teachers who still teach regularly but have the time and incentives to execute their own ideas. More than 5,000 teachers are involved in the community of teacherpreneurs that Berry has helped organize. Some are being supported to teach half time and spend the rest of their time in leadership positions. Some are being funded as virtual community organizers for a variety of projects and initiatives. About 300 have been published in high-profile blogs associated with publications like Education Week, Huffington Post, and Politico. They also have written articles for peer-reviewed journals and four books using other teachers as sources and as peer editors. “If we want more teacher
1Chapter 4 of National Research Council (2010) describes the use of lesson study and other forms of professional development in China and compares those practices with typical U.S. practices.
leaders, we have to help more teachers, who are very busy, go public with their ideas,” Berry said.
Communication is a critical component of these efforts, according to Berry. CTQ provides support to teachers to develop messaging and works with funding partners to elevate teacher voices. For example, a teacherpreneur in Florida had the idea to explain to the public what teaching is in 140 characters or less so the explanations can be sent out as text messages or Tweets. The resulting messages reached more than 3 million people. “This is our first foray in a campaign like this, and there is a lot that can be done with social media to help teachers cultivate their message,” Berry said.2
CTQ also has worked closely with the National Education Association to support teacher leaders and help them rise to positions within the union and lead in structural reform. This is one way, said Berry, for the teacher voice to be front and center while the union voice is present as well.
Teachers have many potential opportunities to learn how to lead, Berry noted. They can mentor each other, engage in “externships” with organizations outside school (which tend to be shorter and more practice focused than internships), and test out their ideas and plans in safe places. They can talk about their ideas with members of the public and have the time to travel and listen to input from stakeholders.
Berry talked about removing some of the barriers to teacher leadership. Leadership requires preservice and professional development programs that both encourage and prepare teachers to lead. It thrives under administrators who understand the conditions needed for teachers to spread their expertise to each other. It requires state and local policies that encourage school districts to reallocate resources and rethink curriculum in ways that capitalize on teacher leadership. And it calls for evaluation and compensation systems that encourage teachers to lead and take risks. Berry suggested that a valuable federal initiative would be to provide incentives to create conditions under which teachers can lead but not leave. “Plenty of teachers are ready to lead if they had the opportunity and space to do so,” he commented.
“We can do this,” Berry concluded. “Hundreds of thousands of American teachers are ready to both teach and lead. With that type of leadership capacity, we can change the world.”
During the discussion period, several presenters focused on ways to counter administrators’ reluctance to promote teacher leaders because of the possibility of increased expenditures. Steve Long, a teacher at Rogers High School in Rogers, Arkansas, and chair of the National Academies Teacher Advisory Council, gave an example of the problem. Until recently he had been able to teach four or five periods a day instead of six and devote the rest of his time to leadership activities. But as funding tightened in recent years, the school informed him that he would need to teach six periods a day again. ‘If you are not in the classroom, then we have to hire additional teachers, and it takes money to make that happen,” he said he was told. Grants can help fill the gap, but any given grant will run out eventually.
Berry responded that other countries have a higher percentage of people in their school systems teaching classes, so each person can teach less. Other countries also have a thinner curriculum that can be organized more flexibly, which gives educators more space to organize their activities. A related initiative, which is happening in some parts of the United States, is to have teachers work on what are called “thin contracts,” which do not specify exactly what a teacher should be doing. In this way, he said, unions can help teachers take leadership roles that go beyond their activities in the classroom.
In addition, Berry pointed out that new models of education involving cyberspace, team teaching, and flexible classrooms can help bring new approaches to scale. He also asked if unions could help teachers gain joint appointments at other institutions, including colleges and universities, as another avenue for teachers to provide critical input more routinely on issues such as preservice and in-service education.
Briars suggested addressing the issue from a research perspective. If policy research could demonstrate the benefits to students and schools of teachers’ participation in decision making, administrators would recognize the multiple benefits of such involvement. They will realize that “this is something that’s going to benefit the system overall … when we support teachers engaging in these kinds of professional activities beyond the classroom,” she said.
Eberle added that collaboration among districts could reveal these benefits even more clearly by showing how teachers’ activities have effects extending beyond the district. However, Robinson observed that enabling teachers to get involved in policy does sometimes mean that they leave a school, which is a loss to that school.
Janet English, steering committee member and teacher, pointed out that an especially productive way to encourage schools and districts to allow their teachers to take on leadership activities is to point out the
ways in which those activities benefit schools and students. “I’ve always tried to define activities that benefit the district as well as the profession and me as a teacher,” she said. She said she also looks for opportunities that come with funding so that the school does not have to cover her time out of the classroom.
Camsie McAdams, U.S. Department of Education, pointed out that the Teacher Incentive Funds made available by the department can support many of the activities discussed at the convocation, including time away from the classroom, different forms of compensation, different roles, and leadership opportunities.3 She also observed that the department has recently launched a $35 million Teacher Quality Partnership Grant Program, which is designed to enhance the preparation of prospective teachers and the professional development activities for current teachers; hold teacher preparation programs at institutions of higher education accountable for preparing highly qualified teachers; and recruit effective individuals, including minorities and individuals from other occupations, into the teaching force.4
3More information is available at http://www2.ed.gov/programs/teacherincentive/index.html [September 2014].
4More information is available at http://www2.ed.gov/programs/tqpartnership/index.html [September 2014].