Why Teachers' Voices Matter in the Education Reform Debate

Teachers are a goldmine of information about what schools and students need. So why do we so often ignore their voices?

Photo Credit: Monkey Business Images via

I have been a teacher for 31 years. From my early 20s into my early 40s, I was a public high school English teacher. Around 2002, I moved to higher education, where I am primarily a teacher educator but also have a role as a teacher/director of writing in my university's first-year seminar program.

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Throughout my time as a K-12 public school teacher, I was, for most of those years, a department chair, a position for which I received no stipend and no release time. Along with being a full-time doctoral student for three years and adjunct instructor at local colleges while remaining a full-time high school English teacher in the mid-'90s, I spent the last third of my K-12 teaching career coaching soccer. My coaching stipend, after taxes, added about $70 a month to my check, and I remained an uncompensated department chair throughout those years.

My first years teaching high school included five courses in a six-class-period school day (with a planning period and including my role as faculty sponsor/teacher of the journalism class) of about 30 to 35 students per class. Each class required a separate prep (different courses with different textbooks for each class, totaling about 15 vocabulary, grammar and literature textbooks I had to juggle along with learning to teach). From my first day teaching English, I considered my primary responsibility was to teach students how to write.

Over those 18 years, I read and responded to about 4,000 original, multiple-draft essays as well as about 6,000 journal-type single-draft writing assignments each academic year.

While teaching and coaching, my day went something like this:

I’d arrive at school between 7 and 7:30am, rushing into the athletic offices to put my teams’ uniforms in the washing machine. After my first-period class, I would run down the hall, back to the athletic offices to throw the uniforms into the dryer. Between second and third periods, I’d run back to the athletic offices to take the uniforms out of the dryer. My planning period was spent folding and sorting the uniforms, placing them in the players’ cubbies for the next match.

On more than one occasion, I was reprimanded by administration because I wasn’t stationed at my door, shirking my hall duties.

My lunch period was about 20 minutes; I ate in my room, responding to essays essentially every day.

During soccer season, I rushed directly to practice or matches as soon as the school day ended—my work day concluded around 6pm when we practiced, and 10 or 11pm on match days.

My point is that this is a typical day for K-12 public school teachers. We almost never pause, and we are being watched by students and administrators virtually non-stop (this has a psychological weight that few people other than teachers understand). Along with our responsibilities to know our content and to teach our students, we are also responsible for the safety of other people’s children.

An atypical day included coming home with my clothes splattered with the blood of two young men I separated fighting in study hall when I was passing by on my way to the restroom. An atypical day included walking out of my room and bumping into a student gunman (someone I was teaching). An atypical day included receiving a call that the school building had burned to the ground.

My point is not that my story is some Herculean feat worthy of praise. My story is replicated and exceeded daily by those of thousands and thousands of K-12 public school teachers—many doing so three and four decades, not just my two.

Over about 150 years, the more-or-less modern public school teacher has worked in ways I describe above. Mostly, they have done so without having much voice in how their profession is administered and what policies mandate their practices.

Since public schools are government agencies, policies are mostly designed by elected officials who have virtually no classroom teaching experience. (In unionized states, it is influenced by unions, though that influence has dwindled as many teachers work in right-to-work states where they have almost no power or voice.) Historically, even school-based administrators rise to their positions with minimal time teaching day-to-day; administrators (mostly men) teach and coach three or so years, and then become assistant principals, then principals, district office officials and superintendents.

Teaching as a mostly voiceless and powerless profession must not be separated from the reality that teaching has disproportionately been the work of women. Where educators have had the most power (and highest salaries), you find, again disproportionately, men.

Let me raise my larger point: I continue to see a number of people weighing in on the education reform debate bristle as classroom teachers call for their voices to be heard and point out that education debates and policies are being driven by people with little K-12 classroom experience (such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee).

Although not a simple argument, it is an essential argument: Classroom teaching experience and teachers’ voice should matter, by driving the education reform debate as well as informing education policy.

Classroom Teaching Experience and Whose Voice Matters

I am not saying that people without classroom experience should have no voice in the education reform debate. My primary argument about professional autonomy and education policy is that the initial and primary voices that matter should be classroom teachers and people with significant classroom teaching experience (this is also a problem in teacher education where education professors often hold positions with little or no classroom experience).

Historically and currently in the field of education, the public voice and policy paradigms are greatly flipped since those without classroom experience hold most of the public voices and almost all of the power to create and impose policy on schools.

Consider the influence of education historian Diane Ravitch, whom I have characterized as Ravitch 1.0, Ravitch 2.0, and Ravitch 3.0. Many who reject criticisms of educational reformers without classroom experience point out that few people raise any concern about Ravitch, who openly admits she has no K-12 classroom experience. (When Ravitch spoke at my university, this is the first point she raised at her pre-speech talk to our education students.)

Ravitch 1.0 was a strong advocate for standards and high-stakes testing. During those high-profile years, she wasn’t often championed or even known by many classroom teachers (in fact she may have been considered one of the enemies).

Ravitch 2.0 and 3.0, however, has become one of the most high-profile education faces and voices embraced by classroom teachers—a phenomenon that is ironic, if not puzzling. So what gives?

The evolution of Diane Ravitch has included not only changes in her positions related to education but also a willingness to listen to as well as honor the experiences and voices of classroom teachers.

This means that if you decide to hold forth on education and have no classroom experience, you should not be surprised if you are held accountable when your claims do not ring true among those who teach every day under the policies you endorse or have implemented.

Ravitch 1.0—coincidentally without K-12 classroom experience—supported policy that did not ring true to those of us in the classroom (notably the first two decades of high-stakes accountability throughout the 1980s and 1990s).

Ravitch 2.0 and 3.0—coincidentally without K-12 classroom experience—supports, echoes and endorses policy that rings true to those teaching in K-12 classrooms day in and day out.

If you have never taught in K-12 classrooms, you are unlikely to understand what it is like to spend your entire weekend writing lesson plans for the next week, meticulously correlating everything you and your students will do, minute-by-minute, to the required standards and then having your principal or assistant principal drop in and ask for those plans, only to reprimand you for not being where you said you’d be. Or calling you in to tell you your students’ test scores on high-stakes tests correlated with those standards are not adequate.

As a result, if you have never taught in K-12 classrooms, you may offer a cavalier claim that Common Core is no big deal; you may trivialize the passion and even hyperbole coming from the mouths of teachers who live the reality of high-stakes accountability aligned with CC.

It is there that your credibility correlated to not having classroom experience comes into question. When we call you on this, we are not attacking you; we are not failing the debate with our tone, and we are not overreacting. When you accuse us of these acts, you are stepping into an ugly tradition that includes the silencing and marginalizing of teachers, which tends to be associated with women’s professions, and women.  (Please see more at this Feminist Legal Theory blog post.)

Classroom teachers are almost entirely powerless, disproportionately accountable for mandates they did not create and outcomes over which they have little or no control, and working every day in high-pressure, frantic (and tenuous) working environments. When you discount their emotional responses, their efforts to express the inexpressible through metaphor, their insistence that someone listen to them, you have failed the debate, and you have exposed the flaw of people without classroom experience driving the education debate.

There is a paternalism and oppression of the rational in the education debate that must not be discounted or ignored, as teachers and their experiences and expertise routinely are.

The Common Core debate is just one example. I could spend many more paragraphs detailing this same disconnect about value-added methods for teacher evaluation, high-stakes testing, merit pay, charter schools, and the primary elements of education reform now being proposed and implemented.

Classroom teachers aren’t perfect, and they aren't all universally right. I’ve struggled with classroom teachers over grade retention, corporal punishment, isolated grammar instruction, and more. I once taught a graduate class that included a colleague from my own English department who flippantly said in class, “Oh, you can make research say anything you want.”

So don’t accuse me of offering some romantic tribute to the infallible classroom teacher. I’m not. What I am saying is that education is a field rich in experience and expertise and bankrupt by the unwillingness not to tap into that goldmine.

If you wish to be a part of the discussion and you have no experience in the field, you need to start by really listening, before making any claims. Your solidarity needs to include the same level of passion we teachers feel, to recognize that those feelings matter as much as the rationality you believe you are offering.

An earlier version of this article ran on The Becoming Radical blog.

Paul L. Thomas is an associate professor of education at Furman University.