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An Advocacy Adventure

This guest post is from James Davis, NCTE’s P12 policy analyst from Iowa. 

The mid-November email invitation from Lu Ann McNabb was innocuous enough: “You are JimDavis200607 Holding Journal - chestinvited to a group discussion facilitated by a US DOE Teacher Ambassador at the NCTE Annual Convention. . . .  Ambassadors represent teacher voices on important topics that impact policy decisions.” As an NWP site director who has participated in numerous legislative visits, I know it can be more valuable to inform and influence someone who “has the ear” of a policy maker at the right time than to speak directly to the official policy maker.  I grabbed the opportunity.

With 20 or so colleagues from across NCTE, I showed up for the session with Meredith Morelle, a former news person (she characterized herself as “contributing to the problems”) who in 2002 completed alternative certification (“Uh oh,” I thought) to become a teacher and act on her social justice passion. She now has opportunities to talk with policy makers. Characterizing herself as “on board” with the DOE using teachers better in pursuit of a “quality and access (equality)” agenda, Meredith began by asking “What is going well?” We teachers stressed project-based inquiry, especially focused on local conditions; empowering student voices and what works for student learning; teachers helping teachers, including grassroots mentoring and enhancing teacher agency; and personalized learning, strengthened by access to digital sources. Passions were evident, as was some cautious hope for emerging attention to teacher leadership.

The tenor shifted when Meredith asked “What’s keeping you up at night?” No. 1 on the hit parade was the negative effect of testing, especially as a narrowing influence on curriculum and instruction, and as a co-opting of professionalism. The de-professionalizing effect of teacher load received its due as well, as did concerns like our difficulty attending effectively to English language learners, meeting the realities of diversity. Nothing, however, resonated like the debilitating effect of teachers’ loss of professionalism through mandates and “replicable” scripted programs, attributed to forces—rhetoric and policies—deliberately reducing teacher status and exacerbating load, quite clearly with the goal of greater commercialization of schooling and to the detriment of public education. No recent administration, regardless of political affiliation, was touted as a real champion of public education or of teachers as crucial agents of democracy. The chair of the Conference on English Education eloquently lamented the matter of an untenable teaching load, at all levels, ironically compounded by vilification, in press and policy, of those carrying it!

Ending a semester and watching the progress of the ESSA delayed my follow-up thank you note to Meredith for listening to our concerns and carrying them wherever she could. Of course, I suggested that 50 state focuses for centralization would scarcely improve our situation over one federal location, as so much depends on enactment of ESSA and true teacher leadership therein. Large-scale testing, for example, is such a concern because it informs, often spuriously, centralized decision making distant from schools and classrooms and from efforts to prepare teachers. Meredith heard these concerns: some statements from our session appear in “Top 5 Quotes: Wisdom from educators heard by ED” in the Dec. 10, 2015, Department of Education newsletter The Teachers Edition. Later she wrote, “Those were just two of many. The folks who attended had such important input and insights!”   ‘Tis encouraging to be heard . . . now to reach the right ears at the right moments.

Jim Davis began teaching in southwest Missouri as an NCTE and affiliate member, attending his first annual convention in Milwaukee in 1968. Now in his 50th year in our profession, he teaches English education and directs the Iowa Writing Project at the University of Northern Iowa.