As MinnCAN’s teacher policy fellow, I recently visited Washington, D.C. to attend Ed Fuel’s Leadership Labs and to learn from teacher advocates at the National Council on Teacher Quality and Teach Plus. Diving into the world of advocacy and policy, I kept returning to one question: When it comes to education, who has the power?
Do I—a white, Christian, English-speaking, dual-income-family, middle class, female and tenured teacher—have the power? After all, if I take a good hard look at my own privilege, I must concede that people like me designed our current public school system, largely still staff it and often benefit from its design.
NYCAN Executive Director Derrell Bradford argues that no one willingly gives up power, because maintaining the status quo benefits those in charge.
So do teachers like me—who built and staff our schools—have the power? If so, has an unwillingness to give up benefits like traditional tenure and teacher compensation models explain why, despite significant policy changes since the mid-1950s—including Brown v. Board, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the 1975 IDEA legislation for students with disabilities, and No Child Left Behind—so much remains the same in our schools?
Take, for example, school segregation. According to Michelle Molitor, an Ed Fuel presenter and principal of EL Haynes Public Charter School, public schools are almost as segregated today as they were before Brown v. Board. Michelle shared data from the Civil Rights Project, revealing that more than 74 percent of African-American students and 80 percent of Latino students attend schools where a majority of the population consists of only one minority. Schools serving the most African American and Latino students are nearly twice as likely to employ teachers new to the profession.
Again, I wonder: Who has the power?
If advocacy is defined as a force of power to start something, stop something or take something, then when it comes to public schools, I believe we teachers have power—maybe not all of it, but certainly some. And if Voltaire is right—that with great power comes great responsibility—surely we teachers must use whatever power we have to lead efforts to improve our schools. With kids’ lives at stake, we can’t afford to use that power simply to maintain the status quo.
In D.C., I learned that external education stakeholders—including parents, philanthropists, non-profit groups, journalists, community organizers, and “sector switchers”—recognize teachers’ power and responsibility, and are looking to us to lead. According to 50CAN President and Founder Marc Porter Magee, we teachers are part of “the emergent network”—we have power from the inside and incentive to translate effective practices into equitable policies.
But because we teachers don’t have all the power, and because so many stakeholders are invested in improving our kids’ futures, what if advocacy was less about exerting power and more about developing power with others?
If we want to create a new school system that benefits our diverse students—and not those who designed the system—then there is no doubt about it: we educators must challenge, not defend, the status quo. We should work together, and with other stakeholders, to responsibly and fairly re-examine tenure, create more teacher career pathways, empower site-based leadership, better align school funding, and strengthen teacher evaluation and quality compensation models.
Fellow educators and change-makers, let’s challenge each other this school year to develop our power by trying at least one new advocacy tool. It is your responsibility to:
- Participate on your school’s leadership team or site council.
- Invite community members and elected leaders to your classroom.
- Attend a school board meeting.
- Contact a legislator about an education issue.
- Apply to join an E4E teacher policy team, like the newly launched teacher diversity team.
If teachers want to change the status quo, we must lead in both our classrooms and in our communities. We have power, and our kids and neighbors are counting on us to use it.
Holly Kragthorpe teaches seventh-graders at Ramsey Middle School in Minneapolis, where she is a union steward for Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, a school captain for Educators 4 Excellence, and a teacher blogging fellow and teacher policy fellow for MinnCAN.