Teacher Advocacy

by | Mar 6, 2009

What Happened in Texas

NCTE Council Chronicle March 2009

Teachers typically do not enter the profession intent on becoming political advocates. Their focus is how best to help individual students, leaving others to look out for students’ and teachers’ interests in the wider world. However, many teachers are recognizing that their classroom efforts are being hampered by forces outside the classroom. In order to counteract those forces, some teachers have become advocates for their profession and their students in the public arena.

For example, in Texas English teachers have found that their efforts to teach English language arts are being compromised by some actions by the State Board of Education (SBOE). Last May, the SBOE passed a set of standards (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS) that, one teacher, Pat Jacoby, described as “flawed standards that will produce errors, gaps and weaknesses in the curriculum.”

The document, say teachers who have seen it, is cobbled together, poorly written and unclear, with many holes in it. Examples include the adopted reading standard: “monitor accuracy of decoding.” Teachers say that reading is more than decoding words; it also uses syntax, semantics and visual information in order to read the text. The teacher version of this standard reads, “monitor accuracy of reading using decoding, syntax, semantics, and visual information.”

Over the past three years, as the standards have been slowly reworked, Texas English language arts teachers learned to form coalitions with other literacy organizations and other professional teaching organizations; to work with state legislators; to use the media to publicize their efforts to create high-quality standards; and to communicate with PTAs, parents and school superintendents. In addition, Texas teachers have begun to recognize the importance of participating more fully in the political process by paying closer attention to local elections, by considering running for local office themselves, and by informing others about local politics and the importance of local elections. The Texas Coalition of Teachers of English Language Arts (TCTELA), a chapter of NCTE, was a driving force in these advocacy efforts.

The discord in Texas comes from philosophical differences between board members and teachers. The majority of board members, led by SBOE chair Don McLeroy, feel strongly that it’s useful to teach subjects like grammar and spelling in isolation from writing, and also that comprehension skills, such as inference, do not need to be taught in more than one year, saying that is repetitive.

Teachers and a minority of board members feel that grammar and spelling ism ore effectively learned in the context of reading and writing. Doing otherwise, says Forth Worth teacher Betsy Oney, “makes about as much sense as teaching a child to ride a bicycle without a bicycle.”

In addition, teachers note that comprehension skiols might appear repetitive, but that each year the texts become more difficult, and that teaching comprehension every year is key to students’ learning critical thinking. Voicing an opposing view, board member, David Bradley, who shares McLeroy’s views, told the Houston Chronicle “This critical thinking stuff is gobbledygook.”

The teachers’ efforts began three years ago, when the TEKS were first being reworked. Although the process was confused and unclear, with the goals and methods changing, teachers worked hard to have their voices heard. For example, Alana Morris, a literacy integration specialist and past president of both the TCTELA and of the Coalition of Reading and English Supervisors of Texas (CREST), and others spoke up to make sure professional organizations had a voice in how the TEKS were revised. Originally those organizations were not included. In addition, regional meetings were held, allowing educators all over the state to review changes to the standards so that they also could have a role in creating quality standards. Attendance at these meetings ranged between 15 and 47 participants representing more than 40 school districts and several universities, and an enormous depth of experience, said Morris.

In addition, TCTELA passed resolutions calling on the board to heed the recommendations of Texas educators, as documented in the CREST meetings, and to broaden its panel to include experts recognized by state and national education English and reading organizations.

National organizations like NCTE also became involved. Kylene Beers, then NCTE president-elect, and Kent Williamson, executive director, each wrote letters to the State Board of Education regarding the TEKS.

Up until one day before the school board voted on the new standards, teachers were cautiously optimistic that, despite their differences with the board their voices would be heard. And then McLeroy decided to rewrite the document. Those board members not involved in rewriting the document received the new version little more than one hour before they were set to vote on it.

Not only did teachers feel this was unfair, after they had spent so much time and energy helping to create good standards, it breaks the SBOE’s own rules that say the standards must be on the Texas Register website for 30 days before being adopted. This rule ensures that the public is able to review the standards.

The teachers were very discouraged, especially since nine of the 16 board members voted to accept these standards. According to state regulations, the adoption of these “flawed” TEKS standards will affect Texas school children for a decade, at which point the standards can be revisited. The state’s standardized tests are based on these TEKS, as are textbooks. As one of the largest textbook purchasers in the country, these standards could well affect textbook content nationwide.

“What happens in Texas does not stay in Texas,” Morris said.

One result of teacher advocacy in Texas was increased media coverage for the events. In addition to covering the flawed process, the media shone the spotlight on several SBOE members. One such board member was Cynthia Dunbar, whose book One Nation Under God: How the Left is Trying to Erase What Made Us Great was reviewed by the Houston Chronicle. According to the review, Dunbar argues in her book that “public education is tyrannical, unconstitutional and the Satan-following Left’s ‘subtly deceptive tool of perversion.’” And that “America’s declining, immoral society is in need of Christian soldiers who will rise up to save it.”

Another result of teacher advocacy was that the Texas House Committee on Public Education held an oversight hearing in July in order for McLeroy to explain why he had systematically ignored expert advice and rushed through standards at the last moment.

In addition to his testimony, 25 others, most of them teachers, also testified. “This was not a democratic process,” said one teacher (Anna) during this testimony. “It was not good for Texas kids and we had no voice in it.”

The teachers may have lost this battle, but this will not stop their efforts to advocate for students. They can count several gains: teachers began to highlight for the public ways the SBOE can negatively impact all children; they made the legislature aware of how the SBOE is an obstacle to the legislators’ own efforts to improve the state; they showed the public and the legislature how to fight fair and professionally; and their experiences have alerted social studies and science teachers of the kinds of tactics the board might use in those upcoming standards revision projects.

“The damage that has been done over the last decade by many of the politically motivated SBOE decisions will not be fixed overnight, said Brock Gregg, governmental relations director for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “But the way the Language Arts community came together and advocated was just what is needed to start down that path.”

“We know we lost the vote but we made some strides,” says Morris. “We know not to turn our backs. It changed us as people, changed us politically. I had always trusted that people have kids’ best interest at heart. But what I learned is they have their own interests at heart.”

Teachers like Morris and Cindy Tyroff, a secondary language arts instructor in the San Antonio area and the NCTE/SLATE (Support for the Learning and Teaching of English) representative for TCTELA, say teachers everywhere can learn from their experiences in Texas.

“The most important thing teachers can do,” says Tyroff, “is be informed about the positions of candidates running for the legislature and for local and state boards that set educational policy.

“Educational board elections receive little publicity but what I’ve learned is that I cannot afford to be unaware again. While I’ve always voted, I now have conversations with friends and relatives about the educational platforms of elected officials.”

Another easy and worthwhile action teachers can take is to fill out surveys that NCTE and other professional organizations conduct regarding educational issues. The results of those polls are provided to legislators, which give them valuable information regarding a particular issue.

“Now that I understand one of the ways these surveys are used, I’m carving out a few minutes to complete each one I receive,” says Tyroff.

Advocacy, Tyroff learned, is about building relationships, including inviting elected officials to schools and discussing practices with them. These relationships need to be built over time, Tyroff warns, not just in a crisis mode, but they can be very gratifying.

“Many elected officials are well-meaning individuals who simply need information, whether in the form of research, classroom anecdotes, or student data, in order to make sound decisions and in order to engage in debates on educational issues.”

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