Teachers are Political Actors. What Does This Mean for Teacher Education?

On August 7, 2013, the New York State Department of Education released the first set of test results tied to the Common Core Learning Standards. The scores were low, and the rhetoric that followed in social media, blogs, and other news sources was swift and stern. Former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and the editorial board at the New York Times proclaimed the test results just desserts for educators who have, for so long, held themselves unaccountable for the failures of schooling. Meanwhile, many of those educators decried the assessments’ confounding language and developmentally questionable content and rebuffed the prospect of leveraging school improvement through high-stakes testing. Carol Burris, the principal of South Side High School in New York City, wrote:

What is… disconcerting is that these reforms are being pursued with little or no evidentiary grounding. There is, for instance, zero sound research that demonstrates that if you raise a student’s score into the new proficiency range, the chances of the student successfully completing college increases… The bottom line is that there are tremendous financial interests driving the agenda about our schools – from test makers, to publishers, to data management corporations – all making tremendous profits from the chaotic change. When the scores drop, they prosper. When the tests change, they prosper. When schools scramble to buy materials to raise scores, they prosper…

Voorheesville Superintendent Teresa Snyder added:

I would bet my house on the fact that over the next few years, scores will “improve” – not necessarily student learning, but scores. They must, because the State accepted millions and millions of dollars to increase student scores and increase graduation rates. If scores do not improve from this baseline, then those “powers that be” will have a lot of explaining to do to justify having accepted those millions.

Embroiled in this political echo chamber of school accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing are teachers and learners. Yet when I ask beginning teachers the question, “What kinds of political actors do you think teachers ought to be, and why?” many look perplexed and shift uncomfortably in their seats. Some respond, “I want to be an advocate for improving kids’ experiences in school, but I’m not sure how, beyond doing the best job I can in my classroom.” Others note, “I entered teaching to help kids find value in the subject matter, not to be an activist.” The latter perspective is not uncommon. Many teachers are loath to think that engaging in political behavior is an upshot of their chosen profession. (In fact, some administrators feel similarly, as education scholar Larry Cuban suggests here.) But of course, teachers act politically all the time, collaterally and overtly, on large and small scales.

Broadly speaking, teaching is a controversial profession. Bandied about in the public sphere are the mythical contentions that teacher quality is the fundamental factor of academic success, and because schools in the United States are producing fewer and fewer so-called college- and career-ready graduates, then teachers must be failing as well. To some, their unions protect planning and professional development time and defend against resource deprivation, massive class sizes, and unfair evaluation practices. To others, they excuse mediocrity by shielding bad teachers from termination and limiting policy makers’ and administrators’ efforts to innovate. On a large scale, the politics of teaching is demonstrated in Indiana and Michigan, where recent legislation bans unions from collecting mandatory fees for negotiating teachers’ contracts; in North Carolina, where Governor Pat McCrory and the General Assembly aspire to reduce teacher education and certification standards; in Tennessee, where the State Board of Education voted to begin revoking teachers’ licenses based on standardized test score data; and in New York, where the federally funded Race To The Top program flooded the state’s education system with no fewer than a half-dozen reform initiatives, all at once – specifically, new learning standards, high-stakes tests, teacher licensure and evaluation programs, data management systems, turn-around plans for underperforming schools, and charter school expansion. By simply joining the profession, teachers and their work are implicated in this kind of politics.

Teachers also engage in intentional political activity in their communities and schools. Sometimes that activity is public, partisan, and progressive, perhaps taking the form of blogs or advocacy initiatives that challenge the accretion of high-stakes testing. Yet research by Diana Hess suggests that many educators try to keep politics out of their teaching to avoid accusations of bias or even litigation, and to provide students with space to explore different political positions and make up their own minds about them. Those efforts often prove paradoxical. One reason is that education is a public good; and thus, it makes sense that educators would support efforts to strengthen that good – by lobbying to fund programs that bolster students’ chances of academic success, for example, or publicizing the negative consequences of using high-stakes test scores to evaluate teachers. Of course, those efforts typically involve taking partisan stances on public policies and doing so openly, in full view of school community members. Another reason is that teachers are in prime position to introduce, model, scaffold, and discuss political action with their students. Extensive research suggests that political efficacy – that is, the extent to which people understand and believe they can affect the political process – is contingent upon learning to access groups with common interests, analyze and discuss controversial issues, and participate in policy decision-making with observable impacts. Such learning must be embedded within actual political discourse and advocacy, not simply conveyed in the abstract. By refusing to talk about politics in the classroom or hiding their own positions and practices, teachers forego opportunities to help students understand the nature and consequences of political activity, regardless of the stance that centers it.

A more subtle kind of professional politics consists of what researcher Stephen Thornton calls gatekeeping. Every day, teachers make decisions about what educational ends have value and ought to be pursued, what resources to allocate toward those ends, and why – in other words, what should be allowed into the classroom, and what should not. For example, a secondary social studies teacher might contend with the following influences concurrently: (1) a survey-style U.S. history curriculum that careens through the subject matter without exploring persistent historical dilemmas in depth; (2) a high-stakes state test that condenses U.S. history into 50 multiple-choice questions and two essays; (3) research suggesting that teaching adolescents how to ask open-ended historical questions, reason with multiple sources of evidence, and write convincing arguments – a time-consuming process – generates more powerful learning outcomes than transmitting fixed historical narratives; (4) heated conversations among colleagues about how much instructional time is worth allocating to test-preparatory strategies; (5) district-wide pacing tests designed to ensure that she follows the curriculum in a timely fashion; and (6) pointed questions from parents about how she handles sensitive issues like race, religion, and terrorism. How the teacher tends to these competing interests in what researcher Linda Valli calls the “whitewater” environment of schooling involves political activity, like rationalizing her curricular and instructional decisions with administrators and parents to build trust in those decisions and networking with others to access new resources to support them.

My point thus far is that, inevitably, teachers are political actors, even those who try not to be. When educators decide to keep their heads down, quietly acquiesce to the demands of their school institutions, and “simply teach kids the subject matter,” they are choosing to be a certain kind of political actor – one, I suspect, that policy makers greatly appreciate as they hastily launch untested and unwarranted “innovations” into the educational milieu. I am not so naïve, however, to suggest that political action is easy, instantly gratifying, and risk-free, particularly in schools facing intense scrutiny and sanction for persistently low test scores and graduation rates. Consequently, it behooves teacher educators to consider what kinds of political actors their candidates could be, and how they might assist beginning teachers toward those ends. Some suggestions for doing this include:

(1) Helping beginning teachers connect educational purposes to political activity.

Researchers Keith Barton and Linda Levstik suggest that without a coherent rationale for teaching the subject matter, educators often default to getting through material efficiently, with as little resistance from students as possible. Likewise, I would argue that clear and powerful educational purposes are essential catalysts for curricular and instructional gatekeeping and bolder political action. Returning to the aforementioned social studies teacher, imagine that her central pedagogical aims involve: (1) investigating the history of racial, ethnic, and gender segregation and exclusion in the United States; (2) helping adolescents learn to utilize the kinds of analytical tools that historians use to craft persuasive arguments and debunk baseless ones; and (3) grounding her classroom assessment in writing tasks that demonstrate changes in students’ reasoning and writing quality over time. These aims undoubtedly will play into how she interprets and adapts a history curriculum centered on American exceptionalism, how she communicates to her students why her writing tasks look so different from the multiple-choice questions on state tests, and how she responds to the proliferation of standardized testing across public education.

Teacher educators can support candidates’ gatekeeping practices by asking them to persistently connect their instructional decisions to the purposes that ground them. Further, they can show candidates how education activists similarly draw from particular aims when deciding what political issues and strategies to pursue. Consider the Seattle teachers’ working group recommendations on assessment, which I posted above. In the wake of Garfield High School teachers’ refusal to administer district-wide standardized tests in the fall of 2012, Seattle Superintendent Jose Banda formed a task force charged with reviewing the tests, clarifying their purposes, benefits, and costs, and proposing alternatives. However, many educators believed that Superintendent Banda’s decision to invite only five teachers to serve on a task force of 30 people limited their potential impact on the assessment conversation. Consequently, several teachers across the district formed the working group, crafting and publicizing recommendations that are framed by specific purposes of assessment, research on the impacts of high-stakes testing, and their classroom experiences.

(2) Helping beginning teachers understand the importance of political networking.

Teachers constantly network by exchanging instructional resources and techniques. By political networking, I mean two things: (1) building local alliances that help beginning teachers unpack the political subtexts of their schools; and (2) joining larger groups of people who share educational goals, face common barriers to achieving those goals, and contribute resources to address those barriers. On the first point, one novice teacher who participated in a study that I conducted sought to infuse his Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics (USG) course with simulations and seminar-style discussions about current policy problems, but noticed that none of his APUSG-teaching colleagues did the same. Leaning on a trusted mentor to help him ascertain the covert expectations of APUSG teachers, he found that while their team planning meetings appeared democratic, the junior-most three felt beholden to use their senior colleague’s materials and lesson plans as a de facto curriculum, given his veteran status and well-publicized record of success with AP exams. The novice teacher drew upon that knowledge to strategize his participation in team meetings and his methods of introducing new activities in the APUSG classroom. Critically observing one’s school-institutional circumstances and asking good questions of the right people – practices that teacher educators can help candidates strengthen – are important elements of political networking.

Further, teacher educators can connect beginning teachers to professional development opportunities and advocacy groups through which they might forge relationships with like-minded others. For example, from 2010 through 2013, I worked with a cohort of Rochester teachers in a professional development program designed to support their historical content knowledge and teaching skills. As the participants got to know each other and collaboratively explored the effects of new instructional strategies in their classrooms, their network evolved into a community of practitioners striving to make room for historical investigation in the midst of a sea change associated with new state standards, teacher evaluation demands, and student data management requirements. These teachers were fortunate to regularly interact with colleagues in their district who experienced similar policy pressures. Those who are more isolated might find encouragement in professional organizations – there are national and state councils related to teaching the subject areas, students with disabilities, and English language learners – or in groups targeting specific educational policies and problems. Though I used the term “like-minded others” to describe membership in such groups, they may be quite heterogeneous, ideologically. For example, several advocacy organizations have formed across New York State around the idea of refusing to take (or “opting out” of) the now-mandatory Common Core assessments; and the size and online presence of those groups continue to grow. Yet while some members rally around the demoralizing and curriculum-narrowing effects of high-stakes tests and their perpetuation of resource inequities across school districts, others see the assessments and the Common Core standards on which they’re based as flagrant government intrusion into the affairs of communities that ought to be able to teach their children whatever they please. This calls up an earlier point: when it comes to the political activities in which teachers participate, purposes matter.

(3) Helping beginning teachers consider the conceivable consequences of different kinds of political action.

As a colleague in Texas reminded me recently, strategic gatekeeping in one context might be viewed as gross insubordination in another. Thus, teachers must choose among different approaches to political action, depending on the possible implications of those approaches in their particular settings. In one circumstance, teachers and administrators might reach consensus around a particular goal – say, a certain percentage of students performing at the mastery level on a New York State Regents exam – with teachers successfully lobbying for the freedom to choose different means of achieving that goal. In a harsher climate, teachers might exercise what researcher Catherine Cornbleth calls strategic compliance – that is, publicly playing along with restrictive school norms while quietly cultivating alternative courses of action with allies.

By considering the conceivable consequences of political action, I mean the consequences for teachers, of course, but also for students and the school community. Several years ago, in a Virginia middle school, I had the occasion to witness a pep rally that was designed to get kids excited about performing well on the upcoming state Standards of Learning (SOL) Assessments. Following an hour-long event that included SOL chants, teacher dares (e.g., “If all of Mr. Bosworth’s students pass, he’ll shave his head!”), a music video, and a motivational speech by the school principal, I asked two students, “What do you think people believe is most important in terms of what you accomplish here at school?” They replied, almost in unison, “Passing the SOLs!” Mine was a leading question, of course, given the circumstances. But my point is that how educators communicate their priorities and tend their gates bears consequences for how students think about who they are, what they ought to learn, how that learning happens, and why. This is particularly important for beginning teachers to consider as the language of the Common Core seeps into curricula and instruction.

When Principal Carol Burris writes that “we who are inside schools have been sounding the alarm” about the deleterious effects of trying to drive change through high-stakes testing, “although perhaps not as loudly as we should,” and Superintendent Teresa Snyder notes that the Common Core Standards “have been incompletely rolled out in New York,” with collateral damage in the form of “children who worked so hard this year, who endured so many distressing hours of testing, who failed to reach proficiency,” they send strong messages about the political roles of the teachers they lead. As the academic year begins and recent graduates of our teacher education programs start their careers in schools, I would urge them to take several steps on the pathway to productive political activity. First, begin the process of finding mentors who can help them understand and work within their institutions’ political currents and undercurrents. Second, listen intently and extensively, and ask powerful, pragmatic questions about the effects of policy on their teaching – i.e., “Given the Common Core test results, will the state and districts allocate new professional development resources to strengthen instruction, and if so, where will those resources come from, who will get them, and under what conditions?” and “What happens when administrators who are required to evaluate my teaching have no expertise in my subject area or speak a different language than what’s primarily used in my classroom?” Third, participate in education policy and practice conversations on national, state, and local levels and pay attention to the common threads among them. Fourth, find ways to publicize and discuss their teaching experiences – perhaps at open houses, school board meetings, PTA meetings, and other community outlets – so the public better understands the implications of policy on learning and teaching. And finally, be purposeful, strategic classroom gatekeepers, so that students are protected from the political stressors that teachers and administrators contend with and can focus on learning to read, write, talk to each other, and appreciate the intellectual power of their subject matter, in the classroom and beyond it.

For additional conversation about teachers’ roles as political actors, please consider the following scholarship:

Cornbleth, C. (2008) Climates of opinion and curriculum practices. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40(2), 143–168.

Ginsburg, M. B. & Kamat, S. G. (2009). The political orientations of teachers. In L. J. Saha & A.G. Dworkin (Eds.), International handbook of research on teachers and teaching (vol. 21) (pp. 231-241). New York: Springer.

Hess, D. (2009). Controversy in the classroom: The democratic power of discussion. New York: Routledge.

Myers, J. P. (2007). Citizenship education practices of politically active teachers in Porto Alegre, Brazil and Toronto, Canada. Comparative Education Review, 51(1), 1-24.

Stillman, J. (2011). Teacher learning in an era of high-stakes accountability: Productive tension and critical professional practice. Teachers College Record, 113(1), 133-180.

Article written by

Kevin Meuwissen

Kevin Meuwissen is an assistant professor and directs the social studies teacher preparation program at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester.