Author: Kumar, David D.: Scuderi, Pat. S. Source: Kappa Delta Pi Record v. 36 no2 (Sinter 2000) p. 61-4 ISSN: 0022-8958 Number: BEDI00002348 Copyright: The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.
Policy making often is considered a privilege and jealously guarded by those in authority. In education, policies are usually made by school board members and administrators, but teachers are rarely part of the process. For our purposes, let’s define policy as “a definite method of action selected from among alternatives to guide present and future decisions.” Presently, a plethora of reform efforts in education are under way. Yet, policies are made, revised, implemented, and abolished on a continuous basis with little or no input from school teachers.
In the United States, “public school teachers labor in bureaucratic settings” (Nelson 1994, 88). According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (in Nelson 1994, 88), “only 39 percent of teachers believed that they had significant influence over discipline policy, content of in-service training (33 percent) grouping of students (29 percent), or establishing curriculum (37 percent).” Unfortunately, a survey of teachers, students, and parents revealed that the 12 areas of inquiry such as instructional programs, supervision of students, student and teacher support, and student safety fell far short of including the opinions of professional staff members on policy matters (School Board of Broward County 1999).
Today’s demands on the classroom teacher are enormous. Preservice teachers go through a considerable amount of preparation in a structured teacher education program. Once they become classroom teachers, they undergo annual evaluations and attend inservice workshops and summer institutes for continuous professional development. Teachers often stay at work hours after the day’s end or bring work home. Also, teachers occasionally return to schools in the evening for an open house related to a science of literary fair, a PTO meeting, or a school advisory council meeting. Teachers work closely with students and have firsthand knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses (Klein 1999). They are in a unique position to recognize students’ emotional issues and refer them for appropriate counseling or assistance. The nature of teaching deeply involves teachers in various school activities, making them invaluable resources to develop and implement policies.
Can the insights and experiences of classroom teacher become a meaningful part of a school system’s policy decisions? Absolutely! One must agree to the fact that classroom teachers’ insights and experiences are worthwhile to any policy-making process in a school system. Schools that fail to take advantage of this resource place major impediments in the path of school improvement. Indeed, several opportunities for policy making exist in curriculum planning and implementation, school-based management, internal evaluation, technology, and advisory councils.
Curriculum Planning and Implementation
Teachers are an integral part of the decision-making process in curriculum planning and implementation at the classroom level. Unfortunately, the impact of teachers on the curriculum at the K-12 level is minimized by the involvement of special interest groups, politicians, and bureaucrats. As Doll (1996, 417) stated, “Since the late 1950’s, people with little knowledge of elementary and secondary education have been proposing panacea after panacea for our education ills.” Instead, teachers ought to be making the policy decisions affecting the school curriculum. Teachers supplement and improve the curriculum through planning and working with students, engaging in professional development, and sharing their classroom experiences with other teachers (Doll 1996).
As Klein (1999, 62) argued, “Teachers have the real power to make or break decisions advocated at any level. Their decisions ultimately will determine the curriculum, regardless of all other levels of decision making.” If teachers are given an opportunity to be a part of decision-making processes that affect their practice, they may be more inclined to implement the policies in their classrooms. For example, the national standards-setting processes in science involved teachers from elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels, resulting in an ongoing impact on standards and curriculum frameworks. Because the major function of schooling continues to be teaching and learning, recognizing that teachers are a significant part of shaping policies that impact curriculum is essential for any meaningful reform.
School-based management is another way to maximize the teacher’s role as policy maker. In school-based management, the decision-making process is decentralized to involve school constituencies such as administrators, teachers, parents, community members, and students (Robertson, Wohlstetter, and Mohrman 1995). All constituents take part in making policies that govern various aspects of schooling. For example, a study of curriculum and instructional changes in school-based management found that highly innovative schools have the following common attributes (Robertson et al. 1995):
- a higher level of meaningful involvement by teachers and teacher teams in the decision-making process;
- opportunities for professional development in decision-making skills;
- a proactive approach to information sharing among school constituents; and
- freedom and empowerment for teachers to implement innovative teaching reform ideas
As teacher input and thought in policy decisions are welcomed and valued, teachers become active participants in processes that govern their practices. Understandably, teachers show more commitment and liberty to implement policies they help to develop. This involvement is critical to the success of any policy. In addition, school-based management provides opportunities for teachers to improve their decision-making skills, an advantage to teachers as well as to schools. Equipping teachers to participate in the decision-making process not only prepares teachers to be better policy makers but also contributes to policy decisions that strengthen school reform.
Internal evaluation is a team-based approach in which teachers can play an important part in policy decisions. A “somewhat specialized form of action research” (Altschuld and Gilbert 1985, 2), internal evaluation enables the “identification and training of professional staff within the school organization in order to carry out the task of evaluating a facet of the school organization. The sole purpose of the internal evaluation process is to effect decisions for change and improvement” (Skidmore 1985, 1). Because internal evaluation involves internal participants, it becomes an indispensable part of the educational system with district-wide impact (Altschuld and Gilbert 1985).
Some effects of an internal evaluation on decision making studies in a Midwestern school district include (Skidmore 1985):
- direct influence on and access to decision makers, such as school board members and administrators, resulting in changes in policies and programs of the school district;
- increased data-based recommendations to the school board and administration to influence policy decisions; and
- access to firsthand information leading to “power widening” for staff members willing to invest in the internal-evaluation process.
According to Skidmore (1985, 3-4), “Because the staff involved in the evaluation are also some of those who will institute change, there is a very real commitment and zeal to effect the change.” This important point reinforces the fact that, to make policies that work, it is critical to involve those responsible for implementing the policies. The role of teachers in this context should not be taken lightly. As teachers gain direct access to school boards and receive firsthand information, they are able to make informed policy decisions leading to constructive school reform. One of the most positive aspects of the internal-evaluation team is “the ability to be involved with the decision-making process” (Hummel 1985, 3).
Computer technology has become an inseparable part of the 21st-century schooling in the United States and provides another platform for teachers to get involved in policy decisions. In a free-market society, computer networks are one of the best tools to establish dialogues between professionals across different disciplines, share ideas, enhance professional awareness, and influence public policy (Salisbury 1994). In effect, computer networks expedite free exchange of information in a marketplace of ideas. The Internet and World Wide Web enable classroom teachers to engage in professional dialogue with their colleagues from other schools, administrators, college faculty, and policy makers. Mandell (1991) envisioned that the use of computer technology would provide a sense of independence in managing information and consequently boost the decision-making power and professional image of teachers. In a survey by the Open Learning Technology Corporation (1996), teachers, especially at the high school level, associated networking opportunit8ies using computers with school reform and their own professional growth.
Another avenue through which teachers have impacted policy decisions is evident in the School Advisory Councils (SAC) created by the Florida Department of Education (1998). SAC is a model for school-site policy making and accountability. SAC is made up of teachers, parents, community leaders, non-instructional staff, and administrators. SAC gives its partners responsibilities and opportunities for making decisions on all school issues.
The goals of SAC are to foster teacher professionalism, student performance improvement, and school restructuring. The responsibilities of SAC are to develop, implement, and evaluate school improvement plans. SAC also conducts needs assessments and initiates dialogues with partners and administrators. By directly involving teachers in school restructuring, SAC enhances quality of instruction and assures successful implementation of policy decisions affecting building—as well as district-wide reform in education. Teacher members of SAC have a unique opportunity to impact policy decisions in the areas of curriculum, management, and evaluation. Their roles in defining goals and plans for technology implementation in school are also significant. SAC is an example of teacher involvement in policy decisions that should be examined by other educational systems as a significant opportunity for education reform.
Teachers are capable of making good policy decisions with building-wide and district-wide impact. The kind of school reform proposed by Goals 2000: Educate America Act and national standards will not materialize without the participation of teachers in the policy-making process. Education policies made at the national, state, and local levels need the cooperation of classroom teachers to be fully implemented and beneficial to students. Therefore, why not make teachers a part of the policy-making process?
Curriculum planning and implementation, school-based management, internal evaluation, technology, and advisory councils are all avenues teachers can take to impact policy decisions. Successful implementation of any curriculum depends on the cooperation of classroom teachers. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to involve teachers in curriculum planning and development to facilitate successful implementation. Teachers possess firsthand knowledge of classroom teaching and learning, and their feedback and insights in curriculum decisions give rise to effective instruction. School-based management provides teachers the opportunity for a more meaningful involvement in the decision-making process, information sharing among constituents, and flexibility to recommend and implement innovative reform ideas.
Teachers also have professional-development opportunities to improve decision-making skills with school-based management. Internal evaluation enables teachers to gain direct access to administrators and school board members, receive firsthand data and information, and make data-based, informed policy recommendations. Technology empowers teachers to network, exchange ideas, access information, enhance professional awareness, and impact policy decisions in a democratic manner. Finally, through advisory councils, teachers in Florida, for example, find a unique niche in curriculum, management, and evaluation. Teachers’ participation in policy decisions depends upon their awareness of the available avenues, professional development in policy making, and the degree to which entrenched bureaucracies will allow teachers to take part. More teachers must take a proactive role in policy decisions that impact education.
David D. Kumar is a professor of science education at Florida Atlantic University. His research interests include computer technology applications and policy and curriculum studies. Pat Scuderi is the science resource teacher and chair of the School Advisory Council (SAC) at Cooper City Elementary School in Broward County, Florida. She is an Astronomy Resources Integrated into Elementary Science (ARIES) Teacher. She was recently invited to serve as a presenter of the SEDNet Institute at the Center of Astrophysics at Harvard University.
The authors would like to thank Dr. Pat Maslin-Ostrowski at Florida Atlantic University for her helpful comments and feedback, and Ms. Amy Geismar for editorial assistance.
Although teachers are excellent resources for input on school policies, many feel that their ideas are not valued. --Dave Sattler.
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