Involved and Empowered Teachers Are the Keys to Education Reform

By Terry Knecht Dozier

Since his appointment as Secretary of Education, Richard W. Riley has demonstrated his commitment to establishing a vital link to the classroom teachers of America. Again and again, he has spoken of his belief that teachers are an essential part of the solution to revitalizing education in this country, and not, as has often been suggested in the past "part of the problem." That is why the Secretary appointed me, a twenty year veteran of the classroom, to be his special adviser for teaching. In the Secretary's view, it is critical to have a teacher's perspective at the federal level to serve as a "reality check" on the Department's policies, programs, and legislation.

It only makes sense, one might say, to have a classroom teacher in on policy discussions affecting education, but my appointment is a first. Through my position, I intend to bring the experience and needs of classroom teachers nationwide to the attention of policymakers in Washington.

Over the past eight months, I have been designing strategies to ensure that the voice of teachers is heard as we develop education policy here. To take advantage of the expertise of the many teachers who visit the nation's capital­many of whom are here to receive prestigious awards­I have begun a series of focused discussion groups between these teachers and department officials. In our focus groups, more opportunities for ongoing professional development has been one of the teachers' primary concerns. Teachers need more time for individual and group study, planning, involvement in professional networks, and better access to information and new technologies. As a result, many of the ideas and suggestions teachers communicated to department officials in our meetings were used in the crafting of the professional development section (Title II) of the Improving America's Schools Act, the Clinton administration's proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is the federal government's largest ($10 billion-a year) investment in education.

In addition to the focus groups, one of the most exciting and promising initiatives I have been involved with is the Goals 2000 Teacher Forum. On November 18-l9, in conjunctionwith American Education Week, and as part of our continuing effort to connect directly with classroom teachers, the Department has sponsored the first annual Goals 2000 Teachers Forum to be held in Washington, D.C. We will gather more than 100 teachers, including many of the current State Teachers of the Year and other outstanding public and private school educators, to hear their thoughts on education issues and policies. In particular we want to explore the ways in which the federal government can collaborate with teachers to achieve the National Education Goals, an essential component of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act.

South Carolina Teacher Forum

I know first-hand the power and potential of teacher forums. In my state of South Carolina, we have a very active state forum that was modeled after the National Teachers' Forum sponsored in 1986 by the Education Commission of the States. Along with Dr. Jim Rex, at that time Dean of the School of Education at Winthrop College, I was very involved in establishing this state forum. Through the statewide network of South Carolina's most outstanding teachers, the South Carolina Teacher Forum continues to provide a mechanism for these teachers to influence the state's educational systems through increased interaction with policymakers, business leaders, and most importantly, other teachers. In addition, active local and regional forums have grown out of this successful state model.

Now in its seventh year, the South Carolina Teacher Forum has produced impressive results. Teachers have collaborated to produce reports and videotapes on policy issues, met with business leaders and elected officials, and investigated current research on school change. Today, the Forum Leadership Council meets twice a month with the State Superintendent of Education and other educational policymakers. Forum members, nominated by the state forum Leadership Council, advise legislative committees as they draft and revise education laws and policies.

Despite these accomplishments, perhaps the greatest benefit of the South Carolina Teacher Forum has been its effectiveness as a professional development experience. The discussions that occur among teachers at these forums have been essential first steps for teachers to work toward the kind of meaningful change in schools that is necessary if we are to enable all students to meet high levels of academic achievement.

Goals 2000 Teacher Forum

This month's Goals 2000 Teacher Forum in Washington is part of a broader process of reinventing government, changing the way teachers feel about what goes on in Washington, and working toward a more responsive and effective system in which individuals have a stronger say in decisions affecting their work and well-being. The Clinton administration recognizes that classroom teachers are one of the most underutilized resources for change and improvement in American education, and we plan to change that. It should be no secret that classroom teachers possess a wealth of knowledge and understanding about how teachingand learning occur. That is why we are firm in our belief that any substantive and successful school reform must be engineered in close consultation with the individuals who work on the front lines of education.

Soon after the forum, the Department will publish a paper summarizing the meeting, so that the views of these outstanding teachers can help guide policymakers in developing programs, policies, and legislation which will help teachers better serve students. Through this initiative, it is the Department's intention to shift the focus from teachers as objects of reform to teachers as partners in reform.

I believe that the Goals 2000 Teacher Forum will be a major step in forging teacher-policymaker partnerships for planning quality education reforms that will build the base for improving student academic achievement nationwide. However, for this initiative to realize its full potential, the real work must be done at the state and local levels. We have asked the forum participants to set up their own state and local teacher forums upon returning home to provide teachers with a greater voice in educational issues. We have also called upon state and local policymakers to support these efforts by recognizing the tremendous efforts of classroom teachers and by giving then an opportunity to be engaged in and fully contribute to the policymaking process. It is my hope that, as a result of the forum, many more states and local communities will begin to realize the enormous potential of teacher participation in comprehensive education reform. .


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