Guiding Principles for Teacher and Leader Policy: Prioritize, Rather Than Prescribe

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This guest blog post comes from Danielle Gonzales, managing director at the Aspen Institute Education and Society Program. Views expressed in guest posts are those of the author.

This year has seen a wave of activity around teacher compensation and education spending. State leaders have an opportunity to strategically use policy to support educators, which is especially important given continued teacher strikes and a renewed focus on teacher pay and the teaching profession.

So where can state leaders start? This is the first in a three-part blog series that covers three guiding principles for policymakers and shares examples of states that are leading the charge.

Principle 1: Policy should prioritize, not prescribe. While schools and classrooms are at the heart of where student and adult learning happens (or doesn’t), policy plays a guiding and enabling role. Unfortunately, policy often has a one-size-fits-all orientation that can lead to a compliance-driven culture. The last 20 years of education reform, in particular, have relied on top-down mandates, which alienated many parents, educators and community leaders. Here is how state leaders can prioritize what matters without prescribing one-size-fits-all mandates.

Make sure those most affected by policy are actively engaged in setting it. Proactively building relationships and co-creating policy with stakeholders not only will help to ensure that policy effectively addresses their needs and aspirations, but also broaden ownership of policy solutions and help them be more effective. Many resources exist to support engagement of teachers, families and students.

In Delaware, educators can participate in a paid summer fellowship at the state department of education, where they develop and present policy recommendations on active issues facing the state.

Encourage local action by establishing a clear baseline and offering incentives. Schools must be places that cultivate adult learning, as well as student learning. To allow for this to happen, state policymakers can create the conditions to ensure that all teachers have what they need to teach all students. This change requires a clear vision and resources and sometimes means policy must set a floor to prohibit bad practice.

In Iowa, financial incentives allow districts to design their own systems for teachers to assume extra leadership responsibilities based on local priorities and needs. In Tennessee, one of the first actions to improve educator effectiveness was to allow districts the flexibility to design new salary schedules for teachers and make tenure more meaningful.

Make best practice the easiest thing to do. There are many barriers to more effective professional learning, including lack of time, funding, capacity and know-how, to name a few. States can remove these barriers and align strategies to the latest research on effective adult learning.

For example, Louisiana removed time-consuming and costly barriers for purchasing instructional materials by providing information on top-rated curricula, procuring the highest-rated curricula at the state level, reviewing professional development providers and allowing districts to make their own selections.

By re-balancing the role of policy, relative to other levers of change, state policymakers can support improved outcomes. The next post, coming next week, highlights how policymakers can use new research about how students and adults learn.

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