Book Review: Educators on the Frontline: Advocacy Strategies for Your Classroom, Your School, and Your Profession
Lewis, Jill; Jongsma, Kathleen Stumpf; & Berger, Allen. (2005). Educators on the Frontline: Advocacy Strategies for Your Classroom, Your School, and Your Profession. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.
pp. viii + 283
$27.95 ISBN 0-87207-554-0
Reviewed by Ali Rhoades Hobbs
Pennsylvania State University
During the Summer of 2002, I worked with a group of English teachers to find some balance between focusing on test scores and helping students to make sense of themselves and the world through reading and writing. Our efforts were met in the Fall with a tirade from our principal, who assured us in no uncertain terms that we had no voice in setting curriculum, organization, and professional development in his school. I decided to resign my job that night because I became a teacher to participate in the discussion and development of better schools for students and communities. At the time, I believed the principal when he told me that I had no voice.
To be fair, the principal might have felt the same way – that he had no real voice in the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy. Perhaps his outburst was a sign of frustration of being rapped in a policy, which reduces a school’s success to a single measure without provisions for the unique set of circumstances we face in rural high schools in Pennsylvania. His success as a principal would be based upon our success as teachers in securing more students above the proficiency line. The goal was to not get negative media coverage and to make AYP (adequate yearly progress). Our efforts to find balance in English education could have been interpreted as a diversion from the NCLB goal.
Acting as a manager instead of an instructional leader, my principal’s response was to control and silence us. By discounting our professional advice, however, he negated decades of experience and knowledge. Many of my peers voiced their frustration of having no voice or control over their work. Some began to count the days until retirement; others decided to close their classroom doors and find their own compromises. I chose to resign because I could not continue working in a situation where my knowledge was silenced. I seek a democratic workplace in which I have a say in the decisions that effect my work and the lives of my students.
Educators On the Frontline: Advocacy Strategies for Your Classroom, Your School, and Your Profession (Lewis, Jongsma, & Berger) provides portraits of educators acting democratically on behalf of themselves, their students, and their communities. If I had read the book before I became a teacher, I might have been better prepared for NCLB, my principal, and my job. Lewis, Jongsma, and Berger present practical strategies through examples of how educators might work individually or collectively at the local, state, and national levels to improve schooling.
Lewis, Jongsma, and Berger explain we, as professional educators “need to work tirelessly to provide the best education programs possible for our communities.” They explain that because we are the “individuals who know the students and their strengths and needs” we are “the individuals who can best advocate on their behalf”(p. 5), offering specific ideas and solutions for educational issues and problems at local, state, and federal levels to make school improvements. The authors contend that as teachers we are the ones with the key knowledge that need to make all other players- administrators, parents, public officials, policymakers, etc.- listen and respond. Advocacy involves the willingness to discuss, debate, and compromise. To put ourselves out there, to question and be questioned with the focus of creating more positive educational environments and opportunities for our students. As education advocates we need to find ways to have our voices heard and to take opportunities to stand up and speak out to explain, defend, debate, argue, and convince others to put students- not tests and standards first.
In Reshaping High School English (1997) Bruce Pirie challenges us to act quickly on implementing advancements and necessary changes to our curriculums in light of history. He explains that history has shown that if we don’t, as teachers, take the time to learn, and understand, and respond to the necessary changes “there are plenty of legislators and interest groups only too willing to define it for us”(p. 6). Teachers need to engage in the acts of questioning and reflecting in order to advance English education otherwise the realization is someone else will do it for us. Pirie explains, “If we are unhappy with the version of English implied by the latest standardized test or this morning’s editorial in the national newspaper, we are obliged to propose an alternative vision and the best way to start is by making that vision absolutely clear to ourselves” (p. 5). As teachers, we must understand the vital impact we have in the processes of transforming our educational system. We must take a visible and active role in the study, transition, implementation, and critical analysis of the educational system, and we must find ways to include our voices in the process without being afraid to share our findings and ideas with those that make educational policy decisions at all levels.
Do I really have the expertise?
Government established “experts” provide media outlets with information about schools and teachers that encourage the public to define teachers by test scores. These experts set education policy and mandates utilizing test scores in a misinforming manner to highlight, unrealistically, teacher performance leading to the deskilling of teachers and diminishing respect of teachers’ work. (Edmondson, 2001; Goodman, Y., 2004; Parks, 2004; Shannon, 2004). Furthermore, this problematic approach to publicly rating schools, allows politicians and policy makers to account to taxpayers with a fiscally responsible looking quick fix of public schools through standardized testing. (Jones, Jones, & Hargrove, 2003). Yet many of us who spend time in classrooms, understand first-hand the inadequacies of the testing mandates.
Teachers with whom I conferred often referred to the implementation of mandates and changes in curriculum brought on by NCLB legislation and high stakes standardized assessments as directives from the authorities, without any input from teachers. As teachers, many of us are asked to be good followers and adopt and adapt our classrooms to fit the mandates. The authorities establish “meticulous, erudite, exact historical knowledge” leading to the disqualification of other knowledge, especially local and specific knowledge,” according to Michel Foucault (1980), creating totalitarian theories from which they (authorities) impose requests or requirements to its followers or those members they are authorities over (p.82). In this case, we, the teachers, are requested to carry out the requirements established by the policymakers/authorities even when classroom experience and local knowledge of our students tell us the requirements and implementations are not in the best interest of our students’ learning.
Giroux (1988) explains for educators “the dominant meaning of authority must be redefined to include the concepts of freedom, equality, and democracy” allowing teachers a shift from status of “ technicians and public servants, whose role is primarily to implement rather than conceptualize pedagogical practice” to the role of “bearers of critical knowledge” whose role includes “to judge, critique, and reject those approaches to authority that reinforce . . . silences and disempowers both teachers and students” (p. 89-90). We, as teachers, need to understand the significance of sharing the crucial knowledge we possess that no other entity involved and affected by NCLB and its resulting testing knows: the look of the reform in our classroom, the influence of it on our teaching, and the constraints it puts on experiences of learning for our students. Edmondson (2001) discusses the influence of politics on literacy education and the values embedded in the educational initiatives suggesting, “educators must continually ask why things are the way they are and who made the decisions” (p. 626). She suggests that reform ideas and decisions “should reflect the values of the classroom teachers and local community” (p. 626). Our local knowledge must become a part of the reform debate and our learning to advocate in meaningful ways can provide an avenue for our experiences to be heard.
Since we, as classroom teachers, realize the need to consider our communities’ characteristics, our specific students’ needs, and other local knowledge when considering changes in our schools and curriculums in light of NCLB and high stakes standardized tests, we cannot afford to be silent. We need to take action. We cannot accept the policymakers’ position as sole decision making authority, disqualifying the experience and “local character of criticism and subjugated knowledge” we possess (Foucault, 1980, p.80). We need to find a way to, not only be heard, but to become part of the decision-making affecting our classrooms, as to arrive at policies that truly work for our students. Many teachers feel the “experts” who are establishing the rules and activities of our schools do not understand or identify the true needs of our students (Goodman, Y. 2004; Shannon, 2004). We, as education advocates, need to let them know. After all, we, as teachers, know that establishing mandates, benchmarks, and assessments based solely on global, statistical, and historical knowledge does not mean automatic literacy and skill proficiency of students. We know it takes more than that- a true knowledge of local environment needs to be counted, and we as teachers need to offer it- loudly and clearly. As teachers we need to have our expertise play an important role in the establishment of the answers for our schools and students (Edmondson, 2001). We need to stand as education advocates and to be heard as experts on school improvements.
Who wants to hear from me? How can I advocate?
As we consider how we might advocate for realistic and useful reforms in our schools, we might consider who wants to hear form from us and, even more importantly, who needs to hear from us. According to Shannon (2004) the experts selected by the Bush Administration to formulate NCLB “don’t value school personnel’s judgments about student knowledge and learning or their creative interactions with children and youth.” Shannon argues if this were true, “teachers would figure prominently in the NCLB accountability system” (p. 29). Knowing this we need to be more aware and attentive to the political aspects and agendas that affect our classrooms (Edmondson, 2001).
Lewis, Jongsma, and Berger, through the addition of real-life vignettes of advocacy, show us how teachers’ actions have improved educational policies, experiences and schooling for many. For instance Priscilla Shannon Gutierrez, who, while working in a large urban school district in California, advocated for the rights of the non-English speaking students in her classroom by sending a letter home to parents informing of their students’ right to waive out of high-stakes testing if the parents feel their child is not fluent enough to succeed on the test (p. 22). As high-stakes testing time approached the following year, the district sent word to teachers they were not to advise parents of their right to waive their children out of the test. She did anyway. Her site administrator supported her. No sanctions were filed against her for not following the district mandate, “realizing to do so would expose their flagrant violation of state law and paternal rights”(p. 22). This singular teacher made a difference for parents and students. Sometimes risks are outweighed by the need to protect our students. Engaging in advocacy needs to be a part of our calling. Many of us engage in practices like this regularly. Think about how you stand up for your students. You many not put your job on the line, but by engaging in activities and discussions to protect and influence positive environments for your students, you are advocating.
Martha T. Dever could not believe her state “mandated the use of a standardized kindergarten readiness assessments” for all kindergartners (p. 39). She was “alarmed” at the prospect of the emotional and educational harm standardized testing can place on young children (p. 39). She contacted her local legislators until she found one that was willing to listen. With that legislator’s help she along with colleagues contacted members of the state school board, the state office of education, and even presented to the legislative subcommittee on education. For over five years, she and her colleagues advocated for the rewriting of the bill. The assessment is no longer mandatory and high-stakes. Although it took a long time, she made a difference in the lives of young students. Dever’s work rose to the level of the state, however, we can take action at various levels. Since many of the results of federal and state laws trickle to the local level, we may feel more confident starting there. We may also find others advocating for the same cause, allowing us to form partnerships and coalitions to “strengthen our approach” (p. 41). It is important for us, as education advocates, to remember we can seek the involvement of others that may lead to the building of a supportive environment strengthened by the knowledge, expertise, and viewpoints of others to further our causes (p. 42).
The authors also share Elizabeth Lokon’s story of a group of eight teachers who “advocated for and created a smaller school of 150 randomly selected students” from “a relatively large urban high school in the (Midwest)”(p. 101). The focus of the teacher-advocates was to raise the 16 percent graduation rate through building a small community where teachers and students “shared a sense of moral obligation to each other”. According to Lokon’s story, the principal’s laissez faire approach to the project gave teachers the leadership role and allowed them “the freedom to experiment with various innovative practices.” The teachers were the advocates and leaders and made a positive difference in the lives of the students involved, evidence by a significant rise in the retention, attendance, and passing rates and a drop in the rate of disciplinary cases (p. 102). As the authors explain, advocacy can be difficult when “little or no support from” building administrators is provided, but it is possible. Often times the most important and significant advocacy work is rooted in strong personal beliefs stemming from your personal teaching experiences. The authors ask, “Are their inequities in your school that you fell strongly about? Are you willing to advocate on behalf of the problems you identify? How might you begin to do this?” (p. 102).
Where do we go from here?
Dr. Andrew R. Brulle (2005), the chair of an education department at a small private college, challenges educators with the task of becoming more politically active explaining NCLB’s establishment of grade-level proficiency expectations, “collide with research“ and “find(s) very frustrating that such an ill-informed position can be made to sound so plausible” (p. 434). He challenges us to speak out on the absurdities of the NCLB situation charging educators with a responsibility to become agents of change by promoting our work, educating our legislators, holding ourselves to the highest standards and allowing the public to see evidence of our good work (p.437).
That’s just what I plan to do. I cannot go back in time and handle my high-stakes testing situation differently. But I can go forward, and I can allow that experience and my new knowledge of advocacy to inspire me to make positive changes for future students. I can consider where I have been and utilize my newfound knowledge of advocacy to work toward useful and positive changes in my classroom, my schools, and my profession. I plan to do something “about the political doubletalk, the misinformation, and the focus on catch phrases” that “try to push through policies that masquerade as sincere efforts for the benefit of children” (Brulle, 2005). I hope other teachers will join me. Together we can demonstrate the expertise we, as professional educators who spend our days working to genuinely educate our students, possess and use that knowledge to create educational systems that truly advance the well-being and futures of our children. We need to find our place as Educators on the Frontline.
Brulle, A. R. (2005). What Can You Say When Research and Policy Collide? Phi Delta Kappan. 86(6) 433-437.
Edmondson, J. (2001) Taking a broader look: Reading literacy education. The Reading Teacher 54(6) 620-629.
Foucault, M.(1980). Two Lectures. In Gordon, Colin, (Ed.). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977.(78-108). Pantheon Books: New York.
Giroux, H. (1988). Schooling and the Struggle for Public Life Critical Pedagogy in the Modern Age. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolic, MN.
Goodman, Y. (2004) Teaching Knowledge and Experience: Do They Count? In Goodman, K., Shannon, P., Goodman, Y., & Rapoport, R. (Eds.), Saving Our Schools. (111-122). RDR Books: Berkeley, California.
Jones, M.G., Jones, B. & Hargrove,T. (2003). The Unintended Consequences of High-Stakes Testing. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers:New York.
Lewis, J., Jongsma, K.S., & Berger, A.(2005). Educators on the Frontline: Advocacy Strategies for Your Classroom, Your School, and Your Profession. International Reading Association: Newark, Delaware.
Parks, J. (2004). No Illusion Left Behind: “High Standards” Meets The Read World. In Goodman, K., Shannon, P., Goodman, Y., & Rapoport, R. (Eds.) Saving Our Schools. (123-124). RDR Books: Berkeley, California.
Pirie, B. (1997). Reshaping High School English. National Council of Teachers of English: Urbana, Illinois.
Shannon, P. (2004) The Faulty Logic of NCLB. In Goodman, K., Shannon, P., Goodman, Y., & Rapoport, R. (Eds.). Saving Our Schools. (27-32). RDR Books: Berkeley, California.
About the Reviewer
Ali Rhoades Hobbs is currently a PhD candidate at Penn State University in the Language and Literacy Department. She was a secondary English teacher in the Pennsylvania public school system. Her research interests include high-stakes testing policies and cultural studies of educators and policy makers.
Reviewed by Ali Rhoades Hobbs
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES