Teacher Voice is Essential to Improving Schools in Tennessee

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By Soya Moore & Jessica Hurtley

For the next four years, the state of Tennessee will be responsible for improving our schools under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The law lessens federal government control and gives states the autonomy to refine and implement their own systems of school improvement and accountability. ESSA put issues such as teacher evaluations, student assessments, and school reform directly into the hands of state education departments and school districts. We believe that all teachers should actively seek out opportunities to shape reform efforts currently taking place at the state and district level to ensure that their voices are heard.

As teachers in the public school system in Memphis, TN, we know first-hand the importance of teacher voice in improving educational outcomes for our students and having a say in policies that directly affect our classrooms. As Teach Plus Policy Fellows, we've commented on ESSA accountability regulations at the federal level and participated in a focus group to create a legislative agenda for TN Ready assessments. And we advocated before the Shelby County Commissioners to supplement Shelby County schools budget deficit.

Despite the importance of teacher input and feedback in any process that affects their students, teachers rarely take part in helping to design and frame new educational policy. With ESSA, the state of Tennessee can reset its accountability system and teachers need to be at the table to bridge the gap between policy makers and the classroom.

ESSA provides a window of opportunity for teachers to get in on the policy discussion and the law's implementation planning. We recommend the following ways that teachers can get involved in advocating for policy change around the new law:

1. Engage policymakers in crafting key legislature
As teachers, we are passionate about the teaching and learning environment at our schools. We want our students to take assessments that are fair and aligned to the state standards. There are opportunities for all teachers under ESSA to review and audit their state assessments.

When working with policymakers to craft legislation, be proactive in offering your ideas or insights; be prepared to answer questions; and present solutions and a rationale to support those solutions. Know the legislators' position in advance, and figure out what is most important to him or her in order to capitalize on his/her interests when speaking. Continue to reach out to the legislator after the initial meeting to build rapport.

2. Engage your colleagues and community in the policy process.
Through Teach Plus, we worked with other Fellows to engage 500+ of our colleagues in advocating to Shelby County Commissioners to vote yes in support of Shelby County Schools' budget deficit. We, along with other community members, were successful at getting the budget funded for the 2016-17. This victory enhanced the opportunities for our students as well as increased the effectiveness of our schools' programs and services.

When advocating for a policy, collaborate with colleagues by creating briefs policies or writing op-eds. Write letters and getting colleagues' signatures to back your opinion. Plan out days to meet with your representatives, and get other teachers and community members to come and support their push for policy change.

Teacher voice will be essential to improving education and getting the implementation of ESSA right the first time. Whether states can make good use of the new law without losing sight of improving achievement and serving high-risk students will depend upon teachers advocating for what works in the classroom. We can no longer sit in silence while policy makers decide what works for our students, we must make our voices heard.

Soya Moore teaches 8th grade pre-algebra at Raleigh Egypt Middle School. Jessica Hurtley Jessica Hurtley teaches in a 3rd grade self-contained classroom at John P. Freeman Optional School. They are Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows.