Civil Discourse Prompts
Are teachers entitled to walk off the job?
When does teacher activism alienate a community?
How do we weigh student suffering against legitimate activist goals?
Frederick M. Hess Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies
American Enterprise Institute

Frederick “Rick” M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Education Week’s blog “Rick Hess Straight Up” and is a regular contributor to Forbes and The Hill. His books include “Letters to a Young Education Reformer,” “Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned” and “Cage-Busting Leadership.” He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in government from Harvard University.

Emily Anne Gullickson Co-founder & Executive Director
A for Arizona

Using her experience as a middle school teacher, legal advocate and policy leader, Emily Anne is devoted to changing the narrative of what’s possible for Arizona. At A for Arizona, Emily Anne has designed, implemented and facilitated solutions to rapidly increase the number of low-income students attending Arizona’s best public schools. Today she leads her staff and countless community partners who are committed to driving opportunity and economic prosperity in Arizona.

Teacher activism that puts kids — not grown-ups — first.
In the spring of 2018, Arizona teachers amplified their voices calling for an increase in K-12 funding and, specifically, teacher pay. What began as a grassroots effort swelled to become the largest teacher strike in state history as teachers took to the streets to push for raises and more classroom funding. This all took place against the backdrop of other teacher walkouts happening around the country. The unprecedented activism drew attention and gave school boards, parents, community members and the state’s elected leaders ample time to think while Arizona public schools ground to a halt for more than a week.

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But, as the strike wore on, some began to speculate that the protest was driven more by political activists than teachers. This is when some level of public sentiment began to erode — a telling sign that the general public supports teachers but has less empathy for ideological activism

This is a critical reminder for policymakers to consider what voices should be leading specific policy reforms. It can be beneficial for policy makers to consider which voices will be received the best by the widest audience.

First, Arizona’s movement achieved results because those speaking out were for something. Educators were asking for additional resources for the purpose of generating better outcomes, on top of the positive outcomes they had already achieved

I find this model to be such a promising and well-designed approach for teachers to advocate for enhanced support, by referring to their measurable previous success. Particularly, the potential for gathering bipartisan appeal under this approach is quite strong. The most resistance to increased spending on teachers tends to come from fiscal conservatives, due to concerns that the funds are misdirected or being spent without proper accountability. However, when this request for more support is supplemented with proven results, I am confident that a significant portion of previous resistance will be diminished.

“I believe that no child should have to wait for a school that will help them achieve their full potential.”

This is a tremendous comment , and one that all teachers would, hopefully, put at the forefront of their mind when teaching and observing their students. It's too costly and unfortunate to allow a student to learn below their level.

Teachers got the idea, quite understandably, that they were being made into scapegoats, while parents, policymakers, dubious measures of performance, sleazy vendors and bureaucrats were getting a pass.

This comment is spot on as viewed from recent decades. Not to say that there aren't bad teachers (there are) but many times it seems like when students aren't doing well and schools are failing, the public and policy makers often blame teachers, fairly or not. So many other factors are involved but neglected, to include student ability, that teachers are probably justified in feeling this way.

It is local discretion that directs those dollars to the classroom and to teachers — or not.

I agree that to remain effective teachers need to focus their activism on local leadership, and in addition to this policy makers must find the right balance between effect policy between the federal and state and local level. I am unsure of exactly where the intersection of state and local vs. federal involvement will fall.

the reform coalition tended to focus on the problem of “failing schools” and “failing teachers.”

This a really interesting point. Often times political debates focus on the negative aspects and the "failures." Maybe if politics was able to shift to focus on the "successes" and use those as a way to lead conversation around reform, then maybe teachers would be more receptive to the conversation. By only focusing on the bad it feels like the good is being ignored, but if we focus on the good as a way to spotlight the bad it might feel like more of a constructive criticism than an attack.

So long as future teacher efforts focus on drawing attention to things that matter for kids in the classroom, it is more likely the public will remain on board. When things turn political to benefit adults only, it goes south.

When we think about why people care so much about education we think about the kids and how we want children to learn and develop through education. It makes sense that when the focus shifts away from that, then the public may not be as interested or supportive.

To top it all off, the new accountability systems, academic standards, tests and evaluation models rarely made it a priority to compensate, recognize or support educators.

It is important to recognize and reward our educators for the things they do well. Constantly setting various ways to measure their effectiveness and work without recognition for how hard they are working would definitely make teachers feel undervalued. The good teachers need to be rewarded for what they are doing right, while the bad teachers need to be properly trained.