26 Jan Congressional Gap: Bridging the Lawmaker-to-Student Divide #LILA11
After one plane ticket, two days of substitute lesson plans, several hundred dollars in hotel costs, 12 hours of travel, 24 hours of info cramming and 48 hours of nervous stress, all for 2.5 hours of talking to the aides of four Florida congressmen and one senator, I’m left wondering, “Was LILA worth it? Was it worth the time, money and effort? Did I make a difference?”
If so, shouldn’t I be filled with a sense of accomplishment and pride? Shouldn’t I have a sense that I positively influenced the world, that students, teachers, schools, districts, and, in fact, the whole darn state of Florida are better because I participated in ASCD’s Leadership Initiative for Legislative Advocacy (LILA) along with 130 other educators and education leaders from across the country?
Shouldn’t the clouds be parting and angels singing? Shouldn’t producers be knocking down my door pitching a “Mr. Jason Goes to Washington” movie? Shouldn’t I have been honored during last night’s State of the Union, at least?!
Turns out, changing the world takes a bit more time than showing up once and working my way through some talking points about how to improve teaching and learning in Florida. Or anywhere else for that matter.
Laying the Foundation
As a relative beginner in legislative advocacy, I had a lot to learn about the role of the citizen advocate on a federal level, as well as about the myriad issues affecting schools today. And herein lies the beauty of ASCD’s legislative conference — they possess the capacity, initiative and ambition to not only educate and empower educators, but to lay the foundation for bridging the gap between Capitol Hill and classrooms.
The divide between policymakers and students could not be more pronounced, as anyone whose has suffered under the punitive measures of NCLB can attest. The problem: what passes as effective legislative lingo rarely translates into effective instructional practices once implemented. What sounds good on the floor of the House does not always work where the rubber meets the road — at the intersection of students and teachers.
Additionally, here’s a little secret about how Washington works: a significant portion of the congressional legwork is pulled off by a talented and dedicated corps of staffers, many of whom are young and kid free. Intelligent, ambitious and able, these staffers represent the best of our education system, public or private. Yet, the majority of them are far removed from the realities of the classrooms that most need our support as well as the day to day translation of policy-speak into student learning. Therefore, it is imperative that we connect the legislators’ education liaisons and chiefs of staff with information relevant to what works in schools and how that should inform policy.
Enter ASCD and education leaders stage left. LILA brought together teachers, administrators and school board members from 32 states, educated them on the most current education issues with guests such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), senate staffer David Johns, National Governor’s Association’s Education Director Dane Linn, education funding expert Joel Packer, and media personalities E.J. Dionne of Washington Post and Alyson Klein of Education Week. While we did not all agree on all of the issues and the recommended solutions by these guests, we all gained valuable insights into the numerous factors affecting education policy today.
Once on Capitol Hill our job was to educate legislators’ staffers (and by proxy the legislators themselves) on potential solutions to problems plaguing our schools today.
Many of us bemoan the lack of educators who are brought to the table to help write and enact the policies that directly affect what happnes in our classrooms, schools and districts. We wonder, “Who in the world came up with this and what were they smoking?”
The answer to the latter? Nothing, probably. They just didn’t know. No-one told them, or the ones who lobbied their ideas weren’t connected meaningfully to classrooms. As a result, we are left with legislation that fails to achieve the student learning it targeted. It’s the equivalent of designing tools to work on cars without talking with the people who actually work on cars or understanding how cars work.
Perhaps Yogi Berra said it best: “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”
In our meetings, we found the staffers open, thoughtful and generally eager to create connections betwen their bosses and us constituents. As they asked questions and took notes it became apparent that theere’s a significant base of experience many of them lack when it comes to teaching, but not when it comes to learning. The fact is, these are high achievers who share stories of teachers who cared about them and challenged them to think.
These staffers, and the “primaries” they work for, want all students to have access to such teachers. They want students to arrive at school ready and able to learn, and for each and every one of their constituents to have equal access to transformative learning experiences. It is from this common ground that we need to build consensus toward improving our schools.
There is still a long road between the ideal classroom of Joe Bower and the policies enacted by legislators. Simply showing up once isn’t going to improve the glacial pace of congressional action, change policy or inform the debate.
As with teaching, advocacy is built on relationships. This trip to Washington D.C. and the hallowed halls of Capitol Hill is a beginning, not a culmination. For me it was setting the cornerstone for the bridge that connects educators and education leaders with lawmakers and their staff. It was the beginning of the relationship building process. Most profoundly, it was a revelation that it is up to us to ensure our efforts in the classroom are known and heard by those who represent us. Over and over again. Not for our sake, but for the sake of kids within our sphere of our influence.
We are not going to get everything we want, not by a long shot, but as Wayne Gretzky likes to say, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.” In the end, we are not going to get anything if we are not involved, and no one’s going to invite us. We have to show up. Over and over again.
The struggle to create and cultivate the environments that lead to transformative learning experiencess for students in our communities require that we first and foremost engage in the process. Finding common ground will lead to common strengths, but staying on the sidelines will only lead to disappointments and complaints.
If I learned anything at LILA it is this: Either we have a hand in what is being cooked or we are eating what is served, like it or not.
When I look at the kids in my classroom and the teachers in my PLN, I know where I need to be — helping to construct the bridge between the classroom and the Capitol. With my students in mind, and a vision of a sustainable profession for my colleagues, I know the answer to the question, “Was LILA worth it?”
Definitely, but its dividend will be paid in the future; its worth lies in the connections yet to be made and strengthened.
Now, if you will excuse me, I need to follow up with Senator Nelson . . .