This time around, Congress needs to listen to educators on ESEA

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by Colleen Flaherty

When Washington educator Jennie Beltramini traveled to Capitol Hill to discuss assessments in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), she noticed something interesting about the panel participants—she was the only educator.

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“Everyone who spoke all had the message, ‘we need to keep annual testing no matter what,'” said Beltramini. “I was glad that I went last because I was able to tell them that while this is what they’re all saying and it sounds good, this is how it actually plays out in a classroom, in a school.”

Beltramini is one of many educators who have spoken to Congress in Washington D.C. and at home, telling them what needs to change in their schools.

The current iteration of ESEA—commonly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—is an exceptional example of why it’s so important to listen to educators when writing legislation.

“When NCLB was first being debated in 2001, very few people questioned the premise of high stakes testing because I don’t think they saw it as high stakes,” said Kim Anderson, who was a lobbyist for the National Education Association in 2001. “Prior to NCLB, states were doing grade span testing, but there weren’t the same stakes attached to the test results, and it didn’t drive personnel actions or punitive sanctions.”

While many advocacy groups and lawmakers supported the new reforms, educators and those who worked in the schools were essentially left out of the conversation.

“No Child Left Behind was essentially a theory from a policy paper. It wasn’t born out of massive broad scale engagement of practitioners,” said Anderson.

“We advocated then, but we weren’t listened to. We knew that you cannot base school quality on a single test score alone, and you cannot get a full picture of what a student knows based on a test score. Back then, we were advocating for several measures of school quality. Our position has been consistent because our position is informed by the actual educators.”

After over a decade of No Child Left Behind, the problems that educators warned about have come to light. NCLB’s annual one-size-fits-all testing has taken time away from the classroom while achievement gaps are getting larger.

“The theory behind this statute was to use tests to shine a light on poor performance, low academic achievement and achievement gaps. Those results would create incentive and action for more resources to the kids who needed it. But now we know that theory doesn’t work because we have greater gaps in opportunity and resources than we’ve ever had before.

“Now we can go say to legislators, not only did we tell you from the vantage point of educators back in 2001 that this was bad legislation, we can now show you the academic research and 14 years of our experience with this law that this hasn’t done what you said it would.”

The good news from all this is that lawmakers are more open to listening to what educators have to say. During an ESEA HELP committee hearing, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse shared this with his colleagues:

My experience in the education world is that there are really two worlds in it. One is the world of contract and consultants and academics and experts and plenty of officials at the federal state and local level. And the other is a world of principals and classroom teachers who are actually providing education to students. What I’m hearing from my principals’ and teachers’ world is that the footprint of that first world has become way too big in their lives to the point where it’s inhibiting their ability to do the jobs they’re entrusted to do.

“We have to be very careful about distinguishing the importance of the purpose of this oversight and not allow the purpose of the oversight to be conducted in such an inefficient, wasteful, clumsy way that the people who we really trust to know to do this education – the people who are in the classroom – are not looking back at us and saying, ‘Stop. Help. I can’t deal with this. You are inhibiting my ability to teach.’

With lawmakers and voters listening to what those in the classroom have to say, Anderson feels we’re on the right track when it comes to working together.

“Solutions have to be done the real way, the hard way and the best way, which is from the ground up. It’s from the educators who actually deal with children. It’s from parents, community members and administers getting together and collaborating to figure out what is going out in this particular school with these particular kids.”

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