by Brian Washington
When federal lawmakers earlier this year approved the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the new federal education law that replaced No Child Left Behind, they essentially shifted a huge chunk of control over education policy from the federal level to state and local levels.
Judy Harris, a middle school educator from Gold Hill, Oregon, believes her state is more than ready to take advantage of that shift to create a better education for public school students.
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“Local and state control is far better because we come back to who really knows our kids,” said Harris, who teaches English Language Arts and is a Leadership teacher as well. “Is it somebody who is thousands of miles away? No. It is the people who are on the ground in the classrooms every day and seeing the faces of our students.”
Harris believes ESSA provides educators with opportunities to drive teaching and learning, strengthen their partnerships with parents and communities, and work with all public education stakeholders to secure what students really need to succeed in the classroom.
“We have very critical points in ESSA that are going to strengthen public education and help ensure that no student is without the services and resources they need,” said Harris.
ESSA requires a new state-designed accountability system that makes use of an Opportunity Dashboard, something the 3-million active and retired educators of the National Education Association (NEA) fought hard to get in the bill.
The Opportunity Dashboard is designed to show how much access low-income and minority students have to the kinds of supports that lead to a quality educational experience. Indicators include advanced coursework and fully qualified teachers.
Another major improvement that ESSA brings is decoupling high-stakes testing and accountability to promote less testing and more learning.
Before, there was no way to escape the test-and-punish and rank-and-score pieces that were happening under No Child Left Behind. With all that removed, teachers can go in and do formative assessments that we know work for our kids and lead to better educational practices.
Harris says that Oregon, which was already in the process of re-working its student-assessment system prior to the passage of ESSA, is now uniquely positioned to take full advantage of the law’s implementation.
However, she has some advice for educators in those states that might not be as far along but who want to take advantage of the opportunities ESSA provides to shape policy and practice. She says now, more than ever, is the time for teachers and education support professionals to work with their union to make sure ESSA is implemented the way they know it should be.
She believes unions like hers, the Oregon Education Association, which represents 45-thousand public school personnel across the state, can help educators “be first in getting to the ball” in terms of driving policy decisions that impact public schools.
But she also recognizes that educators will need to find common ground and partnerships with those groups that will help move their agenda so that ESSA is implemented properly and students receive a better education.
“We had unlikely partners that came out of the passage of ESSA at the federal level, and that’s what’s going to have to happen at the state and local levels as well,” said Harris. “We can’t do this alone. My hope is that Oregon can serve as a kind of spotlight to educators that yes, you can keep your head up and yes, you can make a difference for your students.”