by Colleen Flaherty/Photo by Bill Clark
When Michael Towne answers the phone in his classroom, he says, “Front lines of education, how may I help you?”
As a science teacher at a California high school, he has seen problematic education policy become law thanks to lack of input from those in the classroom.
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“Policy people lose touch with the front lines, and they need someone who’s actually been there, done that,” said Towne. “I work where the rubber hits the road.”
That’s why Towne, alongside nine other teachers and education support professionals, converged on Capitol Hill yesterday to meet with members of Congress and participate in panel discussions on education policy. The event in Washington D.C. was one of several “Raise Your Hand for Education“ efforts across the country where educators, parents and community leaders advocated for students.
The event, appropriately titled “Real World Perspectives on Public Education,” began with opening remarks from Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Richard Hanna (R-NY), who emphasized the importance of their colleagues in Congress working with educators on legislation that affects their school. The discussion panels highlighted several issues facing public schools today, from educational equity to student and educator evaluation.
Towne, who works in a school district in a low-income area, spoke about the importance of tackling systemic and deeply-rooted inequality in education.
“We tell ourselves a myth that there’s equal access to education. It’s just not true,” said Towne, who has seen firsthand that as standards are raised and only some schools have adequate resources, the opportunity gap widens.
“If you raise standards and don’t provide support, you create a weapon of subordination, not a tool of education.”
Michael Hoffmann—a Delaware special education paraeducator—was also there to speak about equity in education on behalf of students with special needs.
“I do love my job. Just seeing my students write their name or learn their phone number is incredibly rewarding; you just don’t get those things in a paycheck,” said Hoffmann.
While his students already miss him back home, Hoffmann felt it was important to tell his story.
“I have students who have no support at home. The services they need are tremendous,” said Hoffmann. “I’m here because people need to know that. Almost none of my kids will go to college, very few will hold jobs, but they deserve support and a quality education.”
Hoffmann was one of several education support professionals who weighed in on the discussions. Mary Jo Roberge, a New York paraeducator, said that leaving ESPs out of the discussion harms students the most.
“We play a critical role. A teaching assistant, a bus driver, a lunchroom worker—everyone who touches a child’s life has an impact,” said Roberge.
When ESPs are not given the respect they deserve—whether they aren’t provided adequate training or they aren’t paid a living wage—that extra support for students in compromised.
“It’s all about the students,” said Donna Schulze, a Maryland paraeducator. She works at a Title I school where her students’ needs often go beyond the classroom.
“I have a lot of homeless student. Many of my students receive free or reduced lunch. You can see these things, but the teachers are busy teaching,” said Schulze. “I’m the one they hug.”
She recounted a time when she noticed one student of hers coming to school with tattered clothes. After some investigation, she found out the student was living on the streets. With the help of the school’s guidance counselor, she was able to get in touch with the social services the student needed.
“We can make a difference. Having someone there makes a difference in how they learn. It’s all about making our students successful.”
While those gathered advised for more educator voices in policy, one teacher attendee somewhat sympathized with out-of-touch policy makers.
“I did a career change seven years ago from the private sector,” said William Wong, a California teacher. “I thought education was all about special interests and keeping the status quo. I was going to use my hard work ethic and show these people how to teach.”
After one year of teaching and a pretty big weight loss due to stress, his view changed drastically.
“Teaching is incredibly difficult. My first year of teaching, I ate a slice of humble pie. I really viewed my colleagues as, they’re here doing the best they can with what they’ve got,” said Wong.
“Now imagine me before I became a teacher, thinking what I did about public school teachers and giving me the power to make legislation. I’m going to find a way to fire you more easily instead of working with teachers as partners.”
Wong said the biggest evidence of the policy disconnect with the classroom is the overzealous, high-stakes testing prevalent across the country.
“It’s important to have assessments. However, it can’t become the defining thing in public education or corrupt what public education is about,” said Wong. “I’m afraid that’s what’s happening in this country.”