Creating a New Federal Education Law: Have you asked me?

As a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow, I have the unique opportunity to view education through two perspectives—first, as a teacher in metro Atlanta and, second, as an employee of the U.S. Department of Education. Having the privilege to serve in this dual capacity comes with a great responsibility to question what I see every day in education and to share my truth.

With the proposed reauthorization for the nation’s education law—the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—moving at light-speed in the world of policy, it left me wondering what my ESEA looks like.

ESEA was introduced in 1965, but most people know the law by the name it received in 2001 when it was updated—we call that renewal the No Child Left Behind Act. There are two proposals to create a new ESEA in Congress right now—a bill from Congressman John Kline and a discussion draft of a bill from Senator Lamar Alexander. They are similar, and they have enormous implications for teachers.

I wonder what would happen if lawmakers had the courage to ask the people in the trenches what their ESEA would look like. Novel idea, right?

What are the thoughts of those educators who, day-in and day-out, cross thresholds into buildings where impressionable young minds are nurtured and supported? How would this law impact the people who spend hours pouring care, sowing seeds of inspiration, and imparting knowledge into our future leaders?

I wonder what would happen if lawmakers asked how teachers feel about the need for higher expectations. I wonder if they know my true feelings about rigorous, college- and career-ready academic standards and what it would look like if all of us stayed the course long enough to see results before cutting ties.

I wonder what would happen if we had the ability to leave the “this too shall pass” mentality behind and focus on results for kids. I wonder if policymakers think about the investment that states and districts have made—with taxpayer dollars—to try to implement standards that will catapult our students into a realm where they can easily compete with any student, anywhere. Imagine that.

My school is one where some students are homeless, and the attendance zone includes children who come from three drug rehabilitation centers as well as transitional housing centers. I wonder what would happen if my school was faced with losing Title I funds, which come from ESEA. The House bill on Capitol Hill right now cuts funding for education.

If we lost resources, would that mean that the extra teachers—who my principal hires to reduce class sizes and provide more concentrated interventions to our most vulnerable students—would be eliminated? The students with the greatest needs should receive the most resources. This is a simple truth.

I wonder, as a teacher and a parent, should high-quality early childhood education for all children be a luxury or the norm? Countless amounts of research show that the return on investment for early learning is huge. Yet, the benefits of providing all our children with access to quality early learning is yet to be realized in this country, and I wonder if proposals in Congress do enough to expand preschool opportunity.

All of these things matter. These are the reasons that I get up at 5:30 every morning to drive to Dunwoody Springs Elementary School. These are the reasons that I applied to be a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the Department of Education. These things represent my colleagues, my students, and my own two beautiful, brown baby boys.

But I am just one voice, so we need to hear from you too. Tell us what your ESEA looks like. How does it affect you, your school, your class, or your child:

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ESEA reauthorization impacts us all. I hope that policymakers and others who are central to this effort will listen to educators, and what they hope will be in their version of a new ESEA—a law that takes into account their experiences, their truths, and that expands opportunity to all children.

Patrice Dawkins-Jackson is Teaching Ambassador Fellow who continues to serve from Dunwoody Springs Elementary School in Sandy Springs, GA.

6 Comments

  1. My comments would also not go through, so they are going here.

    I have been teaching for ten years. First I taught math at a high school for two years, then a year in juvenile justice, then I moved to middle school and this is now my 7th year teaching science. I have also taught two periods of ESE/Inclusion classes each of those years – something that was forced upon me despite the fact I had no training or any idea what it was or how it worked.

    NCLB has pretty much crippled my ability to teach. Students in our district take over 400 standardized assessments K-12. That works out to be over 30 standardized assessments per school year. We prepare for the assessment, give it, review it and remediate it, and then, maybe, get a chance to teach some of the curriculum before the next assessment. We are taken to task in data meetings for our student’s performance.

    Our schools spends over a month testing for what used to be FCAT and is now called FSA. During that time, computer labs are unavailable for use, teachers who have computer labs are displaced from their classrooms for the entire duration, and the kids are under a tremendous amount of stress. Everyone is under a lot of stress. All so that we have data we can use to hold teachers and schools “accountable.” It is a test that has little value for the student or the teacher.

    I have spent countless hours attending ESE training. After I figured out how Inclusion was supposed to work and had things running smoothly, I was forced each year, sometimes multiple times per year, to attend the same ESE training with the same two instructors from the state. Each year I was told that it was all new material and I would benefit from it, and each year it was the same, exact training I had previously. In my entire time teaching, I have been allowed to pick what professional development I wanted to attend exactly one time. Every other time I have been forced to attend what the district wants to attend, even if it is something that does not apply to me or something I have previously attended.

    My youngest son was in Kindergarten last year. They were already prepping him for the first big test in 3rd grade. Instead of playing games, learning social norms, etc, they had him counting vertices on shapes! Ask any 5 year old child what vertices are. I would bet that most adults don’t know. That is the silliest thing I have ever heard of. Thankfully my child is very bright and found the work easy, but most of his classmates were having issues.

    Students very often “Christmas tree” the tests – picking answers at random just to be done with it. This totally invalidates the test and makes any data worthless. Our evaluations are then affected by this data, and we are required to implement yet more teaching strategies and other ideas to bring up test scores.

    Schools are unfairly labeled as D or F schools and then assaulted by state government for those failures. The same elementary school where my son goes to saw the entire staff fired after several years of “F” grades. They destroyed the entire sense of community at that school. Now every child spends an extra hour reading each day after school. That extra hour is funded by the government – our tax dollars. I suggest that adult literacy programs that encourage parents to read to their kids would do more good than that extra hour, and it would cost less. I am laughed at when I suggest this.

    The financial cost is in the tens of millions to administer all of these tests. The emotional toll on children and teachers is horrible. I am seriously considering refusing to administer the tests next year in protest – I feel that strongly about it. I will jeopardize my job in doing so.

    Perhaps the worst thing about all of this is that I don’t believe anyone cares what I think. I don’t think this message is going to be heard by anyone, and if it is, nothing is going to change. Politicians will continue to do what is going to keep them in office, the districts will continue to punish teachers and children for their scores, and no one wins.

    In each of the last six years, I have not once been evaluated on my students test scores, even though I have already stated they have no value. Instead, I have been given a rating based on the combined math and reading scores for the entire school. So instead of being judged based on what my 130 students do each year, I have been judged based on the scores of over 700 students who I have never taught, in subjects that I don’t teach. Looking at my scores, you would think I am a bad teacher. My students would not agree, nor would their parents. I could easily be working in my field of computers making more than double what I do now. I am here by choice.

    On top of all of this, Florida is now rolling out Common Core – something no one that I know wants.

    I would very much like to see things the way they were when I went to school. Local districts and states decided what curriculum to teach. Children spent time in class, learning from teachers and each other. Teachers were evaluated by their principals and not punished for test scores on tests that they didn’t write.

    Hopefully, someone real cares and has read this far. Hopefully, you can actually make my voice heard by someone who can effect change. Hopefully, by time that change happens, I will still be teaching and won’t have quit due to the stress of all of this.

    My students need me, but I can only take so much. I fear I will soon be a statistic – another teacher who quit.

    Thank you.

  2. I just have a couple things to say. One is that our standards are so grossly developmentally inappropriate. For example kindergarten is expected to teach kids to count to 100 and developmentally appropriate for a 5-6 year old is 39. Also, they can’t even understand a number that big. To them it is 1,2,3,4,5, and many. We don’t up developmental milestones by saying now your child must walk by 9 months instead of a year, or say 20 words by 12 months instead of 18 months. So then why do we ask academic skills to be so forward. When we do that and threaten teachers to make each kid meet a standardized percentile (which by the way if everyone hits that percentile it will go up each year) we are taking out social and emotional development. Kids can’t handle failure, or conflict, or use executive function. That is why we have school shooters because kids were pushed so far in school and then have a Huge lack of social skills to deal with all this pressure. We are setting ourselves up and then wonder why these kids crack. I could go on, but those are my big things. Please work on those. There is a saying, those who can teach, those who can’t make laws about it. Don’t be one of those people.

  3. Mine did not go through either. In MN and other states, we are concerned about losing the connections to higher education in the Title II Part A section on state grants for improving teacher quality. At this time, the 2.5% funding has been cut. The current connection with higher education is regulated to ensure that the grants are aimed at students at risk and are research-based with sustained follow-up training. The concern is that without this accountability, more “one and done” training workshops may result. These are not effective for professional development, teacher leadership potential or charting student achievement. Please retain the 2.5% ITQ grants with higher education institutions.

  4. My comments concerning ESEA would not go through so I am sending them through this comment area.

    Dear Patrice Dawkins-Jackson,
    First of all, I congratulate you for taking the important step of listening to teachers. I don’t think the lawmakers in Washington DC have done this much at all. If they have, they have ignored what we are trying to tell them about the emphasis on standardized testing and how it is affecting our students, our teachers, and our future. You are a person who understands what is happening in the schools today and you are in a position to “hopefully” make a difference and
    help to fix the laws that dictate what schools must do. I say hopefully, because I am not sure they (the lawmakers/business men) will really listen to us, the teachers. They want to treat schools like businesses and they want to see a bottom line that shows progress or in business, it would be profit. But as teachers, we know that schools and students are not a business. Nor are families a business. Schools need to have compassion and understanding, not threats and penalties. As a teacher, I feel threatened everyday. I know that all of my students will not do well on standardized tests. Many, many people do not do well on standardized tests. It doesn’t mean that they are not smart or they are not making progress. It means they are not a good test taker or that they have a disability, or that they come from a lousy home situation with little or no support.
    We need to get the “humanness” back in schools. We are dealing with people, not profit margins. We need to do the best we can to help every student achieve their highest potential, but that will not ever be the same for every student, just like it is not the same for every human being. We need to provide the opportunity and framework for success but threatening teachers and evaluating them on students’ standardized test scores is not the way. This testing has been a ridiculous money-waster. Huge amounts of time and money will be saved but eliminating these mandated tests that some students pass with no problems or effort and it is truly a waste of their time when they should be doing creative, or accelerated learning. While other students will NEVER do well on these tests because of documented disabilities or other factors outside of the teacher’s control.
    I have many thoughts and ideas about ESEA as well as IDEA. It is also ridiculous how one law can override the other. They really need to be considered as one entity. It is time to get this right and it is time for the teacher’s voices to be heard because no one will want to become a teacher if this craziness of evaluating teachers based on the standardized test scores of their students. It is insanity and anyone who has walked in our shoes as teachers knows this is just wrong and it has to stop immediately.
    Please be strong, and don’t let the lawmakers/business men in Washington DC continue to destroy in some cases, the only place that children can go and learn in a nurturing, caring environment that will challenge them to do their very best and to reach their fullest potential with the very best teachers who are totally supported by the laws, not demeaned and threatened by them. I wish you the very best in this endeavor and I hope you will stop the train wreck that is destroying public education.

  5. How can you possibly support standards that have never been tested, researched or piloted? You are irresponsible and part of the problem. The US Dept. of Education is 100% to blame for the decline we have seen in education since the day it started back in 1979. ESEA was created to give funds for poor children to help them read. It was never designed to morph into the stick it has become for states in order to get the carrots. There are many states that had excellent standards but we elected to go with standards that were not tested and experts are finding are inferior standards and in most cases not standards at all. Our kids are not your lab rats. This entire agenda is to get all states doing the same thing so the government can collect data on every American and monitor every aspect of their lives. You should be ashamed to even admit you work for the US Dept. of Education. No one that really cares about education could work for this unconstitutional organization. We will see the day when the department is defunded and no longer exists.

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