Much like America’s teachers, the U.S. Department of Education sometimes gets a bad rap.
You know the drill. So many times, the stories of frustrated teachers or bad apples get bigger play on social media and in the news than the stories of the millions of American teachers who, like my friends and colleagues, change lives every day. Meanwhile, federal policymakers get blamed for not being omnipotent, as many think they should be, or for not talking to real teachers. However, since the start of this school year, my Teaching Ambassador Fellow colleagues and I have spoken with literally thousands of teachers around the country and brought back to ED what we’ve heard.
“Teachers have made a huge difference in my life. Among my key priorities this year is lifting up our nation’s teachers and the education profession. The Teaching Ambassador Fellowship and Teach to Lead are great steps in this direction. I am eager to work with the Fellows to do even more to support educators as they work to expand educational equity and excellence each day.” – Secretary (and high school social studies teacher) John King on the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship website.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching Ambassador Fellows (TAF) are expected to learn about federal education policy, reach out to teachers and schools and reflect with Department of Education staff what they hear. As a Washington-based TAF, on leave from my school for the year, I have had the unique honor of bringing the voices of teachers I meet across the country directly into discussions at the Department of Education. One way we have done this recently is through monthly meetings we call Tea with Teachers.
Secretary King engages with teachers during a Tea with Teachers session in February. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)
During Tea with Teachers, educators from across the United States are invited to come share their unique experiences with Secretary King and other staff members on key topics like teacher retention, challenges faced by Native American youth, meeting the needs of students who are refugees, creating safe learning spaces free from discrimination, and the unique problems faced by students who are undocumented.
ED has held several listening sessions about the ESSA this year. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)
Since President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law, I have seen Department of Education staff have to work quickly through minute details to figure out how to help make this new law work best for 50 million students in 100,000 schools around the country. It has been gratifying however, to also see these staff members pause to take the time it requires to go directly to hear from those who will implement the law. In doing so, our leaders turned to the Department’s resident educators – Teaching and Principal Ambassador and Leadership for Educational Equity Fellows – to organize listening sessions and school visits for them with nearly 1,000 teachers, principals, superintendents and administrators, parents, and community representatives from all manner of rural, suburban and urban settings in 16 states thus far and more sessions still to come.
Students gather around a tree as part of the school’s nature-based curriculum
Environmental education is an integral part of everyday life at Redtail Ridge Elementary School in Minnesota’s Prior Lake-Savage area school district. On any given day you could find: math students using trees to study circumference, students using their senses to reinforce a lesson on adjectives, kindergartners sorting man-made verses natural objects, writing nature poetry, and investigating positive and negative numbers by recording the daily temperature. Embedding environmental education into our daily routine is a reflection of the community that fills the building, viewing the outdoors as an extension of our classroom, and a constant effort to replace existing lessons with an environmental focus.
From a supportive administrator, to our diligent custodial staff, willing classroom teachers, and tireless support staff, we are all working towards our philosophy of using the environment to educate children. The willingness to help each other and draw on each other’s strengths is what makes us unique. At any time you might see a fifth grade classroom taking a kindergarten class snowshoeing and then the next day going again with a group of second graders.
Pictured (Left to right): Melody Kwan , LMIT InvenTeam advisor and Spanish Teacher at Baruch College Campus High School; Stephen Mwringa; Amro Halwah; Si Ya (Wendy) Ni and Dr. Elisabeth Jaffe.
Opportunity is perhaps the greatest possibility of the American promise. For two New York City high school students who came to America less than ten years ago knowing very little English, opportunity led them to the White House Science Fair where they presented their subway vacuum cleaner project to President Obama with their classmate Si Ya “Wendy” Ni, a first generation college student.
One of the students, Amro Halwah, immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 13. He started school in the U.S. as an 8th grader and is currently a senior at Baruch College Campus High School. When he was young, he hated learning because he viewed it as only memorizing facts that he promptly forgot after taking a test.
While in school in New York, however, he started down a different path. He participated in several hands-on projects that unleashed his creativity and gave him the opportunity to engage in independent learning. When he got the chance to join the L-MIT Baruch InvenTeam this year, his desire to learn and contribute to the invention of last year’s seniors really excited him.
When I first came to Acacia Elementary School as the turnaround principal in 2003, I noticed three things: first, we had excellent teachers – but student performance was struggling and parent involvement was lagging. While many struggling schools in similar situations make the decision to boost up their reading and math interventions at the expense of classes like art and music, we did not.
Acacia first graders have talent. They performed songs for a production of Stone Soup. The arts are an integral part of the well-rounded curriculum. (Photo courtesy Christine Hollingsworth)
Walk through our school today and you’ll see monthly special events with standing-room only attendance; kindergarteners excited to apply what they learned in reading class to P.E., like using patterns, for example; and a third grade music class where students are learning about beats, syllables, and counts so they can write powerful haikus in their writing classes.
While other districts debated whether to cut classes like music and art, the Washington Elementary School District Governing Board stood up for us because they understood that these “specials” are vitally important to the whole child. And our board has seen that as a result of that investment, students are doing better than ever.
The first-ever Educator Equity Lab was held on March 29th at Jackson State University in Mississippi, where more than one hundred education stakeholders made commitments to ensuring equal access to excellent teachers for the state’s students of color and students from low income backgrounds.
The Lab was part of the Department of Education’s broader efforts to support states in closing persistent nationwide “equity gaps” in access to great teachers. Last fall, then-Secretary Arne Duncan announced the approval of the first batch of state plans submitted under the Excellent Educators for All Initiative. And, he tasked the Department’s Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows with leading a series of labs to help with their implementation.
ED TAF Patrick Kelly with students in his classroom in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo courtesy Patrick Kelly)
I am in my eleventh year teaching but often find my greatest educational epiphanies as a parent. One such moment occurred last spring when my daughter’s first grade class discussed de jure racial segregation of American society during the first half of the 20th century. When she came home, she shared what she had learned and asked this poignant and powerful question, “Daddy, does that mean I couldn’t have gone to school with my best friend?” At that moment, as she contextualized the reality of segregation in her head and heart, the power of classroom diversity became crystal clear.
However, the value of diversity is currently being unrealized at a rate unseen in the last 50 years. Abundant data points to resegregation of America’s schools, such as a 2012 report from The Civil Rights Project at UCLA that noted, “80% of Latino students and 74% of black students attend majority nonwhite schools.” As an educator, these statistics are alarming, since I’ve seen the value of a diverse classroom in three key ways.
Reykdal, a finalist for the American School Counselor Association ‘s 2016 National School Counselor of the Year award visited Washington, D.C., with Steffany Heredia, a senior at Olympia High School. (Photo courtesy Kim Reykdal)
Every spring, as March Madness heats up, it’s not just basketball brackets bringing on the fever pitch of competition. In many high schools, March Madness is about college acceptances; who’s gotten them, and who hasn’t. Information about the “have’s” and the “have not’s” in the ever-increasing race to be branded a “success,” travels instantly along the hallways and social media highways.
For first generation college students, this annual “race to nowhere”, as a recent documentary termed it, often ends before it even begins unless someone outside of their nuclear family guides them through the college application process. In many public schools, overwhelming caseloads leave school counselors without the time and resources necessary to provide students with adequate career and college guidance. Administrators must rely on teachers and other staff, or specific college preparatory programs like AVID, to help prepare students for a variety of 2 and 4-year college options, and other post-high school pathways.
One evening, a grandfather told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one that you feed.” – From The Tale of Two Wolves
Pearson giving a TEDx talk on the importance of kindness projects. (Photo courtesy Ferial Pearson)
On December 12, 2014, Avielle Richman was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School along with 19 other young children. Avielle’s death hit me hard because she reminded me of my own daughter – the same age and curious eyes, loving nature, kind heart, and friendly spirit. Over the past 15 years, I have taught thousands of students and I will admit, there are few of whom I have found myself truly afraid. They would put their hands in their backpacks and I would think, “This is it. Today we die.” Luckily, that never happened.
Like many mothers, after Sandy Hook I had a difficult conversation with my own children who asked why someone would murder kindergarteners? My nine-year-old son said that whenever he was bullied in school, he would get angry and feel like lashing out, but then someone would be kind to him, and the feeling would go away. My daughter then asked, “What if people had always been kind to the shooter every single day? Maybe he wouldn’t have done it.”
Naïve as it may have been, when I returned to school, my daughter’s comment led me to devise a plan. I would give envelopes to my high school juniors, assigning them to specific acts of kindness in exchange for a prize. At my students’ suggestion, we agreed that we all had to draw an assignment every week, including me, without expectation of a reward. We brainstormed a list of random acts of kindness that could happen at school and didn’t cost any money. My students acknowledged the risk it took to perform these random acts – they didn’t want to stick out from their peers – so we gave each other Secret Kindness Agent names (mine is Agent Mama Beast) and kept the acts anonymous. Every week, we had a ceremony where I would play some cheesy song while each Agent came up to draw their assignment. We wrote an oath and acknowledged the risks and at the end of the week we would reflect on what happened, how we felt before, and how we felt after we did our assignments. Perhaps it comes as no surprise, not only did I see the culture of our school change, but I also saw the change within my students.
When I came across the Cherokee fable, The Tale of Two Wolves, I brought it to class. I asked my students if they had ever been bullied and every hand in the room went up. I then asked if anyone had been the bully and again, every hand went up, perhaps a little less eagerly. We realized that the idea that there are “good” or “bad” people in the world was a myth. As the grandfather says, both wolves dwell within us.
Through the Secret Kindness Agents, our good wolves were gaining on our evil wolves. With time now spent acknowledging the bad wolf and feeding the good wolves, I find that when a student reaches into their bag, rather than a gun, I expect a poem, a card, or some other random act of kindness.
Ferial Pearson is an Instructor in the Teacher Education Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She started the Secret Kindness Agent Project with students at Ralston High School where she served as a Talent Advisor for the Avenue Scholars Foundation. She has since helped over 30 other communities start kindness projects, wrote a book and started a Facebook Page with the students. This week the Kennedy Center honored her as one of the winners of the Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award.
As NCLB’s replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) comes into focus, educators’ input is poised to play a larger role in the implementation of law than ever before. Over the past several weeks, educators, other key stakeholders, and representative organizations have come to discussions with the Department of Education, both in person and electronically, to share thoughts on the guidance and clarification that are needed in moving forward in implementing this law.
As part of the listening, the U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows (TAFs/PAFs) were asked to hold listening sessions for Department staff with teachers, principals, and other stakeholders to inform ESSA implementation. This past week, several other TAFs and I organized sessions in and around our own communities with district superintendents in Connecticut, math teachers in California, students in Rhode Island, business leaders in Colorado, and educators in Washington, D.C., and New Hampshire; and, in the coming weeks, we have discussions planned in rural communities in Northern California and Washington across to urban centers of New York City and New Jersey, to name a few.
As I sat in Colorado soliciting input, I realized that this shift to a more proactive, solutions-oriented mindset proved harder than it sounds. For too long, we have been asked merely to react. Now we have the opportunity to shed the reactionary posture we have been exercising for the past two decades under NCLB and it’s not easy.
In these sessions we heard a lot of important feedback. We heard calls in Connecticut for incentives for districts and states to innovate. High school students shared their feelings about standardized assessment and their concern about the extent to which current assessments really measure who they are. Math teachers and leaders in California expressed a need for clearer definitions of college and career ready standards and posed questions about accountability measures that reflect more than test scores. In every place, we heard calls for improving all angles of the teaching profession –recruitment, retention, and job satisfaction.
While important to hear, what is evident is that they are not new – all are responses to what has been; What’s new is that we are being called on to contribute our professional expertise in crafting what could be. If ESSA is to work, states, districts, and the federal government must seize opportunities to craft policy that employs our firsthand knowledge of what works and doesn’t in real classrooms and schools. At this moment, the federal government is asking what we see as the key provisions and policies so that any guidance or rules enacted reflect our professional expertise. We know that every teacher and school leader won’t sit in a room with Department staff, but please know that you can send your thoughts and concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org. Adding your voice does not mean having to read and digest 1,000-plus pages of the law. Plenty of analyses and summaries have been published and you can find some starting places on the Department’s website.
I am glad that ESSA provides an opportunity for us all to rethink the assessment, accountability and educator evaluation systems to ensure they are meaningful and helpful. It’s important that the law requires consultation with stakeholders like us at every level. Now, we need to be ready with our vision and our solutions of what can be so that every student can truly succeed.
As a special educator for 17 years, I have long been witness to what civil rights data collections are showing now is pervasive – there is a disproportionately high representation of students of color identified for special education. Additionally, special education students of color face higher risk rates of disciplinary referrals for suspensions, alternative school assignments, and expulsions, which correlate to lower graduation rates.
There’s an irony as education for students with special needs was born out of the civil rights movement. Too often other variables such as language, poverty, assessment practices, and lack of professional development and cultural competence support for teachers have played too big a role, resulting in unnecessary services or students learning in inappropriately restrictive environments.
I remember early in my career proctoring an educational assessment as part of an initial eligibility for a student’s consideration into specialized education. The referral came from a general education teacher who said, “He just isn’t getting the content.” While administering the test, I saw a test filled with cultural biases, and the result was a boy being assigned to a self-contained class unnecessarily. Fortunately that student’s case manager advocated and the case was made for a less restrictive environment. Too many kids don’t have such an advocate.
As the demographics of our nation’s schools become more racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse, we must closely inspect disproportionality to ensure we create equitable learning communities. There are practices that may reduce disproportionality, including pre-referral interventions, family engagement, instructional practices for collaboration in the general curriculum, and professional development, to improve student outcomes.
For years there have been documented situations where minority students have experienced inadequate services, low-quality curriculum, and isolation from their nondisabled peers. I taught minority students in both inclusionary and pullout settings at a high-needs school. At one point I serviced 40 students in grades K-5. What drove me was the fact these students and their parents were expecting me do right by those students so they could be successful beyond elementary school. To not do right by them meant they would potentially fall victim to even more dire circumstances related to poverty.
In grades 4-5, I co-taught with the classroom teacher, co-planning and making sure our lessons included strategies to make sure all students in that class were successful. This kept students in the classroom and pushed them to succeed. The results were not only evident in their IEP progress but also on their standardized test data. The most compelling evidence was in their classroom discourse. The level of engagement they had with their peers regarding what they were learning was powerful and the sense of self-confidence they exuded was infectious. We also spent a lot of time educating parents of their rights and how to advocate for their child. We wanted to them to feel empowered and informed on how to access resources or voice concerns about their child’s plan. Reducing disparities for special education students can mean the difference between lifelong success or failure.