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.
In each location, community members have shared their unique experience with the law ESSA replaced, No Child Left Behind; opportunities they hope ESSA will afford; and the many questions they still have about what will be coming their way in future months and years. The discussions, unsurprisingly, have focused on accountability, assessments and data, over-testing, funding, and ensuring all students have access to great teachers.
Educators have shared well-known concerns like assessments taking the air out of the room. “What we’re being asked to measure is going to drive our work,” one California participant said, pointing to schools that have had a laser-focus on ELA and math results, to the detriment of a well-rounded curriculum we want for all students. A New Jersey principal expressed the frustration that all educators are held to the same expectations, which makes distinguishing and building on the unique expertise of seasoned teachers more difficult. And educators talked about not getting quality data from well-developed assessments in a timely enough manner to actually inform instruction and improve outcomes. As a Massachusetts principal shared, “It is a system of here’s-your-test-scores-now-go-forth-and-do-better,” rather than accessing the data in time for district/school data teams to analyze and make sense of the data implications and implement changes before testing begins again.
On the flip-side, educators shared their hopefulness for the new law creating opportunity for more differentiation and a broader educational focus for students. In Colorado, educators were eager to identify accountability goals that might focus on providing a well-rounded education for students, both long-term and smaller interim ones, in addition to academic proficiency goals. One senior official heard teachers from Memorial Elementary School in rural Newton, N.H., explain how they designed the standardized tests their own students take as part of New Hampshire’s innovative assessment work and how empowered they felt sitting across the table from colleagues at their grade level from around the state as they craft questions that align with rigorous standards. And at an innovative school-within-a-school in its first year of operation in Providence, R.I., he also heard from students serving on that school’s governing board about their inspiring educators designing authentic learning experiences and the many ways they measure success including reflections, surveys, and portfolios which the students say offer a broader picture than test scores.
In so many places, educators shared how critical it is to engage teachers on issues of assessment and accountability. As one district teacher of the year in Connecticut said, “there’s a systemic problem: teachers aren’t set up to be involved in policy. They are too busy in the trenches, overwhelmed by initiatives and their lens is instructional, not political.” Too often, educators from across the country said, it’s the same handful of teachers who happen to live close to the State capital or who can attend a meeting in the middle of the day who are heard. But even on this topic, educators offered solutions for State-required consultations with stakeholders, including creative uses of technology; evaluating state efforts on the outcomes of their consultations, not just checking the box; engaging community organizations, rather than government agencies, to collect feedback so that it is less threatening; or training corps of educators to hold discussions with educators, not unlike these listening sessions.
Indeed, while my colleagues at the Department continue to work through the nitty gritty details of the Every Student Succeeds Act and questions continue to abound in the field, there is one thing that is clear from our Fellows’ listening sessions: the voices, experiences, and ideas of the people doing the work under the law have never been more critical.