December 10, 2015

President Obama just signed a rewrite to No Child Left Behind. Here's why teachers should pay attention.

By Holly Kragthorpe

After years of trying to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress and the President have finally passed a new version called Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This moment in time is particularly significant to me since within the last year, I literally went from my classroom to Congress.

I work as a national policy manager for a teacher-led organization, but less than a year ago I was a teaching seventh graders for the Minneapolis Public Schools. After fourteen years of teaching in an urban district, I have experienced both teaching prior to implementation of No Child Left Behind and after it was implemented, and I have witnessed the inequities, discrepancies, inconsistencies, and injustices of the American public school system. This is why now I work to amplify teacher voices and get them in front of legislators and other decision-makers.

When I recently had the opportunity to work on ESEA recommendations with eleven exceptional teachers from across the U.S., they told me they wanted to ensure that their schools have the resources they need, they hoped for guardrails to help protect traditionally underserved students, and they wanted federal legislation that encourages states and schools to use teachers as valuable human capital. Thankfully politicians listened to teacher voices and united to support these recommendations.

So, there is no doubt in my mind that the ESSA will only be successful to the extent which teachers are included, involved, and empowered to advocate and implement this legislation.

Here’s why teachers should pay attention:

  • School accountability is shifting away from federal oversight to states.  With more local control, teachers have the opportunity not only weigh in but also to advocate for which factors should be used to measure school quality. States must continue to include factors such as student assessment data in determining school performance but can balance such measure with new or alternative factors such as school climate, teacher engagement, and access to advanced coursework. The danger here is that states could weaken accountability for traditionally underserved students, and teachers have an imperative to ensure this doesn’t happen.

  • Federal oversight of teacher evaluation will end. This means that teachers have the opportunity to help design or amend their local teacher evaluation systems, yet there is also the possibility that concrete measures within teacher evaluation could be weakened. Ideally teacher evaluation should be multi-measured, meaningful for teachers, and should increase student achievement. Teachers should advocate for some valid and reliable measures within teacher evaluation.

  • Teachers have an opportunity to re-envision professional development. Funds can be used to support peer-led, evidence-based professional development in your district and school. Title II permits funds to be used for effective teachers to develop and lead evidence-based professional development for their peers, promoting teacher leadership.

  • It’s time to give teachers more career advancement opportunities other than to become administrators because teacher career pathways are supported through this legislation. Title II allows for the development of career opportunities and advancement initiatives that promote professional growth and emphasize multiple career paths. This includes hybrid roles that allow instructional coaching and mentoring while remaining in the classroom

  • We need to get serious about getting high quality teachers into each and every school, but especially in schools that need them most. ESSA contains measures for teacher recruitment and retention, and permits strategies that provide differential pay, or other incentives, to recruit and retain teachers in high-need academic subjects and teachers in low-income schools and school districts.

Yet, questions still remain:

  • What will it look like to have teacher evaluation driven at the local level, and how can teacher evaluation happen in a way that maintains high expectations for teachers and students?

  • How will states determine and measure school quality?

  • How will teachers be involved in developing and implementing interventions in schools where students are struggling?

All of these questions are crucial opportunities for teacher input and leadership. The ESSA begins a new era in our careers, and in order to capitalize on these new opportunities we need to make sure teachers are at the table to define how this law is implemented.

Teachers have taken their recommendations from their classrooms to Congress, and now we must take the federal legislation back to classrooms, schools, districts, and states, where teachers should continue to lead. Our students are depending on it.

Holly Kragthorpe is the National Policy Manager at Educators 4 Excellence.