Educators to Policymakers: Please Step Into My Classroom

By Kevin Hart

During this evening’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama is expected to lay out a series of initiatives designed to make the United States more competitive, including a focus on improving public education. America’s educators are eager to contribute their ideas to the cause.

As part of the “Please Step Into My Classroom” online campaign, educators from across the country recently submitted to their Congressional representatives insights into the daily challenges they face, and ideas on federal policy changes that could better support public education.

Several educators asked their representatives to revamp the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as No Child Left Behind in its current incarnation, to reduce its focus on high-stakes testing and to make it less punitive for schools that are often operating under difficult circumstances.

“Children who have been abused, come from homes where parents are in and out of prison or are drug addicts, children who are homeless, have behavioral issues, have special needs, or where English is a second language have even more of a challenge meeting NCLB expectations,” wrote New Hampshire educator Debbie Lane. “When children in these categories fail to meet expectations, schools and districts are threatened with being penalized.”

Sandra Williams of New Mexico wrote about some of the unique challenges of teaching in a rural community with limited resources and students who often come from impoverished backgrounds.  

“Many times precious time is spent on teaching the fundamentals of learning, from holding a pencil correctly to learning basic personal hygiene, yet we find a way to still teach the grade-appropriate standards and benchmarks,” she wrote. “With the restrictions and limitations placed on educators by NCLB and other legislative rulings, our children and educators are being drawn out so thin that it feels as if very little is getting accomplished.”

Educators called on their members of Congress to implement research-based reforms and to avoid fad reforms that are backed by shaky science – or, in some cases, no science at all.

Ann-Marie Tomek of Illinois asked her representatives to talk with teachers and spend more time reflecting on the impact of previous legislative decisions. She wrote about the unique social needs of her students, some of whom live in hotels or homeless shelters, and questioned whether a culture focused on high-stakes testing was the best way to serve them.  

“They need it all, not just [test] scores,” she wrote.   

Julie Palacio, a bilingual elementary teacher from Oakland, CA, wrote that her school offers a model for how successful education reform can help transform lives for lower-income students. Palacio’s school receives extra funding under the Quality Education Investment Act, a union-backed program that offers additional funds to lower-performing schools to support research-based reforms.

“We’re keeping class sizes small so we can give students the individual attention they need,” she wrote. “Educators have time to collaborate with each other. A lot of the time we spend together is analyzing student work and test data so we can design more effective ways of helping students in areas of high intervention.”

For many educators, health care for students was a primary concern. Educators pointed out that students who do not have access to quality health care are more likely to fall behind academically. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill to repeal a 2010 law designed to improve access to health care for millions of Americans.   

“Students whose basic health needs are neglected because of financial need are at a strong disadvantage in the classroom,” wrote California educator Lisa Wintner. “These disadvantages show up as part of the achievement gap, discrediting capable children who struggle with medical issues, not learning issues.”

Several educators expressed concerns about funding cuts and attempts to apply business models to classrooms, despite the fact that there is little evidence those models will raise achievement. Those sentiments were also reflected in a recent survey on NEA’s Education Votes Web site, where educators were asked what they consider to be the most pressing issues facing education today.

More than half of the people responding to the survey, or 54 percent, cited state budget shortfalls and applying business models to classroom teaching as the leading threats to public schools. Respondents also said parental involvement and qualified teachers were the two most important keys to improving student achievement.