The US Department of Education is currently in the process of setting the regulations that states must follow with the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). They are accepting public comment here. I hope everyone who cares about what our schools will look like for the next decade will take the time to comment. Here are the comments I submitted today.
I have been a teacher since 1987, working primarily in settings that serve English Learners, and have witnessed the damage done by NCLB and Race to the Top over the past decade and a half. As you write the regulations for the new ESSA for states to follow, I ask you to avoid repeating those past mistakes by not over reaching again with federal power into what should be the purview of the states. Local families, educators and community members must have input into and control over what happens in the schools that are funded by their taxes if any educational reform efforts are to work in our democratic society. It is particularly important to have educator voice at all levels of policy discussion, as teachers and principals who are actually on the ground implementing policy will have great insight into what some of the unintended consequences of such policy might be that may not be evident to those who have not been inside a public school other than as a student or visitor in many years, or perhaps ever. Top down mandates have not worked for the past 15 years and they will not work in the future. The law allows for over a year for states to develop a plan for what works best for their children in their local area. The federal government should not do anything to try to either rush nor impede that process.
I also urge you to honor the diversity of our student population and to respect other laws that were hard fought for and won when setting regulations. IDEA is an example of such a law. It protects the rights of children with disabilities to a free and APPROPRIATE education. An appropriate education may look different for many children with disabilities in the ways that goals are set and in how instruction is delivered and progress assessed. Our students who are on Individual Education Plans have a right to have those plans, which are determined with the collaboration of teachers and parents who know the children best, kept as a focus of their instruction.
Our students who are English Learners and Emergent Bilinguals must be allowed the time they need to develop their new English language as well as their native languages fully without pushing for acquisition of English at a speed that is developmentally unreasonable for the vast majority of these students or devalues or denies their opportunity to maintain and improve their native languages. Just as we cannot push a child to learn to walk or talk before the child is ready, we cannot force quicker English acquisition. The average amount of time necessary for a student to acquire academic English has been determined by researchers to be an average 5 to 7 years. That trajectory may be longer when students' native language is being maintained and improved as well. I also urge you not to inappropriately require English Learners to be rated on their academic attainment by assessments given to them in English until they have acquired a level of English proficiency that is comparable to their peers for whom English is a native language. Assessing students in that way violates their civil rights, as does denying them access to some programs unless and until they reach a certain level of English proficiency.
Finally, I urge you to recognize the shared responsibility that we all have for educating our children. We must assure that all children have equitable inputs before insisting on equal outcomes. Accountability cannot rest with teachers and schools alone. We must all work to ensure that children's basic needs are met so they can learn.
Insisting that all children must be at the same place at the same time has been very damaging to individual students. It has labeled them failures before they have had time to show what they can ultimately achieve. Clearly we want all our children to be successful, but we must allow for student and family voice regarding what "successful" means and how students move along their different paths to reaching their own individual goals. The ultimate consumers of public education are parents and children. They are not, as some have asserted recently, corporate interests. Thomas Jefferson said, "Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty." Jefferson did not speak of the need to provide workers for industry but of liberty and a watchful, diligent citizenry in virtually every quote we find from him regarding his advocacy for public education. We must not reduce our public education system to a mere lapdog taking orders from multinational corporations regarding training their future workforce. Our children deserve better. They deserve an education that will allow them to not merely try to regurgitate the one "correct" answer but rather to create their own questions and answers regarding the many issues they will face after all of us who make these decisions today are long gone.