“Be careful what you wish for” is the mantra when public education and politics collide.
When No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001 by a bipartisan Congress and signed into law by George W. Bush, those of us in the classroom were alarmed. Although the bill acknowledged some of the problems in public education — funding formulas that guarantee unequal access to resources, a growing teacher shortage, the deleterious effects of poverty on student achievement — the “solutions” sidestepped those issues and focused instead of measuring academic performance and teacher effectiveness through the dubious means of standardized tests, value added performance measures and state report cards.
The Obama administration did no better. The Every Student Succeeds Act continued the process of testing, labeling, and punishing. Class time became synonymous with test prep, and courses that weren’t tested were dropped from curricula. Teachers of children suffering trauma or living in poverty were judged ineffective when their students’ test scores were lower than their better-off peers. Schools with large numbers of poor students were closed or taken over by the states. Scarce education funds were siphoned off by charter schools, and in some cases, by private school vouchers.
Last year saw a growing pushback from educators and parents about the unintended consequences of education reform and the lingering shortfalls of the recession. Teachers staged protests to draw attention to systemic neglect of public education. They warned that losing our commitment to civic institutions such as schools deals a blow to democracy.
This year promises to be another active one for teacher advocates. Teachers in Los Angeles negotiated a successful new union contract, and Denver teachers voted to walk out.
While teachers need higher pay, their most pressing concerns are for their students. Striking teachers in LA, for example, put at the top of their demands additional support staff such as librarians, nurses and classroom aides, in addition to a reduction in class size.
In a recent interview with NPR’s Ari Shapiro, Kirabo Jackson, a labor economist at Northwestern University, showed that school districts that boost their funding by at least 10 percent for smaller classes, teacher pay, and support staff not only boost their students’ test scores but benefit students throughout their lives.
“(Students) experienced improved adult outcomes,” Jackson said. “They experienced about a 13-percentage point increase in the likelihood of graduating from high school. Their earnings were about 10 percent higher. They were about 8 percent less likely to be poor as adults even though they were poor as children. And in some recent work, I’ve found that they’re also less likely to be incarcerated as adults.”
Education reform under NCLB and ESSA used the myopic — and harmful — metric of standardized test scores to drive policy. If we really want to improve students’ lives, we need to listen to what the boots on the ground — the teachers — are saying about investing in people.
Teachers might have a better chance at being heard now. At least 41 K-12 teachers ran for office and won in the last election. These include Jahana Hayes, the first African-American woman elected as a U.S. representative from Connecticut. Her background in education includes high school social studies teacher and state and national awards as Teacher of the Year. Her appointment to the House Committee on Education and Labor gives me hope that someone in Congress sees teachers as necessary partners in improving the lives of our children.