ESSA is a sad reminder that we are too often willing to keep the least privileged students trapped in a failing system.
When I began teaching in Texas, the Lone Star State had just switched up their state-mandated standardized testing. Previously known as TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills), test makers had rewritten the assessment to align with their new attention to broad concepts over fact regurgitation. The new test was renamed TAKS – Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. (They’ve since revamped again, to STAAR – State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness).
Tests had never caused me much anxiety as a student. The pressure cooker of a big bunch of questions I had to answer in a limited amount of time with my resulting performance exacting real consequences made me – somehow – excited. I looked forward to tests, actually.
Whatever happened to me in my childhood should probably be looked into…
At any rate, tests did cause me a lot of anxiety that first year as a teacher. Alone, with a heavy paper manual on hand and a crowded, clunky website with a constellation of countless links online, I tried to learn these new TAKS English standards. Holy Heavens, there were so many! I had no idea how to prioritize all these blinking new skills my students needed to learn. On top of that, I had no idea what the actual test would look like.
I knew my students were not prepared, primarily because I had been with them many months, and was painfully aware of my own shortcomings as a teacher. I wanted them to do well, but I knew they probably wouldn’t, and this was a terrible place to find myself.
Working in a small, rural school, with little oversight, direction or input, and being entirely new to the teaching profession, I was very much in over my head. Devastating it is that my students paid a price for that. Only half of them passed their English test.
The following year, I moved to an Austin suburb and began work at a large middle school in a massive district. Suddenly, I had fellow 8th grade teachers to converse and collaborate with, I had lesson plans that were ready-made, if I wanted them. I had two district representatives who were solely devoted to middle school curriculum management, and our school’s administration team had in place a remarkably efficient system of data-driven intervention for students who were struggling.
I had time to look at released tests and see an example of what my students would see. I had people who were willing, ready, able and wanting to help me figure out how to prioritize standards, how to teach these concepts effectively, how to engage students when trying to instruct them about mundane topics along the “Text Structure” line, which believe: that stuff is boring.
And when test time came, my students flat-out rocked it. Year in, year out, they passed at a rate above 95%, and a huge chunk regularly came back in the exclusive “Commended” category. I’d like to take credit, friends. But I really can’t. There were high standards, and there were a host of people who had put in the hours to devise the best practices to help our students knock those standards out of the park.
Were the suburban kids naturally brighter than the rural students I taught? Of course not.
But were they learning more? I think the answer is a definite yes.
The recent and rare bit of bipartisan legislation making news this week is ESSA – Every Student Succeeds Act. This new law is meant to fix some of the flaws in President George W. Bush’s NCLB – No Child Left Behind. (And if you follow Education, you quickly learn that acronyms are like heroine in this field – everyone’s an addict to the all-caps abbreviation hit).
One major component of ESSA is that the federal government will not longer oversee and enforce mandated standards. Their reasoning is that if states won’t follow federal outlines for excellent student learning and achievement, then they are bound to do so on their own good honor?
Look, there were absolutely problems with NCLB. For starters, the noble goal of ensuring that minority subgroups were required to pass at the same percentage rates as everyone else made a lot of sense on paper. In reality, there were real problems. For instance, if you only teach three students who are Hispanic, and one of them fails, then you as a teacher have not met expectations. Because one out of three, percentage-wise, is less than 70%. So less than 70% of your Hispanic students passed.
That puts a lot of pressure on those three kids. It also creates the pernicious side effect of making their scores much more valuable to the school than other students. You can see where this leads.
But the aim of NCLB was to create a uniform set of standards, so that schools could not just “pass” students through, regardless of actual learning.
And I think, on that note, ESSA is a step backwards.
Most glaringly, it removes the requirement of teacher evaluation. And that is a huge loss for teachers. Here’s why: if a student or a parent doesn’t “like” his or her teacher, that can be a powerful weapon against that educator. But if the teacher has a proven record of student achievement, then that record works as leverage. Maybe Johnny doesn’t love Mr. Smith, but we can prove he’ll still learn a lot – look at these numbers.
It’s also a huge loss for teachers because without accountability, bad teachers don’t just fail to improve, they stay in the system. Which means that students start graduating to the next level at unequal learning benchmarks.
When I worked in Austin, I knew that every 8th grader who took a seat in my room on the first day of school had learned the entire 7th grade curriculum. I knew it because those students had passed their 7th grade TAKS test, and I had those scores to prove it.
On countless occasions, I pulled those scores out to remind my kiddos that what I was teaching them was information they had already learned. When a student hears he already knows something, he feels empowered. She feels capable. The journey into more complex levels of that learning is less daunting.
Tests can do this, and that’s why ESSA won’t fix the problems of NCLB. It will likely exacerbate them.
Leslie Proll, the director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, recently had this to say about ESSA: “The whole purpose behind the original bill was to ensure that there were consistent standards and federal oversight to make sure that states and localities were doing the right thing by poor children, by children who needed that assistance the most, and reducing that and granting so much discretion to states is just worrisome.”
Consistent standards. Those are vital. Because what Proll said is exactly right: the poor students, who are often minorities, are the ones who get “left behind.”
I couldn’t fix the teaching mistakes I made during my first year in the classroom. But even if I had stayed in that rural district, I would have learned, and I would have improved, and I would have taught better the next year. If I wanted to keep my job, then improvement was not optional.
I had a set of standards; I knew what I had to do, and I knew what my students needed to learn. That is gold, for an educator who is just beginning. It’s a hard goal, but it’s a worthy one: to ensure that rural students, that inner city students, have an equal set of knowledge and skills with their wealthy suburban coutnerparts.
ESSA is a sad reminder that too often in this country we are willing to let the least privileged among us stay trapped in a failing system.
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