Leaving educators out of the conversation on path for NC schools

President Obama recently signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, a bill that reverses much of the No Child Left behind law implemented by the Bush administration in 2002.

NCLB established the standardized testing system that I and most of my college peers grew up with, requiring students to take tests in reading and math every year third to eigth grade and once in high school. These test scores determined students’ “proficiency” and schools’ “adequate yearly progress.” Schools that missed AYP multiple years in a row faced a series of consequences, requiring them to allow students to transfer, to offer free tutoring services or to undergo turnaround programs initiated by the states.

Since its passing, NCLB received criticism from politicians, teachers and parents alike. In 2010, the Obama administration allowed states to apply for waivers to opt out of several NCLB parameters. In exchange, states were required to adopt Common Core curriculum standards or submit “rigorous enough” standards for approval, as well as establish methods of evaluating teachers based on student progress rather than test scores alone.

While ESSA maintains annual standardized tests in reading and math, it prohibits the federal government from offering incentives to states to adopt Common Core standards, and the Department of Education can no longer intervene in or punish schools that fail to improve. Instead, state governments are expected to work with schools and school districts to determine which factors will be considered in assessing school and teacher successes. As an N&O article explained, under this new law, “states would have more say in setting their own paths in public education.”

This is what worries me. The current North Carolina government has not proven itself to be competent “in setting (its) own path in public education.” In 2013, the year after we obtained our NCLB waiver, Gov. Pat McCrory and the N.C. General Assembly implemented a series of laws that drastically altered the state’s education policies. They ceased offering higher salaries to teachers with master’s degrees and placed a freeze on teacher salaries across the board (after five years without increases due to the recession). They stopped restricting class sizes and lowered the number of teaching assistants in classrooms. They eliminated the benefits of “career status” for teachers who remain in schools for at least four years and did away with the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program in favor of a $5.1 million investment in Teach for America, another teaching fellowship program with significantly lower rates of success and retention.

And we are seeing the negative effects. Teacher Vivian Connell left the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system because she “was tired of not having a voice. No one listens to teachers.” Connell is right. McCrory’s education overhaul was particularly noteworthy because of its secrecy. Many of these new policies were passed in midnight resolutions and hidden in budgets that were released early in the morning, without discussion or debate outside of the legislature. In doing so, essential voices were silenced. Why, when talking about education, do our legislators refuse to acknowledge educators?

Supporters of outgoing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cite his years as the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools and his involvement with education foundations to affirm his legitimacy. But Duncan has never taught in a public school classroom. He does not have a professional teaching license. If this is the standard to which we hold our highest education officials, then it follows naturally that state legislatures feel no obligation to discuss education policy with teachers.

I’ve wanted to be a teacher since third grade. Now, I’m a freshman in college taking classes that will lead to my initial certification. But I am afraid.

I am afraid that as I move closer to the front of my own classroom, my voice will become quieter. I am afraid that new policies will make teaching totally different from what I’ve been expecting since age nine. I am afraid that my passion for teaching students will be overpowered by my frustration with politics. I am afraid because this is happening, because teachers are leaving their classrooms, and because we are all losing out.

Sami Frankel, a Cary Academy graduate, is studying urban studies and education at Columbia University.